Social Psychology vs. Neuroscience: Adam’s Opticks debates with Dr Guy Saunders, UWE
Dr Guy Saunders is Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology and Consciousness at the University of the West of England and author of the forthcoming ‘Acts of Consciousness’ for Cambridge University Press. He has kindly agreed to say a few words for Adam’s Opticks about his views on the overreach of neuroscience and the problems inherent to a ‘purely physicalist’ science of the world. A video follow-up to our exchange may be found here
Hi Guy. I’ve been lucky enough this past year to attend a number of your lectures on consciousness and the philosophical underpinnings of psychology as a discipline. One of your most resounding themes has been a criticism of neuroscience, and what you perceive to be an attempt on the part of its proponents to reduce psychology to the scientific study of the brain. Following the philosopher Mary Midgley (whose recent appearance on Radio 4 can be found here) you assert that the ‘unit’ of psychological explanation can be nothing less than ‘the whole person’. Perhaps you’d like to begin by explaining to the uninitiated what you mean by a ‘unit’ in this instance, and what you think is at stake when neuroscientists identify that unit as the brain?
Dr Guy Saunders:
Hi Joe. Thanks for your comments and the opportunity the engage in this way. I hope the following begins to address the questions you put.
If I wish to carry out research on consciousness using supposedly ‘traditional’ scientific methods, it will be necessary to take ‘the person’ as the object of my enquiry. In traditional scientific research there needs to be a ‘unit’ of analysis in order to observe something in action, manipulate and measure it. I wouldn’t conceive of science or research on consciousness in this way – I believe the atomising of the world to be part of the problem – but I accept sometimes the need to offer alternatives to the traditional physical unit; hence suggesting ‘the person’ as an alternative to ‘the brain’.
Part of what it is to study ‘the person’ will include the person’s body and the person’s body necessarily includes the person’s brain. If we have to unitize the world, this stacking makes conceptual sense. But I believe that it is nonsensical (conceptually) to treat the brain as a unit that could stand in for the person: the part cannot stand in for the whole. The brain enables me to act as a person but the brain cannot by itself act as a person. Brains cannot interact, for example, only persons can do this.
I’ve just read ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury in which persons become the living embodiment of books. It is only because they no longer carry the physical books that the book-burning regime does not see them as a threat. A person can carry more than a physical book; they can carry the ideas conveyed within. They can do this privately, subjectively, personally and if or when the regime loses power, they can help to restore the cultural legacy that might have been wiped out forever had persons not acted in this way. A brain may enable a person to remember the words in the books, but it is only whole persons who can read. Reading is not merely the simple mechanics of speaking words aloud – it is a person’s acting freely to pick up or set down a particular text, the how-it-is-for-them to do it, the what-is-brought-to-a-text in terms of memories and reading history, and the wealth generated by their reflexive reading. These important features of a person’s reading are not given in their neuroscience.
You seem to adopt a suspicious stance toward the ‘traditional’ conception of science – especially where it concerns human beings! – and at the same time you appear to raise the tantalising prospect of an alternative method that does away with ‘atomisation’ in order to do justice to ‘the whole person’. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what this radical science might look like, but before that I’d just like to ask whether there isn’t there a great danger that your objections to neuroscience are only conceptual? In other words, if you don’t even conceive of science in the same way, how can you be sure you are not simply talking past neuroscientists on the topic of personhood (and vice-versa)? Are they really saying that persons are reducible to brains? Or are they innocuously assuming that the brain is a very important part of the whole, and then proceeding to uncover the neural-level mechanisms necessary (but not sufficient) for the human activities you list: interacting with other people, making decisions, reading reflexively and so on? I’m not sure the distinction between mechanically saying words and imaginatively responding to a book casts light on the debate – surely persons need their brains at every stage in the richer reading process you draw attention to? And so oughtn’t neuroscientists contribute to (if not close down) the attendant scientific discussions of such phenomena?
Dr Guy Saunders:
Regarding method, it is not my intention to advocate a single ‘alternative’ to traditional science; I am talking about the variety of methods that already exist in social psychology, the arts, mathematics and the humanities, among other fields of enquiry. I am not biased against any particular method; I think that the problem is the other way around. Some scientists are prejudiced against fruitful methods that fall outside their jurisdiction and expertise. Likewise, certain ideas about science preclude those methods that may in fact fit with less conventional ideas about what counts as ‘scientific’. This is one of the things that Mary Midgley is getting at in her essay ‘Against Humanism’:
The search for a “scientific explanation of consciousness” … still centres not on trying to be scientific in the sense of using suitable methods, but on making consciousness respectable by somehow bringing it within the range of physics and chemistry, mainly at present through neurobiology.
Note the distinction between ‘respectable’ and ‘suitable’ methods. When it is the observer and their subjective experience that is the object in question, neuroscience may not be the only suitable method and may not be a suitable method at all.
There is the case of the patient Scott Routley in the news currently that relates to the issue. The BBC News article is here. He is completely paralysed without, as far as I can tell, any voluntary muscle movement – but he has communicated that he is conscious via a brain scanning procedure. The doctors have asked him whether or not he is suffering any pain and he has answered: ‘No’. How did he answer? They asked him to imagine walking round his home for ‘Yes’, and playing tennis for ‘No’. The brain activity in this instance is being used as a form of code by both patient and neuroscientist in order to establish a means of communication (much as Morse code can be used to send messages to someone who knows the code). But I argue that it is Routley as a person – and not just his brain! – that is talking to his doctors. If it becomes possible for the means of communication to be more sophisticated then a full conversation might ensue (See also Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997) and the film ‘The Diving Bell and The Butterfly’ (2007), which put his story on screen).
Are neuroscience and its critics such as myself talking past each other? Yes, I think we are – and this comment has been made before by David Chalmers, for example. He has suggested that we keep the word ‘consciousness’ for subjective experience and use the term ‘awareness’ for the kinds of consciousness normally spoken of as if you can have it or not, lose it or not. Similarly, I believe we should reserve ‘person’ for the way the term is popularly used by people and avoid a kind of anthropomorphising of brain function. In this conception, ‘person’ includes our dealings with other people, our experiences of the past, our imagined futures, the times in which we live and our place in society. It is pointless and potentially inaccurate to try to pack into the brain features of the world that already have an accepted existence as part of the fabric of human society, culture, history. If we were to pack all aspects of human society into the brain, we would not have explained it, we would simply have moved the problem to a different location.
But I’d rather not play a defensive role here; it’s too easy for the person asking questions. This is meant to be a conversation, so I think it’s your turn. If you think that the brain is important to decision making, can you say how the brain does it? It is not sufficient to show correlative brain activity because the sight of the brain doing x during the decision making process would only be illustrative of a brain enabling a person to make a decision. If the brain is to be given some kind of independent causal role, this is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence and explanation. Can you explain how the brain doing x simply is the person doing x? How do brains interact with other brains? If they can, how do they get to be able to do this? Would anything prevent brains interacting with other brains? How do brains become the person that they are identified as being, given that it seems unlikely that such an identity exists at birth?
Thank you for the challenge, Guy! I’ll start by trying to answer the first of your questions. I take the rest to be illustrative of misunderstandings and deeper faultlines between our positions. I hope that the following serves to identify some of these, and to justify why I come down on the sides I do.
How does the brain make decisions? One type of answer that I have been finding increasingly persuasive is expressed by competitive or threshold-based theories. The following Horizon clip, featuring Bristol University’s Nigel Franks, is instructive:
Translating the lesson of the rock ants back into neuronal activity, we might speculate that when faced with two possibilities – should I cross the road, or hold back? – two camps of neurones will fire (one for each possibility). The sources of neural excitement feeding into either one of these camps will be things like sense data (the sights and sounds of the road), estimates about my ability to cover the requisite distance in the time available to me, tacit memories of prior crossings (perhaps I was almost hit by a car last time and will proceed with above average levels of caution), and a sense of the time pressures facing me (perhaps I am late for work, and will throw caution to the wind). At some point, the largest or most excitable of the two camps will win out – with the threshold for victory determined by the level of urgency – and a decision will be made, resulting in action.
Notice, here, that I do not wish to exclude the effects of a person’s surroundings, or their past, or their imagined futures from the process of decision-making. I reject the notion that neuroscience attributes to the brain ‘some kind of independent causal role’. To be truly ‘independent’ of one’s surroundings in space and time runs counter to the very notion of causality itself! Causes must themselves always be the effect of something else. I would submit that the brain is an important set of gears in a larger deterministic machine (i.e. the universe) – it is no magical ‘source’ of decisions.
But – you may well counter – if I’m willing to concede that persons make decisions based upon their senses, abilities, memories, and preferences, then what is to be gained by adding to this perfectly adequate list the qualification ‘but really the neurones did it’? On one level, not much. If you want to understand why I always hesitate when crossing the road outside my house you’d do better to ask me about my recent accident than to peer at my brain through an MRI scanner. But – and here’s the nub – I don’t think that’s the kind of explanation that neuroscience is at all interested in providing or competing over. And where individual neuroscientists care to differ, that is where I will depart from them. I think neuroscience achieves something rather different.
So what’s that then? To answer the question in a general way (I’ll come to the specifics in a moment), I’d like to take issue with your insistence that ‘the part cannot stand in for the whole’. I’d agree with you, superficially. But how often in science – or social science, or history, or engineering for that matter – is it necessary to focus our attentions on a particularly important constituent part? Are historians committing a catastrophic conceptual howler when they refer to ‘Stalin’s Five Year Plan’ when really the policy emerged from the ceaseless interaction of the entire body-politic, and not one man in isolation? Are architects embarrassing themselves when they admonish their protégées for turning in beautiful conceptual designs that fail to take account of the physical reality of what can actually be achieved using bricks? Did you know that the seemingly extravagant design of the human kidney (in which water must be directed all the time along concentration gradients) is an ornate work-around necessitated by the impossibility of a simple molecular H2O pump of the sort that works so well for other molecules? Sometimes the nature (and powers and limitations) of the parts play an integral role in the design and functioning of the whole. Sometimes it is the bricks that matter.
Specifically, then, I would submit that the nature of neurones explains not what decisions we make, but the mechanisms by which we make them – and that those mechanisms offer us some deep insight into our (whole) selves. The threshold-theory outlined above says something important – at least to me – about the fragmentary and confusing nature of being alive. I am not a unified entity so much as a battleground of competing influences. As I type – for instance – I can feel mounting hunger competing against my desire to finish this line of argument. Will some central authority keep the hunger at bay in the meantime so as to allow me to concentrate and thereby finish faster? That might seem like a good design solution, but no – the hunger will continue to nag, and nag, until it becomes unbearable and the threshold is reached. Neuroscience explains why this must be the case.
In your next response, Guy, perhaps you could let me know if you find this definition of neuroscience’s reach satisfying. And if so, I wonder if you might provide some examples of neuroscientific discourse explicitly breaching the parameters I identify – perhaps claiming that the brain is a source of human or societal phenomena, rather than an important mechanism embedded within those wider domains.
As for me, I’m off for a sandwich.
Dr Guy Saunders:
Just such an example of neuroscience identifying the brain as the ‘source’ of decisions can be found in the following clip. This is taken from another Horizon episode entitled ‘The Secret You’. It was broadcast in 2009 and presented by Marcus de Sautoy.
In the clip, the neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes and his team claim that
Up to six seconds before you make up your mind, we can predict what decision you’re going to make.
Except they can’t do this and I want to elaborate on why.
N.B. – Scroll to the bottom of this post for John Dylan Haynes’ response to our discussion.
Firstly, there is a severe case of ‘bait and switch’ going on here. We are sold the experiment on the basis that it can predict freely made conscious decisions: watch the entire set up as de Sautoy arrives and the way that the significance of what is to take place is ramped up. But wait a minute: the experimenters have reduced the freedom to act to a forced-choice experiment between physically pressing one of two buttons (left or right), and de Sautoy says nothing to draw attention to the substitution. Worse still, the experimenters ask de Sautoy to ‘randomly decide and then immediately press’ one of the buttons. Um… how do you ‘randomly decide’ to do anything? I wouldn’t know how and, I suggest, neither does de Sautoy and nor does John-Dylan Haynes.
The experiment is carried out and de Sautoy returns to get the results using a narrative device similar to being tested and receiving some kind of expert medical diagnosis. He gets told that his decision was foretold by patterns in his brain activity: certain regions get more active when you’re going to choose left or right. But there’s a contradiction here. At first, Haynes confirms de Sautoy’s suggestion that his ‘conscious decision’ was a very ‘secondary thing’ to the ‘actual’ brain activity observed six seconds earlier. But then, when de Sautoy proposes that this makes him a ‘hostage’ to his earlier brain activity, Haynes changes tack: de Sautoy is no hostage to his brain because his conscious decision making and his patterns of brain activity are two aspects of the ‘same thing’. So how can brain activity be said to predict conscious decision making when the two are not discretely different?
At other stages in the interview Haynes reverts back to a kind of dualism by differentiating between conscious brain activity and unconscious brain activity: we are told that ‘there’s a lot of unconscious brain activity that is shaping your decisions’ – but not to worry because ‘your unconscious is in harmony with your beliefs and desires’. What? In what sense is this ‘unconscious activity’? The kind of brain activity Haynes is discussing might more accurately be described as ‘non-conscious’ in that it has no more of a ‘say’ in what I do than that which makes my feet move when I’m about to play a shot in tennis.
There is also the issue of Haynes’ personal stake in the explanation – as a neuroscientist he of course wants to suggest that thoughts and decisions are the ‘same thing’ as the ‘physical processes’ in which he is interested. But there’s a problem here. If it’s all brain activity, Haynes hasn’t solved anything. He’s taken the problem indoors – that is, he’s moved the problem of decision making from the world of people into the world of brains, but he hasn’t stated how the brain makes decisions. Let Haynes repeat his experiment with his participants asked to make a more meaningful decision: ‘Click right to submit a plagiarised essay on your university course’ or ‘Click left to submit a document with the essay title only’. The physical action would remain the same but we would not expect to reduce the nature of such a decision to a mere engineering solution. The rock ants you described earlier are doing no more and no less than de Sautoy in his fixed choice experiment; but this only serves to confirm the level of engineering on offer. If we conflate forced choice, context-free, computational switching with the kind of decision making in the example of submitting an essay, we will fail to take account of the social, historical, cultural and economic factors acting on individuals over longer periods of time.
Ultimately I think John Dylan Haynes’ example belies a fundamental problem in our ideas of ‘existence’; of what counts as existing and how it is characterised. The popular view that all existence must be somehow ‘physical’ is, to my mind, a form of madness dressed up as a foregone conclusion. We are psychological, social, historical, cultural and political beings and physicalist explanations must therefore omit, misrepresent, or misconceive these kinds of existence. We each have our favoured viewpoints. Your metaphor of being a ‘battleground of competing influences’, for instance, says much about those explanations you’re likely to prefer. But if we work with others who do not share our beliefs, we may be forced to consider questions we would otherwise fail to address. We will need a collegiate way of inquiring if we are seriously to tackle issues such as ‘what it is to have subjective experience and to make free and conscious decisions’.
Thanks once again for this exchange, Guy! It’s been a fantastic exercise in clarifying my thinking on these topics. I’ll use my final reply to try to surmise where I’m at, but also to critique the dangers implicit in your suggestion that we must allow everyone their view when it comes to scientific theorising. I heartily agree that science must be ‘collegiate’, though I think we mean different things by it.
Firstly, regarding John Dylan Haynes, this is where we agree: you’ve persuaded me that by denying de Sautoy the opportunity to weigh up a decision based upon his desires, past experiences, and imagined futures, the experiment by its very design systematically excludes from its domain of study all those things we would normally consider conscious decision making to be. In fact, requiring de Sautoy to ‘randomly decide’ which button to press probably does leave him ‘hostage’ to those rather more mundane aspects of his brain function to which you refer to as ‘non-conscious’ – but only by coercing him to leave all the most interesting aspects of his consciousness at the door.
That said, I think your criticisms are overstated. If there’s to be one guiding principle that defines the collegiate approach to science I think that must be a commitment to understanding competing schools of thought on their own terms. That ought to prevent us wasting our time on purely semantic disagreements, and help us identify those genuine areas of controversy that require more attention. In that spirit, I’d like to point out that though John Dylan Haynes certainly over-inflates the importance of results (they say little about conscious decisions), this does not automatically invalidate their value or the methods by which they were achieved. The fact remains that his experiment is delivering a non-trivial prediction about which way his participants will swing – and that must mean he’s tracking something of importance in the brain. He’s certainly had to quiet down the majority of brain function in order to isolate this more modest mechanism – and he’d do well to recognise and acknowledge that – but to be fair I don’t think there’s any other methods available to him. Reductionism works by turning the volume down on all other factors, or holding them still, in order to get a handle on the role of a constituent part. This is entirely sensible in my view – just so long as you remember to bring all the other factors back in when you’re done; to put the world back together once you’ve finished breaking it down.
In light of this, I’m minded to reject your suggestion that holistic approaches could replace atomistic ones – I think the distinction between them is false, and perpetuated by a misconception of reductionist practice. I find the following analogy – courtesy of Richard Dawkins – a much more enlightened way to think about reductionism. Imagine, says Dawkins, that you have a recipe for a cake. It would be ludicrous to claim that any single word in the recipe could explain the whole cake, or even that a single word in the recipe could explain a single crumb of the cake. This is because you need the whole recipe, and the precise set of interactions it specifies, in order to explain the whole cake. However, if you did choose to focus your attention on a particular word in the recipe – for instance ‘tablespoon’ – there is a sense in which you might meaningfully claim that it was was responsible for a feature of the whole cake. Perhaps in context ‘tablespoon’ refers to a tablespoon of sugar, in which case you might say that that the word was a cause of the cake’s sweetness, for example.
This particular image was originally proposed by Dawkins as a clarification of his arguments regarding gene reductionism (in response to criticisms from Mary Midgley among others). Nevertheless, I think the point generalises to brain reductionism (and all other forms). What Dawkins demonstrates is that to pick out a unit in the world is not the same thing as saying that the unit acts in isolation. The claim is never that all else is irrelevant. Rather, reductionism rests on the idea that all else being equal the part makes an important difference to the whole (we can imagine, for instance, the effect that substituting the word ‘teaspoon’ for ‘tablespoon’ would have upon the sweetness of the cake). This is why I think your insistence that brains cannot be studied in isolation flies wide of the mark – I just don’t think that’s the aim of the game.
However, with all that said, I do hear your frustration regarding the prioritisation of ‘physicalist’ explanations over broader psychological, or social, or historical approaches. I don’t blame individual scientists for this so much as the psychology of our species – I think we’re inherently more comfortable dealing with that which may be kicked, poked at, or rendered visible by an MRI scanner. Thoughts, economies, cultures, histories – these seem somehow less real to us than actual physical stuff. I’ve read Midgley argue that we ought to accord ‘patterns’ as much respect as we accord ‘stuffs’ – and I think she’s on the right track, though I prefer the more comprehensive suggestion made by Dan Dennett in his paper ‘Real Patterns’ and developed by James Ladyman and Don Ross in their book ‘Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised’. These philosophers argue that patterns are all there is (or more precisely that a kind of ‘relational structure’ is all there is, and that multiple patterns may be used to capture aspects of that structure at different scales of space, time and accuracy). In this framework, actual physical stuff is simply the sort of pattern we humans have evolved to deal with in our everyday environment – and should have no greater claim to existence than those entities like quanta, or centers of gravity, or cultural trends invoked by scientists and social scientists to help us get a grip on phenomena too big, or too small, or too complicated for us to grasp with our evolved intuition alone. The only criterion by which a pattern ought to be judged ‘real’ (i.e. having a genuine grip on the world) is whether or not it enables us to make reliable predictions of the phenomena in which we’re interested. It is my feeling that a general recognition of this philosophy across the scientific establishment would go a very long way to promoting the even standing of the disciplines you’re arguing for – and without tipping into relativism.
And that’s a real danger, I think. I can see that you’re at least partly motivated to reject a physicalist science of persons on humanitarian grounds – if you describe a person as a thing, then that paves the way to treat them like a thing. This is a valid concern. But rejecting a science on the basis that it doesn’t conform to your politics – that’s also an extremely dangerous precedent to set in an era when tackling the most important humanitarian cause of our age – dangerous climate change – depends upon the majority accepting science at its word. It is not, in my view, an unproblematically wonderful thing to foster the ideology in which Every Person Has Their View. I’m genuinely worried that the academic culture of postmodernism has left generations of students with a vague entitlement to reject any part of science they just don’t like the look of. Teaching the philosophy of real patterns, meanwhile, would allow us the best of both worlds. We would be able to argue on a principled basis that people, beliefs, desires, intentions, societies and cultures are every bit as real as supposedly ‘physical’ things like brains, neurons, atoms or quarks. And we would be able to do this without throwing the traditional scientific principles of rigour, evidence and testability out of the window.
So where does this leave psychology and neuroscience, then? I would conceive of their relationship as akin to, say, molecular chemistry and evolutionary biology. Though both those sciences are necessary to describe biological life, they do so at vastly different scales of space and time and thereby achieve very different things. Nevertheless, their union – which allows scientists to relate evolutionary traits to the A, C, T and G of molecules on chromosomes – has been of vast scientific importance. With the comparison drawn as such I do not think there is any danger that neuroscience could ever replace psychology – but nevertheless I think it remains an open and interesting question as to the ways in which it might inform it.
UPDATE: Neuroscientist John Dylan Haynes responds to the discussion of his work:
That is quite enjoyable, thanks!
Actually, in the scientific papers I’ve written you will find a much more nuanced position (see attached paper). The media picture tends to be much more black and white than the actual science. Most importantly, I think now we need 20 years of research on “free decisions”, rather another swath of theory papers discussing the handful of available studies.
With best wishes,
FURTHER UPDATE: Philosopher James Ladyman offers the following comments:
Thanks for your message. This is really good stuff. My view roughly is that Guy Saunders has a point but it needs to be separated from the Midgley/Tallis/holistic axis. I very much enjoyed the way you did that and your analysis and argument was excellent in general I thought and I very much agree with your general line. On ‘Every Thing Must Go’ I would stress that they key to the way I think about the relation among the sciences is integration rather than reduction and strong emergence, but with some kind of asymmetry between fundamental physics and the rest.
Dr Saunders’ references and suggested further reading:
Bauby, Jean-Dominique (1997) The Diving-bell and the Butterfly (London: Fourth Estate).
Bennett, Max and Hacker, Peter (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (London: Blackwell).
Hofstadter, Douglas and Dennett, Daniel (1981) The Mind’s I (London: Penguin).
Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The (2007). Directed by Julian Schnabel (Pathé).
Gergen, Ken (1973) ‘Social Psychology as History’ in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 26, pp. 309-320.
Harré, Rom (1992) ‘What Is Real in Psychology: A Plea for Persons’ in Theory and Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 153-158.
Harré, Rom (1993) Social Being (Oxford: Blackwell).
Harré, Rom (1998) A Singular Self (London: Sage).
Harré, Rom (2000) ‘Social Construction and Consciousness’ in Max Velmans (ed.) Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness (Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company).
Harré, Rom and Gillett, Grant (1994) The Discursive Mind (London: Sage).
Midgley, Mary (2012), A reaction to Colin Blakemore on the Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 5 September 2012 – Available here.
Midgley, Mary (2010) ‘Against Humanism’ on the Rationalist Association website – Available here.
Rose, Hilary and Rose, Stephen (2001) Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (London: Vintage).
Dawkins, Richard (1981), ‘In Defence of Selfish Genes’ in Philosophy, Vol. 56, No. 218, pp. 556-573 – This is Dawkins’ hot-blooded but beautifully clear defence of The Selfish Gene in the wake of Mary Midgley’s criticisms. I came away with a renewed appreciation of the book’s logic. It is downloadable here.
Dennett, Dan (1991), ‘Real Patterns’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 88, No. 1, pp. 27-51 – Also downloadable from here.
Dennett, Dan (2009), What Does My Body Need Me For? – A speech made at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, downloadable as a podcast from here. This includes an excellent discussion of the advantages that competitive models of the brain may have in explaining phenomena like anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Ladyman, James & Ross, Don (2009), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised (Oxford: Oxford University Press) – An attempt to unify James Ladyman’s philosophy of fundamental physics according to which ‘structure is all there is’ and Don Ross’s account of the rich population of ‘things’ in the special sciences. The linchpin is Dan Dennett’s Real Patterns. The book is, however, extremely heavy duty, and can I can recommend Massimo Pigliucci’s online exegesis (parts one and two) as a good starting point.
Midgley, Mary (2003), The Myths We Live By (London: Routledge) – Available as a download from here. Includes the chapter ‘Thought Is Not Granular’ in which Midgley makes the distinction between ‘stuffs’ and ‘patterns’.
Robinson, EJH, Franks, NR, Ellis, S, Okuda, S & Marshall, JAR (2011) ‘A simple threshold rule is sufficient to explain sophisticated collective decision-making’ in PLoS ONE, Vol. 6, No. 5 – An academic reference for the Horizon clip featuring Nigel Franks and his rock ants.
Wilson, E. O. (1998) Consilience (New York: Knopf) – An inspiring survey of the state of the natural and social sciences, with a view to promoting fruitful cooperation between them. A good antidote to the suspicion that ‘physicalists’ such as Wilson wish to dominate the social sciences by reducing them back to biology and physics. Wilson advocates a spirit of collaboration.