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How Does Philosophy Differ From Science?
An adapted version of my Philosophy of Mind assignment as an intro to this newsletter.
In Fall of 2012, I enrolled in the Oxford short course Philosophy of Mind. Until my brain injury separated my consciousness or mind from my brain, I’d never been fascinated by the mind. Psychology, definitely. Understanding the brain, striving to learn about the soul, for sure. But what is mind? was not a question that consumed me…until brain injury fragmented me.
With all the treatments I’ve had to heal my neurons and neural networks, my mind has blended back to my brain. I feel whole again and, with my reading comprehension treated and still improving, I can do now what I was unable to do in 2012. Back then, the damage to the complex cognitive skill of reading hadn’t been treated at all.
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Writing the 247-word essay for my course was like pulling velcroed thistles off of wool. With the aid of my Mind Alive audiovisual entrainment unit to enhance reading, I’d read a concept, hang on to it with all my might, write a sentence on it, reread it, edit the sentence because inevitably I’d gotten something slightly wrong, reread it, check my sentence, write the next sentence.
The only reason I could write my assignments and participate in the discussions was because of (1) my formidable pre-brain injury knowledge when I’d read voraciously and my memory was a steel trap; and (2) I’d relearned to write — writing is breathing for me.
The first thing about tackling the hard problem of the mind is acknowledging that science is insufficient. For most of human existence, philosophy was science, but in our world, the former is seen as not having anything to say about things that many consider the purview of science.
But logic and reason have a place.
In fact, I believe they’re necessary to craft good research and solutions to problems most assume are unsolvable, like how to fully heal an injured brain (even now with Long Covid decimating brains).
My 23 October 2012 Essay
Science begins with a thought. That thought leads to observation then creating and testing hypotheses through experimentation in order to acquire knowledge and translate it into practical solutions to problems in our material world. Some areas of science seek to expand knowledge for its own sake but stays within the physical realm. What science doesn’t do is seek understanding, although it may seem like it.
My tutor asked me: “Do you mean ‘meaning’ for it does seek to understand ‘what’ things are made of and ‘how’ they operate.”
That’s a good question. One would assume science seeks understanding, but when I began to research pregabalin, I was horrified to discover that scientists and pharmaceutical companies observed what pregabalin does but did not seek to understand the why or how behind it. For that, they’d have to have done basic research on GABA. When I tried to see what new things basic research had unearthed about GABA since I attended the University of Toronto in the 1980s, I discovered not much.
The same was true of the brain’s regenerative abilities.
(Yes, professors — the good ones anyway — have known since at least the 1980s that the brain can regenerate on its own, albeit slowly. I learnt this in my neurophysiology course from my prof.)
Anyway, back to the essay.
Philosophy begins with a thought that takes itself outside the material world, using reason to explore the human equation for which no evidence exists.
My tutor didn’t like the term “human equation.” I don’t blame her, but I’m amazed I could even come up with that trite term back then. My mind could only communicate through my brain’s damaged vocabulary retrieval system. What did I mean?
I think I partly meant how human beings are connected to each other invisibly. Something exists that connects us, but we cannot see it and so assume it doesn’t exist.
I wrote about this concept in my latest book Brain Injury, Trauma, and Grief and called it “mithra,” for no word exists for it. Phrases, explanations, descriptions, but not one word.
My tutor wrote: “…in general, if evidence relates to facts, then philosophy does rely on facts, only it also goes beyond them to pass evaluative (good/bad) and normative judgments (should do/be X).”
[Philosophy] expands our understanding of the entire universe, physical and metaphysical, through observation of the intangible and testing hypotheses against current scientific knowledge. [Science can provide evidence for some philosophical arguments.] Its primary tool is reason. Its process the methods of science, devising theories and testing them. But its quest is to explain consciousness, free will, the mind-body problem, among other big questions. Philosophy explores with our minds; it stands on knowledge to add to our understanding, but it does not rely solely on scientific knowledge right or confuse it with understanding. Theoretical physicists use science as a springboard to attempt explanations of why we are here, what is the meaning of existence, what we are, does God exist, etc.
My tutor questioned that physics seeks to explain the meaning of existence. Perhaps I’d confused how so many theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking state that God doesn’t exist with physics explaining meaning. Or to put it another way, their assertion that there is no meaning was how physics explains the meaning of our existence.
But unlike philosophy, they limit their purview to the determinable. What philosophy should not do is confine the mind to the brain (and confuse metaphysical with physical) because then it limits our “natural light” to exploring only directly observable physical phenomena, discounting qualia and thus becoming science-like.
My tutor wrote that the last sentence doesn’t draw a distinction between philosophy and science since those philosophers who believe the mind and brain are one do so on the basis of arguments not “because they want to be more scientific.”
Perhaps. But I wonder if the view that the brain and mind are one includes the unconscious bias that science is superior to philosophy?
If you provide the sheen of science, it makes valid the philosophical argument.
My tutor noted something very important — “Science can tell us what a thing is, how it came into being, what it is for, how it works, etc. But it cannot tell us whether it is good or bad and whether we should or should not engage with it.”
This lack of thinking about the good or bad, whether we should do it or not, is why, I believe that despite the horrendous effects of the ongoing COVID pandemic, some US-funded and university researchers still justify and pursue gain of function research. Their desire to enhance a target virus’s ability to infect, transmit, and kill or disable humans subsumes all reasoning and makes them believe this research will actually improve our ability to protect ourselves. Such bonkers thinking.
Over-reliance on current medical knowledge of the brain also leads to big fights between doctors and a patient’s family when a patient is in a vegetative state, with doctors’ claiming science says there is no mind while the family relies on their knowledge and connection with the patient to say there is and to continue life support.
Do doctors even understand that the brain is the final frontier and our current knowledge of the brain barely scratches the surface?!
What Does the Vegetative State Tell Us About Mind?
I met a person through Twitter who was deemed in a vegetative state. She created a blog, and we talked through tweets. She has since died but not before I wrote two Psychology Today posts on her and on what science (doctors) get wrong by thinking that science tells them everything they need to know about this kind of existence and whether it has inherent value or not. Angela Ronson and her family believed her life had value but had to fight for it every step of the way. Her mind fought for her existence. Her brain was too damaged to do so.
Patients always knew non-responsiveness was not a synonym for no consciousness.
Why Doctors Must Listen to People with Brain Injury
In answer to the New Scientist article, Angela Ronson tweeted on June 30, 2019:
“I'd say that I'm conscious. What do I do?” She continued: “Before I get sue tweets, I have no power of atty or living will.Imagine Karen Quinlan or Terri Schiavo started writing. @sarcastic_f this is the problem we will have with brain interface. #Law didn't keep up with medicine. I'm using Asst Tech. https://thoughtfulveg.blogspot.com/2018/05/can-incompetent-person-sue-no.html”
Her follower, Anne Ricketts, founder of Global Brain Injury Awareness Facebook community, quote tweeted her:
Why Do We Call It a "Vegetative State"?
Then one week later, I questioned the ethics in a second Psychology Today post. As my tutor had said, philosophy looks at the good/bad while science can’t even say what they’re looking at when observing a patient in a vegetative state.
Is it ethical to discount the human inside the non-responsive body?
The brain is the final frontier. As I asked last week, have researchers even discovered the full anatomical structure and physiology of the brain? As one clinical psychologist told me, innovators are rethinking the brain as neural networks. Yet doctors and ethicists and professors still feel confident using terms like “vegetative state” to describe a person with a brain injury who is non-responsive to the outside world.
How can we claim science tells us what the mind is when science still struggles to understand what’s going on inside a damaged brain that cannot communicate to the outside world?
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