The Limitations of Neuroscience

Roger Scruton warns that the neurosciences are creeping into other disciplines:

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).

The entire essay is worth a read and probably a second after that.  The key graph comes here:

So just what can be proved about people by the close observation of their brains? We can be conceptualised in two ways: as organisms and as objects of personal interaction. The first way employs the concept ‘human being’, and derives our behaviour from a biological science of man. The second way employs the concept ‘person’, which is not the concept of a natural kind, but of an entity that relates to others in a familiar but complex way that we know intuitively but find hard to describe.

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. When we endeavour to understand persons through the half-formed theories of neuroscience we are tempted to pass over their distinctive features in silence, or else to attribute them to some brain-shaped homunculus inside. For we understand people by facing them, by arguing with them, by understanding their reasons, aspirations and plans. All of that involves another language, and another conceptual scheme, from those deployed in the biological sciences. We do not understand brains by facing them, for they have no face.

There’s a lot to unravel here, but let me add a few hasty observations.

First, there is a temptation to treat the deliverances of science, especially the neurosciences, as authoritative and settled.  This danger seems like it would be particularly strong for evangelicals who are working to overcome the anti-science hangover we have heard so much about.  To question the presuppositions of contemporary neuroscience is to invite the charge of joining the leagues of the hopelessly regressive.  (Or, you know, of being Roger Scruton.)

Second, Scruton’s argument is that the cognitive sciences can show us the facts, but that they cannot give us the meaning.  As he puts it, “the subtle features of the human condition” are those which the humanities are oriented toward elucidating.  Interestingly, the problem he lays down goes beyond the fact that the neurosciences cannot adequately capture the constitution or nature of the human person.  The problem is also pedagogical:  we can not learn the nature of humanity from the neurosciences, either our own or that of other people.

This pedagogical uniqueness stems from a personal, relational dimension to the human experience:  there are thoughts that arise “face to face” that cannot be explained except through the deeper, more holistic understandings of humanity that are on offer in art, literature, and hopefully theology.  The claims of the nuerosciences, universalizing and totalizing as they must be, strip away this personal dimension and as such can only be stunted and reductionistic.

  • Adam

    To return back to the neuroscience for its critique, the two perspectives of which Scruton and Matt speak mirror, interestingly, the distinct processing styles of the left and right hemispheres. Cf. McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary. In the name of neuroscience and hard facts, we throw out the right hemisphere.

  • Steven

    I haven’t read McGilchrist’s book, but based on some summary stuff I’ve read, I have to say I’m rather skeptical of it. As for your parting zinger, Matt, I think that the reigning paradigm in the neurosciences specifically and consciously *is* reductionistic. So a neuroscientist would probably not feel that your zinger has much zing. The question of reduction is itself one of the BIG controversies that isn’t nearly controversial enough in the sciences. Reductionism has been so ingrained into the scientific enterprise since Descartes at least, that it’s hard even to think about what a valid non-reductionist science would look like. (As luck would have it, Chomsky has much to say about this, whether he’s on the right track or not….). By the way, Jerry Fodor’s little book “The Brain Doesn’t Work That Way” offers a very nice critique of the cognitive neurosciences (and the title is great!).

  • Isaac Wiegman

    I think most reasonable people will agree that exaggerated claims are made in the name of neuroscience. I think this probably has a lot to do with people’s fascination with pictures of brain areas “lighting up” and the eagerness of science journalists to satisfy. It probably has less to do with what most neuroscientists actually think. So I think the article by Scruton was a little over the top in its attempt to lump all neuroscientists into the position that neuroscience will replace everything. On the contrary, I suspect that most neuroscientists who investigate things like music are more curious about looking through a new window onto an independently interesting phenomenon than they are interested in some kind of “neuroimperialist” venture.

    Concerning what’s already been called your “parting zinger”, Matt, I think its important to distinguish between different kinds of reduction. The imperialistic sort is theory reduction which attempts to locate the explanatory power of science at the lowest possible level (physics). I doubt that most neuroscientists have strong convictions about this kind of reduction. (This view really comes from the logical positivists and results from taking physics as the central paradigm for how science should operate. Most philosophers of science are moving away from this conception now.) Indeed, as my favorite philosopher of science (Carl Craver) points out, the methods and techniques that some neuroscientists use show that higher level factors sometimes explain lower level phenomena. For instance, the occupation of being a taxi driver in London can have a huge impact on someone’s brain structure. The resulting idea is that there is a single, physical reality (ontological monism about human persons) that can be probed using interventions at several different levels (explanatory pluralism).

    Notice that this last sentence assumes a kind of reductionism that is independent of the explanatory (imperialistic kind) and one that most neuroscientists probably embrace. It’s just a commitment to the physicalism about human persons, and it’s much more difficult to deny. I’m guilty of this kind of reductionism myself, but I doubt it has earth shaking implications for our view of ourselves as human beings.

    None of this is to say that there isn’t serious philosophical work to be done in reconciling the “scientific image” with the “manifest image” (this contrast owes to Wilfred Sellars). If that were the case, I would certainly be unable to obtain future employment. However, it is to say that some of the discussion here seems to assume that the tension between these two images of human nature must be resolved in a certain way, if “neuroscience” (with its supposedly “universalizing and totalizing claims”) is right. As you may have guessed, I think this is a mis-perception of what neuroscientists are about, and I’m skeptical that neuroscience writ large (in its preparadigmatic state) has reached a settle viewpoint on much at all.

  • C. Wingate

    It’s instructive to look at this from the analogue which of course all the neuroscience people look towards: that of digital computers. So down at the bottom we have transistors, and they are assembled to make logic gates and memory bits, and the gates are assembled into CPUs and other processing elements, and it’s all hooked together into a computer into which a program may be loaded and run, and which a person might put to use. But at each level here a almost totally different level of abstraction is imposed, so that in a sense what is actually going on at each lower level is nearly completely obscured. A computer user as a rule need not know how the program is written, and the programmer need only understand how his language works, and the language designer need only understand how his language is compiled into the CPU’s native language, and so forth all the way down. There’s nothing in a transistor that implies for instance how I am typing these words.

    The opposite side is that pretty pathetic internal fakery allows for results that are more or less convincing. Joseph Weizenbaum wrote Computer Power and Human Reason out of the observation that the poor performance (based in a very limited implementation) of Eliza nonetheless tricked some people into treating interaction with it as to a human; and the same obscurity applies to neuroscience. There are some areas of the brain whose structure has lent them to being understood on a processing level, precisely because their structure reflects a fairly simple task (e.g. the cerebellum). Hardly any higher function is understood at all in this sense.

  • James M.

    I am wondering how/if your understanding of the “non-imperial” sort of reductionism differs from standard scientific method. My understanding of science proper is that it necessarily involves the study of physical things and, as such, is not reductionistic at all. Unless I’m mis-understanding his point, Matt seems to be cautioning that scientists over-step their bounds in attempting to explain metaphysical realities by physical means. It seems to me that, regardless of how well-intentioned or fair minded the scientist might be, when the starting point is ontologically oriented merely to the material, then the whole enterprise can only lead to certain physicalist conclusions that could be catalogued as knowlege proper. I’m not suggesting that all neuroscientists operate on that basis; however, I would consider myself among the skeptics who look at a scientific landscape that often seems to be littered with “knowledge” which derives from physicalist assumptions that leave no room for the soul.

  • Isaac Wiegman

    I suspect there are some deep disagreements between the two of us about the nature of science and its implications for the mind/body problem. I think science does undermine metaphysical claims that the mind is constituted by some nonphysical substance, so I think scientists are on fairly good footing if they make assumptions that leave no room for the soul.

    However, I don’t think Scruton’s essay has anything to do with the mind/body problem. If I understand him correctly, it’s about how neuroscientists are “invading” other disciplines in a way that attempts to subsume those disciplines into neuroscience. If Matt is trying to make some deeper point about the mind/body problem here (which I doubt), then I think he grabbed hold of the wrong target essay.

  • James M.

    I was attempting to address a critique of his use of the phrase “stunted and reductionistic” in the last paragraph. I may be mistaken, but I would understand him to be raising a concern that an ever-encroaching neuroscience is inadequate to the task of shedding light on the soulish essence of human persons. Thanks for the response.

  • Isaac Wiegman

    I understand where you’re coming from, but on either interpretation, I think Matt is just wrong. Either he’s mistakenly accusing neuroscience of theory reduction (a mistake because neuroscientists will admit that there are questions that cannot be answered by neuroscience) or he’s mistakenly assuming that someone who beleives in physicalism must necessarily have a stunted and indignified view of human nature. This last claim is mistaken because belief in physical constitution of the human mind doesn’t exclude the possibility of taking a relational stance toward someone with such a mind. Just consider the fact that philosophers like P F Strawson and Daniel Dennett are physicalists an yet they emphasize the possibility of taking differen stances toward people. In Strawson’s terms we can take a participant attitude toward someone (and treat them relationally) or we can take the objective attitude toward them (and treat them as objects). There’s nothing about physicalism that entails the denial of human worth and dignity. There’s nothing about it that forces us to forgoe the participant stance in favor of the objective stance.