Education and Intuition

The 2014 PBS TV series, How We Got to Now is a good miniseries on improvements in glass-making, sewage, water management, etc. that serve as the material/organizational basis for this modern world.

At one point in the series, the host Steven Johnson, a kind of historian of innovation, reveals his idea of how innovation occurs and he focuses on mavericks whose breakthrough is not a sudden “Eureka!” moment, but rather what Johnson calls “a slow hunch.” In other words, the innovators struggle along with a partially understood sense of possibility, very inchoate in the beginning, that comes into better focus with the passage of years and decades, via missteps and boondoggles.

The science writer Arthur Koestler shines a different “flashlight” on this problem of intuitive creativity and its bearing fruit:

Arthur Koestler, CBE (UK: 5 September 1905 – 1 March 1983) was a Hungarian British author and journalist. Koestler was born in Budapest. His masterful book, The Sleepwalkers, is a kind of defense of the way people in the past benefited from a productive sleepwalking on their journeys to scientific advance.

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe is a 1959 book by Arthur Koestler. It traces the history of Western cosmology from ancient Mesopotamia to Isaac Newton. He suggests that discoveries in science arise through a process akin to sleepwalking. Not that they arise by chance, but rather that scientists are neither fully aware of what guides their research, nor are they fully aware of the implications of what they discover.

A central theme of the book is the changing relationship between faith and reason. Koestler explores how these seemingly contradictory threads existed harmoniously in many of the greatest intellectuals of the West. He illustrates that while the two are estranged today, in the past the most ground-breaking thinkers were often very spiritual.

Another recurrent theme of this book is the breaking of paradigms in order to create new ones. People—scientists included—hold on to cherished old beliefs with such love and attachment that they refuse to see the wrong in their ideas and the truth in the ideas that are to replace them.

The conclusion he puts forward at the end of the book is that modern science is trying too hard to be rational. Scientists have been at their best when they allowed themselves to behave as “sleepwalkers,” instead of trying too earnestly to ratiocinate.

Add to this overview the “creativity” discussion on The Charlie Rose Show in The Brain Series (2010), where Professor Eric Kandel, the Nobel-prize physiologist, states forthrightly that brain research has no idea about creativity and the prospect of explaining creativity in terms of the brain is very distant indeed.

The arrival of a “slow hunch” (Steven Johnson) and “productive sleepwalking,” as opposed to unproductive kinds of woolgathering (Arthur Koestler), are mind, personality and spirit issues, although they do have brain-chemical “correlations” that cannot be explained mechanistically.

Mysteries all have physical/chemical “correlations” but cannot be simplistically reduced to biochem or genomics.

Essay 64: Neuroscience by Itself Limited

Senators John McCain of Arizona and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts died in recent years of brain tumors (such as gliomas and glioblastomas). It is perfectly reasonable to wonder if neuroscience, neuropathology and brain science might one day be able to vaporize tumors without damaging the “host” brain at all.  Who could possibly be against such progress?  After all, if you had an impacted wisdom tooth and could choose between seeing an oral surgeon at a major hospital or going to a dentist at the time of Plato, you would choose the oral surgeon

These truths obscure a deeper problem in all “reductivist” sciences namely the relationships between the brain and the mind and the person.  This was anticipated by Gabriel Marcel (died 1973) when he wrote in his journal that he puzzled all his life over the conundrum that “I both have a body while I am a body…having and being are twined around each other.”

The outstanding French philosopher Paul Ricœur (died in 2005) gives us a useful hint:

“To the extent that the body as my own constitutes one of the components of mineness, the most radical confrontation must place face-to-face two perspectives on the body—the body as mine, and the body as one body among others.  The reductionist thesis in this sense marks the reduction of one’s own body to the body as impersonal body.

“The brain indeed differs from many other parts of the body, and from the body as a whole in terms of an integral experience, inasmuch as it is stripped of any phenomenological status and thus of the trait of belonging to me, of being my possession.  I have the experience of my relation to my members as organs of movement (my hands), of perception (my eyes), of emotion (the heart), or of expression (my voice).  I have no such experience of my brain. In truth, the expression ‘my brain’ has no meaning, at least not directly: absolutely speaking, there is a brain in my skull, but I do not feel it. It is only through the global detour by way of my body, inasmuch as my body is also a body and as the brain is contained in this body, that I can say ‘my brain.’

“The unsettling nature of this expression is reinforced by the fact that the brain does not fall under the category of objects perceived at a distance from one’s own body. Its proximity in my head gives it the strange character of non-experienced interiority.  Mental phenomena pose a comparable problem.”

(Paul Ricœur, Oneself as Other, University of Chicago Press, 1994, page 132)

In other words, the removal of brain tumors such as glioblastomas or the alleviation of migraine headaches in headache clinics is one level of activity and is perfectly valid and neuro-scientific. On the other hand, the relation between brain, mind, body and self is a complete mystery as sensed by Gabriel Marcel and Ricœur.  It is not mechanistic and we lack the language to captures such resonances.

Money and funding and prestige and their relationship to science keep obscuring the deeper truths.  This is also why excellent TV shows on PBS, such as the recent The Brain Series with Charlie Rose, led by the marvelous Professor Eric Kandel (Columbia University Nobelist) comes across as overly narrow—too narrow and curiously unsatisfying.  At a certain point, ‘mechanistic’ descriptions of phenomena like creativity are not convincing.

The education we visualize and promote here would happily straddle neuroscience and those levels of understanding that are beyond it.