The defenders of culture, beauty, and subjectivity are at it again, toiling to save civilization — and us — from a bleak, science-infested future.
Two recent examples from England, where this battle seems most energetically joined, are articles by Roger Scruton and George Walden.
The articles have different emphases, but taken together they illustrate the literati’s fear of the cold and inhuman scourge of “scientism.”
As always, articles like these, the articles to which I most object, are not those that contain ideas contrary to my own. Instead, I react most strongly against writing that uses rhetoric rather than evidence to make a case against some perceived threat posed by demon science.
Scruton and Walden indulge their biases shamelessly, never hesitating to portray science and scientists as something less than human. In one case, the target is the cultivated mind. In the other, it’s our very humanity.
Scruton warns us that science will destroy beauty and “the self,” while Walden fears that the “scientistic” approach will bring back the evils of Marxist statism. For both writers, the aim of science is to reduce us to machines or their parts; and for both of them, science — especially neuroscience — must be resisted not because its view of the world is wrong, necessarily, but because its view of people is unacceptable.
This anti-science attitude is an instance of the fallacy of negative consequences. If this new science is right, I face an unpalatable change in how I view myself. Therefore, the science is not only wrong, but evil. I may no longer believe in an immaterial soul, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give up my sense of self!
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Scruton is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for his raucous 2007 debate with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and A. C. Grayling on the question, “Are We Better Off Without Religion?”
Here, though, his target is closer to home, for Scruton is an “aestheticist,” a subjective pursuit with objective pretensions, and he’s afraid that his fellow humanities scholars are falling into the bottomless intellectual pit of “neuroenvy.” He fears that scientific description of the mechanisms of our thoughts and feelings, our judgements and values, is eroding the respect that is due to studied interpretation.
It is profoundly misleading, in creating the impression that consciousness is a feature of the brain, and not of the person.
With his usual moderation, Scruton calls brain scan results that identify the pathways and proteins involved in our mental lives “pseudoscience of the first order.”
Describing without explaining — whatever that means — is not really “science”? What nonsense. Science is essentially and properly descriptive. Does Scruton really believe, to use his own example, that a statement like “neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding” is meaningless, therefore worthless, because it doesn’t continue with an aesthetic response or the pronouncement of a well-considered value judgement?
What does Scruton think that science is, if it’s not descriptive? Would it have been better if Patricia Churchland had written, “neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding, but that’s not what love really is, so let’s turn off the scanner and appreciate Petrarch’s sonnets”? Really?
Scruton approvingly repeats Bennett and Hacker’s over-hyped contention that neuroscience is a form of resurgent dualism because it focuses on the brain and not the “person.” The brain’s activity may produce or facilitate or enable or represent (stop me when I get to your favourite word) the state that we call consciousness, and by doing so it may generate the entity that we call “the person.”
Now, while I intend to deal with Bennett and Hacker directly in an upcoming post, at this point, to fend off premature criticism, I need to pause to state as clearly as I can that I am not saying that consciousness reduces to the pathways of the brain. Consciousness is something made possible by the actions of the brain — what else, sans dualism? — but that doesn’t mean that the body, the environment, and social interaction with others are not, along with the brain, the constituents by which our conscious experiences are shaped. But more on that when I get to Bennett and Hacker.
For now, let’s concentrate on some of the incoherent statements Scruton makes about the claimed incoherence of neuroscience. Here’s one:
Through the concept of the person, and the associated notions of freedom, responsibility, reason for action, right, duty, justice and guilt, we gain the description under which human beings are seen, by those who respond to them as they truly are.
If you have a clear idea of what this sentence means, you’ve got me beat. If there is a single “concept of the person,” and its “associated notions,” and if human beings are “seen” and thereby known “as they truly are,” where does all of this understanding happen? Not where does it come from, in the sense of what prompts it all — that’s where the body, the environment, and others come in — but what physical process generates the thoughts and feelings and judgements that Scruton finds so meaningful? For one thing, where do they go when the brain dies? If the answer is “nowhere,” then what facilitates them? If it’s nonsensical to speak of a “person” whose brain has died, then how does one sensibly separate “personhood” from “brain activity” in the first place?
One more time, and not, I fear, for the last time on this blog: I am not saying that thoughts and feelings are parts of or locations in the brain. The brain is the socket, and it effectively processes incoming electricity, resulting in a lit bulb. The bulb is not the brain, but the brain is a necessary condition of the light shining from the bulb. Not a sufficient condition, mind you, but certainly an indispensable one. Consciousness occurs in the brain, even if it’s more than just the brain.
And “person” occurs — not “is,” but “happens” — in the brain, too. Where else?
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Walden, a former diplomat, was briefly Minister of Higher Education in the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s.
In his article “Beware the Fausts of Neuroscience,” published by Standpoint, Walden warns us that science is out to destroy our humanity.
He briefly echoes Scruton’s central concern that “scientism” will destroy culture, but Walden’s main focus is the potential damage not just from letting scientists set public policy (something he resisted during his time in office), but from the very success of neuroscience, actual and potential. The key idea here is “mind control,” and the chief bogeyman is “Marxism.”
Remember the millions who died under Stalin and Mao? Scientists did that, with their godless lack of human compassion and restraint. That’s right. Walden spends the first part of his essay reminding us of the evils of communist statism, and when he has us good and softened up, only then does he begin to address neuroscience, his main target.
Like most writers on this side of the neuroscience question, Walden approvingly cites Raymond Tallis. He identifies his central concern clearly:
The problem is that many neuroscientists are materialists and reductionists for whom it is axiomatic that man is no more than an animal with a more evolved brain: mind, consciousness and religion are figments of his intemperate imagination. The brain is the man and that is that — which handily shuts off competing explanations.
Of course, as I’ve noted here before, there are few neuroscientists who think that “the brain is the man and that is that.” But that never stops these guys, just as the fact that there’s more to the religious impulse than Bible literalism never stops Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. It’s easier to attack the extreme distortion than to deal with the complexities of an issue, no matter where you stand.
At the same time, we can’t fail to notice other, far more slippery ideas that Walden associates with the threat of neuroscience, according to which “man is no more than an animal with a more evolved brain.” So it’s not just hard biological reductionism but a perceived threat to whatever in us is “more than an animal” that bothers Walden. Like Scruton, his chief aim is to defend a certain kind of human identity, a notion of personal primacy and uniqueness. This isn’t dualism per se, but it’s certainly a remnant of the age of dualism. I may not have a soul, but I’m something “more than an animal.”
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And, in the end, this “closet dualism” is the crux of my conceptual disagreement with this sort of neuroscience opponent. There are good arguments to be made that the theory and the methods behind the shakier over-statements of some enthusiastic researchers do not, not yet, justify the broad claims being made. But critics like Scruton and Walden don’t make those good arguments. At least, they don’t see them as key to their case. In their criticisms, writers like Scruton and Walden always reveal, and often openly emphasize, that their singular motivation is to protect a cherished self-image, a picture of humanity that draws its attractive power from its assertion that we are, in the end, something more, something special.
We may be special, but if we are, it won’t be thanks to our being more than animals.