250. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, Science’s Inability to Explain Personhood

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Interview with research psychiatrist and and author, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz examines the mismatch between science-as-we-know-it and human experience.

schwartz-bookJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz,  author of, The Mind and the Brain. During the interview Schwartz discusses the limits of materialistic science:

Alex Tsakiris: What about people in academia who see this mismatch, who have to say, “[materialism] is a wonderful suit” because they can’t say the emperor has no clothes.

Dr. Schwartz: It’s funny because there’s a huge amount of historical precedent for situations like this. The human drama really is the playing out of this kind of situation… where worldviews become entrenched. Obviously, this is what’s happened is in our era.

Science is extremely good at explaining material aspects of reality. So, it came to pass that they came to believe they should be good at explaining all aspects of reality. Science in the way it’s done to explain material aspects of reality does not explain human behavior particularly well. It’s radically incomplete.

Does it have a contribution to make? Definitely, it has a contribution to make. But I think it’s fair to say that any reasonable person would know that the science that works so well in explaining the material world does not work nearly so well in the realm of explaining how human beings act, and what human beings are, and what it means to be a person, a human – a living, breathing, and even to use the word spiritual, human being in the real world.

So, you know, “twas ever thus.”

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Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz: …When one has a deep ideological commitment to materialism, which we all know is the reigning worldview of our current era, certainly among academic elites and certainly among academic elites in neuroscience, these people are committed ideologically to the notion that everything is the brain. So you get into this profound mismatch between what you need to apply a mind-brain understanding to day-to-day living and this profound ideological commitment to the belief that everything is coming from the brain. It’s a philosophical ideological mismatch between the kind of worldview you need to actually live in the day-to-day world, and this huge philosophical ideological structure that the elites of our era feel committed to defend.

And the funding agencies that provide the funds for research, etc., I mean, there is a social structure that insists that this materialist world be adhered to. It’s a prerequisite for playing the game, for having a laboratory, for doing high-level research in our era. So this mismatch exists. And a lot of people are willing to say that it’s not really working out in the clinical realm. I mean, the clinical application of that materialist paradigm is not doing well.

Alex Tsakiris: What about people in academia who see this mismatch, who have to say, “[materialism] is a wonderful suit” because they can’t say the emperor has no clothes. How do we get past that?

Dr. Schwartz: It’s funny because there’s a huge amount of historical precedent for situations like this. The human drama really is the playing out of this kind of situation… where worldviews become entrenched. Obviously, this is what’s happened is in our era.

Science is extremely good at explaining material aspects of reality. So, it came to pass that they came to believe they should be good at explaining all aspects of reality. Science in the way it’s done to explain material aspects of reality does not explain human behavior particularly well. It’s radically incomplete.

Does it have a contribution to make? Definitely, it has a contribution to make. But I think it’s fair to say that any reasonable person would know that the science that works so well in explaining the material world does not work nearly so well in the realm of explaining how human beings act, and what human beings are, and what it means to be a person, a human – a living, breathing, and even to use the word spiritual, human being in the real world.

So, you know, “twas ever thus.” That’s really the point. I mean this is always the case. There is always a mismatch between the worldview that is supported by the economic powers-that-be in any era and how people live their lives. Let’s be clear. Only one side of the mismatch has a professional, economic commitment to supporting materialism. I mean, it’s the people who make their living supporting that perspective. So it’s not so hard to explain why they are deeply committed to that perspective because they have a profound economic interest in that perspective. Otherwise, you’re left with these very deep questions about why one perspective becomes the elite perspective in any given era. As I just said, I think in this particular case you can understand it because of the success that science had in one realm, the material realm, that lead to a general belief that science is going to give us all the answers. And since science works in the material realm, then we have to sort of make-believe that everything is the material realm, because that’s the realm that science works in. Love this section. Totally makes sense to me and explains a lot.[PU1]

Alex Tsakiris: There’s a lot of talk about paradigm change and “consciousness being primary” and us coming to that understanding. Do you really envision that ever happening, given what you just described as the huge economic incentive, or at least economic infrastructure, that’s been built around the existing paradigm we have? Let’s get real, can we ever envision moving away from this?

Dr. Schwartz: The answer is definitely yes, over a long period of time. I mean, I’m 62, do I expect to live long enough to see this change? Candidly, I don’t. But I have a lot of friends in their 20s, so it’s interesting.

Our life spans are getting longer. So, for people in their 20s now who 100 years from now will be 120 and might well be alive at that age, I think there’s a reasonable chance that they’re going to see something like that happen. I mean there’s probably going to be a lot of strides in between in the next 100 years, but I guess I can conclude by saying; look the advances in the research of this word that I don’t use that much anymore – I still use it “mindfulness[PU2] . I’ve been working with it for 44 years and there has been genuine advance in research on the subject of mindfulness. Some of it is very, very good; a lot of it, mediocre. But the advances that are being made are definitely consistent with people coming to deal with the fact that the choices and decisions that one makes about how to focus attention have real effects on the brain. Even people in academia are doing that research; you can see the top research people who have been engaged in this kind of mindfulness research for over 10 years now who used to be staunch materialists They’re having second thoughts. And they’re saying, “Huh, there seems to be more to this than just the brain because the brain alone doesn’t explain the data.” Things are improving at the margin. There are definitely reasons to be positive.

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