Science and Sense
Tibor R. Machan
These days sciences multiply like rabbits. And in each broad field there
are sub-fields by the dozens, even hundreds. It?s difficult to keep up
with them, even if you, like I, subscribe to a few magazines that report
the latest news from most of the disciplines. (I read Science News and
used to read The Sciences until recently it was discontinued.) I ran
across a report from England about the new scientific study of happiness
and that reminded me of a professor of psychology, David Lykken of the
University of Minnesota, who is working on how happiness ?really works.?
And then there is a scholarly publication, The International Journal of
Happiness Studies. Some of these folks are assuring us that being happy
doesn?t make you, well, very happy after all. This is what Professor Lord
Layard is telling us?what makes us happy, in fact, is to see that others
aren?t too much happier than we are. So another science is in the offing!
But I am suspicious about whether these fields really can claim to be
sciences, if by ?science? one means a rigorous, systematic study of some
aspect of reality, one that can be replicated and tested by any reasonable
person. And my suspicion was reinforced recently as I was in US World &
News, in the Health & Medicine department, a piece titled ?Mysteries of
Here is the sentence that gave me pause, a quote from University of
Wisconsin neuroscientist Paul Whelan: "Most of what we do every minute of
every day is unconscious?.Life would be chaos if everything were on the
forefront of our consciousness." This is supposed to be a conclusion drawn
from a scientific study.
But just consider the claim for a moment. It is one that everyone can
double check since it is supposed to be true of us all and pertains to
something we can all do easily enough, check what goes on with our minds
and how it relates to what we do. Is it really true that ?most of what we
do every minute of every day is unconscious?? I made a survey of my own
doings and here is what I did just a few minutes ago. I got out of car and
locked it up after getting out the mail from the passenger seat. I walked
up the front steps and unlocked my door, checked my answering machine, put
the mail on the dining room table, opened some of it and threw the
envelops from them into the trash. Then I came to my computer and checked
my email, answered a few posts, after which I wrote a letter to someone
and addressed an envelop to the person, made some copies of some bills and
stuffed it into the envelop with the letter, sealed it, put a stamp and
return address sticker on it and put it to take to the Post Office next
time I drive by it. Then I remembered reading the piece from US World &
News Report when I was on tread mill at the gym and looked it up on the
magazine?s web site and began writing this piece.
I think I am being fair and accurate it recounting my doings within
several of the minutes during which most of what I am supposed to be doing
is being done unconsciously. But none of what I did was done
unconsciously, quite the opposite. And I even remember it all. So where
the beef here? Perhaps the good professor means by ?doing? something
different from what the word means in ordinary language. Or maybe he means
not ?unconscious? but ?unselfconscious.?
My breathing, of course, is going on unconsciously, as is the circulation
of my blood. Even some of the scratching I do when my head or ear itches
might accurately be considered a kind of unconscious doing, although if I
pay attention I can make note of it, so it can easily be called to
consciousness. I look around with my eyes a lot, from the keyboard to the
monitor of the computer, sometimes at the mountains outside my window
(which I can see now that the rains have subsided). I am not fully aware
of all these doings?or rather, I do not monitor myself and make note of
them, but they aren?t unconscious either. They are done unselfconsciously,
though, since I do not think about doing them.
Consider that when you drive much of what you do you pay scant attention
to, yet if you were to run into someone, you would be held responsible.
But why, if most of the stuff you do is done unconsciously? No one can be
held responsible for unconscious doings?they are not really doings,
actions or conduct at all but mere happenings.
OK, point made. This statement by a scientist just doesn?t pass muster,
however well educated the bloke may be. At least he spoke carelessly.
Perhaps he was even misquoted, but that would be a serious journalistic
faux pax, not to be expected from US World & News Report. Assuming then
that the report is good and neuroscientist Paul Whelan said what I read,
how come it is so far off?
I don?t know. Maybe he wanted to get quoted with something outlandish?not
all scientists are above being tempted by trying to get publicity through
overstatement?it can bring grants and issue in promotions. But most of
them would not, I assume, sacrifice their integrity for the sake of this.
So go figure.
In any case, it is best to be cautious, so whenever one can check out for
oneself whether a claim issued by a specialist like this fellow Whelan is
true, it pays, I think to do the test for oneself. In this case Professor
Machan is R. C. Hoiles Professor of business ethics at Chapman University,
Orange, CA. He is research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises
Freedom Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues.