Friday, August 26, 2005

Brain Science and Postmodernism

A hallmark of postmodernism is that it asks questions about how and why we think the way we do? The postmodern critique has been valuable in identifying discourses, grand narratives, metaphors, ideologies, and how we are affected by them, even become a part or element of them.

Critics of postmodernism claim it offers no prescriptions for action of its own, is subject to its own critical methods, and views science and history as merely other metaphors amongst a sea of metaphors.

Brain science tries to understand how the mind works. Its best successes have been medical research for treating diseases and traumas to the brain. Cognitive blending and how we think metaphorically has been a fruitful area of research. Two tenants of the enterprise are that most thinking is unconscious and that thinking is metaphorical.

These scientific researches have their own postmodernist elements. We possess many metaphors for the concepts we use. We arrive at sometimes contradictory positions about matters of fact depending upon the metaphors we are using and their inferential systems. The best one can do is try and discover which metaphors apply best, that is, which ones are apt.

Some people charge the scientific view of metaphor with relativism, a charge leveled against postmodernism in general. However, the scientific study of cognitive blending and metaphor can be tested and confirmed using scientific methods. If science finds we use often conflicting metaphors, that's not a problem for science. It is just another case where we must recognize our limitations and do our best to take those limitations into account. The reflexivity of the mind thinking about thinking is as old as philosophy. Now, with modern techniques for researching how the brain works there is the possibility of going beyond a priori thinking and theorizing.

The problem is that the brain remains at the frontier of all scientific knowledge despite the progress that has been made. Let us imagine that scientific research continues to advance rapidly and we arrive at a reasonably good theory of how the mind works. How long will a bona fide theory of mind take to permeate the culture? I think of evolution when I ask the question.

The interesting thing is that there is an intersection set, of sorts, between the cognitive sciences and postmodernist technique.


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