The Epistemic Gap, Psychology, and the Scientific Method

In 1972, Thomas Nagel first introduced what is now known as the “epistemic gap” amongst contemporary philosophers. It was described in his paper “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” and the gist of the argument was this: one cannot fully understand the mind unless one is experiencing that mind.

Nagel took the example of a bat because bats are so fascinatingly different than humans; they hang upside down most of the time, use echolocation, they are nocturnal, and most eat nothing but insects. Could a human ever convincingly claim that he knew what it was like to be a bat? Nagel didn’t believe this was possible – I agree.

Can the same be true amongst humans? Can another human fully understand the mind of another, or, does one have to be in the first-person to understand the mind more clearly?

Philosopher Frank Jackson wrote a paper in 1982 titled “Epiphenomenal Qualia” where he introduced the famous thought experiment known as Mary’s room. It goes like this:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. (…) What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete.”

These arguments by Frank Jackson and Thomas Nagel are two of the most famous papers in support of the idea of qualia – a term used in philosophy to describe the subjective quality of conscious experience. It is an idea often associated with the mind/body dualism (the belief that the mind is in some-part nonphysical, and therefore a separate entity from our physical bodies).

The epistemic gap does not prove any such thing however, and it is perfectly compatible with a materialist view of the mind. The real questions that the epistemic gap provokes is within the field of psychology and the scientific method itself.

Science is science – we believe – because of its objective, empirical, and third-person approach to knowledge. Science has often given men the ability to step outside of the happenings of natural phenomena, study them, test them, replicate their findings, and come to conclusions.

There is no doubting the breakthroughs and advancements science has come to offer man throughout the centuries. It would be foolish to deny these achievements.

Even in Western psychology (which is quite a young field relative to the natural sciences), researchers have made incredibly discoveries of the mind and how it works. We have devised useful models for how the mind perceives sensations (Psychophysics), how it processes information, stores memories, and solves problems (Cognitive Psychology), how the mind changes throughout the human lifespan (Developmental Psychology), how the mind builds associations and how these associations affect our behaviors (Learning or Experimental Psychology), how the brain or the “physical anatomy of the mind” works (Neuropsychology), and we’ve been given the chance to take all of this information and apply it to a variety of other fields: Clinical Psychology, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Sport Psychology, and even Forensic Psychology.

There is no denying the leaps psychology has made, all in the name of proper science. This is knowledge we would likely have not gotten any other way if it were not for the extraordinary and rigorous scientific method.

However, there is good reason to believe that Nagel and Jackson are right and that we cannot fully explain or understand a mind from an outside view. This is the belief that once science carries out its full course of discoveries that there will be something left unsaid about the mind (our understanding of the mind could never be as complete as our understanding of the physics on our planet). Unless – we redefine science.

But I believe we already have the techniques used to fully understand a mind – or at the very least, our own mind.

To understand this technique properly, we need to first drift away from the Western logical positivist philosophy of “if you can’t measure it, then it isn’t real,” which I believe has plagued much of modern day intellectual thought. Instead, I turn to the philosophies of the East – who have been studying the mind far, far longer and far more thoroughly than the West.

In particular I am fond of Buddhism which – like Western Science – takes pride in an objective approach to the study of phenomena. But there is a important property of the mind that Buddhists acknowledge and scientists go out of their way to ignore: the mind is – before all else – something that must be experienced first-person, or it wouldn’t be a mind at all.

This brings me to the practice of meditation – or more generally – a mindfulness of our inner worlds. There is a world in all of us that is subjective, personal, and completely our own. We cannot let anyone in it no matter how colorful our language or how much experience we share with another human being – it is ours and ours alone – and there are aspects to it that can only be dealt with by our self; no therapist, psychologist, family member, friend, scientist or spouse can ever figure it out for you.

Neither Buddhism or Science can rightfully claim to know how to bridge the gap between the subjective and objective. Both try their best to be objective at different vantage points: Science takes a third-person empirical approach while Buddhism takes a first-person empirical approach. Why can’t the study of the mind include both?

There is a fast growing interest in the West in meditative practices, yoga, tai chi, and other mind/body, holistic and alternative medicines for physical and mental health. This suggests there might be a vacancy in the West’s psyche, perhaps due to a combination of an incomplete scientific view of the mind along with an overwhelming nihilistic and atheistic attitude toward what would be deemed the spiritual or “mystic” aspects of man.

Many of these so called mystical practices are lumped into the demeaning pop psychology term “New Age.” Followers of so called New Age practices are said to be gullible and weak-minded – and perhaps some of them are. But it is also my belief that introspection and reflection on one’s mind can be the most rewarding and therapeutic practice for better mental health, the sharpening of one’s mental skill set, and a complete understanding of how the mind truly works (in the context of how it operates in the head of the individual and not by inference of a third-person observer).

Because of this I am very welcoming of these alternative and non-scientific studies of the mind. I in no way mean to deter scientific practices (I believe their should always be a science of the mind and a scientific study of human psychology), but I will stand up for the little guy on this one – science is not the giant be-all end-all of knowledge. It has its limitations, and we must be open to alternative studies of the mind. Sometimes we should turn our senses inward — and we may find there is some gold of truth to be discovered.

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