Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Epistemology of Magnetic Resource Imaging, or, the Futility of Empiricism

The plausibility of the idea that the brain has different sections which serve different functions, as well as the objectivity of how these sections are to be referred to, are questionable matters. First of all, science is defined as “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation” (; emphasis mine). The plain truth of the matter is that nobody has actually seen a functioning brain in itself. The closest humans have come to achieving such observation is through technology such as magnetic resource imaging (MRI). But the results these scanners render are not true access to the brains themselves; they are mere images. This is not some abstract, philosophic notion that has no practical utility, as some scientists themselves have affirmed this attitude. To substantiate this claim, I would like to provide a quotation from neuroradiologist Mario Mastroianis: “The images pretend a precision and objectivity which is not really there” (Burri 375; emphasis mine).

Moreover, whose observation counts in obtaining scientific knowledge? It seems to me that there are two main types of actants who can achieve such observation in the first place: laypersons and the scientists themselves. Considering techniques which attempt to understand the brain, whether that is through MRI scans or otherwise, it is the scientists who have access to these methods, not laypersons. With this observation, the question becomes one of whose narrative is more trustworthy: that of personal experience and accumulation of information or secondary information and interpretation of that information. If personal experience is more trustworthy (i.e. empiricism), this is of course problematic for laypersons because such people probably do not have the time or resources to practice science ‘properly,’ at least, to the standards of the scientific community at large. For scientists, however, this is not a problem because they are the ones publishing the accounts of their practices and observations, and are the ones who the laypersons are told to trust. This is to say that laypersons are on the receiving end of the second narrative I mentioned, meaning that laypersons receive secondary information and must interpret that information as laypersons. This means that laypersons are not using empiricist methods to understand phenomena that are meant to be understood empirically. In the case of what a patient is told about their brain, they do not get to see it for themselves, and based on Mastroianis’ quotation, neither do scientists. Another problem is that scientists have paradigms by which their thought collectives interpret and explain their findings. Unless a layperson has a penchant for autonomous study, chances are high that their interpretations of scientific information do not meet the standards of the scientific community.

APPENDIX: I don't know if that word, 'appendix,' actually applies here because this is certainly not a book, but anyway, this is a section from my Fringes and Folkways paper that I've mentioned on here at least once or twice before. I posted some other parts from the paper here, and here, and ... here. More to the point, in this piece I am not arguing for some anti-science or anti-healthcare attitude, though I understand it may read like that, unfortunately. Rather, this is a questioning of taken for granted assumptions about technology, and an exposé of some of the problems that empiricism suffers. Under empiricism, as I have outlined it in relation to technology and healthcare, there is neither sufficient evidence to trust ones judgments about their own health nor to trust that of a medical professional, both of which I think many of us would agree are dangerous. Also, appendix is a pretty apropos term for a short article about a health-related topic!

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