Living in a psychophysical world

I might be happy now and angry later. But, can I be in a superposition of these two states? If not, how shall we conceive the nature of an abrupt transition from one to the other? Are these solid and static accounts real or simply a convenient representation of reality?

These questions pervade all scales from the domain of cognitive sciences to that of particle physics. More specifically, the dominant levels of explanation in human psychology and animal neuroscience stem, benefit and suffer from the philosophical framework of Democritus theory of atoms. Therefore, it is worthy to explicitly discuss the origins and implications of what appears as a pervasive but implicit trend in the behavioral sciences: to conceive behavior as a sequence of frozen, impenetrable and discrete units of action. Put it plain, why did we move form the behavior of the atoms to the atoms of behavior?

In other words, we seek to identity, in theory and in practice, alternative views from which to think about behavior as a truly dynamical, complex and multidimensional process. By combining philosophical considerations and empirical results, we hope to spot the limits, fragility, and potentially pitfalls of complementary approaches, and suggest new directions.

We deem it timely to emphasize that the philosophical bases of modern neuroscience and psychology as empirical sciences are seldom stated explicitly by scientists, or even claimed as nonexistent or unnecessary. There is no such thing as evidence devoid of interpretation. The success of our inquiry is intertwined with our ability (and willingness) to clearly formulate the ideas that ground the explanation of our data.

In the current era of cutting- edge tool-driven neuroscience, data should not be a substitute for thinking, nor will it waive us from adopting a particular standpoint. When a philosophy, theory or framework (regardless of its usefulness) is elevated from a working assumption to the category of an empirical finding, the interpretations of the facts might be exposed to a great confusion.

So, what level of description in behavioral sciences? In analogy to Pauli’s exclusion principle, behavioral sciences seem to have dealt only with fermions while overlooking the existence of bosons in action. In this context, novel ways to describe and explain the motion of living and thinking systems might pursue the following directions. First, the design of experiments that would reveal a wave-particle duality of human (and animal) behavior. Second, the representation of data with sound, rather than graphs, via a canonical orchestra that would naturally quantify the dynamics of motion. Third, similar to our habit of having a materials and methods sections in our papers, the practice of acknowledging the philosophical assumptions used in every piece of science.

Trying to dispatch one of the problems that has occupied the brightest thinkers throughout centuries would be pretentious and absurd. But, perhaps, the following reflection can contribute: if the behavior of atoms is governed entirely by physical laws from which the emergence of living, thinking and conscious phenomena are sought to be explained, why cannot we suggest a reciprocal commute where psychophysics meets “physiopsychics”?