Two more non-scientists criticize neuroscience

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!

– * –

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?

– * –

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.”

– * –

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.


6 thoughts on “Two more non-scientists criticize neuroscience

  1. This post pretty much sums up everything we disagree with. With all due respect, I think you are grasping at straws in your effort to defend material reductionism. I am not exactly sure how you might rationally defend statements like this: “Consciousness occurs IN the brain, even if it’s more than just the brain.” I am encouraged to hear you talk of necessary versus sufficient conditions, but I fear you miss the main point. If the brain is not sufficient in producing human consciousness or all the unique aspects of the human animal, then we cannot look solely to neuroscience for explanations. But this is exactly what many (if not most) of the neuroscientists are doing.

    I think the incoherent quote by Scruton is attempting to identify the things that make us unique, or that make the whole person – things that you will not understand or explain by looking solely at the brain. Again, we must admit that our understanding of the moving mechanisms of the clock tells us nothing about ‘time,’ just as the biological mechanisms underlying the human blink tells us nothing about the meaning behind the human ‘wink.’ Looking at the functions of the human brain will not tell us much, if anything, about love, morality, religiosity, wisdom, and so on. But neuroscientists usually miss this point – which is why we need more people raising it as an issue and less people trying to obscure the problem.

    I also beleive there is something dangerous in this scientistic objective view of human beings – where we end up reducing ourselves to mere animals. Yes, we are different Ron, and it has nothing to do with dualism or belief in a pseudo soul. Part of what it means to be a human, is to live in a symbolic world of meanings and human reasons – our shared subjectiveness. This is what is often called the ‘extended mind’ or our ‘community of minds.’ Your objective science cannot grasp this subjective part of what it means to be human. This does not mean that we cannot understand it, but we must employ reason and logic to do so (something more than an objective and empirical science can offer). To assume otherwise, is to evoke scientism.

    • I believe that part of our disagreement is real, and part of it may be down to my rhetorical imprecision. I believe that we are, indeed, mere animals, in the sense that ours is but a souped-up version of the standard mammal brain. At the same time, as I admitted to Anthony Gottlieb in my reply to his objection to my treatment of his article on free will, I am a hopeless extremist when it comes to even the slightest hints of spiritual dualism, and that can lead to rhetorical overkill. While looking at the mechanisms of the brain will not tell us much about love, morality, religiosity, wisdom, and so on, brain science does serve the useful purpose of putting the boot to the soul and the spirit world.

      I do believe that all there is to consciousness has its locus in the brain — our understanding of the difference between a blink and a wink is the result of the electrochemical processes of brain tissue. There’s just no other place for consciousness to reside. Yet I have written over and over that merely to describe those processes does not represent the experience we have when they happen, just as describing the ways muscles contract and skin receptors fire tells us nothing of what it’s like to scratch a cat behind the ear. Call it qualia or something else, fMRI scans don’t show it. Embodied, embedded, extended, shared, community, symbolic — all of the attempts to conceptualize what it feels like to be conscious — they’re all efforts to “get at” our subjective experience, and they all encompass a world beyond the brain. We have no disagreement there.

      Yet I continue to believe that an important part of the objection by writers like Scruton and Tallis to learning how the embodied, embedded brain generates the experiences of consciousness is of the “don’t pull back that curtain!” variety.

  2. “I do believe that all there is to consciousness has its locus in the brain — our understanding of the difference between a blink and a wink is the result of the electrochemical processes of brain tissue.”

    When you say ‘result,’ I suspect you are talking about mechanism – and you will not get at any meaningful explanation of a subjective consciousness by looking there. By reducing the human being to a mechanistic brain, you lose the ability to explain the most interesting parts of what it means to be human. Causal mechanisms are very different from the ‘meanings’ and ‘reasons’ that ultimately belong to the subjectively pluralistic community of extended minds that operate not entirely within the physical world of flesh and bone, but also the symbolic domain of publicly shared language. Contrary to your claim, it seems logically justifiable to say that the locus of consciousness is NOT just the brain.

    “Yet I continue to believe that an important part of the objection by writers like Scruton and Tallis to learning how the embodied, embedded brain generates the experiences of consciousness is of the “don’t pull back that curtain!” variety.”

    Tallis is no dualist – he is in my view realistic about the limits of neuroscience. While you seem to fear the re-emergence of the cartisian divide, I fear those who are in growing numbers taking the position that: “if an objective science cannot quantify it, it does not exist.” This is promoting the worst kind of science and I believe it to be dangerous. You and many of the scientists you praise, claim to have such great distain for dualism and its implicit irrationality. But it is ironic that in their desparate efforts to tie the mind to something that science can objectively observe and quantify, they are forced to engage in their own kind of irrationality – and they create their own kind of illusions.

    • Yes, I believe that the locus of consciousness is the brain. By that I mean that our experience of what “takes place” externally to the brain, in the interactions among brain and body and environment — the embodied, embedded, extended elements, itself “takes place” in the brain. To me, arguing that our experience of consciousness “takes place” somewhere else than in the brain is too much like arguing that real pain “takes place” in a non-existent limb. Conceptually useful, arguably, but materially incorrect.

      I continue to believe that we are not as far apart as you think. I do not make the mistake of thinking that consciousness is what happens in the brain; rather, it is what happens because of what happens in the brain. Take the brain away — faint, or enter a coma, for example — and consciousness disappears, however fleetingly. Yet measuring the electrochemistry of brain matter does not measure consciousness. Consciousness is what we experience, not what our parts do. Do we not agree on this?

      And can we not agree that what happens in the brain as a result of our being in our bodies and in the world is the mechanism that generates the experience of consciousness from the external materials that it processes, while at the same time agreeing that consciousness itself is the total experience, not the plumbing? In that way, can we not retain materialism without falling into reductionism?

      • In most of your articles you come across as an apologist for neuroscience: you seem to minimize or obscure the main problems in it making claims about the kinds of experiences it may have no business trying to explain. When you defend yourself, I am inclined to think that you ‘get’ the main problems, but without much of an explanation, it seems your conclusion is still the same – that neuroscience can answer some of the most important questions about what it means to be human and the critics are quacks or dualists.

        I have some awareness of neurobiology and teach introductory university courses in neuroscience; I therefore feel qualified in saying that most of the stuff out there is garbage… and that we are doing the general public a disservice to act as apologists for bad science (which in this area usually means poor reasoning). I can agree with everything that you say up until the last paragraph. But it appears that you still want to attribute final meaning to the mechanisms of the brain, which suggests to me while you ‘get’ some of the main criticisms of a neuroscientific understanding of consciousness, you do not allow these criticisms to shake your faith in a neuroscientific understanding of the human being.

        Yes, what ‘happens’ in the brain is the result of our experience in the world, but you seem to think that all of that experience is reducable to material causes (e.g. … “from the external materials that it processes”). I beleive there are at least two problematic assumptions with this view. The first, is that you assume that the brain’s function is to ‘process’ something – you’ve bought into the computer metaphor. But the ‘one’s and zero’s’ of computer code are not equivalent to the ‘all-or-nothing firing’ of neuron’s. In the case of the computer, we humans insert meaning into the code… the one’s and zero’s mean nothing without conscious human beings; with the biological human being, the meaning is injected by our pluralistic subjective language and our symbolic culture. Whether you like it or not, THAT is part of our psychological environment. How in the hell do you propose to materialize it? The only option for hard-line materialists is to look at the correlational mechanism and pretend that the meaning is in there… but in trying to explain the person, you need to personify the brain. You’ve expelled the ghost from the machine, but you have created a more problematic dilemma where the ghost IS the machine.

        I think you have already decided to dislike Tallis, so I won’t recommend you read him, but I do suggest that you read Terrence Deacon’s ‘Symbolic Species’ to get an idea of how we are in fact unique from other animals and it has nothing to do with our having a soul.

      • It is frustrating to be so consistently unable to make myself clearer, for I continue to believe that some part of your objection is based on a misperception of my position. That can only mean that I am not being clear enough. One more short attempt, and then let’s move on to some other topic.

        I do not think that we have, or that we will ever have, a “neuroscientific understanding of the human being” beyond a useful description of the physical events that occur in the brain. When I say that the brain “processes” external materials, I do not think that this tells us anything about the experience of consciousness. And I certainly don’t think that neuronal activity is consciousness any more than, to use your example, the parts of a watch “are” time. We certainly agree that a snapshot of the brain’s neurochemistry at the moment that a subject smells a rose tells us nothing about smelling roses.

        And I do not “propose to materialize” consciousness, beyond claiming that physical events constitute it. “All of experience is reducible to physical causes” is, indeed, true, but only in the way that a physicist would understand that statement. To identify the cause is not to explain, and certainly not to explain away.

        However, I do accept the idea that we live inside our heads. We participate in a complicated network of sensory connections and “shared subjectivities,” but I remain stuck on the notion that the world we live in is the world we think we live in. I think, therefore I think. If that makes me a computationalist, so be it.

        Yes, I dislike Tallis. Not because he criticizes those who think that mapping the brain means understanding the mind (for that’s no more true than mapping the stars means understanding the universe), but because of the way he writes. His tone is dismissive, disdainful, and extremely off-putting.

        I’ve read some of Deacon, and I find his ideas intriguing and challenging. I’ll look for Symbolic Species. I intend to tackle the second half of Incomplete Nature soon. I like his contention that consciousness is (1) entirely the result of material processes, (2) not itself material, and (3) amenable to empirical discovery on some level. The first statement is certainly true, and that’s all that I have ever meant to claim in “support” of materialism and reductionism.

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