Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Limits of Neuroscience

With the advent of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics stodgy professors are now claiming that they have solved all the mysteries of human behavior.

No one can really escape it. Even if you ignore the science you will be living in a country where policy-making and decision-making will increasingly be influenced by these new areas of scientific inquiry.

For example, the Obama administration regulation czar, Cass Sunstein, got his job because he, working with economist Richard Thaler, developed the concept of the “nudge.”

Law professor Sunstein wants to use the latest in behavioral economics to manipulate your behavior. If it’s science, it must be in your best interest.

Sunstein denies any interest in pushing you around or controlling you. He just wants to give you the least little nudge in the right direction.

It’s all for the best; it will help you to do what is best for you. You will be manipulated, but you won’t know it. It won’t hurt a bit.

How does Cass Sunstein or any other czar or czarina know what is best for you? Well, he’s a professor and you’re not. Besides, he has science on his side. It’s the next best thing to having God on your side.

If you disagree with him you will be lining up with those who prefer superstition to science. None of us want to do that.

Of course, the proof of any scientific experiment lies in the results. Scientifically speaking, we are within our rights to ask how well Obama administration regulatory policies are working out today.

And we must point out that most serious economists believe that the Obama regulatory regime is an engine for killing jobs.

We must conclude, based on the scientific evidence, that Prof. Sunstein would best contribute to the economy if he goes back to teaching law.

Can’t someone give him a nudge in that direction?

No one doubts the value of science, but no one should fail to recognize that science has clear limitations. Let’s accept that evolution is settled science. That does not mean that it will provide the answers to all of the great questions of human motivation. On some it is illuminating; on others not so much.

Even cognitive neuroscience is not going to solve the mysteries of human behavior.

To think otherwise is to indulge in that peculiar form of hubris called scientism.

John Gray defined it well in The New Republic:

Not for the first time, grand theories of social evolution proved to be useless as guides to events. That has in no way dented the popularity of such theories, and it is now evolutionary psychology that is being presented as a guide for the politically perplexed. These theories show the continuing appeal of scientism—the modern belief that scientific inquiry can enable us to resolve conflicts and dilemmas in contexts where traditional sources of wisdom and practical knowledge seem to have failed. The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable.

Many of the cognitive neuroscientists who are most afflicted with hubris fail to distinguish the mind from the brain. If the scientists are having trouble with the concepts, imagine how difficult it is for the lay person to grasp the issue.

Reviewing a new book by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, Carol Tavris offers an excellent take on the subject:

If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. "An adolescent's feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic," Mr. Kagan writes, "cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning"—and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur—with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.

Let’s examine this in detail, the better to contribute to everyone’s understanding.

Imagine that an area of the brain starts flashing red when we feel anger. You might ask whether the red light is causing the anger or is the effect of anger. Good luck trying to figure that one out.

At best, the red light corresponds to a sensation. Yet, having a flashing red light in your brain is not the same as being angry. It might correlate, but it does not necessarily cause or constitute anger.

To go from flashing brain cells to anger you need to posit the existence of a mind that can identify the sensation as anger.

We always interpret our sensations, and we are certainly capable of interpreting them wrongly. Its called freedom.

If your mind identifies your sensation as anger, that is only a first step. You mind will also start questioning why you feel anger, towards whom you feel anger, what you might or might not to do about it, and what you should or should not do about it.

Your place within a community and your cultural context will influence whether or not you should act on the anger or suffer it.

None of which questions can be answered without knowing a great deal about you or your cultural context. Presumably, you are the most qualified to determine whether your sensation is anger or envy or guilt, why you feel what you feel, what you might or might not do, and what you should or should not do.

And then you need to decide what to do and translate that decision into action.

These mental acts might well correspond to fluctuations in the color of different parts of the brain, but one doubts that they can all be measured by a brain scan.

If you would like to indulge some advanced reflection of these topics, here are two other questions:

First, if an actor is playing an angry character and if, while he is playing this role, he feels angry, whose anger is it?

He might feel angry because he cannot play his role properly if he does not feel any of the character’s emotion, but he might also be angry because his co-star is a mumbling and bumbling, thus, ruining the show.

Will a brain scan differentiate these types of anger?

Second, I do not, when speaking, say that my brain is registering anger or that my mind feels angry. I say that I am angry.

The way we use language reflects the history of usage. Language usage is a free market. It is not something that a couple of bureaucrats in the White House basement can control.

But then, who or what is this "I" that declares itself to be angry, asserts ownership of the anger and performs the act of introducing it into a conversation.

Clearly, there is a difference between asserting that I am angry and throwing a tantrum. Do different areas of the brain light up when I am expressing emotion differently?

For all of its virtues cognitive neuroscience cannot really explain the functioning of the mind. When it comes to human freedom and ethics it falls short. Since it focuses on the individual brain, in isolation, it ignores the cultural and human, along with the mental contexts.

John Gray is correct to criticize behavioral scientists for overreaching into scientism. But they are also making a more fundamental error, one that reveals them not to be doing science at all.

These scientists are assuming that human behavior follows a hidden script. They believe that once they can track down and reveal that hidden script they can control human behavior.

And yet, saying that all the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players is a denial of reality, a turning one’s back on free will in the interest of not having to face the dire responsibilities of making choices.

As Shakespeare knew-- see As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII for the above quote —people who isolate themselves and believe that human life is just a great drama end up melancholic and depressed.


David Foster said...

I commented about Sunstein here, and developed some further thoughts about "nudging" at the scribes and the idea of freedom.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, David, for providing links to your work.