Like the best satire, this piece from the Onion lends itself to at least a few interpretations.
The mock headline reads, “Psychology Comes To Halt As Weary Researchers Say The Mind Cannot Possibly Study Itself.” Perhaps it’s a critique of a critique of Cartesian dualism (and therefore a defense of psychology) or perhaps the Onion really is calling out the most fundamental supposition of research psychology. Or maybe they’re just making fun of all this high-minded, academic jargon altogether. (Who could blame them?).
Perhaps you’ve noticed the website and the embrace of a new grammatical formulation “because science!” in your social media feed. I love it, or much of it, anyway. Science, among the most wonderful of human inventions, has carefully worked its way through countless problems related to understanding the universe and yet so many (so many!) ignore what it reveals and “cling to a displeasing truth in favor of a pleasing falsehood.”
With all of those facts and truths and proofs and the esteem that comes with science, it’s not surprising that the study of human existence (the mind, the brain–in short, psychology) wants a piece of that. Because science!
Except maybe the Onion isn’t joking at all
I have no idea what “the Onion” intends. Trying to figure it out probably ruins the joke. But I do know, intentionally or not, they’re talking some sense. Why? Because because science isn’t always a complete sentence…
Because science, as traditionally conceived, does have some fundamental limitations.
Science studies things–objects, natural and otherwise, and phenomena (happenings). The rules of scientific inquiry work because, among other reasons, the observer and the observed are separate. (I study the fern/ the atoms/ the weather and can gather information about the fern/ the atoms/ the weather and develop an understanding of the fern/ the atoms/ the weather. If I follow the scientific method we can say that the resulting understanding of my study is a scientific understanding of the fern/ the atoms/ the weather, which is something taken to be more meaningful or valuable than a mere everyday understanding of those things. Because science.)
It starts with Descartes
To review from your Philosophy 101 course (or to perhaps embarrass my Philosophy 101 professor) the whole Cartesian dualism thing is roughly this: Descartes was trying to sort through just how it is we might come to know what we know (and what we can say with certainty that we know at all). After all, when we observe things, might perhaps our powers of observations (our eyes, our ears or our minds) be tricking us? So he thought about it. He thought about who he was, the sort of being he was, and pondered the question of what he could know and not know, and what he needed to know about himself in order to know things about himself. And he decided that cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) and declared that principle belief to be the foundation of all else that could be known and it became (quite literally) the foundation of modern thought itself. Descarted believed he’d sorted out the premise for an understanding of himself that could exist independent of himself (and be safe from those pesky, unreliable powers of observation).
Descartes was trying to solve the very philosophical puzzle that psychology has grappled with since its inception, which is the very problem “the Onion” article centers upon: How can we be both the viewer of the thing (the subject) and the viewed (the object) at the same time? How can we use the very tools of the observer (most substantively, in this case, the mind) to understand that which we are attempting to observe (the mind).
Descartes believed he solved that problem with his cogito ergo sum formulation, and the Western world more or less agreed for some time. More recently (the last 80 years or so, especially) there’s been mounting criticism of this loophole through which Descartes believed we could get around the subject/ object obstacle to understanding ourselves, and that rethinking pokes some holes in some of the fundamental presuppositions of so-called scientific psychology.
We’ve learned a lot from studying human beings as things
And it’s done us good. There’s an awful lot of data that one can collect about us as things–what our brains look like in an MRI while doing different sorts of tasks or being exposed to different sorts of stimuli, how we tend to respond when poked or prodded in this way or that. All these data have been put to use to help us learn, make cars safer, sell us things, improve our moods, change our behaviors… it’s an endless, impressive list.
There’s also a lot we have not learned from that sort of study. Because, in my view (and apparently–or not–“the Onion’s” view) they are outside the limits of a sort of scientific understanding that is predicated on a study of people as things (objects). It all hangs on this question:
Are you or aren’t you a thing?
As “the Onion” article deftly points out (what else is a philosophy major supposed to do for a living than write online satire?) it’s worth examining whether or not “the human brain [can] ever comprehend its own workings, let alone understand its own understanding.” To be clear, the brain is a powerful thing, and capable of understanding rather a lot. When the concern about the brain’s capacity to understand “its own workings” is expressed, the author is expressing doubt not just about my ability to understand my own particular brain (which is a separate sort of problem) but any human’s ability to understand any human’s (or all humans’) brain(s) using the understanding of understanding that is the currency of modern science. Brains (and the behaviors they produce) would have to be first related to as objects (things) in order to be understood (in that particular way).
Which begs the question: Are you or aren’t you a thing?
I’m at peace with part of the answer to that question being yes. I’m an organ donor. Should I die in a manner that makes my physical parts useful to other humans, I’ll happily allow them to be harvested and put to use elsewhere. I’m also aware that I’m probably just as susceptible to this or that behavioral stimuli producing that or the other behavioral response in me in accordance with what at least some of the latest research would predict. I don’t even particularly mind being marketed and sold to and confess that it sometimes works.
But I’m also not a thing. I am endowed with powers of choice. When faced with certain stimuli it may be likely that I’ll respond in a particular way, but I can also choose to move in a different direction. I have feelings and thoughts that could never been “understood” in the manner that a fern or the atom could be, not just because of their complexity but because they simply cannot be said to exist independent of me or independent of the mind of the person doing the observing. I am biased in whatever understanding I might seek to have about myself or you, and so are you, because both of us can only understand ourselves or one another through the lens of our own subjective sense and experience. Science-as-objective-study needs to be in this way unbiased, but when it comes to understanding human beings not as things but as subjects, we cannot step outside of this bias (and here I mean not so much a moral bias but a bias of perspective).
Thomas Nagel, one of those philosophers rebuking Descartes’ premise, wonderfully asks the relevant question here: What is the view from nowhere? This notion of object science presumes not so much that the observer has a neutral point of view but rather no point of view at all. The idea that there is a universe that exists, independent of my perspective on it (an objective reality) is worthy of its own debate. Nagel calls into question, accurately, the notion that even if such a reality exists we could somehow come to know it objectively. We can ignore this question and create a good deal of practically useful understanding of the universe but when it comes to parts of human existence that are the domain of psychology doing so can get us into trouble.
Putting science in its place
There has been a tremendous push towards favoring modalities of psychotherapy known as empirically-validated practices. The impetus behind this is understandable–individuals and insurance companies (and the Federal government especially) spend billions of dollars annually on mental health treatment. These stakeholders are concerned (as am I) that much of that is wasted on poor quality or inefficient treatment. The rationale is the same as one might impose on highway construction or school nutrition improvements and seeks to impose on therapy the basic rules of good business management: invest in what’s proven to work, measure results and adjust spending accordingly.
Which begs the question: If we’re seeking empirically-validated psychotherapy who is it doing the validating? And, as you might imagine, that question comes with a valuable cash incentive for those who produce goods and services on the favorable side of the answer.
The conclusions of this way of thinking so far are fairly obvious: Universities (where most scientific research is done) with psychology departments (and nursing, and social work, psychiatry and public health departments) where various therapeutic interventions (including, significantly, psychotropic medications) are being tested and evaluated by scientists following the basic principles through which scientists have evaluated anything else for the last 500 years: The study of people (and in particular, people who are in emotional pain) as objects. Because that’s the sort of validity that universities, grant-makers (again, largely the Feds) and scientists value. From the vantage point of all the key parties involved, that’s the only valid form of validity there is. Because science!
The result? The insurance companies have data that prove they’re getting their monies worth, the researchers and universities get paid, psychology departments gain more and more respect from their old-school scientific peers (chemistry and medicine, etc.) and you get better treatment.
Or maybe not.
Because the research “subjects” and the ordinary folks seeking help with emotional pain aren’t being seen as subjects in this endeavor at all. In fact, it is our very subjectivity that must be invalidated in order for the research to meet the prevailing standard of validity at all.
This research that seeks to fashion its producers as the mold-makers of the standards of empirically-valid practice cannot, if it adheres to the prevailing standards of scientific inquiry, account for vast features of human life, thought, feelings, pain, dysfunction, resilience or creativity. Most notably, our intersubjectivity and innersubjectivity have no way of being measured with this sort of yardstick. The “people” they presume to study are but distorted, overly-simplified, objectified humans, understood necessarily as abstractions of themselves.
And, most concerning to me, the sorts of approaches to helping human beings in pain (therapies) that get validated in this process fail to exist in conversation with the essential realities of human being. Therapies that qualify for the valuable seal of approval of this so-called empirical validation process, by virtue of the needs for objectivity in the method of study, result in methods of practice that leave out subjectivity. Research methods that negate subjectivity beget (through validation) only practice methods that negate the same.
Towards a new understanding of understanding
I risk sounding like satire myself, I know, so I’ll cut to what’s most meaningful to me, which is this: Human beings, with their enormous desire for development and for freedom from pain, have made great use of their creative capacities to invent all sorts of modes of helping one another. The limited, out-dated tools of understanding that have been given such a powerful place in the so-called science of psychological research are no match for (and can make no measure of) those creative, life-enhancing capacities. The existing tools of understanding could not possibly do those creations justice. And yet I agree that we do need mechanisms (called research) against which to test approaches to emotional development so we can determine which are worthy of further pursuit. The solution? Upgrade our understanding of understanding. Give up our narrow research methodologies in favor of modes of inquiry that don’t presume to be objective. Make room for validation of of broader forms of therapy (and forms of life). Because…
…because science can do better.