This Week’s Special: C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed”
By Daniel A. Kaufman
On tap this week is a lovely little essay by C.S. Lewis that makes what I think is quite an important distinction, one that may permit us a little insight into what has seemed an intractable philosophical problem: namely, our inability to “reduce” various – mostly mental – concepts to various “lower level” physical ones.
Lewis refers to this distinction, first, as the difference between “looking along” something and “looking at” it, and later he characterizes it as the difference between seeing something “from the inside” as opposed to “from the outside.” I may add a third characterization of the divide Lewis has in mind, in terms of examining something “horizontally” as opposed to “vertically.” Each way of describing the distinction Lewis has in mind is illustrative – and thus useful – in its own way.
Lewis begins by reflecting on an experience he had, while in a toolshed (the essay’s namesake), an example that I actually find quite obscure. Far better are the examples that immediately follow, in which the distinction comes through most clearly. For instance:
A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it.
Lewis asks the following: Which way of looking provides the “better” — in the sense of the truer — account of romantic love? Those of a scientistic frame of mind clearly believe that the second way of looking is better, something that is indicated not just by their inclination to give (or demand) a reductive analysis in every investigation and inquiry, but in the ways in which they commonly describe such analyses. We are told that experiencing some sensation or emotion or having a certain thought or even being conscious is “nothing but” or “nothing more than” or “merely” some set of physical things or events.
Lewis is right to characterize this language as an exercise in “debunking” and to lament it. For, regardless of the things that the reductive account does tell us – and no doubt, it tells us a lot – it fails to shed any light on what it is like to be in love or on the distinctive magic that pervades the experience of love or on the significance of that experience which, for many, may be the most significant experience they will ever have.
Now, a very different kind of investigation does shed light on these things. Philosophical accounts of love, such as those one might find in Plato’s Symposium or, more recently, in Allan Bloom’s Love and Friendship, or even Lewis’s book on the subject, The Four Loves. Romance poetry that you might find in the writings of a Byron or an e.e. cummings or a Shakespeare. Romantic novels, of the sort written by Emily Bronte or Lawrence Durrell or Iris Murdoch. Love songs. Romantic films. All of these advance our understanding of what it is like to be in love; of love’s special magic; of what makes love such a significant, transforming experience. And they do so, in a way that only they can and in which a scientific or otherwise reductive analysis cannot.
The reason is that the sort of investigation that I am describing approaches the question “horizontally” and not “vertically,” as its reductive counterpart does. It seeks not to take the phenomenon apart, to break it into smaller pieces, to look for some underlying mechanism that will somehow explain the properties it has at the surface; the characteristics that we think of, when reflecting upon the thing or describing it to others. Rather, the sort of investigation I am talking about remains at the surface and stretches out across it. The essay, the poem, the novel, and the song provide additional accounts, descriptions, and expressions of the phenomenon itself, from many different peoples’ points of view, and by showing us how others experience love, express it, and value it, we come to better understand our own experiences, expressions, and valuations of love.
In itself, this may not seem like much of a response to the scientistic point of view. Surely, our reductionist is going to want to dismiss the relevance or usefulness of understanding what are, in fact, the experienced or represented – qualities of things. But Lewis is convinced – I think correctly – that this move is not available to the advocate of scientism. For it is often the case that the only reason we are interested in a particular phenomenon in the first place – or at all – is because of its experienced or representational qualities, which means that accounts that ignore or otherwise bypass those qualities will fail to address the very interests that motivate the inquiry.
A physiologist, for example, can study pain and find out that it “is” (whatever is means) such and such neural events. But the word pain would have no meaning for him unless he had “been inside” by actually suffering. If he had never looked along pain he simply wouldn’t know what he was looking at. The very subject for his inquiries from outside exists for him only because he has, at least once, been inside
A similar issue arises when reductionists and eliminative materialists try to get rid of all reference to intentionality, in the pursuit of what they consider “scientific” psychology. The trouble is that it is not clear that without the intentional idiom, one can even characterize the subject-matter of much, if not most psychological investigation. As John Greenwood put it:
Many practicing psychologists…are not particularly concerned with the explanation of human behaviors or physical movements per se. They are instead concerned to provide…explanations of socially meaningful human actions, such as aggression, dishonesty, helping, child abuse, and suicide. They are concerned with the explanation of those behaviors that are constituted as human actions by their intentional direction and social location. (1)
The intentional dimension of human thought and behavior is what renders it resistant to reductive analysis and yet, understanding it is one of our main reasons for engaging in psychological investigation in the first place. Eliminate it and you eliminate much of the motivation for doing psychology at all. Lewis’s point – and mine – is that this important truth is generalizable, across a large number of the phenomena, about which we desire greater understanding, for which we engage in various investigations. The investigations, then, must be of the sort that can actually provide the understanding sought or else it is unclear why anyone would want to engage in them.
I am convinced that many of the things for which, historically, we have sought greater understanding are not of the sort that are amenable to reductive – “vertical” – investigation, because they involve an interest in things as they are experienced or as they are represented that scientific forms of investigation are simply not equipped to address. Oftentimes, the mark that one is dealing with such a phenomenon is that every attempt at a reductive analysis seems to leave something out; to miss some crucial element. Consciousness is such a phenomenon, as are sensations. Freewill may very well be such a phenomenon. Intentionality certainly is.
The question, then, is not so much whether there is or can be a unity of the sciences, but whether there is or can be a unity of investigations. I might be inclined to define ‘science’ narrowly enough, so that the answer to the first question is “yes,” even while the answer to the second must be a resounding “no.” However you slice it, you cannot eliminate the sorts of questions that are only answerable by way of the horizontal mode of investigation – by “looking along,” rather than “looking at” something — without getting rid of some of the things we care most about.
- John Greenwood, “Reasons to Believe,” in John Greenwood, ed., The Future of Folk Psychology: Intentionality and Cognitive Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 71.