That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

One of the most commented on segments of Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarelyhi‘s ‘Free Solo‘–the film that details Alex Honnold‘s incredible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–is that of the MRI of Honnold’s brain. This MRI is performed in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Honnold is able to calmly scale a three thousand feet cliff without any ropes or aids, without apparently suffering the terror that would afflict most human beings engaged in any task that approximated Honnold’s feat. We learn that Honnold’s amygdala–the part of the brain supposedly activated by our fear–just doesn’t light up all that much in his case. See? He’s just built differently from us.

But we were also given some psychological insight, of course: Honnold himself is asked how he does it and he offers some interesting introspective takes on it on fear, risk, consequences, and existential choices; other climbers–like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin–also chime in. And those around Honnold offer us some explanations of his behavior and attempt to determine its psychological foundations.

Such explanations do not satisfy all–especially those who find MRI scans more convincing than verbal reasons for human behavior:

Unfortunately, Free Solo suffers when Vasarhelyi and Chin psychologize Honnold or attempt to explain his drive for death-defying climbs. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to examine Honnold’s psyche, given that his Spock-like demeanor and curiously casual approach to soloing does raise certain questions about his mental stability or lack thereof. Yet every “answer” they ascribe to him (or he ascribes to himself) feels pat and unconvincing. Honnold mentions his father, who was emotionally unavailable to Honnold’s mother but also spurred his son’s interest in climbing. He describes his “dark soul” as a child and his “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” There’s some talk about being a loner in school. Yet none of those explanations are as persuasive as an MRI diagnosis that simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. Similarly, Free Solo’s fixation on how soloing affects Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend feels transported from a more banal film altogether. At best, this material is uninteresting filler, and at worst, it’s a distraction

Now, I hate to have to break the news but ‘pat psychologizing is what we do all the time, every single day of our lives. In fact, if we didn’t indulge in it, we wouldn’t know how to live with each other. Think about our language of everyday social, political, and ethical interaction–replete with wants, desires, beliefs, motivations, the whole gamut of psychological attitudes. We use this language all the time to predict and anticipate the reactions of others; we do not go around conducting MRIs to find out what our fellow humans want or desire or believe; we observe their behavior, we ask them questions, we correlate their behavior with their verbal pronouncements for further refinement and we muddle right along. In courts of law, when we want to know why someone did something, we ask them or other human beings to explain their behavior; we don’t cut open skulls or run scans to elicit reasons–though some neuroscientists want to do just that. All of which is to say that there is nothing ‘pat’ about the psychologizing in ‘Free Solo’; we make this assessment at the risk of being similarly dismissive of most of our daily conversation and our best tool for dealing with other humans.

But the attitudes expressed in the review above are not outliers. ‘Pop psychology,’ ‘psychobabble,’ ‘amateur psychologizing’–these are all apparently Bad Things; we should look for more Scientific Explanations. A laudable sentiment, but one which is too caught up in reductionist fantasies to be anything more than grossly misleading. In the realm of human behavior, psychological explanations are useful, elegant, and successful; and it is neuroscientific ones that have a long way to go:

The fundamental problem…is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris….It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

The urge to rely on neuroscientific explanations is easy to understand: human beings are complicated creatures; we are creatures of biology, culture, and psychology; to understand what makes us tick is hard.  Some pat neuroscientific explanations seem quite tempting. But what at cost? What, if anything, have we learned about Honnold from his MRI that is genuinely useful–especially since that MRI rests upon a series of as yet unconfirmed assumptions?  That ‘pat psychologizing’ that Honnold and those around him indulge in is far more enlightening; they place Honnold’s behavior in the domain of human relationships and motivations, far more comprehensible for us as human beings, and far more amenable to utilization in our future interactions with our fellow human beings.

Neuroscience’s Inference Problem And The Perils Of Scientific Reduction

In Science’s Inference Problem: When Data Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Does, while reviewing Jerome Kagan‘s Five Constraints on Predicting Behavior, James Ryerson writes:

Perhaps the most difficult challenge Kagan describes is the mismatching of the respective concepts and terminologies of brain science and psychology. Because neuroscientists lack a “rich biological vocabulary” for the variety of brain states, they can be tempted to borrow correlates from psychology before they have shown there is in fact a correlation. On the psychology side, many concepts can be faddish or otherwise short-lived, which should make you skeptical that today’s psychological terms will “map neatly” onto information about the brain. If fMRI machines had been available a century ago, Kagan points out, we would have been searching for the neurological basis of Pavlov’s “freedom reflex” or Freud’s “oral stage” of development, no doubt in vain. Why should we be any more confident that today’s psychological concepts will prove any better at cutting nature at the joints?

In a review of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), I made note¹ of related epistemological concerns:

When experiments are carried out, neuroscientists continue to run into problems. The level of experimental control available to practitioners in other sciences is simply not available to them, and the theorising that results often seems to be on shaky ground….The localisation techniques that are amongst the most common in neuroscience rely on experimental methods such as positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephelography (MEG). [In PET] a radioactive tracer consisting of labelled water or glucose analogue molecules is injected into a subject, who is then asked to perform a cognitive task under controlled conditions. The tracer decays and emits positrons and gamma rays that increase the blood flow or glucose metabolism in an area of the brain. It is now assumed that this area is responsible for the cognitive function performed by the subject. The problem with this assumption, of course, is that the increased blood flow might occur in one area, and the relevant neural activity might occur in another, or in no particular area at all….this form of investigation, rather than pointing to the modularity and functional decomposability of the brain, merely assumes it.

The fundamental problem–implicit and explicit in Kagan’s book and my little note above–is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris, and the various challenges Kagan outlines in his book bear out the foolishness of this enterprise. It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

Note: In Metascience, 11(1): March 2002.

Causation and the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

In reviewing Joel Greenberg‘s A Feathered River: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014), and in particular in noting his analysis of the causes of the mass disappearance of the passenger pigeon, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

[G]reenberg isn’t much interested in the mechanics of the bird’s extinction. Even if there was some other contributing factor, he observes, this doesn’t change the outcome, nor does it alter the moral calculus. Greenberg offers the analogy of a man who was pushed off a pier. If the man doesn’t know how to swim and ends up drowning, it might be said that the proximate cause of his death was his own ignorance (or lack of buoyancy). But, “culpability and the ultimate cause remain with the one who pushed.” [emphasis added]

 This example demonstrates well, I think, how causal analysis–and thus, the notion of “cause”–remains a pragmatic enterprise through and through. (The notion of an “ultimate cause” is incoherent, unfortunately.)

To see why, consider that despite being offered several “additional factors” that would explain the disappearance of the pigeons, Greenberg is interested in offering a story that has a conservationist moral: overhunting is a bad thing and ‘”conservation measures” can work.’ The various physical explanations offered–the size of pigeon flocks for instance–will not mesh with such a story and are therefore not suitable for consideration as causes. There is a “moral calculus” to be satisfied: for that, blame has to be assigned somewhere, and its subjects can only be agents of a kind. In this case, human ones.

Why would this be more satisfying for Greenberg? Well, the actions of humans are subject to discussion and critique; an assignment of blame and “culpability” and “responsibility” can provoke morally inflected discussion and lead to actions that can influence the relevant causal networks of humans and their actions in the right ways.

Greenberg’s example of the pier-pushing is interesting for just these reasons. We seek to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future, so talk of lack of buoyancy will do little to help. However, a morally inflected discourse might. Thus, we assign blame to agents again, whose beliefs and desires were the causes for their actions. Pushing people off piers is a bad thing and should be thought of as such, and so on. We could complicate the picture too, by assigning some blame to those who did not build protective railings or put up warning signs about not getting too close to pier edges. And so on.

(Incidentally, note that we could indict the lack of buoyancy of the human body as a cause too, and use it to motivate early lessons in swimming, but as a culture, we think this will have less impact than socially norming the pushing of people off piers as a bad thing.  Thus, causal analysis in that direction is a non-starter.)

Our discovery of a cause is, more than anything else, an announcement about our ends and the actions we consider will best help us to attain them.

Does Explanation Constitute Justification? Geras Contra Greenwald and Eagleton

And does it thereby also run the risk of shading into apologia when the event being explained is one that would strike some as a heinous act? In response to the Woolwich killing of a British soldier by machete-wielding assailants, Glenn Greenwald thinks not. Terry Eagleton agrees (in a fashion). Norman Geras disagrees. (As the links in that Geras post and his responses in this interview will show, this is not a new concern for him.)

Greenwald:

I know exactly how some people reflexively try to radically distort the argument beyond recognition in order to smear you as a Terror apologist, a Terrorist-lover or worse, all for the thought crime of raising these issues. To do so, they deceitfully conflate claims of causation (A is one of the causes of B) with justification (B is justified). Anyone operating with the most basic levels of rationality understands that these concepts are distinct. To discuss what motivates a person to engage in Action B is not remotely to justify Action B.

Eagleton:

It is rather because [those who would condemn apologia] imagine, in their muddled way, that to explain an event is to excuse it. Those who point to the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan are surely doing so as a devious way of justifying the slaughter of a young soldier outside his barracks.

Do they also think this about the crimes of Hitler or Stalin? Are they really suggesting that historians who delve into the origins of fascism are secret Nazi sympathisers, or that to lay bare the causes of the Gulag is to exonerate its architects? The problem for these commentators is that if an event can be explained, it must be rationally motivated, and that sounds uncomfortably close to endorsing it. To call an action rational, however, is by no means to justify it.

Geras:

First, Eagleton is right: you can explain a bad event without being an apologist for it. But, second, you can also purport to explain something precisely in order to excuse it. Or: To understand is not necessarily to condone, yet it just might be. The logic here isn’t difficult to grasp; not all people are academics, but some people are academics. Etc. It is also the case that what presents itself as historical explanation can sometimes have a plainly apologetic function. I recommend to Eagleton’s attention the so-called Historians’ Dispute – the Historikerstreit – in West Germany (as was) in the late 1980s, and the contributions to it in particular of Ernst Nolte.

Geras goes on to draw an uncomfortable analogy:

Imagine men who commit rape and say, ‘I did it because she was asking for it; you should have seen how she was dressed, and flaunting herself, etc.’ [But my interlocutor] says that one must concede some rationality to these men and to their explanation for their acts of violence against women, otherwise one has denied the possibility of rational explanation as such – even though plenty of men don’t rape women, however dressed, and even though those who do do so justify their actions by reference to a pernicious belief system…[my interlocutor] always quick to explain (without justifying) the likes of the Woolwich killing or of the Boston bombings, nearly never, if they ever, make any effort to explain (without justifying) the use by Western governments of torture and extraordinary rendition. They do not urge upon people the need to understand torture as a response to what the jihadists do, on the grounds that if we fail so to understand it, we’ll lose all grip on rational explanation…

But, you know, to explain is not to justify. Well, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes it is to condone or attempt to mitigate or get people to look away from what you don’t want them to notice.

Geras is right that some explanations function as excuses; after all our anger at a miscreant does often ebb once he explains why he did what he did. Why else would we offer explanations for actions of ours that meet with disapproval?  That said, the disagreement between Greenwald, Eagleton and Geras is perhaps at a more fundamental level.

To provide an explanation of something is to make it more comprehensible in the light of beliefs already held. An ‘explanation’ of a comet’s tail in language comprehensible to a graduate student in physics will not be one to a schoolboy untutored in the barest notions of astrophysics; an atheist looking for  an explanation of his beloved’s death will not find a theological explanation couched in terms of God’s ‘plan’ satisfactory.  This definition also implies merely providing the cause of an event will not be sufficient if that cause itself is incomprehensible; one convinced that a malevolent terror is on the loose will not be convinced that the medical cause for a loved one’s death provides any explanation whatsoever.  For these unsatisfied folk, the world retains its inexplicability even after the explanation is provided, one that might be satisfactory to someone else. The subject of an explanation has an active role to play in making that explanation a good one.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Geras does not consider these particular recountings of the causes and motives of the Woolwich killer to be explanations at all: they do not locate the event in the proper or correct network of causes, motives and actions; the killings remain mysterious on their accounts. The correct explanation, for Geras, of the Woolwich killing must include explicit reference to a host of factors left out by Greenwald and Eagleton; it is the incompleteness, the lack of comprehensiveness of the explanations offered by Greenwald and Eagleton, that for Geras turns them into apologia. In the rape and torture examples, those who reject the putative explanations as apologia are doing the same; they don’t consider them explanations at all. Consider, for instance, that someone had ‘explained’ the Woolwich killings in purely biological/physiological/physical terms (if this was at all possible).  We would scarcely consider this an explanation; we understand the right language of explanation for this act will be drawn from elsewhere (politics, theories of violence, history and so on). That ‘explanation’ would sound like apologia to Greenwald and Eagleton.

Fish on Eagleton on Religion

Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution in The New York Times and approvingly quotes him contra the excesses of Christopher Hitchens:

[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

This is a peculiar remark to make. Religion might not be in the business of offering explanations for natural phenomena now, but that is because it has, over an extended period, as a tactical and strategic move, ceded that explanatory function to science. Its history suggests that it has often seen itself in the business of offering explanations and indeed, comprehensive theories of the world that begin at its beginning and go on till its end. Hitchens’ remark is crude in suggesting the religious are only motivated by a desire to seek the kind of comforts made possible by technology but Eagleton’s suggestion that the description of religion is entirely misguided ignores the historical role that religion has played in the lives of its adherents in years gone by.

The same considerations apply to another one of Eagleton’s passages quoted by Fish:

[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Again, one can provide metaphorical and non-realist readings of religion that do not see it as an explanatory theory but it is not clear such readings do full justice to the way that practitioners of religion see it, as a system which makes the world coherent. But systems which seek to provide such clarity are, contra Eagleton and Fish both, attempts to explain the world. If those systems are found wanting, it is because rival explanations for the same phenomena they claim to make comprehensible are found more satisfying, more able to do justice to the desiderata posed by the explanandum.

The move to cast religion as a non-explanation of anything is an interesting defensive move in light of the criticisms made of its extravagant ontological and ethical claims but it is not one that strikes me as likely to be successful. If religion did not seek to explain the incomprehensible then what comfort could it provide to the faithful? If you arrive at religion with a mystery and leave with one, then it hasn’t distinguished itself from the rest of this mysterious existence of ours.