Describing the invisible. On the limits of empirical research

Essay 2013 33 Pages

Psychology - Methods


Describing the Invisible

On the limits of empirical research

What is my cat thinking? …

Yes, what is she thinking? Does she think at all? Does she have emotions? Does she daydream from time to time? Does she like me or does she only see me as an automaton that feeds her? (It makes no difference whether you prefer to think about your dog, your guinea pig, or some other kind of animal – the important thing is to think!)

Does a bird plan the construction of its nest? Or does it merely obey “blind instincts”? (Whatever that may be?) Does my cat think about what she might do next? Can she choose “freely” whether to visit the tomcat next door or whether to go hunting for mice?

Why don't we know these things? Why are “scientists” unable to provide definite answers to all these questions?

Let’s assume you’re interested in such questions – what could you do to find an “answer”?

Well, you could do precisely what “scientists” do – first, you could make detailed observations. Let’s say you observe your animal during the day and at night, recording each of its movements. You train your microscope and your binoculars on it, and eventually you even put wires into its head to measure “electrical potential” or place it under a CT scanner.

In short, you observe and measure everything and anything that can be observed and measured until, for the sake of argument, you know everything that can be “known” about your cat (or your dog, etc.). Yet –

– you still don't know whether or not your cat “dreams”, what she is “thinking” about or whether she “thinks” at all.

But why not???

…and what are other humans thinking?

Well, we normally don't really care what cats are “thinking”. We will therefore leave our cat alone and focus our attention on another living creature – “human beings”, our “kin”, our “partners”. Here too we are confronted with the same problem from time to time. What do we know about this person?

What is he thinking? And does he think at all? Does he have emotions and, if so, which ones? Does he daydream from time to time? Does he like me or does he only see me as a “feeding device”?

Maybe you have asked yourself on some occasion what “psychologists” or “neuroscientists” actually do. Well, they too are driven by the mystery of how humans “function” – by whether they think or dream, whether they have desires and emotions and, above all, which ones.

Of course, we can “do research” on human beings in the same way we do research on dogs, cats, trees or stones. We can observe and measure everything and anything that can be observed and measured.

However – following this approach, we will never find out more about human beings than we can find out about dogs, cats, trees and stones.

But as “objects of research” humans have one “apparent” advantage over other living creatures:

…they possess speech.

However, if you thought that this makes things significantly easier, that the power of speech would drastically simplify our work because one can simply interrogate humans as “objects of research” – then you would be wrong. On the contrary: the fact that the “object of research” “possesses speech” makes the whole enterprise all the more complicated (from a “scientific perspective”).

But for now let's just ask ourselves why we are inclined to assume that we could find out things about other humans that we may well never find out about our cat? How come we believe that we know something about other humans that we couldn't know about our cat? Is there something that we can observe in the case of humans that we can't observe with respect to other “objects”?

Not at all! There is nothing that we can “observe” when it comes to humans that we couldn't likewise observe in a cat, a dog or a mouse. For “scientists” humans are an “observable object” like other “observable objects” such as a stone, a tree or, as the case may be, a cat.

And – whether or not an object is experiencing an emotion, thinking or dreaming – these are after all not observable properties.

Does a stone experience emotions – or does it not – how are you going to ascertain this either way?

We take it for granted that stones don't feel anything. And if you were to ask a physicist not to let the balls in his experiment collide with so much force, reasoning that this inflicts pain on them – you would be well advised to stay away from his seminar in future.

Although …

Hopefully the thought that human beings are merely “objects” like other objects will not only make your hair stand on edge – as it does for me. This assertion may be “logically” correct…

… BUT …

I want to occupy myself, and hence you, with this “BUT” in the remaining pages of this short booklet.

The meaning of the word

To begin with, I think the assertion that the possession of “speech” does not at all simplify “research” into human beings calls for justification.

Now – what does this strange “ability to speak” consist in “objectively”?

It is undeniably the case that humans can “produce noises” – like steel balls do when they collide! Dogs “bark”, cats “meow”, babies “cry” – but – is this their way of “speaking” to us?

You will admit that the mere production of noises is insufficient – we should also be able to say what the noises “mean”, we should be able to “understand” the noises.

But how do “noises” and “sounds” acquire their “meaning”?

When the door to your cellar is squeaking, does this noise have “meaning”?

Well, it is possible that you know exactly how the squeaking is “generated” (You haven't lubricated the door for some time and consequently metal is grating on metal). Hence you know the “cause” of the “noise” – but is the “cause” also its “meaning”? Is the squeaking of the door a “word”?

No – you would hardly assume that the squeaking of the door is a form of “linguistic communication” – along the lines of “Ouch! That hurts! Please come and lubricate me!”

Hence even knowing the “source”, the (original) “cause” of a noise does not imply that the noise becomes a “word”. The crying of our baby remains noise even if we interpret it, probably “correctly”, as an expression of discomfort.

On the other hand, we don't regard those “noises” that humans make when “speaking” as a sign that their vocal cords are working – on the contrary we are not interested in the “cause” of the “speech noises”.

What, then, confers “meaning” on a “noise”, what turns a noise into a “word”?

Is there an “observable”, an “objective” difference between the “squeaking of a door” and the “vibrations of our vocal cords”? After some thinking you will probably conclude yourself that there is no such difference! You can train the most sophisticated instruments on both noises – and you will invariably only find differences that also exist between any other noises. The “splash” of water differs from the “squeaking” of the door – nevertheless both noises aren't “words”. For all the “research” you do on “noises”, you won't be able to find any “qualitative” differences between words and noises.

In a nutshell, there is no “observable”, no “measurable” difference between a “noise” and a “word”. The “meaning” of a “noise” is not “observable”, nor does it exist “objectively”. “Words” don't carry their “meaning” about with them, their “meaning” can't be “seen in” them, it can't be “taken out” of them. (Learning a “foreign language” would be a great deal easier if that were the case.)

How then do I know whether something is a “word” – or “merely” a “noise”? How do I distinguish one from the other? If a noise “objectively” does not have a meaning but, in the best case, holds clues about its cause – then meaning must necessarily be something “subjective”, something that I add to the noise, as it were.

And – indeed – it is our archetypal “achievement” to make sense of a “noise” as a “word”, to bestow an “objective” noise with “subjective” meaning.

You yourself “make” something of a “noise”…

You yourself “bestow” it with a “meaning”…

YOUR “meaning”.

Thus it is possible that you bestow the “noise” with “your meaning”, that somebody else attributes “their meaning” to the “noise”, and that a third party finally attributes “no significance at all” to the noise.

However, as long as I don't “bestow” a noise with “meaning”, then I don't make sense of it as a “word”. If I haven't yet given “meaning” to a “noise”, then I don't understand it, then it is literally “meaningless” for me, it is not a “word” in my language.

That sounds complicated – and indeed it is!

It is complicated above all because when we learn to speak we don't sit down to ponder what “meaning” to give to the noise “mama” that our mum keeps on uttering.

No, in our early days the “meaning” of “words” just falls into our lap, loosely speaking – we have no idea how this happens. And when we later – usually this happens much later – achieve something like “consciousness”, when we begin to think about the “meaning” of “words” – then we have long mastered our “mother tongue” and just “know” the “meaning” of the words.

Until we discover one day that actually nobody “really understands” us! And that we, too, don't “understand” many a thing, that we ask ourselves from time to time “what” “the others” are actually talking about.

Even though they still “somehow” speak “my language”!

Do they really speak “my language”?

I spy with my little eye…

Factually we can only “observe” that particular groups of human beings generate “similar” noises. (Experts grappling with the problem of automatic speech recognition can demonstrate without difficulty that these apparently “similar” noises are nevertheless “objectively” very different!)

As we have just established, the “similarity” of these “noises” is not the only the thing that matters – the decisive question that needs answering is whether the “same meaning” is given to these “noises” by all human beings.

However, whether humans that generate “similar” noises also associate “the same” or at least “similar” meanings with these noises cannot be determined “by observation”, that is to say, “empirically”.

For we can't “see” the “meaning” of words!

Pardon me???

If I say “tomato” – then…

…then it is possible to…


…one can “see” tomatoes…


…one can't “see”…

…your “mental image” of a “tomato”.

It is undeniable that we can talk “about” tomatoes when there is no tomato to be “seen” far and wide – our “mental image” of a tomato then takes the place of the “real” tomato – but…

…”imagined” tomatoes are not “visible” after all!

Mental images can only be “seen” by the person who “experiences” them. But the mental images of other people remain concealed from us, they are not “observable”, and they are therefore not accessible for a science founded on observation.

When we make “spoken utterances” part of our research we always “observe” our own mental images, never those of others!

In my mental images, fantasies, wishes and dreams I really “see” something that someone else doesn't see, and that someone else can't see. And I can try to provide “verbal” reports of these experiences – but someone else needs to be a speaker of “my language” in order to understand these “reports”.

– A catch 22???

Not at all – the words that I am stringing together here are an attempt to communicate with you! And of course I don't know what mental images you will form as a consequence of “my words”, what specific effect my words have in your head. I don't know which statements you will “assent” to, which don't tell you “anything” and which you deem to be “nonsense” or simply “false”.

In this way, every attempted “communication” also is a process of “experimentation”, an experiment with “words” that presumes, as it were, from the outset that which remains to be achieved: a “shared language”.

But – there is no other option – when we are speaking we must always take it for granted in advance that the other one understands us and that we will understand him…

…even if we don't know whether this is always the case.

We have to “believe” that the other will give the meaning to words (or at least can do so!) that we give to them, even when we can neither “see” this, nor prove it in a “scientific sense”.

Without this belief, every attempt to “communicate”, to “understand” one another, is doomed.

And in that case I could also attempt to communicate with my cat.



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Title: Describing the invisible. On the limits of empirical research