“And behind all logic and its seeming sovereignty of movement, there are valuations…” Friedrich Nietzsche, 1885
Why do I distrust theories that purport to explain and predict conscious behavior? Because there is no science of conscious behavior, and there may never be one.
Let us understand what science means in the physical world. To use an analogy (and not to compare anything) – through observation we know that objects always fall to the ground when dropped from some height, assuming that nothing obstructs their path. That is a set of facts about the world – it describes generally (and crudely in this short blog post) how the world IS. However, what we want to know is not just how the world is, we want to know WHY it is the way it is. So, we try to work out an explanation that fits the facts. That is the theory. We get confused when we refer to these theories as Laws, because that seems to imply that things MUST do as these Laws say they shall. But, all that we know is that the “laws” usually give us accurate descriptions of what happens, and they often give us a good way to predict what is most probably going to happen next. When it comes to falling objects, most of the time the theory and the “laws” are quite good enough. However, we also know that under certain circumstances, the theories and laws simply do not apply (at least we do if Einstein is right).
Now,we can see immediately that we have two glaring problems with developing theories that could explain what has happened and predict what will happen next when it comes to conscious behavior.
The first problem is that, in the end, it is impossible to isolate the “facts” that we want to explain. Not only is it the case that one individual will respond differently to the exact same set of circumstances than will another individual (unlike two objects falling in the same place at the same time), each individual may respond differently to the same circumstances at different times (it would be like the same object falling in a different way each time it was dropped in exactly the same way). Therefore, the “facts” about conscious behavior we are trying to describe are elusive. Moreover, when we want to understand something about conscious behavior, from whose perspective should we view the “facts” of the matter?
For example, there is a recent PeTA advertisement that has caused quite a bit of controversy in some circles. Whose perspective of that ad matters? From whose vantage point can we know the “truth”? Is the truth about the PeTA what PeTA takes it to be, what the actors who perform in it take it to be, what one feminist theorist takes it to be, what some other radical queer feminist theorist takes it to be, what young men between the ages of 14 and 20 take it to be, or what some middle-aged white guy blogger takes it to be or is it what “women” (whoever they are, as if they all think alike) take it to be?
When it comes to falling objects, while perspective matters, it doesn’t radically alter what is the case with respect to what is being studied – from a million miles away it may not look like an object is falling, but an object is still falling. In the case of this PeTA ad, what one person sees or does not see is all that matters for that person, regardless of anyone else’s perspective. (Notice, there are facts about the ad – the scenes depicted are what they are, but the translation – what is being said? – and the interpretation – what does it mean? – is entirely subjective, in a way that an object falling can never be.)
The second problem is that we cannot do in the world of conscious behavior what we can do in the world of material non-mental interactions. Let me explain. In the world of material non-mental interactions, we can set up experiments and run them over and over and over again, in more or less well-controlled conditions, in order to isolate just the particular properties and relationships we want to explain. We can drop as many objects from as many different heights as we choose, as often as we want, in order to understand and explain as best we can what is happening. However, we cannot do that in anything like the same way when what we want to explain are the non-physical mental activities of conscious minds. Even if we could design an experiment that would make sense, how could we run it multiple times on the same subjects and expect to get any meaningful results? We cannot. Here’s why.
The reason that we can understand falling objects is that dropping an object 10, or even 10,000 times, does not perceptually change the object. In normal circumstances the object is the same object after the ten-thousandth drop as it was before the first, and each drop itself is the same. A conscious mind, on the other hand, can only experience something once, and for every subsequent experience it may have of the same circumstances (which can never really be the same) the experience itself will be changed simply because the mind has already experienced something akin to it before. It would be like if a falling object knew what was coming next and adjusted its understanding of and behavior in the next fall.
Therefore, even when it comes to the physical non-mental world, all we have by way of explanation are theories that, for the most part, describe the way things are and can predict how things will probably be. But we don’t have “laws” that make it the case that things MUST happen in any certain way, and we have no knowledge that any of our theories are true. All we know is that, so far, the ones we still use are the ones that haven’t yet been shown to be false. When it comes to the world of conscious mental experience, our theories are even less well-grounded and we haven’t anything like “laws” at all.
A science of conscious behavior doesn’t currently exist (it may never), and most of the theories that are used to try to explain human behavior are just guesses, more often than not arising out of what the theorist wants to be the case, what they want to believe, or already believe, not what is the case – not just the “facts”.