As a scientist, I am, at times, guilty of aggressive empiricism — the notion that truths can only be learned (inasmuch as there are truths to be learned) through observation of the world. Anyone who claims to be finding truth any other way is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Sometimes, aggressive empiricism isn’t a problem. No one seems to care much that science claims to have the final word on how cells replicate because no one has proposed a better way of finding out than testing them and taking notes. Things get a little trickier when science claims that it knows how to heal people. But the issue gets particularly thorny in psychology, when science asserts that it can explain people’s actions through a series of cognitive mechanisms endowed to them over evolutionary time and turned on and off by stimuli of which the individuals are often entirely unaware. Essentially, psychologists can explain you better than you can explain yourself, and with p<0.05.
Science, for instance, can explain love. Love is complicated (just ask my ex), so let’s break it down into its various components.
First, there is what I’ll call the immediate sensation of being in love. You know what I mean: It’s the feeling you get after kissing someone for the first time. It’s warm in a kind of figurative and kind of literal way and somehow makes you want to nuzzle your face against theirs. If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll understand that there is a distinct phenomenological experience associated with the immediate sensation of being in love, just like there is a distinct phenomenological experience associated with tasting acidity. That is, your taste receptors respond to the lemon juice you just swallowed, setting off a pathway of neurons that fire in your brain. Consciousness — your Cliff Notes of everything going on in your body — generates a mental representation of the taste.
The same thing happens with the immediate sensation of being in love. The mechanism involves oxytocin, a hormone released during sex, breast-feeding and eating chocolate. Oxytocin is responsible for the warm, nuzzly feeling you get after kissing someone.
So science can explain the immediate sensation of being in love. It can probably explain much of the rest of the broad concept of love as well: why we are devoted to our partners, why we sometimes cheat and then feel bad about it, why the faults of our loved ones are alternately magnified and diminished. Science explains not only why humans love, but also why I love. Right?
Not quite. It seems that figuring out why is a more interesting project than the one I’ve proposed thus far.
Consider this simple story: Joe sees a pen on the floor and bends down to pick it up. Now try to answer a question about the story: Why did Joe pick up the pen? We might offer several types of explanations. We might offer an explanation from Joe’s character: Joe is obsessive-compulsive and can’t stand things being out of place. We might offer an explanation from context: Joe happens to be cleaning the apartment. We might offer an explanation from development: When he was little, he developed the habit of tidiness and now tidies things automatically, almost without thinking about it. We might offer an explanation from physiology: Light from the pen strikes his retina and activates a neural sensory mechanism that leads to a motor response.
Is one of these explanations more foundational than the others? Do we defer to it as the ultimate causal explanation of why Joe picked up the pen? This seems silly. No explanation on its own really captures the full picture. We’ll answer the question differently depending on who’s asking us the question. And if we’re not in Kline Biology Tower, choosing to answer why in terms of molecules and chemicals simply misses the mark. It insists on being obstinately blind to the narrative nature of human experience.
Science provides a mechanistic, empirical explanation of causal processes that result in a human behavior. That is one way of describing the world, but it doesn’t seem to necessarily have the power to trump all other modes of explanation. So when science tells me that it knows why I love better than I do, I now tell science to mind its own business.