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Is neuroscience ruining the humanities?

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So Arthur Crystal contends at The Chronicle Review, fingering pop neuroscience and evolutionary psychology:

Art and literature survived the onslaught of critical theory, but not without a major derailment. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became both the focus and the conduit of aesthetic expression. This may be something of an exaggeration, but it’s hard not to view the work of John Cage, Andy Warhol, and Alain Robbe-Grillet as compositions less interested in art than in the conceit that anything could be art. And while this attempt to validate the ordinary may have been in step with the intellectual tempo, it also summoned from the academy an exegesis so abstruse, so pumped up with ersatz hermeneutics that, in reality, it showcased the aesthetic void it so desperately attempted to disguise. And this absence was nothing less than the expulsion of those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic charter to create meaning in verbal, plastic, and aural mediums.

Not that this bothered postmodern theorists whose unabashed mission was to expose Western civilization’s hidden agenda: the doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex, and race embedded in our linguistic and social codes. For many critics in the 1970s and 80s, the Enlightenment had been responsible for generating ideas about the world that were simply innocent of their own implications. Accordingly, bold new ideas were required that recognized the ideological framework of ideas in general. So Barthes gave us “The Death of the Author,” and Foucault concluded that man is nothing more than an Enlightenment invention, while Paul de Man argued that insofar as language is concerned there is “in a very radical sense no such thing as the human.”

But why should neuroscience take the rap for what coffeehouse layabouts sold to their idle Fifth Avenue patrons, which lazy art critics later took up? Well, the “mindless” approach grew, so …

For instance, psychologists and legal scholars, spurred by brain research and sophisticated brain-scanning techniques, have begun to reconsider ideas about volition. If all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral—is a person responsible for his actions? Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in a famous 2004 paper contend that neuroscience has put a new spin on free will and culpability: It “can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control.” Their hope is that the courts will ultimately discard blame-based punishment in favor of more “consequentialist approaches.”

All this emphasis on the biological basis of human behavior is not to everyone’s liking.

It’s also not correct. But it certainly suits an authoritarian agenda because what it would do is disconnect crime and punishment from “primitive” ideas about right and wrong. Which is what authoritarians/totalitarian always seek.

People choose to take these lessons from neuroscience. They are not forced on them by neuroscience. See, for example, “‘I will’ mean something after all.”

Just as famous museums choose to pay huge sums of money for such things as:

It invested £126,000 in an empty room with lights that flicked on and off every five seconds and paid £22,350 for a sealed tin said to contain an artist’s excrement.

But a pile of 6,000 oranges dubbed Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) is tipped to be the Tate Modern’s craziest art installation yet.

The taxpayer-backed London art gallery has spent £30,000 on the sculpture – which works out to be a fiver for each fruit.

No one forces that on the museum, nor does anyone force the Vatican Museum on the public.

But, Crystal notes, pop culture does tend to mold public taste:

“Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?” The New York Times asked in 2010. Apparently so, if the government and foundations are more inclined to support the humanities when they start borrowing terms and ideas from cognitive science. It seems that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are taken. In a 2008 paper titled “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations,” Deena Skolnick Weisberg and colleagues demonstrated that ordinary people’s opinions were so influenced by neuroscientific terms that any explanation or critical judgment employing them seemed valid, however nonsensical. Well, professors of English and philosophy are ordinary people, too.

Much further on the takeover of culture by shallow pop science, but also

If questions of art, beauty, morality, and value continue to engage us, the answers, so it’s said, must lie in our genes. Or in our frontal cortices. Or in our innate capacity for wonder, which makes us adapt better to the wonder of existence. It’s anyone’s guess. It seems only that by ceding such questions to biological and cognitive science we have made peace, at least for the moment, with the ideas that used to make intellectuals reach for their pens and sometimes their guns. It’s hard to know exactly what this concession means, yet one can’t help but reflect that by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind might one day fathom the human condition. More.

The idea that human insight might fathom the human condition is now long relinquished in many quarters.

Its successor idea is that there is no mind, really, there is just power. So some rule over others, and the others had better do, say, think, and believe as they are told because by definition the content of their ideas bears no relation to reality anyway.

Not sure it is neuroscience that is ruining the humanities so much as the deadly pretensions urged in its name.

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One Reply to “Is neuroscience ruining the humanities?

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    Its all a rejection of the simple historic christian belief and even pagan, that we are souls in a body.
    So they must say the mind is part of the body and so just as mechanical as the body. the mind doesn’t have a mind of its own.
    sure it does.
    the mind , I say , is just a great memory machine and all thinking is done by our soul/heart with just using memory.
    this is why interference with the triggering mechanism for memory leads to retardations/ etc.
    The bible says Gods law is written in peoples hearts even if heathen.

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