On "Thick Description"

Mon, 10 Jan 1994 10:46:00 PST

McCreery writes (12/15):
"... most anthropologist proceed instead by assuming "meaning" in what their
informants do and say. .... Where then is meaning located? The
"mentalist" view says that it's place is inside human minds, but if
minds are distinct from behavior, then how do we get from one to
another. Now we're caught on the other horn of Cartesian dualism....The
problem ...is that we don't have the same
kind of clearly defined criteria for assessing attributions of meaning that
we have for evaluating experiments or rejecting the null hypothesis when
we've done the statistical sampling right. Developing those criteria? Now
that's an interesing problem."

Our brains have the capacity to evaluate sensory inputs
(sounce, visual, etc.) in a way that allows constructs to be
built up from sensory input that are not inherent in the form of the input;
e.g., we see objects, hear coherent sounds etc. We share this capacity with
other animals. We also have the capacity to process these constructs at a
qualitatively more complex level that we associate with language, meaning,
etc. How our brain is capable of doing this is unknown. Either it IS a
capcaity of the brain itself (hence dualism is false) or it comes from
without, which is the essence of the dualist position as I understand it.
The dualist position thus begins by positing a property ("the mind") that is
not part of the physical universe, hence outside of scientific inquiry. Thus
a fundamental bifurcation is: Whether we understand how the brain operates or
not, are the properties that we associate with "mind" merely phenomena (or
epiphenomena) of the brain, or does it require the brain plus something more?
In StarTrek, Data has all of the mental capacity of humans, but lacks
emotion--which is anotehr way of saying that we are more than the mental
capacity of our brains. But is that the case? If we accept the proposition
that we are the product of evolution as a natural process, then the dualist
position is thereby rejected and whatever it is that we can do, it is the
product of our brain, hence potentially understandable. McCreery correctly
points to both the issue of what constitutes meaning and how do we assess any
putative claim that we have correctly assessed the "meaning" of any
particular instance as central issues. Perhaps our brain does operate in a
manner too complex for us to understand; perhaps not. In either case,
greater understanding will not arise through rejection of scientific
methodology understood as a system of argumentation following certain canons
for the acceptance of claims as have veracity.

D. Read