Science and the Search for the Soul (3): Pluralistic Causation and How to Avoid the Reductionistic Fallacy
Many sciences use a broad model of causation that allows causal relations to exist on many levels, including social interaction; a reductionist view, by contrast, would even hamper scientific progress instead of supporting it; and agnosticism, after all, is a viable and rational position in a debate if neither side can present convincing arguments.
What we discussed so far
In the first part of this series we learned something about the controversial view that the person is identical with his or her brain and became acquainted with the idea of the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll who stated that the physics underlying our everyday life is completely understood and all we need to understand the everyday life’s phenomena.
In the second part I argued that physics is not the only domain where we can get to know what kind of things exist and discussed that compatibility between the sciences is all we need to make progress in understanding the world; actually, a reductionistic account would hamper scientific progress, in my view.
In this third and final part I will introduce a broader view on causation and also return to the question of whether agnosticism with regard to the existence of a soul is a rational alternative position.
Causation broadly perceived
In discussions about the theory of science, particularly with respect to the relation between psychology and neuroscience, I sometimes meet people advocating the view that we can only speak of a causal relation on the physical level and in terms of energy transfer. This is an old-fashioned understanding that I like to call the cueball model of causation:
When you strike the white ball on the billiard table with your cue, you do this in order to transfer your cue’s energy by means of the white ball to other balls – to make them move in a certain way, usually to win the game. This is a nice and simple model of causation, but it becomes problematic if we want to transfer it to all situations in the world that are much unlike the happenings on a billiard table, for example, when my compliment makes you feel better and you smile in consequence.
A common test for a causal relation in the behavioral, social, and life sciences goes as follows: If variations in one variable (psychologists call this the independent variable, IV) are followed by systematic variations in another variable (the dependent variable, DV), not the other way round, and if there is no third variable (a confounding variable) that can explain the variations in both variables, then there is evidence for a causal relation between IV and DV. The IV in my given example would be my verbal expressions, the DV your facial expression, and a confounding variable might be some person standing behind of you threatening you with a gun and saying “Smile!” every time I happen to pay you a compliment.
The power of a compliment
If my compliment were only related to your smile whenever that third person shouted “Smile!”, we should have serious doubts about a causal relation between this IV and DV; but if we found out that systematic variations of my verbal expressions varied with your facial expressions, particularly that my compliments correlated with your smiles even in the absence of the third person giving the commands, then we would have evidence in favor of a causal relation. We would then be justified to say that, other things being equal, my compliments have a causal influence on your frequency of smiles.
Given that we presently know next to nothing about the physical principles underlying mental phenomena and achievements, there is no reason to assign the level of neurons [or physics] a privileged explanatory role. (Rainer Mausfeld, 2012, Frontiers in Psychology, p. 4)
Such relations can even be used to make and test predictions about human behavior; and to describe such relations, we need not invoke the three basic physical kinds of particles and forces that Sean Carroll claimed underly everything in our everyday life and that are sufficient to explain everything that happens around us. Even worse, invoking these particles would not get us anywhere in understanding or predicting what is happening. We would lose much if not everything of what we know about the everyday life including the causes and effects of human behavior.
The world is more than just physics
Does our incapability to formulate my compliment and your smile in physical language mean that they do not exist? No. Does it mean that the former cannot cause the latter? No, again. If we lived in a world of pure physics – electrons, neutrons, and protons –, then most of our everyday world would not exist in the first place. Even physics as a scientific discipline would not exist. Physics is not the only domain in which things exist.
Chairs, thunderstorms, trees, and clowns all do exist; and they can have effects on others things. Sometimes we may be able to explain the effects of one of these things in virtue of some of their physical properties; but most of the times this will not work, just because this is not a simple part-whole-relationship (philosophers call this “mereological”).
The clown is not a mere aggregate of her electrons, protons, and neutrons – even if these particles are necessary for her existence – and we do not laugh because, say, the electrons are bouncing that way instead of the other. We cannot even see the clown’s basic physical particles. This is neither a problem for the physicist investigating basic particles nor for the psychologist investigating humor, but only for the physicalist who thinks that everything that exists is purely physical or that all descriptions can and must be translated into physical descriptions. Yet, the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll claims:
All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles — electrons, protons, and neutrons — interacting via a few forces — the nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism — subject to the basic rules of quantum mechanics and general relativity. … That’s a remarkably short list of ingredients, to account for all the marvelous diversity of things we see in the world.
This is not a scientific statement, strictly speaking, because it is either wrong or an unfulfilled promise. We have not the slightest clue how to describe the “marvelous diversity of things” of everyday world in terms of electrons, protons, and neutrons interacting via three elemental physical forces. That is also why we have all the other academic disciplines, in the first place, because sticking to physics will not get us too far when describing the behavior of, say, hemoglobin, clowns, or markets. Only a physicalist like Carroll who says that everything can be accounted for by physics has a problem with this absence of a purely physical description of our everyday world, not a pluralistic researcher using his or her methods to understand the world.
Agnosticism is a viable alternative
At the outset of this series, we briefly discussed the rationality of agnosticism, the idea that someone is undecided between claims that there is or that there is no immaterial soul; that there are or that there are no deities; that an afterlife is possible or that it is impossible. Agnosticism is a humble middle position between those opposing claims on the existence of some kind of things, a position that implies that if we cannot decide this debate, then we should perhaps remain undecided.
If someone formulates a variant of an immaterial soul or an afterlife that does not violate basic physical laws or that of another established science, there need not be a problem. I wrote already in the first part that I do not know a convincing argument in favor of any of these entities. A theologist or spiritual teacher might have a different view on this issue, though; but the important philosophical point to make here is that just because physical theory does not refer to an entity this does not mean that it does not exist. So agnosticism regarding a soul or afterlife can be a rational position, according to the understanding of the biologist-philosopher Thomas H. Huxley:
Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method [...]. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
This difference is of practical relevance because in recent discussions, particularly in science blog forums, people with different kinds of beliefs are sometimes considered as educationally retarded. There certainly are educationally retarded people in the world, but not in virtue of believing in the existence of entities not accountable for by basic physics. Those who believe in the existence of souls or an afterlife should present good and testable reasons for their position when they are arguing with us; but also those who think that only physical things do exist should present good and testable reasons for their philosophical stance.
A social-science alternative to metaphysical debates
Personally, I think that this metaphysical debate does not get us very far. Instead, we might actually wonder (and investigate) whether those people telling us that there are souls or afterlives might have hidden interests for telling us so, for example, to first make us feel guilty or afraid and then offer us their unique solution to save our souls, a kind of spiritual salvation.
We can investigate power structures of institutions based on and promoting such beliefs; but likewise we can ask ourselves whether those people who tell us that all that exists can be ultimately accounted for by physics might have hidden interests to make us support their ends with our means. For example, they could directly benefit from spreading the belief that their science is the ultimate access to reality when applying for research grants.
Such questions about people’s interests are not metaphysical and can have quite an impact for people’s everyday lives. Even if we cannot tell whose beliefs are the true ones in such debates, the behavioral and social sciences provide means to investigate why some people hold such beliefs.
P.S. Ironically I finished this post today while attending a workshop on Laws of Nature including a presentation titled "Why Physics Can't Explain Everything" held at the Technical University of Munich.