The title of this post is a sub-heading in the final chapter of Robert Burton's "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves."
Burton cautions against taking neuroscientific claims about how the human brain/mind works too seriously when they aren't backed up by solid evidence. Yet even when they are, he reminds us that our interpretation of evidence is guided by processes in the very brain/mind we're trying to understand.
Naturally this applies to religious, mystical, spiritual, and philosophical claims equally, if not more so. Just because we feel like we can stand outside of our own mind and look upon ourselves objectively doesn't mean this is possible.
When reading any neuroscientific claim about the mind, remember:
• All thoughts about and studies of the mind are guided by involuntary brain mechanisms that collectively generate an illusory sense of a personal, unique self capable of willful, unbiased exploration of how a brain creates a mind.
• Taking into consideration how these involuntary mental states create our sense of a mind is a necessary first step to any real, albeit partial, understanding of what a mind might be.
• Failure to acknowledge the biologically imposed limits on a mind examining itself will only result in further neuroscientific excesses.
What he is saying is simple, but difficult to take to heart. Intellectually we can realize that our own mind is conditioned to look upon reality in certain ways, ways that are beyond our ability to control.
However, that realization doesn't change how we experience reality. For example, the Müller-Lyer illusion fools us into believing that the lines are different lengths. But actually they are the same length.
Accurate conceptual knowledge doesn't affect inaccurate experiential perception. Here's how Burton describes the situation.
If I were asked to distill this book into a single message, I would say that all of us -- neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and lay readers -- should be constantly aware of the essential paradox that drives all investigations of the mind.
The mind exists in two different dimensions -- as felt experience and as abstract concept. The unavoidable takeaway is that a constellation of involuntary mental sensations play a critical role in how we think about what a mind "is" and "does."
It is the human condition to experience a largely involuntarily generated mind that feels quite strongly that it can rationally explain itself. This paradox is unavoidable and not amenable to better science or new technologies.
Though we can and should work hard to refine our thoughts, there will always be limits. Ironically, even if there were to be an absolute last word on the nature of the mind, we wouldn't recognize it unless we all thought the same way -- and that's a physiological impossibility.
...Not one of us, not the smartest or cleverest or most profound neuroscientist, philosopher, or observer of mankind, has the final word.
Each of us is weaving stories, not uncovering absolute truths. The mind is and will always be a mystery. For the neuroscientist, a humble acknowledgement of the limits of inquiry should be the first step in the study of the mind.
Again, not just for neuroscientists. For everybody.
Especially religious believers who wrongly believe that their beliefs reflect objective reality, rather than how their mind experiences things.
Here's how Burton ends his book.
The operating credo of neuroscience should be a rigorous adherence to scientific method coupled with the recognition that the study of the mind is a data-based art form, not another branch of the basic sciences.
Humility, reverence, and respect for the unknowable should be the default mind-set when contemplating great mystery, and there is nothing more mysterious than a mind contemplating itself.