April 20, 2024

Neuroscience comes under fire from British philosopher

Roger Scruton puts a blowtorch to neuroscience.

The siren song of science can be hard to resist. Quantifying, graphing and imaging fields of knowledge which hitherto yielded only opinions and no data has made neuroscience the cornerstone of 21st century intellectual life. Disciplines like neuro-philosophy, neuro-law, neuro-ethics, and neuro-theology will replace their flabby, inconclusive predecessors.

Utter piffle, says philosopher Roger Scruton in a mordant essay in the (UK) Spectator (March 17):

“The new sciences in fact have a tendency to divide neatly into two parts. On the one hand there is an analysis of some feature of our mental or social life and an attempt to show its importance and the principles of its organisation. On the other hand, there is a set of brain scans.”

This is, he contends, a revival of the homunculus fallacy that consciousness can be explained by invoking a “homunculus“ inside the person.

“The homunculus is no longer a soul, but a brain, which ‘processes information’, ‘maps the world’, ‘constructs a picture’ of reality, and so on — all expressions that we understand, only because they describe conscious processes with which we are familiar. To describe the resulting ‘science’ as an explanation of consciousness, when it merely reads back into the explanation the feature that needs to be explained, is not just unjustified — it is profoundly misleading, in creating the impression that consciousness is a feature of the brain, and not of the person.”

Neuroscience, says Scruton, typically gives “a vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions”.

We should recognise that not all coherent questions about human nature and conduct are scientific questions, concerning the laws governing cause and effect. Most of our questions about persons and their doings are about interpretation: what did he mean by that? … When it comes to the subtle features of the human condition, to the byways of culpability and the secrets of happiness and grief, we need guidance and study if we are to interpret things correctly. That is what the humanities provide, and that is why, when scholars who purport to practise them, add the prefix ‘neuro’ to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.

Michael Cook