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Friday, January 26, 2007

Jaak Panksepp's Galilean Moment

What if you invited your neighbors to witness your revolution-ary discovery, and nobody came? It's apt to make one a little cranky, to say the least. That was the fate of the great 17th century astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. Inviting some learned colleagues to witness his telescopic discovery of the moons of Jupiter, the good fellows (Jesuits mostly) declined. Although one thinks Galileo would have had a better turnout if he had served wine and cheese, with a fruit basket as a door prize, one gathers that the invited guests did not relish the prospect of seeing something (namely orbiting moons) that jarred so completely with their preconceived notion of how the solar system worked.

So no one came, and Galileo was, to put it mildly, a bit miffed. Indeed, in a subsequent letter to the equally distinguished astronomer Johannes Kepler, Galileo was not shy in his contempt for his learned peers.

“We will laugh at the extraordinary stupidity of the crowd, my Kepler. What do you say to the main philosophers of our school, who, with the stubbornness of vipers, never wanted to see the planets, the moon, or the telescope although I offered them a thousand times to show them the planets and the moon. Really, as some have shut their ears, these have shut their eyes towards the light of truth. This is an awful thing, but it does not astonish me. This sort of person thinks that philosophy is a book like the Aeneid or Odyssey and that one has to search for truth not in the world of nature, but in the comparison of texts."

"I meant, point it at the sky!" Galileo fumed

Galileo certainly did not suffer fools gladly, yet suffered condemnation not for fighting for what he believed in but for doing it rudely. Galileo simply had little patience or respect for nonsense parading as science. Galileo did not believe in scientific pluralism, that no matter how odd or unscientific the belief we should all nonetheless get along. After all, following the coda of the times, the scientific party did not suffer if a few flat earth enthusiasts were allowed to join the club. Call it perhaps an affirmative action program for stupidity. It's perhaps understandable why this drove Galileo nuts.

Travel forward almost 4oo years, and neuroscience has progressively revealed, and with telescopic precision, how the brain actually works. Still, for the major psychological schools that purport to explain behavior, from behaviorism to cognitive science, the brain is strangely left out of the picture. Thus for psychology in general, philosophizing and rhapsodizing about how the mind works occurs for the most part without having to stop for a second to look into the mind and see how it actually works.

Naturally, there are some cranky sorts who won't have any part of this, and crash the party by trying to bring the entire party down. One of these is the distinguished neuro-psychologist Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp is at turns rude, irascible, cutting, and sarcastic in his view of trends in psychology that treat the brain lightly. (In other words, from a Galilean vantage, an overall splendid fellow) In particular, the fact that neuroscience tends to leave out metaphors of affect to describe the analogical processes that underscore our most primal urges has in his view rendered the science incapable of truly understanding behavior.

So naturally, with this attitude came the inevitable Galilean moment. When Panksepp published an article called the 'Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology' he demonstrated with logical and empirical comprehensiveness and precision why the popular 'science' of evolutionary psychology is neurally unrealistic, and is for the most part a lot of guff. Some of the most distinguished voices in evolutionary psychology, such as Dennett, Buss, Pinker, and Tooby/Cosmides were invited to comment on Panksepp's observations, yet declined. Since these folks are publicity hounds, and seek it wherever they can to promote their Darwinian view of psychology, by refraining from addressing many of the points that Panksepp advanced, one naturally can question their motives. So, lacking Panksepp's insights, their psychological version of the flat earth continues, until we in due course all look through Panksepp's telescope, and discover the truth.

For more on Jaak Panksepp, take a look at my new e-book on the psychology of the internet:

for more.....


Martti said...

Thanks for pointing out Jaak Panksepp whose writings have escaped my attention until today.

In my amateurish approach to understanding human brain I have been pondering on the "emergence" of the most complicated unit of the known universe from the limited storing capacity (comparatively) of our genome.

Neuroevolution or neural group selection might well serve to fill this gap -at least in my own world view. But this remains to be seen. The analogy of variation and selection having created the multitude of life forms from quite modest beginnings gives me hope.

Wtih respect


Brad said...

I'm probably going to have to sit on the fence on this one. I sort of see it like the difference between molecular and quantitative genetics. You can describe the action of evolution at the level of alleles (various types of difference in the sequence of As, Cs, Ts, and Gs encoded in DNA) or in the physical characters of individuals or populations - each level of description really is valid, and each is necessary. Sometimes the actual genetic code tells you a lot less than you'd think, although the properties of populations somehow are a natural result of that code. Pinker's just stepping back, and having a broad look, while the neuroscientists are peering closer. The trick is to bring the descriptions closer together, and show how they relate, not to just shout that the other perspective is wrong.

Taylor said...

Brad, I agree with you completely that no level of analysis is privileged over the others and they all have advantages over the others for answering certain questions. However if they contradict one another at least one of them is wrong. Just because you can't find a mechanism (a module or even just a group of circuits working in concert, distributed throughout) in the brain performing a certain task doesn't mean that it isn't there. But barring overwhelming evidence of the existence of these modules we should remain skeptical in light of the lack of neuroscientific evidence IMO.