The Case for Decency

by Siegfried Othmer | July 6th, 2006

An article in the current issue of “The New York Review of Books” by John Gray carries the above title as it surveys the intellectual legacy left by Isaiah Berlin, who died in 1997. Berlin was shaped by the major totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, and he was also shaped by a Russian liberalism that was skeptical of any monolithic system of values or claims of universal truth. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see so clearly how deeply imbedded in Western thought is the ideal of an ultimate harmony of a core set of values, rationally arrived at, to guide human affairs. The existence of such an ideal is almost a given, an assumption needing no further defense or verification. Our society’s contentious values debates are but imperfections and diversions on the pathway toward greater ultimate harmony.

The origins of this notion go back to the Enlightenment and the power of rationality that was its guiding light. It was believed that a society could be achieved in which all of the truly important values could be realized. For a rationally based set of values that had to be the case, in that a rational universe must be a harmonious whole. This utopian ideal of social harmony also drew its support from theology, in that God cannot embody internal contradictions. Both sides in the US civil war may have prayed fervently to the same God, but God himself cannot have been of two minds.

Berlin realized that this view of emerging social harmony had no empirical support. Not only that, but the Enlightenment doctrine animated the worst tyrannies witnessed in human history. Its vision of a future harmony represented “an ideal for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than perhaps for any other cause in human history.” This held in particular for the communist totalitarianism that Berlin experienced at close hand. But even Nazism saw itself as rationally based: “National socialism is nothing more than applied biology” (Goering).

As one surveys the present scene in our national and international politics, it is clear that the unexamined assumption of a future harmonious resolution of value conflicts still rules our behavior. We assert the primacy of democracy as a commonly shared value among the enlightened, and we sally forth with all our might to advance the timing of our harmonious Omega point. On the national scene, we are divided between a secular-humanist vision of the harmonious future and a theologically-based one, either here or in the hereafter.

Perhaps we should take a lesson from our Founding Fathers. They were confronted with an essential pluralism in religions that stood in the way of forming a union. Allowing formally for such pluralism became a necessity, and this is what church-state separation was really all about. In all the time since, the need for accommodating religious pluralism in our civic institutions has not diminished at all. There is still just as much splitting going on among the denominations as there is unifying.

Berlin found his way to the same place. All that we should hope for is the universal acceptance of a pluralistic world of values, and tolerance is its virtue. There may indeed be a fairly universal differentiation between better and worse outcomes, narrowly considered, but as for agreement on a hierarchy of values, that will remain elusive. Pluralism must be accommodated as a necessity if not a virtue in its own right, just as generations of believers accommodated to the necessity for the separation of church and state.

Now the above may fit nicely into our July 4 celebratory mindset, but what does this all have to do with neurofeedback? It may not be obvious but one of the modern pillars of support for the monistic model is surely science itself. Science can brook no lasting internal contradictions. Such apparent contradictions as there are will be whittled away at until they are resolved. The ideal, in any event, is already in place. The laws of nature must be harmonious. They cannot conflict. So the rational/scientific basis for Enlightenment optimism is still quite vibrantly alive. And the potential for tyranny is alive as well.

It strikes me that much of the opposition to new thinking in neurofeedback comes precisely from this source: it belies the existence of a harmonious whole. The question might be asked, for example: “Would we not all be better off if there were unanimity around one vision?” “Doesn’t the current mix of voices just indicate that there is no unitary scientific conception underlying neurofeedback?” As long as the ideal of a unitary model exists, any alternative model must be seen as a threat to the emergence of the consensus view that is the hallmark of a mature discipline. Since any one method seems to be about as good as another clinically, why not go for consensus first and begin acting like a real discipline? The details can be sorted out later.

The pluralism that is coming into the field of neurofeedback has its analogy in the religious pluralism of early America. Since a lot of mental health therapists are not at home in mathematics, the necessities for doing neurofeedback are learned much like children learn Bible verses. The authorities are consulted, and important concepts are committed to memory. Disagreements are then capable of unleashing great rancor, but issues cannot be settled because neither party really understands them. They just know what they have learned from the Scriptures.

Then there are the real conundrums! We really don’t know how all this works. We are not even close. We have just found a way to work in the clinic toward improved self-regulation, and in that regard there is not just one right path, but there are many paths. We are inherently stuck with a pluralistic universe in neurofeedback. If that poses a conceptual problem for the reader, then I offer my sympathies. Unification will only be found at a higher level where all of the disagreements that now animate us no longer make sense.

Can we answer the question as to whether the pluralism we have to come to terms with now is a temporary accommodation or a permanent feature of our science? As a physicist I draw my metaphors from our own recent scientific revolutions. We have had to come to terms with the fact that some experiments yield only part of the reality, and we need other experiments to yield other parts. In the wave-particle duality picture, we can never be a witness to both at the same time. And we have had to come to terms with the fact that some uncertainty is actually intrinsic to nature, and not just a limitation on our measurements. We no longer expect to find hidden variables that resolve the uncertainty.

In the EEG we are confronted with a complexity that cannot ever be revealed to us fully in any one measurement. For example, as we pin things down in frequency, they become vague in time, and as we pin things down in time they become vague in frequency. (The equations are actually the same as the ones that embody the uncertainties in quantum mechanics.) And as soon as we bring spatial relationships into the picture as well, matters become complex indeed.

We should just recognize that complexity will always remain something of a barrier to our understanding because our tools of observation have to limit the variables we can attend to. So to a certain extent we should simply expect to live with different models that explain different phenomena. These models should not conflict, but they may not overlap very much, either. The immediate lesson for us all is that we should remain somewhat humble in the presence of what we do not know. And we should let go of the hegemonic ideal of a unitary conception of what we are about.

In the last twenty years, we have seen a lot of ostensibly “scientifically-based” tyrannies both come and go in this field. The pain inflicted has been huge, and the loss to our progress has been great. One cannot in matters of science ask for a democracy of ideas, but one can ask, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, for “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

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