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Commentary by Bernard J. Baars

   It is remarkable how similar today's mind-body debates are to the philosophical critiques of biological science, such as Henri Bergson's Vitalism at the turn of the last century. Philosophers like Bergson became famous arguing that science could never account for life. One reason was that living creatures could not be decomposed into fundamental units, in spite of the empirical finding that all animate things consist of basic cells with remarkably general properties in a bewildering profusion of variation. Today we know that each of those cells has nearly identical DNA-RNA mechanisms, and that, to give one example, humans have about 50% of DNA in common with such creatures as yeast and C. elegans, the tiny worms that is now almost completely defined in genotype and phenotype. The cell and its genetic machinery can plausibly be called the atom of life. So Bergson's anti-atomism was wrong in large part. Indeed, had we followed his advice about 1900, we would still be living in the first great industrial age.

   With all respect to Teed Rockwell's dedicated and thoughtful work, I believe his attack on atomism is wrong as a generality, even when he makes local points that are true. Even the chemical atom encountered criticism from anti-atomists. Indeed, between Dalton's first modern proposal for chemical atoms about 1800 and Einstein's Brownian motion paper in 1905, which clinched the case for atoms, generations of natural philosophers debated the issue. As it turned out, atoms were a pretty useful unit, even though it immediately broke apart into subunits, and even though those subunits have a rather otherworldly quantum-mechanical aspect. Yet we even continue seek and speak about quantum particles. Evidently atomism in science is pretty much of a success story.

   Which does not mean that would-be scientists haven't done some pretty dumb things in pursuit of hypothetical atoms that never made any sense. The search for Pavlovian "atoms" of behavior, the conditioned reflex, was abandoned in physiology in the 1930's after only a few decades, but psychologists continued to pursue that elusive fundamental stimulus-response unit of conditioning theory. But there is an odd addendum to this criticism: A number of behaviorists who are often accused of unintelligent atomic reductionism are actually innocent of the charge. B.F. Skinner, who probably had as many pernicious effects on psychological science as he made positive contributions, never claimed there were physical units of behavior. Merely, he claimed there were functional relationships between operant behaviors, whose probability could be changed by a following stimulus called a reinforcer, and which could be cued by a discriminative stimulus. None of these were units, certainly not a physically specificiable sense. A rat in a box could depress the bar by sitting on it, by using its paws, or biting it: these physically different responses were functionally equivalent operant behaviors. Skinner's atomism, if it is that, is a very flexible, fluid and useful one.

   So if contemporary scientific psychologists have an atomistic ontology it is not just a matter of superstitious scientism. But even here the charge itself is flawed. I don't know of a single cognitive psychologist (that view being dominant in modern academic psychology) who believes for a moment that we are pursuing a fundamental unit. The quest for a stimulus-response atom has been dropped by behavioral and cognitive psychologists alike. Nobody is trying to reduce things to fundamental sensations, or to Lockean simple ideas, or anything else I know. In purely psychological terms, therefore, it appears that Teed is chasing a will-o'-the-whisp. Where modern psychologists do have to plead guilty to atomism is in their belief in the neuron doctrine of brain functioning, and the working assumption that psychological phenomena ultimately depend upon neurons. That assumption is shared by most neurobiologists, neurologists, and the like, who have developed the empirical details of the neuron doctrine over the last two hundred years. Any textbook in brain science is an exposition of the evidence for that doctrine, and I refer to that wealth of information rather than try to lay it out here.

   Given this as a background, Teed Rockwell's critique of Introspectionism as a kind of false atomism is interesting historically, as a commentary on a very small movement (essentially in the United States, where Titchener represented what he thought was Wundt's ideas for about ten years). But it has no bearing on the actual development of psychology as a science. It occurred at a time when psychology was very young, insecure, and willing to try anything that resembled the established sciences. "Introspectionism" died out soon after Titchener did, after a decade or so of notoriety. Wundt himself protested that Titchener's atomism was a major misrepresentation, and that he, Wundt, would never say such an obviously foolish thing. In fact, "Introspectionism" is a term Wundt never used. Instead, it was proposed by Titchener, denied by Wundt, and taken up as a rallying cry by the enemies of the sophisticated psychology of the 19th century, the behaviorists. It was E.G. Boring, Titchener's student, who became the founder of behavioristic historiography, in which blackening the reputation of 19th century science was an article of the faith. Revolutions are almost never honest about their origins, and the behavioristic revolution is no exception. The fact that most psychologists in the United States still believe this dubious myth of origins merely reflects their lack of scholarship. It has been amply documented to be false, by Arthur Blumenthal and Kurt Danziger, in widely read psychology journals.

   Beyond historical scholarship, there is a deeply important reason why Wundt could not have been an atomic reductionist, and that is the history of German Romanticism, which dominated the thought of Central Europe from Goethe onward --- the very beginning of the 19th century until well into the 20th. It was always a first tenet of German Romanticism that life and mind could not be reduced to fundamental units. "To analyze is to kill" is one of the sayings that was part of every educated person's cultural vocabulary. That view was articulated by philosophers and poets and musicians. No one educated in the German-speaking part of Europe could possibly be unaware of this. And in fact, Gestalt psychology early in the 20th century grew out of this point of view. Disastrously, German anti-atomism was also an article of faith of the Nazis, who borrowed huge chunks of Romantic thought, much of which our contemporaries think of the progressive critique of the modern world. What was popular in the European educated classes was not atomism, but anti-atomism. The same thing is true for our educated classes today, of course.

   Why then, do scientists in psychology, linguistics, and the like, continue to revert to SOME kind of units of discourse? (Nobody except the neuroscientist claims to have a fundamental unit, and the neuron docrine is beyond this commentary.) I believe the answer is simply that we humans don't know how to think without some nominal entities, with predicates applying to those entities, and relationships showing how they combine. I don't know of any scientific theory without nominal entities. In logic and fundamental mathematics, like the foundations of arithmetic, we start off saying, "There is a set of elements called numbers, there are properties of numbers, and here are the operations that work between numbers." In the simplest logic, such as Boolean, we have entities, relations, and predicates (or single-place relations). In graph theory we have points and lines. When those ideas are applied in psychology, as in syntax or semantic network theory, they can be very useful. But there is no reason to suppose they are fundamental or irreducible. One very powerful theory, recursive function theory, has been very useful in artificial intelligence, and explicitly allows every element to be further expanded.

   So my guess about all this is that we humans have no choice but to think in terms of elements are relations between elements. That may be bedrock atomism, but it's not particularly harmful, as far as I can tell. It's worked quite well over the last few hundred years in the sciences; in mathematics it has a record of success of some 25 centuries. It works in biology with the cell doctrine and DNA. It seems to work well in neurobiology with neurons. There is increasingly good empirical evidence that conscious functions in the brain depend upon certain cells more than others, but it would be foolish to claim that consciousness is just a matter of single cells. When we take single cells and allow them to interact at many levels, with vast but not infinitely vast complexity, we seem to get you and me.

   The neuron doctrine has now entered mainstream scientific psychology, simply because for the first time in human history we can actually see the brain doing psychologically important things, by way of brainscan technology. The wall between psychology and brain science is crumbling. It is an astonishing development, making the scientific landscape look totally different today than it did a decade ago. But that's another story altogether.