The Future of Psychology: Can We Know What It’s Like To Be A Bat?
The other day, something unusual happened. I was lucky enough to find myself talking to someone who actually seemed like he was interested in what I do. Yes, I have to admit, I like talking about what I do, and no, you’re not any different. So, I told him that I graduated with a degree in psychology, and that I was pursuing a career in science journalism. He proceeded to ask me questions about my psychology degree, and that’s when I started bullshitting.
The truth is, I graduated with a degree in philosophy from a small liberal arts college. But to salvage credibility, I just say that I studied psychology (sometimes I even say neuroscience, but that’s only if I am feeling extra frisky). Saying that I have a degree in psychology isn’t completely false; I actually spent the second half of college reading more Kahneman and Tversky studies than I did Nietzsche and Wittgenstein aphorisms. You could say that I have enough psych knowledge to start a blog about it, and enough to detect if someone else was bullshitting about psychology.
Which is exactly what he started to do.
He suggested that my degree would come in handy in the corporate world. I can’t remember his exact words, but they went something like this: “psychology could be really helpful because it helps you understand how people think and behave. If you know a lot about psychology, then you know a lot about how people work.” This is when my limited psych knowledge kicked in, my bullshit detector went off, and the conversation got ugly. He threw a strike and I was going to swing.
Taking a deep breath, I responded:
A typical neuron with all its neurites has a membrane surface area of about 250,000 squared micrometers. The surface area of the 100 billion neurons that make up the human brain comes to 25,000 square meters – roughly the size of four soccer fields. This expanse of membrane, with its myriad specialized protein molecules, constitutes the fabric of our minds. So to say that a degree in psychology (bachelors, masters, or PhD) means you know how people work is like saying that a degree in physics means you understand all of the physical laws in the universe; it’s like saying that a degree in mathematics means you know how to solve every math problem that hasn’t been solved; it’s like saying that a degree in chemistry means you could explain every all chemical reactions; it’s like saying a degree in biology means you could explain all life on Earth; it’s like saying that a degree in sociology (as embarrassing as a degree in philosophy) means you understand society; and it’s like saying a degree in women’s studies means you get women (which no one does). You get the idea. With a 100 billion neurons forming 100 trillion connections, the human brain is the single most complex entity in the universe. Saying that a psychology degree allows you to understand how people work is the most misguided, stupid, idiotic thing I have ever heard.
Ok, so I didn’t say those exact words right then and there, and I may have stolen the first part from a neuroscience textbook (Bear, Connors, Paradiso 2007, 98), but I convinced myself later on that I did, and that my friend bowed down out of respect for my unmatched knowledge of cognitive science. I had just graduated from college, and I was determined to prove my intelligence to the world.
To be sure, I am sympathetic to what he said because his thoughts were my initial beliefs upon entering college. At one point, I actually considered majoring in psychology because I though it would help me understand “how people work.” But my first impressions were wrong, and so were his.
All of this got me thinking, what does psychology teach you? Well let’s go back to what my friend said to narrow this question. He said that “psychology could be really helpful because it helps you understand how people think and behave, if you know a lot about psychology, then you know a lot about how people work.” This is a dangerous statement. Once you start talking about knowledge – the capital K kind that Plato and Socrates dabbled with – you run the risk of crossing into Thomas Nagel territory. Nagel, for those who are not familiar, wrote a famous paper entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” that critiques a reductionist account of the brain. The argument goes something like this: even if you could describe all the neural activity of a bat, all the way down to the last neuron, you still wouldn’t know what it is like to be a bat. In order to know what it is like to be a bat, you would have to have the subjective feeling of being a bat, and that feeling cannot be accounted for even if you have a complete understanding of all the cognitive activity of a bat.
Nagel’s argument makes some valid philosophical points, but it is really only saying that psychology has a long way to go in terms of understanding brains. Of course, Nagel would sharply disagree with me here. He would say that no matter how advanced psychology gets, it would never be able to describe the subjective first person experience. Even if it had the most detailed fMRIs, and even if EEG’s could perfectly read all the electricity that brains generate, it would still be missing something – the subjective.
I will certainly grant Nagel that it would be difficult to generate a neurological account of what it is like to be human, but I cannot say that it would be impossible like he did. Keep in mind that his paper was written in the heart of the cognitive revolution (1974), a time when cognitive science was on the raise and academics were just starting to realize the true complexity of the brain. A psychologist trying to understand subjective experiences back then would be like the first climber to find Mount Everest, except the previous highest known mountain was some insignificant foothill. If you spent your whole life climbing foothills, than Mr. Everest would be incredibly intimidating and you might conclude that getting to the top would be impossible. But over time, you would find a way to get to the summit. The psych world has identified its Everest, taken a few steps towards the top, but needs an Edmund Hillary to prove that reaching the top is, in fact, possible.
The point here is that Nagel’s argument is more a product of its time than it is an accurate assessment of the capabilities of psychology. In a few decades, I suspect that psych will look back and reminisce about how pessimistic it was. It would be like us looking back on some ancient Greek who concluded that it would be impossible to tell if the Earth was flat or not.
So let’s not close the door like Nagel. At the same time, let’s not be as optimistic as my friend. Although we want to think that a degree in psychology helps us “get” people, it really only begins to skim the surface of how they experience the world.
As for what psychology does in fact teach you, there are the answers you actually learn about in class: our memory sucks (Neisser), we are horrible at predicting the future (Tetlock), emotion is central to decision-making (Damasio). Then there are the answers that it aspires to teach you, and those would validate my friend’s claim and my initial impression. Although I was critical of his remarks, I hope that he turns out to be correct. Nagel has argued that he will always be mistaken, but I will remain optimistic and continue to look out for psychology’s Edmund Hillary. Will you?
Nagel, T. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review, 83 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2183914