Dr. Alexander Wendt examines the implications of consciousness science for the social sciences.

photo by: David Ohmer

I was introduced to the power of interdisciplinary thinking when I found myself way over my head in a graduate course in cognitive psychology. I had gone back to school at the University of Arizona to pursue a PhD in this new, cool thing called “Artificial Intelligence.” Once there, I met a wonderful classmate from Norway with a similar interest. Oystein was a lot smarter than me, and a much better programmer, so I was willing to follow his lead when he suggested we take a graduate course in cognitive psychology.  After a week I was lost and ready to throw in the towel, but everything changed when  Oystein brilliantly turned the discussion toward the latest advances in computer architecture and the possible implications for cognitive psychology.  As it turned out, the professor and his graduate students were very aware that their models were largely based on computer models, so they were eager to find out how advances in computer science might effect them. The course was a breeze from then on.

The lesson stayed with me, it’s okay to borrow models from other fields, but it’s a good idea to reassess how you’ve applied them when those interdisciplinary models change. Today on Skeptiko we look at a paradigm busting interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences by way of Dr. Alexander Wendt from the Ohio State University and his new book, Quantum Mind and the Social Sciences:

Alex Tsakiris: Why is consciousness important to Social Science?

Dr. Alexander Wendt: Well, not everybody would say that it is. I think most of my colleagues ignore consciousness or just take it for granted and would say that it doesn’t necessarily add anything to the kind of explanations that social scientists typically develop. On the other hand I do think that it is implicit in almost all explanations social scientists come up with…

Alex Tsakiris: What are some of the ways in which these assumptions about consciousness are implicit in the assumptions we’re making when we look at political groups or the social sciences in general?

Dr. Alexander Wendt: The key argument that I make is that… anything that has to do with the mind; that has to do with intentional phenomena–beliefs, desires, even the unconscious… imply consciousness. And in the social world, if you think about the kinds of things social scientists are interested in like states for example in my own field of International Relations, these are collective intentional phenomena. These are collective states of mind. They have no material existence out there. You can’t see them from space or anything. So they’re all implicated or dependent upon us being conscious as well. To put it in a different way, if human beings were just robots with no consciousness I don’t think we would have intentional states of mind. We wouldn’t have minds at all. And there wouldn’t be states. There wouldn’t be churches or corporations or anything like that.

Click here for forum discussion

Click here for Dr. Alexander Wendt’s Website

Read Excerpts:

Dr. Alexander Wendt: If you really think about it, most social scientists or many of them anyway…one of the reasons we do social science is to enhance human agency and to sort of empower human beings to solve problems by helping us understand what’s going on around us thereby empowering us to make changes. So there’s an implicit assumption that human beings do have free will. If we didn’t have free will why bother doing Social Science?

[easy-tweet tweet=”Alexander Wendt has really stirred the pot by bringing consciousness science to the social sciences”]

Alex Tsakiris: I think sometimes in the process we forget that we sidestep the real, deeper philosophical issues of what it means to be nonlocal; what it means to be connected at that level; what it means to be more than a biological robot in a meaningless universe. So I wonder if the social sciences have really grappled with that or whether they’re just doing the ‘shut up and calculate’ thing. This works, let’s just continue down our probability models here because they seem to be getting us someplace. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Dr. Alexander Wendt: A couple of things: I think the ‘shut up and calculate’ mentality–my brother’s a physicist as I mention in the book–and that’s very much his view. That’s what [physics] is for, to calculate things and to make things, and that’s great. I understand that. Clearly it’s had tremendous technological results by that kind of thinking. But I agree with you–there are these latent, philosophical issues that have never really been solved. And I think that by bringing the whole physics discussion into the social domain it makes those philosophical issues much more salient. It brings them to the fore in a sense. Certainly most social scientists are also not interested in the philosophy of science [or] philosophy of mind. They’re in the shut up and calculate mode also. Of course all the calculations they’re doing are classical and not quantum. And it turns out as I discuss in Chapter 8 about Quantum Decision theory, the model social scientists had built on that shut up and calculate approach, actually don’t predict behavior as well as the quantum version of those models do. So if we’re going to calculate let’s at least calculate with Quantum Probability theory and not Classical Probability theory. So that would be one implication if we’re going to stay on that train of thinking. But I do think the social context brings the philosophical stuff–it makes it harder to avoid. Because if the implication of a materialist worldview is that consciousness is an illusion, and that free will is an illusion then social scientists have got to change a lot of their fundamental practices because a lot of our models assume consciousness, and they assume free will. I just don’t think you can do social science without making those assumptions.

Alex Tsakiris: Excellent point. So to a certain extent by drawing a quantum consciousness model into the social sciences you’re kind of forcing a choice there. You’re saying, okay, accept this or fully accept what it means to be this biological robot in a meaningless universe with no free will, no emotions, no experience even, right? You don’t really have experience in the classical model, you just have the illusion of experience. Everything is an illusion. So you’re kind of forcing their hand in a way aren’t you?

Dr. Alexander Wendt: I like the way you put that. I hadn’t thought of [looking] at it that way but it is trying to force choice because there are now all of these quantum decision theory people, many of whom are mathematical psychologists. And they’re advancing their work very successfully but they too do not want to get into the philosophical questions. They just want to shut up and calculate. And that’s working well and I make good use of their work. But I think they too in the end have to choose because we are either quantum systems and consciousness is quantum mechanical or we’re not. If we’re not, and it is all an illusion, then I think we’ve got a big problem in Social Science. So at the end of the day I think it is one or the other. Actually I was telling a colleague of mine recently, this is the first thing I’ve written in my career, 25 years now, that I think is either true or false. Hardly any social scientists would want to use those terms but the argument in [Quantum Mind and the Social Sciences] is it’s either right or it’s wrong. So it was kind of a relief in a way to come to that realization.

for this interview, I watched the interview you gave with Dan Harris of ABC News. Dan Harris is quite a guy. He’s been on this show I enjoyed him and enjoyed his book, 10% Percent Happier. In that interview, and I think this was for Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, you said, “I’m a naturalist. A materialist. I believe that this world is mediated through this body and this brain–and that’s all there is.” Would you say that’s pretty accurate of the conclusion you’ve come to?


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