Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Limits of Neuroscience

Drunk on their own knowledge some cognitive neuroscientists are claiming that studies of brain function explains and resolve all or most of the great philosophical questions.

I have already had my say on the topic. Link here.

In essence the scientists have confused the brain with the mind. It's not too surprising, since there's no science of the mind.

The fact that you can show which brain circuits are activated when someone is making a decision does not mean that you have explained or explained away free will. If it’s all just a matter of brain circuits then no one has any real responsibility for his or her actions.

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci explains it well in a post on the Rationally Speaking blog:

Let’s begin with what exactly follows from studies showing that X has been demonstrated to have a neural correlate (where X can be moral decision making, political leanings, sexual habits, or consciousness itself). The refrain one often hears when these studies are published is that neuroscientists have “explained” X, a conclusion that is presented more like the explaining away (philosophically, the elimination) of X. You think you are making an ethical decision? Ah!, but that’s just the orbital and medial sectors of the prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus region of your brain in action. You think you are having a spiritual experience while engaging in deep prayer or meditation? Silly you, that’s just the combined action of your right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem (did I leave anything out?).

I could keep going, but I think you get the point. The fact is, of course, that anything at all which we experience, whether it does or does not have causal determinants in the outside world, has to be experienced through our brains. Which means that you will find neural correlates for literally everything that human beings do or think. Because that’s what the brain is for: to do stuff and think about stuff.

This does not at all mean that I don’t find these studies fascinating, they surely are. But they are answering a different question from the one that often gets pushed in news stories. Specifically, what neuroscientists are finding is how the brain does X, which constitutes an explanation of X only in a very limited and specific sense of the word “explanation.” Take moral reasoning as an example. What “explains” it? Well, at the neurobiological level, it is the result of the action of the above mentioned brain areas (and probably many more). Evolutionarily speaking, a sense of morality probably evolved to help large-brained primates deal with their social environment. Culturally, our sense of morality has evolved in different directions at different times and in different places (though with some interesting convergences). Sociologically, what is moral depends on a complex interaction between fundamental human needs (like the need to feel safe) and idiosyncratic rules adopted by certain groups of people for entirely arbitrary reasons (like those regulating the Sabbath). Which means that the neuroscience of X is a fascinating but very limited part of the larger puzzle comprised by the broader question of “what is X?” And it behooves us to keep this distinction in mind.

1 comment:

n.n said...


What came first, origin or expression?

The "scientists" should stop conflating philosophy and science. They are confusing correlation for dependence. The former is fairly easy to confirm or refute, while the latter, especially with a complex system, is impossible.

It is unbecoming to an adherent of a presumably objective faith to demonstrate willful ignorance of their environment.

I'll qualify my comment with one caveat. There may exist secret or occult knowledge to which I am not privy proving their assertions.

In the meantime we debate whether consciousness spontaneously arises from a complex order or it is a manifestation of something incomprehensible. It doesn't help matters that we have yet to adequately define consciousness. Still, it provides for endless amusement of distracted minds (or brains).

Note that the extreme collectivist mind rejects the concept of freewill altogether. How is it possible to argue with someone who denies your individual dignity? They probably just hear buzzing in their collective brains.

Well, they may be right, and there may also be unicorns dancing on their heads. Neither of which have been proven or disproven. Sound familiar?

I find it amusing that the people with a proven track record of effectively framing and exploiting an issue have been miserable failures in this context. Perhaps extorting concessions and compliance through the exploitation of emotions is the far easier task.

Anyway, let's judge a faith by the principles it engenders. The selective objective faith has demonstrated its contempt for individual dignity and sanctity of human life.