March 3, 2024

Hang on a minute, say neuroscience sceptics

Italian philosophers argue that contemporary neuroscience is both intellectually stimulating and methodologically confused

Neuroscience is rapidly becoming the
hottest idea in town. Understanding how the brain works could allow us to
predict, control and change human behaviour. Already there are assertions that
brain scans can predict the way we vote, that drugs can make us fall in love,
that scans can detect racial prejudice, and so on. These claims are radical
enough in scientific journals – but on the front page of tabloids, they shatter
deeply held convictions about free will and self-control.

Two Italian philosophers from Roma Tre
University are sceptical. They have dissected some of the best-known arguments
and experiments in the latest issue of Neuroethics and found them wanting. Contemporary
neuroscience, they argue, is “intellectually
stimulating and methodologically confused”. They warn that “hasty and
over-ambitious conclusions may produce negative social and political

“The crucial factor is, unsurprisingly, the
vast appeal that the neurosciences exercise in our culture. Nowadays the common perception is that
neurosciences are “more scientific”, “truer”, than all other forms of
investigations—and thus should have the final word—because they can see into,
and explain entirely, the “human engine”, i.e. the brain (considered as the
source of all human behavior, feelings, thoughts, attitudes, goals and
desires). Once again, this appeal is understandable, given the astonishing
epistemic progress that those sciences have produced in recent years. Still, as
we have argued, the widespread expectation that the neurosciences are on the
verge of completely explaining human agency—and, for this reason, have an
absolute primacy on the other forms of investigation—is, at the present state,

The whole article is well worth reading as corrective
to what they call the “intellectual hubris” of some neuroscientists. It is sure
to cause some controversy in the field. ~ Neuroscience,

Michael Cook