Neuroscience wants to be the answer to everything. It isn't.
The discovery of brain imaging techniques has given rise to the belief that we can look at people's thoughts and feelings, and see how 'information' is 'processed' in the head. The brain is seen as a computer, 'hardwired' by evolution to deal with the long vanished problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and operating in ways that are more transparent to the person with the scanner than to the person being scanned. Our own way of understanding ourselves must therefore be replaced by neuroscience, which rejects the whole enterprise of a specifically 'humane' understanding of the human condition.
In 1986 Patricia Churchland published Neurophilosophy, arguing that the questions that had been discussed to no effect by philosophers over many centuries would be solved once they were rephrased as questions of neuroscience. This was the first major outbreak of a new academic disease, which one might call 'neuroenvy'. If philosophy could be replaced by neuroscience, why not the rest of the humanities, which had been wallowing in a methodless swamp for far too long? Old disciplines that relied on critical judgment and cultural immersion could be given a scientific gloss when rebranded as 'neuroethics', 'neuroaesthetics', 'neuromusicology', 'neurotheology', or 'neuroarthistory' (subject of a book by John Onians). Michael Gazzaniga's influential study, The Ethical Brain, of 2005, has given rise to 'Law and Neuroscience' as an academic discipline, combining legal reasoning and brain imagining, largely to the detriment of our old ideas of responsibility. One by one, real but non-scientific disciplines are being rebranded as infant sciences, even though the only science involved has as yet little or nothing to say about them.
The new sciences in fact have a tendency to divide neatly into two parts. On the one hand there is an analysis of some feature of our mental or social life and an attempt to show its importance and the principles of its organisation. On the other hand, there is a set of brain scans. Every now and then there is a cry of 'Eureka!' — for example when Joshua Greene showed that dilemmas involving personal confrontation arouse different brain areas from those aroused by detached moral calculations. But since Greene gave no coherent description of the question, to which the datum was supposed to suggest an answer, the cry dwindled into silence. The example typifies the results of neuroenvy, which consist of a vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions. And the answers are encased in neurononsense of the following kind:
'The brains of social animals are wired to feel pleasure in the exercise of social dispositions such as grooming and co-operation, and to feel pain when shunned, scolded, or excluded. Neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding, parent-offspring bonding, and probably also bonding to kith and kinů' (Patricia Churchland).
As though we didn't know already that people feel pleasure in grooming and co-operating, and as though it adds anything to say that their brains are 'wired' to this effect, or that 'neurochemicals' might possibly be involved in producing it. This is pseudoscience of the first order, and owes what scant plausibility it possesses to the fact that it simply repeats the matter that it fails to explain. It perfectly illustrates the prevailing academic disorder, which is the loss of questions.
Traditional attempts to understand consciousness were bedevilled by the 'homunculus fallacy', according to which consciousness is the work of the soul, the mind, the self, the inner entity that thinks and sees and feels and which is the real me inside. We cast no light on the consciousness of a human being simply by redescribing it as the consciousness of some inner homunculus. On the contrary, by placing that homunculus in some private, inaccessible and possibly immaterial realm, we merely compound the mystery.
As Max Bennett and Peter Hacker have argued (Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, 2003), this homunculus fallacy keeps coming back in another form. The homunculus is no longer a soul, but a brain, which 'processes information', 'maps the world', 'constructs a picture' of reality, and so on — all expressions that we understand, only because they describe conscious processes with which we are familiar. To describe the resulting 'science' as an explanation of consciousness, when it merely reads back into the explanation the feature that needs to be explained, is not just unjustified — it is profoundly misleading, in creating the impression that consciousness is a feature of the brain, and not of the person.
Perhaps no instance of neurononsense has been more influential than Benjamin Libet's ingenious experiments which allegedly 'prove' that actions which we experience as voluntary are in fact 'initiated' by brain events occurring a short while before we have the 'feeling' of deciding on them. The brain 'decides' to do x, and the conscious mind records this decision some time later. Libet's experiments have produced reams of neurobabble. But the conclusion depends on forgetting what the question might have been. It looks significant only if we assume that an event in a brain is identical with a decision of a person, that an action is voluntary if and only if preceded by a mental episode of the right kind, that intentions and volitions are 'felt' episodes of a subject which can be precisely dated. All such assumptions are incoherent, for reasons that philosophers have made abundantly clear.
We should recognise that not all coherent questions about human nature and conduct are scientific questions, concerning the laws governing cause and effect. Most of our questions about persons and their doings are about interpretation: what did he mean by that? What did her words imply? What is signified by the hand of Michelangelo's David? Those are real questions, which invite disciplined answers. And there are disciplines that attempt to answer them. The law is one such. It involves making reasoned attributions of liability and responsibility, using methods that are not reducible to any explanatory science, and not replaceable by neuroscience, however many advances that science might make. The invention of 'neurolaw' is, it seems to me, profoundly dangerous, since it cannot fail to abolish freedom and accountability — not because those things don't exist, but because they will never crop up in a brain scan.
Suppose a computer is programmed to 'read', as we say, a digitally encoded input, which it translates into pixels, causing it to display the picture of a woman on its screen. In order to describe this process we do not need to refer to the woman in the picture. The entire process can be completely described in terms of the hardware that translates digital data into pixels, and the software, or algorithm, which contains the instructions for doing this. There is neither the need nor the right, in this case, to use concepts like those of seeing, thinking, observing, in describing what the computer is doing; nor do we have either the need or the right to describe the thing observed in the picture, as playing any causal role, or any role at all, in the operation of the computer. Of course, we see the woman in the picture. And to us the picture contains information of quite another kind from that encoded in the digitalised instructions for producing it. It conveys information about a woman and how she looks. To describe this kind of information is impossible without describing the content of certain thoughts — thoughts that arise in people when they look at each other face to face.
But how do we move from the one concept of information to the other? How do we explain the emergence of thoughts about something from processes that reside in the transformation of visually encoded data? Cognitive science doesn't tell us. And computer models of the brain won't tell us either. They might show how images get encoded in digitalised format and transmitted in that format by neural pathways to the centre where they are 'interpreted'. But that centre does not in fact interpret — interpreting is a process that we do, in seeing what is there before us. When it comes to the subtle features of the human condition, to the byways of culpability and the secrets of happiness and grief, we need guidance and study if we are to interpret things correctly. That is what the humanities provide, and that is why, when scholars who purport to practise them, add the prefix 'neuro' to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.
Roger Scruton. "Brain Drain." The Spectator (March 17, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Roger Scruton.
Roger Scruton is a research professor in the department of philosophy at St. Andrews University, a visiting scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and a senior research fellow in philosophy at Blackfriars Hall in Oxford. He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator who has specialised in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates as a powerful conservative thinker and polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England. Professor Scruton has published more than 30 books including, The Face of God, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2012 Roger Scruton