About Science, and About Categories and Binaries

20 November 2018 Comments Off on About Science, and About Categories and Binaries

BY ŞEBNEM TÜRE (PSYC/II) sebnem.ture@ug.bilkent.edu.tr

I do not see it according to its exterior envelope; I live it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is around me, not in front of me.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”

“Is psychology a science?” This is the question most frequently asked to a psychology student – or at least to one of them. Let’s try to answer it here, one more time.

First, the answer is going to depend on the way we define the word science. Is it defined by the subject matter that we study, by a particular set of subjects, or maybe by a particular use of an experimental apparatus? It shouldn’t be. Does it matter that we study blood samples, sodium ions or something else? Can’t a study be unscientific even though it investigates the “appropriate” subject matter that we commonly delegate to the “science” we commonly define?

Science is and should be defined as a way of studying something. It’s a way of studying systematically, and therefore is different than simply believing in things. It’s a way of replicating or falsifying some previously gained knowledge, of searching for new things and declaring that we know something.

Here comes the second question: “But then why isn’t psychology in university science faculties?”

I believe what produces this question is today’s common definition of science itself, or, I might say, a kind of overly scientific approach to perceiving the universe: one that constantly controls, penetrates and tries to group things.

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty criticizes this concept in his essay “Eye and Mind,” pointing to a “Self” within the universe and showing us the connections of our consciousness through the extensions of our body and mind. To at least slightly understand this (it’s a pretty difficult text, I’d agree), we should first look at how an empirical observation is made in science. This is done, Merleau-Ponty contends, only by separating the Self from the perceived object. It’s a way of looking from above as an observer, of not getting involved with the examined objects, and also of examining them piece by piece, not allowing the objects to get involved in the spectrum of connections they naturally have.

The spectrum of connections; a spectrum, ruling out categories. Merleau-Ponty underlines this connectedness by merging the subject–object relationship, using the example of the “seeing–visible”: the body that senses while it is sensed. It basically means that we can see ourselves as a body through the image we see in the mirror, connoting a way of simultaneously looking and being looked at. This is a strong irony, the “undividedness of the sensing and the sensed,” considering then that if the observer cannot possibly divide the simultaneous actions of perceiving, s/he is actually not looking from a separate ground. S/he is “with” the objects, joining in a continuous existence. If “the visible world and the world of my motor projects are each total parts of the same Being,” then “the world is made of the same stuff as the body,” Merleau-Ponty says.

Seeing the Self as a part of one Being that envelops and diffuses its meaning throughout the universe requires us to look not with an intention to model things, not with that kind of a scientific approach, but rather with an artistic approach. Merleau-Ponty declares that grasping the full image of the universe is done in only one step, not by forcing it as science does, but by suspending the moments like a painter. Here, I think that art in the usual sense is not necessary as long as we can capture a moment, give birth to a moment without taking a side – that this is what Merleau-Ponty means by art. He believes that science, on the other hand, is unlikely to allow things to just be. It controls and categorizes them by means of the tree-like models it forces upon objects. Let’s make it clear here that he is not at all opposed to science in general; he believes that it is a “necessity to go further on” and appreciates the actual claims of classical science, which looks at things with curiosity rather than seeing them as data to collect.

What he criticizes is a Cartesian approach to scientific thinking that separates the consciousness into mind and body, and uses methods of analysis that see the world as a set of objects that act upon and react to one another. I believe our starting question, “Is psychology a science, and if so why isn’t it in the science faculty?” goes back to this still-common Cartesian approach, because we define everything as a set of objects and expect that there will be reactions from those objects for a scientist to observe if he wants to explore the universe. But humans don’t produce the same kind of reaction as cesium and water, do they? This question shows us that although we’re likely to group all of nature into categories that can be perceived with an objective approach, we still have problems really “objectifying” human beings. Therefore, we have problems defining psychology as an objective science.

After all this philosophy, let’s finally look at other problems that grouping the universe creates by looking at examples from everyday life. I’ve already mentioned departments and faculties, so to elaborate on this idea, I should mention the current popularity of the interdisciplinary approach. We don’t see separate groups of scholars studying separate areas anymore; instead, we see them working together. At Bilkent, every faculty includes academicians from different fields; and yes, there are people in academia who studied physics but teach in psychology departments.

Turning to a very different kind of example, have you heard of the queer movement? Thousands of people don’t feel they fit into the mold of a single gender, and therefore choose to use an umbrella term, “genderqueer.” Genderqueer is non-binary, not categorical, allowing people to see themselves in a fluid form apart from structures and norms, as moving between genders or having a fluctuating gender identity – basically refusing to use a tree-like model, refusing to be defined as simply one of the branches.

Let’s move on to politics, and look at elections. Haven’t you ever felt that you didn’t fully agree with either team A or team B, but instead had ideas that were somewhere in between? So then, which way should you vote?

And then we come to health care. Many patients who struggle to get effective treatment are in that situation because their diagnoses are made using strict classifications of illnesses. In particular, patients with mental problems such as schizophrenia are forced into one category or another because we use human-made classification manuals to define what their problems are.

The world is a place of chaos, of noise. Yet it is beautiful if we let ourselves hear the differences, try to understand them, become immersed in them. Modeling helps us make sense of things in our daily lives, and serves as a tool for scientists in their work, but this approach shouldn’t go too far and turn into the way that we look at everything. The beauty and diversity of the world is sometimes too hard to model.