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Human dignity
2 October 2012

You are not a brain scan – challenging the rise of neurotrash

Now that most of us are Eurosceptics, it’s time that true conservatives also became neurosceptics.

Important claims are being made in the name of neuroscience – claims with profound political, ethical and cultural implications – but, which as Steven Poole explains in the New Statesman, are without foundation:

  • “An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer.”

Seeing is believing and, so, when presented with the evidence of a brain scan showing different parts of our grey matter firing up in the course of different aspects of the human experience, we’re prone to accept claims that our choices, emotions and beliefs have been ‘explained’ or, rather, explained away as mere patterns of neural activity.

  • “In general, the ‘neural’ explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena.”

Poole exposes the various tricks pulled by the salespersons of popular neuroscience – the anecdotalism, the “premature extrapolation” and the cherry-picking from often conflicting evidence. But the point he really brings home is just how little the real scientists admit to understanding:

  • “The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.”

What is lacking in popular neuroscience is a sense of perspective. Whatever little scraps of correlation that might be gleaned from our measurements are floating on an immense ocean of deepest mystery. And, yet, this is the basis on which serious commentators and politicians – including some conservatives who really ought to know better – are beginning to make their arguments.

At the heart of all of this, of course, are the intellectual forces of materialism. Having killed- off God (at least, to their own satisfaction), the abolition of the human soul is the next thing on their to-do list.


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