Re: Chapter 6 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
In this chapter Ralph Lewis takes up two issues.
The first is the split between the "two cultures" of humanities and science, and how the social sciences such as psychology have drifted away from intuitive, prescriptive approaches to theorizing characteristic of the humanities, and toward analytical, experimental approaches. He is not entirely comfortable with that, as he observes in his discussion of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental disorders and how its apparently crisp categories of mental illness turn out to be somewhat fluid, running into each other and overlapping and not sitting still on the continuum of disorderliness.
However, this observation becomes his lead-in to the second discussion, of "emergent" qualities. These are complex phenomena that "emerge" in the organization of more basic components, such as the way protein folding follows patterns that are not fully predictable from principles of molecular interaction (a particularly awkward example given that supercomputer calculations have made such predictions feasible for more than a decade now) and the biological processes of life are not fully accountable using principles of protein interaction. Mental illness, he is pointing out, is a complex interaction between a person's biological make-up, family dynamics, history of stressors, and sociological context.
I appreciate that point very much. In fact we have been stumbling over similar assertions in discussions of previous chapters. So I for one am glad to see him make room for these contextual factors in conditioning mental illness and influencing the kinds of therapy which are likely to succeed.
He goes on to make two main points about the implications of complexity and emergence. One is that mind "emerges" from the biological constituents, rather than being made up of different stuff. So there are no free-floating conscious beings, such as demons, who lack material basis. Mind requires biological constituents and organizational systems to exist. A good point.
The second is a little more troublesome. He wants to emphasize that there is no controlling process needed for an organization to function effectively. His example of the behavior of fish schooling or birds flocking is helpfully suggestive. However, I think he misstates the implication when he says,
It is vital to recognize that a vast amount of biological system process goes on at the uncoordinated level like this. From the way cells "detect" whether they are at the end of a developing finger in a fetus or whether they are in the middle or at the root, to the way our gut bacteria influence our moods and energy levels, we are full of "unconscious" connections. But then he wants to extend that by saying "there is no blueprint for the system as a whole". I suspect this is just poor editing - that he does not mean to suggest that our DNA is not a blueprint for our biology, but rather that the fit between our biology and our environment is not "managed" by some more complex "ecological blueprint". But the actual paragraph comes across, I think, contradicting itself.
It isn't clear yet where he is going with this, but it seems like a set of points worth making. We should not imagine that all minds "feel" alike, for example. (There is a video going around on Facebook contrasting the way women's brains care about so many, many things, and men's brains "just don't care," which is a funny example of different experience based on different brains, even if it is vastly stereotypical.) There is quite a bit of experience, one might note, to suggest that some brains are much more likely than others to experience an oceanic sense of "the oneness of everything" after long training in meditation.
People trained in economic analysis are more likely than the untrained to be skeptical of the willingness of others to risk being taken advantage of (for the sake of cooperation), and less likely to cooperate themselves. Treating any behavior as "innate" should always be questioned with such examples in mind. This includes "predatory" behavior, which may sometimes be innate but seems to be much more under the influence of a) chronic stress in childhood, b) the presence or absence of emotional support that persists over time, and c) systems which recruit people and train them to behave in predatory fashion.