Differing Levels of Analysis

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I am interested in unity. 

This is, in part, why when I heard a psychology professor state, and restate, "The mind is what the brain does," I was both intrigued and disturbed. "The mind is what the brain does."

difffering levels.png

Let me start with the intrigue. The statement seems to offer reconciliation to the mind-body dualism that permeates--even plagues--Western thought. Now that is something; while interested in dualism I am not an advocate of it. But it was again in the context of Western thought that I found myself disturbed.

We westerners are marshals of cold facts, quick to organize, connect, shuffle, reorder and synthesize relative hard values into discreet categories. And what especially lends itself to dualisms: we love to reduce. It is efficient.

But I am interested in unity. My hold on the concept of the mind being what brain does is fragile; I might too easily reduce the mind to the brain, or, less often, the brain to the mind while ceasing to behold both simultaneously.

I often wonder if Sigmund Freud was guilty of reducing the mind to the body by assigning all of human action a will to pleasure. He reinvented--and reduced--the meaning of erotic.

Models are models, and should seek to illuminate rather than substitute for reality. We cannot reduce something to a single aspect of its nature. This is why, when I reached page three of my text Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding, I was immediately drawn to figure 1.1.

...We'll keep one crucial guideline in mind: We can't understand psychology by focusing on only one level of analysis. That's because each level tells us something different, and we gain new knowledge from each vantage point. (3)

Speaking of eros, figure 1.1 immediately reminded me of Plato's ladder of love, with each rung participating in and leading to the rung above. The West loves its levels of analysis, doesn't it?

On that note, I will close with an image from Brandeis University I ran across a couple of years ago: a structural comparison between a brain cell and a computer reconstructed map of the Universe at the level of clusters of galaxies. Talk about patterns that permeate different levels of nature!



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Scientific thinking is itself very western; the empirical process of conceptualizing observations as "constructs", then defining those constructs ("operational definitions") and measuring them--emerged from and feeds a culture that values "cold facts, organization, discreet categories, efficiency." But are scientific thinking and unity mutually exclusive? Or is that itself a false dualism?

I really like your point that "Models are models, and should seek to illuminate rather than substitute for reality." From my training, I would add, that you have to keep testing models against reality to ensure that they illuminate--so one asks the next question when evidence supports the model and adapts/discards the model when the evidence disconfirms. Otherwise, you don't have a model, you have dogma.

Also, awesome photos of neurons and galaxies!

True scientific thinking and unity are not at all mutually exclusive, you're right; I definitely think to say so would itself be an ironic false dualism and backwards.

It's becoming clear that science requires reciprocity between "poles": Theory Land and Data Land, particular and universal, etc. It's when this reciprocity is compromised that a scholar might hit the pitfall of polarized reduction. Reducing a person to an exclusively and fundamentally economical creature, for example, and keeping it strictly a one-way street. This is a tendency I've observed in others as well as myself.

This is why I was so excited by figure 1.1 in our text; it suggests different levels of analysis, different models, should remain in a sort of dialogue with each other and with observations so that understanding remains unified and whole. I'm excited to learn about the process of adapting models, too!

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This page contains a single entry by E. Carriere published on September 23, 2011 8:47 PM.

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