An individual neuron in the brain is meaningless in and of itself, though we can perfectly well isolate one and stare at it. However, we can only understand what it does based on what other neurons it is connected to and on what sorts of information passes to and from it and these other neurons.
Say we isolated a single neuron and named it Herman. There is little we could really learn about Herman alone. Mainly we could learn about Herman’s material structure.
To understand Herman, we would have to see him in action. Furthermore, Herman would act quite differently depending on how he was connected to other neurons, so we would really be dealing with many different Hermans, Herman 1, 2, 3 … and so on. Furthermore, the activities connected Herman engages in across time can change some of his material structural properties, so our initial decontextualized investigation of Herman can be misleading if not put in the context of an investigation of connected Herman in action and interaction.
What is true of neurons is true of human beings. If we have a human Herman in isolation we can learn little more than Herman’s material properties (structure, design). We can only really understand a human individual in terms of what other people, which aspects of the environment, and what tools that individual is connected to and in terms of what sorts of information flows into and out of the individual from these connections. For human Herman there are also many Hermans and for human Herman, too, Herman’s actions and interactions across time can change Herman’s material structural properties.
Just as different types of neurons have somewhat different design features and, thus, different affordances (different tendencies) for how they act when connected with other neurons of their own type or different types, so, too, for people. We are each different due to our genotype and our development across time in different environments and, so, we “plug into” and “play” differently with different sorts of people, aspects of the environment, and tools than do other people. And we do so differently across time as what we are connected to across time changes us.
What makes this view of ourselves strange to us humans is that we, unlike neurons, have minds and, thus, opinions. We think of our mind as a conscious chooser and knower. But in reality, humans do not freely make choices or know really why they do what they do or feel as they do. The vast majority of what our brain does is not open to our conscious inspection.
A variety of different, sometimes quite complex, modules (of neurons) process information and interact with each other in ways to which we have no conscious access. One relatively small part of our brain serves as an “interpreter” and seeks to make sense of the outputs of these unconscious modules without knowing how and why they reached the decisions or outputs they did.
We tell ourselves stories that are often not true—or, at least, which we have no way to actually know they are true—about what we want, why we feel the way we do, and why we have done what we have done. But the wanter, feeler, doer here is not really us as a conscious individual but us as a complicated device whose inner workings are inaccessible to us (i.e, we are inaccessible to ourselves) beyond making up plausible, helpful, or comforting stories.
What really differentiates us from neurons or other connected devices is that we make up stories. These stories are not always or even mostly true, but they do affect how we act and feel (but always relative to our connections).
This does not mean humans cannot reach some sort of truth. It does mean that our ideas of free will and responsibility—ideas on which our institutions are based—are an illusion.
We humans can reach (little “t”) truth (no master narrative needed) when we collaborate with others who do not necessarily agree with our stories and collaborate, as well, with good tools to collectively test and mutually vet hypotheses about, and data from, the world. When this activity is formalized, we call it science. When it isn’t, we call it survival based on respect for the world as something that can “bite back” if we ignore it or disdain it long enough.
This collective activity of respect for the world, formalized as science or not, is not an individual enterprise and is not contingent on “smart” people. It is a form of collective intelligence based on networks of people, tools, practices, and respect for evidence, other people, and the world.
Almost all work in the social sciences and in education is based on the wrong ontology (wrong units of analysis), based, that is, on wrong assumptions about what actually exists. We have folk terms for individuals and minds, but these are not in reality what we think they are. This is, in part, because the reality about these matters is only becoming clearer as science makes progress. But it is also true because we humans and our institutions could not really function—in terms of how our societies and institutions (including religions) are currently organized—if we accepted these realities. But, then, too, this is part of why we and our institutions function so poorly.
The proper unit of analysis is “individual + connections + time + change across time” all mutually and reciprocally interacting. We cannot make valid judgments about Herman (or even about ourselves) as individuals. We make such judgments only about Herman at time t connected to x, y, and z elements (people, tools, aspects of the environment) relative to change across time.
Of course, there may be continuities across the many time slices of Herman and his coupled, interacting, and changing connections across time, but these need to be discovered. They cannot be discovered by staring at Herman alone. We cannot discover these continuities by studying (or assessing) Herman at one time or without due reference to connections and interactions among them and Herman’s mind and body. When and if we find such continuities we have no valid reason to call them (“internal”) “traits” of Herman, since they may well be complicated outcomes of patterns of “Herman-connections-time slices-across-time” caused mutually by Herman’s doings and the doings and interactions of the elements connected to Herman (and the two cannot be neatly and cleanly separated).
The vast majority of research in education is based on studying and assessing Herman, Janie, Jose, and Susie, as countable individuals and not as dynamically changing connection systems with continuities that are often not “traits” but deeper patterns within and across connection systems. Herman is complicated, very complicated. Our current paradigms of research nearly completely fail to capture this complexity. Worse, yet, this research leads to bad policies.