Neuroenvy

There is a nice piece here on the “neuro-nonsense” currently in play today. On the smallest of scale, if the purpose were only to conceive of better understandings of the brain and our bodies in the interest of treating disease and the health and comfort to humans all this would be and is great. But to then have people suggesting that a brain scan can tell them something beyond the effects or repeatability is laughable.

The example typifies the results of neuroenvy, which consist of a vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions. And the answers are encased in neurononsense of the following kind (courtesy of Patricia Churchland):

“The brains of social animals are wired to feel pleasure in the exercise of social dispositions such as grooming and co-operation, and to feel pain when shunned, scolded, or excluded. Neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding, parent-offspring bonding, and probably also bonding to kith and kin …”

As though we didn’t know already that people feel pleasure in grooming and co-operating, and as though it adds anything to say that their brains are “wired” to this effect, or that “neurochemicals” might possibly be involved in producing it. This is pseudoscience of the first order, and owes what scant plausibility it possesses to the fact that it simply repeats the matter that it fails to explain. It perfectly illustrates the prevailing academic disorder, which is the loss of questions.

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3 Responses to Neuroenvy

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Gosh, what is left for a soul to do?

    What you and your cite-ee seem to miss is that the neuro-talk doesn't refer to a homunculus at all. There is no little consciousness in there. Rather it is a matter of construction– a word you hear a lot here but seem not to understand.

    “It looks significant only if we assume that an event in a brain is identical with a decision of a person, that an action is voluntary if and only if preceded by a mental episode of the right kind, that intentions and volitions are “felt” episodes of a subject which can be precisely dated. All such assumptions are incoherent, for reasons that philosophers have made abundantly clear.”

    Well, it surely is incoherent the way he puts it. Nonsense as far as I can tell. The Libet experiments say that our actual decisions for action predate our consciousness of those decisions, in his particular experimental setting. Thus our consciousness of making a decision is not the start of some train of action, as a naive soul theory would directly imply. Rather, that consciousness is the result of some train of neural “processing”, as is the action itself. This leads to a more realistic model of how actions as well as consciousness come out of the brain system. It may support previous intuitions, as you note, but it may also deny other intutions (like the economist's lazy assumption of rationality).

    Generally, your cranky theo-writer seems to think that neuroscience seeks to replace the person with some kind of science-y neurohomunculus. But all they are trying to do is the explain the person by way of the obvious and reigning theory of the day, which is materialism. The person arises from the brain in some way, and it would be nice to know exactly how. It is a science, and all his other questions and hangups have to do with the arts which continue unimpeded, unless they happen to have some crappy theory of biology, like souls.

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  2. Burk Braun says:

    “It may support previous intuitions” .. meaning neuroscience generally, not the Libet work specifically.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    You may enjoy a talk about neuro-bunk, from a scientific perspective.

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