Objectifying Phineas Gage

From time to time in my cultural and apologetic writings I will criticize scientism, the belief that the physical sciences provide all of the meaningful knowledge in the world (a variation of positivism), as well as the parasciences and pseudosciences known by various “social science” names. Often the dismissal is quick and witty, perhaps to a fault, and so it is worthwhile occasionally to spell out the problems with such a method. The first thing that we should say is that it is in no one’s interest to dismiss the true findings of science or to deny that science is a powerful means of acquiring knowledge. To do so would simply be stubborn and superstitious. The point, rather, is to demonstrate that science is necessarily limited. It makes observations and predictions, though the predictions often leave the realm of the strictly scientific. This is all well and good on its own, a valuable means of learning and of forming the mind. And this really is what the best scientists all admit. Science operates within these boundaries by design.

What science should not do is attempt to construct metanarratives. Or rather, as soon as science begins to construct metanarratives it ceases to be “science” in the modern sense of the term. It becomes philosophy, literature, or religion. And as anyone who has met me well knows, I am a big fan of philosophy, literature, and religion. I think they are fundamental to all true wisdom. So I don’t say that science shouldn’t do this work because I don’t think such work should be done. I most emphatically do! It’s just that in doing this work, science invariably cheats. It ceases to operate on a strictly observational and test-confirmation methodology, and it begins to add in other considerations which are outside its strict bounds. It does so, however, all while still using the nomenclature of “science” to claim an objective point of view and the rhetorical authority which is currently granted to such.

It is also the case that when science attempts to engage in the humanities it does a much poorer job than the humanities can do. It fails to ask relevant questions, it refuses to incorporate traditional wisdom, and it tends to deal in flat categories with static characters. Instead of persons, it sees instantiations of physics. It is, to say the least, unimaginative. You get worse stories, and the problem is compounded by the logical and moral offenses, typically the ipse dixitpetitio principii, and other forms of intellectual coercion.

Marilynne Robinson, in her 2010 work Absence of Mind, provides an adroit and impassioned illustration of this problem as she breaks down the infamous case of Phineas Gage:

For example, consider poor Phineas Gage, the railroad worker famous for the accident he suffered and survived more than 150 years ago, an explosion that sent a large iron rod through his skull. Wilson, Pinker, Gazzaniga, and Antonio Damasio all tell this tale to illustrate the point that aspects of behavior we might think of as character or personality are localized in a specific region of the brain, a fact that, by their lights, somehow compromises the idea of individual character and undermines the notion that our amiable traits are intrinsic to our nature.

Very little is really known about Phineas Gage. The lore that surrounds him in parascientific contexts is based on a few anecdotes of uncertain provenance, to the effect that he recovered without significant damage– except to his social skills. Gazzaniga says, “He was reported the next day by the local paper to be pain free.” Now, considered that his upper jaw was shattered and he had lost an eye, and that it was 1848, if he was indeed pain free, this should surely suggest damage to the brain. But, together with his rational and coherent speech minutes after the accident, it is taken to suggest instead that somehow his brain escaped injury, except to those parts of the cerebral cortex that had, till then, kept him from being “‘fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane.'” He was twenty-five at the time of the accident. Did he have dependents? Did he have hopes? These questions seem to me of more than novelistic interest in understanding the rage and confusion that emerged in him as he recovered.

How oddly stereotyped this anecdote is through any number of tellings. It is as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge sputtering expletives if our frontal lobes weren’t there to restrain him. If any kind of language is human and cultural, it is surely gross profanity, and, after that, irreverence, which must have reverence as a foil to mean anything at all. If to Victorians this behavior seemed like the emergence of an inner savage, this is understandable enough. But from our vantage, the fact that Gage was suddenly disfigured and half-blind, that he suffered a prolonged infection of the brain, and that “it took much longer to recover his stamina,” according to Gazzaniga, might account for some of the profanity, which, after all, culture and language have prepared for such occasions. But for the part of Gage’s brain where damage is assumed by modern writers to have been localized is believed to be the seat of the emotions. Therefore –the logic here is unclear to me– his swearing and reviling the heavens could not mean what it means when the rest of us do it. Damasio gives extensive attention to Gage, offering the standard interpretation of the reported change in his character. He cites at some length the case of a “modern Phineas Gage,” a patient, who, while intellectually undamaged, lost “his ability to choose the most advantageous course of action.” Gage himself behaved “dismally” in his compromised ability “to plan for the future, to conduct himself according to the social rules he previously had learned, and to decide on the course of action that ultimately would be most advantageous to his survival.” The same could certainly be said as well of Captain Ahab. So perhaps Melville meant to propose that the organ of veneration was located in the leg. My point being that another proper context for the interpretation of Phineas Gage might be others who have suffered gross insult to the body, especially those who have been disfigured by it. And in justice to Gage, the touching fact is that he was employed continually until his final illness. No one considers what might have been the reaction of other people to him when his moving from job to job –his only sin besides cursing and irritability– attracts learned disapprobation.

I trouble the dust of poor Phineas Gage to make  the point that in these recountings of his afflictions there is no sense at all that he was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate. In the absence of an acknowledgment of his subjectivity, his reaction to this disaster is treated as indicating damage to the cerebral machinery, not to his prospects, or his faith, or his self-love. It is as if in telling the tale the writers participate in the absence of compassionate imagination, of benevolence, that they posit for their kind. And there is another point as well. This anecdote is far too important to these statements about the mind, and about human nature. It ought not to be the center of any argument about so important a question as the basis of human nature. It is too remote in time, too phrenological in its initial descriptions, too likely to be contaminated by sensationalism, to have any weight as evidence. Are we really to believe that Gage was not in pain during those thirteen years until his death? How did that terrible exit wound in his skull resolve? No conclusion can be drawn, except that in 1848 a man reacted to severe physical trauma more or less as a man living in 2009 might be expected to do. The stereotyped appearance of this anecdote, the particulars it includes and those whose absence it passes over, and the conclusion that is drawn from it are a perfect demonstration of the difference  between parascientific thinking and actual science. (47-50)

I should add that I attended public schools from elementary through my undergrad, and I was taught the common version of the Phineas Gage story three times. It came up once in psychology, once in A&P, and once, funnily enough, in shop class. Of those three occasions, only the shop teacher ever presented the human element to the story.

5 thoughts on “Objectifying Phineas Gage

  1. Not necessarily. It depends on the context. In most cases, however, you will get a certain sort of education, one lacking in the classics and (obviously) in Christian philosophy. Christian schools are only rarely better, though, and so parents will have to spend a good amount of time supplementing and even de-educating at times.

    My ideal world has every child in a classical Christian day school, but that’s fantasy land for many.

  2. “It ceases to operate on a strictly observational and test-confirmation methodology”

    Science, even in the modern sense, cannot operate upon strict observation, but perhaps that’s your point.

  3. Steven, thanks. That’s a fantasy land for me, but I fear my kids are behind where God wants them because they will be in lesser schools for the most part. Though I do have one child in a superb non-classical Xian school.

  4. Here is a recent look into the reality of what claims about Phineas Gage are largely conjecture, and the limits of what we can realistically state about his case. There is some look at the end, however, into what effects similar lesions in the modern age have had on the kind of questions you consider outside the realm of science. To me, the authors seem to present evidence, rather than try to shape some definitive story. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22616011

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