In a recent review of Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, by MD neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, British journalist Robert McLuhan quotes Tallis on the current fad for identifying changes in brain function that are associated with thoughts and feelings as the explanation for those feelings.
There are repeated references to new disciplines with the prefix ‘neuro-‘ or ‘evolutionary’: neuro-jurisprudence, evolutionary economics, evolutionary aesthetics, neuro-theology, neuro-architecture, neuro-archeology and so on. Even philsophers – who should know better, being trained, one hopes, in scepticism – have entered the field with the discipline of ‘X-phi’, or experimental philosophy. Starry-eyed sages, for example, have invented ‘neuro-ethics’, in which ethical principles are examined by using brain scans to determine people’s intuitions when they are asked to deliberate on the classical dilemmas.
It is somewhat as if blushing was thought to be the cause of embarrassment. Yet … that is exactly what many such researchers believe: You feel embarrassed because you blushed, which is a purely physiological reaction. Because natural selection created a tendency to “attribute,” you experience attributing the blush to the fact that you have just spilled your coffee onto the birthday cake on display. There is no mind involved, except as a serious of illusions generated by neurons.
McLuhan puts it like this,
Cognitive psychologists delight in demonstrating how our decisions are often influenced by stimuli of which we are unaware: we act in response to concealed triggers, not for the reasons we believe we act. You may think you gave spare change to that beggar out of a moral sense of duty, but actually you did it because the nearby bakery was sending out a delicious smell of fresh bread, which stimulated feelings of generosity. Brain scans give powerful new authority to this line of reasoning. While the experience of having free will feels real, it’s actually an illusion.
(Paranormalia, July 06, 2011)
The mind and free will are the chief targets for deconstruction. Some think that’s because – if they exist – the new “neuros” theories could be rejection for failing tests of logic and evidence, and we could thus choose to reject them as the morally correct course.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose