Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Trouble With Neuroscience

No one is against neuroscience. Certainly, not I.

Yet, the masters of neuroscience, accompanied by their journalistic promoters have gotten into the business of pretending that neuroscience can explain just about anything.

Neuroscience, we are told, solves the mysteries of the human mind. It explains human behavior and human motivation.

Since they tend not to believe in rational thought, neuroscientists tend systematically to obscure the difference between the mind and the brain.

Grant that an area of your brain lights up when you are thinking about a certain idea. Would you claim that the colored blip is an idea?

Would you like to argue that ideas cease to exist when no one is thinking them? If the process of photosynthesis obeys a set of rules, do you think that it stops when no one is thinking them?

Neuroscientists who claim that their science can tell us what we should and should not do need to reread David Hume’s argument that science tells us what is while ethics tells us what we should do.

You cannot use science to make or defend moral judgments.

Science can tell you what happens when you shoot a bullet into a wall. Science can also tell you what happens when you shoot a bullet into a human being. It does NOT tell you whether you should or should not do the one or the other.

If, for example, neuroscience could show that members of one political party are more fearful or more aggressive than members of another, nothing in neuroscience tells us whether fearful or aggressive is better or worse given the political circumstances.

Neuroscience does not tell us which set of policies will produce prosperity and which set will produce poverty.

Science will tell us what happens when people are well-fed. It will tell us what happens when people starve. We all have clear opinions about which is better and which is worse, but these are not based on science.

There is a chasm between science and ethics, one that popular neuroscience has been more than happy to ignore.

In a recent essay Stephen Poole sets out to debunk the claims for neuroscience… all the while showing a health appreciation for what it can do.

Poole begins:

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

Popular books about neuroscience are a business. They have found a market niche. They pretend that their science has solved the great philosophical problems.

For people who do not believe in any higher power they provide something like a foundation for their beliefs.

Poole continues:

The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Ideas wrapped in neuroscience often have a hidden agenda.

In some cases, these books offer advice that is sane and sensible. In others, they have a darker purpose, like talking you out of your ability to reason.

Does Haidt mean that you should follow your gut, act irrationally and not even bother to try to exercise any self-control?

Surely, this is implied in his call for an “autolobotomy.”

Other important books in neuroscience declare in stentorian tones, as though they were imparting great truths, that you have no free will.

Neuroscientists claim to have proved that free will does not exist, and that our minds are really being controlled by a more primal, more reptilian part of the brain. They may or may not know it, but they are trying to soften us up.

It is easier to take away someone’s freedom when you convince him that he doesn’t have any.


Katielee4211 said...

It is easier..

Yes, and those implications are a scary thought, aren't they? Because there is nobody who rejects that theory, who would be willing to exploit it.

I suppose it could be argued that the whole idea of neuroscience is nothing more than a chemical blip on the brain, right? Certainly not the result of any rational reasoning. They must be exempting themselves from their theory...

Anonymous said...

neuroscience has become a new determinism, and the latest "gizmo idolatry."

Dan B.

Anonymous said...

Katie Lee:

People who seek to put dark, misanthropic theories into practice ALWAYS exempt themselves from the consequences. I call them "absentee intellectuals."

I always shudder when I hear people begin comments with "Studies say..." That's usually the beginning of a journey into nonsense shrouded in lofty academic righteousness, divorced from reality.


Anonymous said...


Michael Bloomberg wants to ban sugary drinks over a certain size because they are, supposedly, a leading cause of NYC obesity. This is most curious, because it is a moral argument disguised as though it is a "scientific" answer to the "obesity epidemic."

This is most interesting, and strikes me as tied to this nutty neuroscience obsession. I would think a neuroscientist would tell you that sugar activates pleasure centers in the brain. Our bodies crave salt, sugar and fat, for very logical evolutionary motivations, neuroscience will tell us. This is entirely logical.

The question is whether consuming such foods in abundance is moral (gluttony) or ethical (knowingly destructive to one's body). Clearly, it is not. And thus, Mayor Bloomberg is peddling in the public interest of moral and ethical behavior when it comes to our natural desire to consume sugar, while he claims it is a purely individual interest in other subjects of moral choice. This is why I view Bloomberg as a political demagogue.

Neuroscientists like Haidt are asking us to abandon reason, just as every dictator, demagogue and mad scientist has demanded before him. Yet if we do that, it's just like devouring all the salty, sugary, fatty and crunchy food we can get our hands on. Ask that person you see who is physically fit and ask them whether they would love a piece of chocolate cake with ice cream. Yes, they'll say, but I'm committed to my physical health, and the cake doesn't support that. That's reason. Neuroscience says "Go ahead, eat it!"

Autolobotomy, indeed. Find me a primate who will not gleefully engorge themselves nonstop with salty, sugary, crunchy and fatty foods. Put a stick of butter in front of a healthy adult chimpanzee and then put the same in front of a healthy adult human. Think you'll see a difference? Hmmmm... I wonder why that is. It's called free will.

We do have freedom to choose. I vigorously reject these ideas coming from neuroscience (and the other hyper-rationalist scientists) that man is nothing more than a big sack of protoplasm. Just because something is logical does not make it ethical.