Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is The Tide Turning Against Reductionism?


In the latest issue of
The New Humanist, Raymond Tallis, a retired gerontologist, boldly debunks the growing fad of "embracing neuroscience as the answer to understanding human behaviour."

In his article, Neurotrash, Dr. Tallis seeks to rally the "neuroskeptiks" from the dangerous Reductionist onslaught.

Dr. Tallis writes...

Contemporary neuroscience is one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. As a researcher for many years into new methods of rehabilitating people with neurological damage, in particular due to strokes, I have been thrilled by the promise of new technologies such as sophisticated brain scanning to help us to understand the processes of recovery and (more importantly) suggest treatments that would promote the kinds of reorganisation in the brain associated with return of function. In contrast, I am utterly dismayed by the claims made on behalf of neuroscience in areas outside those in which it has any kind of explanatory power…

Hardly a day passes without yet another breathless declaration in the popular press about the relevance of neuroscientific findings to everyday life. The articles are usually accompanied by a picture of a brain scan in pixel-busting Technicolor and are frequently connected to references to new disciplines with the prefix “neuro-”. Neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-economics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-theology are encroaching on what was previously the preserve of the humanities. Even philosophers – who should know better, being trained one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of “Exp-phi” or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages have embraced “neuro-ethics”, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s moral intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classic dilemmas…

This might be regarded as harmless nonsense, were it not for the fact that it is increasingly being suggested (as for instance by Matthew Taylor in a recent issue of Prospect) that we should use the findings of neurosciences to guide policymakers. The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart. The last century demonstrated how quickly social policies based in pseudoscience, which treated the individual person not as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe. But historical examples may not be persuasive because it will be argued that this time the intentions are better and consequently the results will be less disastrous. A better line of argument is to expose the groundlessness of the claim that observation of brain activity in certain experimental conditions can enable us to understand human beings to the point where neuroscience could usefully inform social policy…

The fundamental assumption is that we are our brains and this, I will argue presently, is not true. But this is not the only reason why neuroscience does not tell us what human beings “really” are: it does not even tell us how the brain works, how bits of the brain work, or (even if you accept the dubious assumption that human living could be parcelled up into a number of discrete functions) which bit of the brain is responsible for which function…



If neuroscience has very little to say about the individual person, or even bits of consciousness, it is unlikely to have anything valid to say about society and policies that may help those within it to flourish. The belief that it might do, however, has been supported by what I have called “Darwinitis”. This is the claim that Darwinian theory can not only explain the biological origins of the organism H. sapiens, but also the manifestations of everyday human life – our cultural leaves as well as our biological roots. Many of the neuro-hyphenated disciplines are predicated on the notion that human behaviour is susceptible to a Darwinian interpretation, having as its, largely unconscious, aim the ensuring of the replication of the genetic material of which our bodies and lives are the mere vehicles. We are our brains and our brains are evolved organs; the behaviour dictated by our brains is directly or indirectly related to the standard biological imperatives to survive to reproduce...

Neuro-evolutionary thinking has excited many journalists, such as Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian (“In Control? Think again. Our ideas of the brain and human nature are myths”) for whom it “challenges almost everything you’re used to thinking about yourself” – such as, for example, that you are a rational or even autonomous agent – and that it marks the end of the 18th-century concept of the individual self. Madeleine Bunting, it seems, has discovered that her columns are written by an automaton…

The human world is an entirely new realm created by all the means we have of joining attention and consciousness. It is unknown to nature…

There is a huge gap between the community of minds and animal quasi-societies…Neuro-evolutionary theorists try to ignore all this evidence of difference and have even requisitioned the pseudo-scientific notion of the meme, the unit of cultural transmission, analogous to the gene that ensures its own survival by passing from brain to brain, to capture human society for quasi-Darwinian thought. Just how desperate is this endeavour to conceal the Great Ditch separating humans from other animals is evident from the kind of items that are listed as memes: “the SALT agreement”, “styles of cathedral architecture”, “faith”, “tolerance for free speech” and so on…

In summary, such are the limitations of our understanding of the brain, attempting to apply the findings of neuroscience to social policy would be premature, even if this were not wrong in principle. But it is wrong in principle. The fabric of the human world, of the public space that is the arena of our lives, is woven out of explicit shared attention that has been infinitely elaborated in a way that has little to do with what goes on in the darkness of the individual skull, though you require a brain in working order in order to be part of it. If you come across a new discipline with the prefix “neuro” and it is not to do with the nervous system itself, switch on your bullshit detector. If it has society in its sights, reach for your gun. Bring on the neurosceptics.

I just hope David Brooks - who's apparently trying to use neuroscience as the basis of a new ethical system - reads this article before he embarrasses himself again. Also, Tom Wolfe should take a gander at it too.

H/T: Denyse O’Leary

2 comments:

John Landon said...

Good post. I am linking to it at Darwiniana

John Landon

Todd White said...

Sweet.