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The Limitations of Neuroscience

April 2nd, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.