Neuroscience Is Our Era's Phrenology
By Martin LeFevre
Nov 28, 2020, 10:36am
Phrenology, which was big in the early 1800's, is defined as "the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities." Neuroscience is not a pseudo-science as phrenology was, but given many of its conclusions, much less its veneration, it has become phrenology's equivalent in our time.
The popularization of neuroscience has reached head-spinning heights. A recent New York Times op-ed, meant to be uplifting, is lugubriously entitled: "Your Brain Is Not For Thinking." It's stamped with a neuroscientist's seal of authority, and is subtitled: "In stressful times, this surprising lesson from neuroscience may help to lesson your anxieties."
The piece contains gems like: "There is no such thing as a purely mental cause, because every mental experience has roots in the physical budgeting of your body."
That sounds a lot like a pronouncement from the Delphic Oracle, rather than sound scientific and/or philosophical insight. Indeed, the Delphic Oracle would not have made such a sweeping pronouncement, because they at least understood that meaning is created in the individual, not in the lab or on the fMRI slab.
The NYT op-ed opens by trying to drown the human conundrum (which has become the human crisis in our age), in the oceans of the primeval past.
"Five hundred million years ago, a tiny sea creature changed the course of history: It became the first predator...this new activity of hunting started an evolutionary arms race...eventually, some creatures evolved a command center to run complex bodies. We call it a brain."
That's risible stuff, but at least it telegraphs the author's intention, which is to ignore the planetary crisis generated by symbolic thought, and locate the problem in the mists of evolutionary time when the predator-prey dynamic first emerged.
Placing the destructive anomaly of man in the fog of the antediluvian past is not just intellectually dishonest however; it simply doesn't cut it.
Psychology and neuroscience have failed to explain the human crisis, much less point the way ahead for the individual and society. The prevailing paradigm for widespread mental illness and societal breakdown is so deeply philosophically flawed that it has become a big part of the problem.
Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett maintains that the problem isn't in our stars or ourselves, but in how "your brain runs your body using something like a budget."
Dr. Barrett acknowledges the "budgetary account of how the brain works may seem plausible when it comes to your bodily functions, [but it] may seem less natural to view your mental life as a series of deposits and withdrawals."
Never fear, or take responsibility, for "every thought you have, every feeling of happiness or anger or awe you experience, every kindness you extend and every insult you bear or sling is part of your brain's calculations as it anticipates and budgets your metabolic needs," Barrett intones.
Furthermore, "anxiety does not cause stomach aches; rather, feelings of anxiety and stomach aches are both ways that human brains make sense of physical discomfort."
Statements like these are where neuroscientists go from doing bad philosophy to engaging in psychological malpractice.
Neuroscience runs into the age-old dilemma: If one's actions are simply the brain "calculating, anticipating and planning," then what is my responsibility? And if I am calculating, anticipating and planning, then why does the brain generate self-awareness?
Professional psychologists and neuroscientists (my spell check wants to capitalize the word) can't have it both ways. If there is such a thing as responsibility, and if the 'I' is a construct of the brain, then the personalized 'you' in "your brain's activity" has no meaning.
Of course there is responsibility; there is agency; and we have brains that regulate the autonomic functions in the body. What's resolves the riddle? Paradoxically, with the insight that there is no separate self in actuality, responsibility becomes greater.
It's simply not good enough to say, "Much of your brain's activity happens outside your awareness. In every moment, your brain must figure out your body's needs for the next moment and execute a plan to fill those needs in advance"---and apply that to the psychological and emotional dimension.
Barrett gives, implicitly and unawares, a theory of human nature that is at once simplistic and confused, overly drawn and falling far short of having explanatory power.
The right response to the truism that "so often we conceive of ourselves in mental terms, separate from the physical" is not to blend human evolution into some blurry backdrop of predator-prey natural selection. That worldview and theory of human nature plays right into the hands of social Darwinists. The right response is to face the universal human tendency and habit of creating divisions and dualisms in the first place.
Neuroscience cannot cure what ails the human mind and heart. It is rightly a product of the rational, scientific mind, but it is fundamentally incapable of addressing, much less remedying the pathologies of thought and emotion.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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