A rant on neuroscience and philosophy

Neuroscience has given rise to one of the most absurd and pathetic versions of reductionism ever seen, one that purports to “explain” one of the most complex realities we know — the subjective experience of consciousness — simply by pointing to physical phenomena that seem to accompany it. It’s like saying that cheese tastes good because it’s made of atoms. Far be it from me, of course, to disparage the idea that cheese is made of atoms or that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it seems like this approach not only doesn’t answer, but actively blocks the asking of the most important and interesting question: how did the observed complex phenomenon arise out of the physical process?

The attempt to “explain” subjective experience by reference to the physical processes of neurons and hormones consists essentially in trying to explain what we already basically know (I feel sad) by what we can never directly experience (my hormones are acting up). In many cases, the “explanation” is simply a translation of typical descriptions of subjective experience into the terms of neuroscience. A great example of this is a New Yorker profile of the Churchlands from a few years ago, which portrayed them doing just that in their everyday life. Instead of saying that they were exhausted from work, they would describe the chemical process at work. It struck me as pathetic and sad that they would think further information was being added in this process.

People were able to learn a lot of interesting things about matter without knowing that the level of chemistry was grounded in the level of sub-atomic particles — indeed, without knowing what “atoms” were at all. They were able to learn a lot about evolution without knowing about the genetic vehicle, and in fact scientists still don’t really know precisely how genes give rise to traits. It’d be insane to say, “Well, now that we know about quarks, all the questions of chemistry are answered,” or, “Now that we know about genes, there’s no need to study actual animals anymore.” Doubtless more information about the “lower” or more “foundational” level would contribute to the study of the “higher” or “phenomenal” level, but not if the study of the lower level leads you to believe the study of the higher level is already redundant.

It is probably the case that an account of the connective tissue between the brain and the subject — the “dream-work,” if you will — is going to have to be much more speculative than most contemporary philosophers would really be comfortable with. It would probably look a lot more like Freud’s metapsychological writings or Beyond the Pleasure Principle than like a work of “proper” science or philosophy. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin. But unless people are willing to do that kind of work, it seems to me that just bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.

16 thoughts on “A rant on neuroscience and philosophy

  1. Agreed! Eric Santner made very similar arguments in a seminar I took on Marx and Freud this past spring.

    It takes no small amounts of patience and forbearance to discuss these questions with neuro-reductivists. Like discussing capitalism with libertarians!

    And don’t get me started on what happens whenever I bring up Freud (who I was fascinated by as a result of Santner’s excellent seminar): “Wasn’t he disproved by psychology and neuroscience?”

  2. The Churchlands are something of an extreme example within the bounds of neuroscience of course. They are not really in favor anymore. Global workspace theory and Dennett are really pushed forward.

  3. I don’t think the Churchlands believe that the study of the ‘higher level’ of human consciousness is redundant, but merely that approaches which ignore the biological data and privilege subjective intuition alone (e.g. Heideggerian phenomenology) are highly unlikely to stand a better chance of arriving at the truth.

    To take your cheese example: we may agree that the fact the cheese is made of atoms is not of central importance to its taste, *but* the fact that you have taste receptors on your tongue (which determine the range of flavors you can detect) certainly is. This reductive information needn’t prevent cheese connoisseurs from developing more elaborate descriptions of how different varieties taste.

  4. Preaching to the choir here, Adam. In fact, this is my research specialty. More specifically, unifying process metaphysics and non-Husserlian phenomenology to avoid the dualism that has you breathing fire. It’s an ultra-minority position, though, so few have heard of it, but more likely have heard of its cousin biosemiotics.

  5. Hill, I am so inclined as well. If they recognize that they are using abductive logic, which they are free to deny at their peril, then they must admit that reduction is not one of the easily-defensible abductive criteria.

    The peril would be that without abduction, then I don’t see how they survive Hume’s fork without becoming extreme nominalists and anti-realists. Perhaps not every reader is familiar with this jargon, and I can explain if needed.

  6. On a more substantive point (and regarding AK’s comments beyound the pleasure principle), Malabou highlighting the limitations of Freudian sexuality vis-a-vis neuroscience fails to marshal resources within Freudian legacy that pertain to nonneurotic structures which could support a cerebal unconcious.

  7. I think it’s important to distinguish between eliminative and reductive materialism. The name ‘eliminative’ and the sort of macho scientism associated with it are unfortunate, because as I see it, the point of eliminative realism is just: we don’t know what the mind is, what mental states/acts/processes are, etc. Rather than taking concepts like memory, perception, thinking, as given, and then trying to find “centres” for them in the brain, you try to describe what brains do and don’t worry whether it matches our folk-psychological understanding of the mind. The claim that neurobiology is the best way of doing this seems plausible to me, but I don’t think it necessarily implies that psychoanalysis, phenomenology, etc. are invalid (even if many eliminative materialist say it does). There can be a pluralistic eliminative materialism. Dennett and Metzinger are closer to this than the Churchlands, though I don’t know if either would call themselves eliminativists.
    I didn’t see the article on the Churchlands you mention, but it sounds like it’s talking about Paul Churchland’s ideas relating to the “plasticity of mind”. Paul Churchland claims that we can train ourselves to perceive brain states (rather than folk-psychological mental states) by introspection and to me this is a fascinating idea. This is why I think the name ‘eliminative’ is unfortunate because it makes it seem as though it’s taking something away from the world when I think it has the potential to be a part of a grand cultural project of self-knowledge and to produce new forms of experience that we can barely imagine. Though I agree it does seem silly to say “my dopamine levels are low” or whatever instead of “I’m sad”.

  8. Being that this is along my lines of thinking about methodology in The Synaptic Gospel, I’ll chime in. Is it really the case that neuroscience necessarily makes these kinds of conclusions, or are we just talking about philosophers and theologians who then develop a neurotheology around the science? Even affect neuroscience (Panksepp, et al) makes no claim to explain subjectivity in any complete way, but to instead give clues as to how the science might integrate with psychology or philosophy–though I have wondered if this openness to the humanities has to do with the speculative nature of neuroscience…

  9. Fantastic! It was a very quick and suggestive course we had, there’s only so much we can do in 10 weeks. It was also great to get some instruction on Zizek and on some basic Lacanian vocabulary. Santner has the wonderful ability of leaving one with more questions with which to return to the text than with definitive answers, so I feel that the tensions discussed in the seminar will remain in my thoughts for some time to come. How are you finding it? (Although I wonder if a comment thread on neuro-reductivism is the best place to discuss seminars we have taken/are taking!)

  10. I’m heading to a behavioral science summit at Stanford Thursday to cover a lecture on neuroimaging and music, so this cautious reminder comes along at a perfect time.

    “…bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.” VERY yes. I shall try to remember this.

  11. There’s a new antagonist in the new season of Dexter. A neuroscientist/criminal profiler who seemingly has Hannibal Lecter-like powers of psychological insight, like she can just look at a person and see straight into their mind. That’s the pop view of neuroscience now (and perhaps science in general) – it’s a superpower.

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