Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Questions Online - Is human uniqueness really nothing more than a neurological phenomenon?

This is an interesting piece by Roger Scruton, from Big Questions Online - Raymond Tallis coined the term neurotrash, a word that refers to all the neuro-[fill in the blank] things:
neuro-ethics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-art history, neuro-law, neuro-economics, neuro-politics, neuro-jurisprudence, neuro-marketing, neuro-musicology, neuro-poetics, neuro-philosophy, and even neuro-theology
None of these really mean anything, though - what little we know about neuro-anything is minimal and incomplete - we're just making stuff up from little pieces of knowledge. That's dangerous.

Against Neurotrash

Is human uniqueness really nothing more than a neurological phenomenon?

image: David Ridley/Getty Images

By Roger Scruton
Friday, September 3, 2010

Genuine science and true religion cannot conflict. Science discovers truths, religion reveals them. But no truth contradicts another, and all truths have a place in the scheme of things, bound each to each in a web of mutual implications. Pope John Paul II believed this, and made a point of emphasizing that the Church has neither the right nor the power to contradict the findings of science. Moreover, if science and religion conflict over some matter, then it is religion, not science that must give way. Of course the Church has not always obeyed that rule. But it is a rule dictated by the laws of thought.

Averro√ęs and Aquinas wrote of faith and reason, rather than religion and science. But their concern was essentially the same: to reconcile human discovery and divine revelation. This concern has been central to Western civilization from its beginnings in the city-states of Greece. We are shocked by Plato, when he defends the “noble lie,” inviting us to propagate unbelievable myths for the sake of social order. We are shocked by Dostoevsky, when he writes that “if I must choose between Christ and Truth, it is Christ that I shall choose.” We are shocked by the person who protects his sacred texts from scientific examination, lest their status as “revelations” be put in doubt. We accept that there are falsehoods that it might be dangerous or impolitic to question. But we hope always for another and purer kind of religion, purged of superstition and pious fairy tales.

Since the Enlightenment, science has been capturing territory from religion, explaining the cosmos and our tiny corner of it in ways that make no mention of a supernatural plan. And for two centuries religion has been gradually giving way, accepting that now this feature of our world, now that one, could be accounted for without reference to God’s purpose. But our situation has begun to change. In recent years a new kind of science has arisen, one with a more aggressive face. It wishes to seize territory in advance of any negotiation, and which often lays waste to the place that it conquers.

I am thinking of the science that for a while described itself as “sociobiology” before changing its name to “evolutionary psychology” and joining forces with that ubiquitous thing called “neuroscience.” Quite suddenly it seems as though the whole remaining territory of religion has been confiscated. Free choice? Just a story we tell ourselves, after the brain has “set things in motion.” Neighbor-love? Just an “evolutionally stable strategy,” no different in principle from the altruism of ants and bears. The moral imperative? Just the voice of “group selection” resounding in our genes. Beauty? Just the call of sexual selection, the wonder of the peahen at the peacock’s ludicrous tail. Take any feature of the human condition that has suggested our special significance in the eyes of God, dress it up as an “adaptation,” and if possible do a few fMRI scans so as to locate it in some region of the brain and — Hey! Presto! — what looked like a revelation of the supernatural is turned into a piece of neural circuitry.

So great has been the excitement generated by this trick that whole new disciplines have arisen, incorporating the prefix “neuro” in their names, and offering to explore the real truth of the human being by making pictures of his brain. We now have neuro-ethics, neuro-aesthetics, neuro-art history and neuro-law; we have neuro-economics, neuro-politics, neuro-jurisprudence and neuro-marketing. There is neuro-musicology, neuro-poetics, neuro-philosophy and even neuro-theology, a marvelous discipline that parachutes itself right into the enemy camp, in order to explain away our religious illusions by locating the place in the hypothalamus that pumps them out.

This neurotrash, as the philosopher and neurosurgeon Raymond Tallis calls it, feeds into the “selfish gene” philosophy that has caused such a stir since Richard Dawkins’s book of that title. The Selfish Gene excited people for the same reason as the new disciplines excite them, namely, because it seemed to “bring us down to size,” to rewrite the human condition as nothing special, and to lift the great moral burden that arises from the thought that we are the goal of creation, and that our lives will be judged. Unlike the theories of Dawkins, however, which are serious and vindicated science, the neuro-theories are essentially improvised. Explanandum and explanans are both described in question-begging terms, the one as a form of behavior that could be exhibited as well by a baboon as by a person, the other as a neural process that can be picked up, after the event, by a brain scan. This “science without theory” and “observation without concepts” has little or nothing in common with the patient collecting of evidence, and the tentative formulation of causal laws, that we observe in the work of Darwin. And the result is seized upon precisely because it seems to shoot us forward to a predetermined goal, which is that of reducing the human being to a biological computer.

Brain science is undeniably making important discoveries, as it maps the workings of the mind onto the wrinkles of the cortex. The problem is not with the science, but with its hasty and motivated application. The brain is an important part of the human being, but it is not the whole human being. And it is not the part that we relate to, when we address each other I to I. Religion arose from the attempt to make sense of our condition as responsible and self-conscious individuals: it claimed the territory of human relations and built its great castles there, in the open terrain of rational dialogue. Neurotrash has invaded that terrain and knocked down the castles. But it has also laid waste the land. What it tells us about the terrain of thought and emotion is not more true than religion but less true.

Take the case of erotic love. The Bible succinctly explains the deep significance for each other of Adam and Eve. What it tells us is beautifully amplified by Milton in Paradise Lost. But the truths so finely discerned by Milton and by the author of Genesis are not captured by brain science. That science has made great progress in understanding the mechanism of pair-bonding, induced by the release of oxytocin into the cortex during intercourse. The theory shows what is common to people and laboratory rats. But it says nothing about what distinguishes them, which is the I-to-I relation of lovers, as revealed in the smile and the kiss. That is why the conflict between religion and science endures, even now, when biology has dispelled so many of the mysteries of the human condition. People hold on to their religion because it protects and endorses the belief that science might appear to steal from us, but which it can never steal in fact: the belief in human uniqueness.

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher living in England. His many books include Beauty and The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope. Learn more about him at

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