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Philosopher blasts neuro-envy – outbreak is similar to Darwinitis, with similarly stupefying results


In “Neurononsense: Why brain sciences can’t explain the human condition”( ABC News, 9 May 2012), philosopher Roger Scruton observes

In 1986, Patricia Churchland published Neurophilosophy, arguing that the questions that had been discussed to no effect by philosophers over many centuries would be solved once they were rephrased as questions of neuroscience. This was the first major outbreak of a new academic disease, which one might call “neuroenvy.”

If philosophy could be replaced by neuroscience, why not the rest of the humanities, which had been wallowing in a methodless swamp for far too long? Old disciplines that relied on critical judgment and cultural immersion could be given a scientific gloss when rebranded as “neuroethics,” “neuroaesthetics,” “neuromusicology,” “neurotheology” or ‘neuroarthistory’ (subject of a book by John Onians).

Michael Gazzaniga’s influential study The Ethical Brain has given rise to “Law and Neuroscience” as an academic discipline, combining legal reasoning and brain imagining, largely to the detriment of our old ideas of responsibility. One by one, real but non-scientific disciplines are being rebranded as infant sciences, even though the only science involved has as yet little or nothing to say about them.

It seems to me that aesthetics, criticism, theology, musicology and law are real disciplines, but not sciences. They are not concerned with explaining some aspect of the human condition but with understanding it, according to its own internal procedures. Rebrand them as branches of neuroscience and you don’t necessarily increase knowledge: in fact you might lose it. Bl21Brain imaging won’t help you to analyse Bach’s Art of Fugue or to interpret King Lear any more than it will unravel the concept of legal responsibility or deliver a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture; it won’t help you to understand the concept of God or to evaluate the proofs for His existence, nor will it show you why justice is a virtue and cowardice a vice.

That might be its attraction for some people.

It allows them to attach “neuro-” to a conventional word, and get grants to write nonsense.

It’s like trying to explain everything in the universe via Darwin’s natural selection. It gets grants, not persecutions.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose


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