Saturday, September 4, 2010

The "Neuro" Prefix Craze

"Take any feature of the human condition that has suggested our special significance in the eyes of God," writes Roger Scruton, "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" — Against Neurotrash. More:
    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.

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