Monday, October 03, 2011

Carts and Horses: The Deification of the Brain


In “Is Myth Dead?” in The Immanence of Myth, I talked about some of the misconceptions that exist between what falls under the purview of science, and what belongs instead to myth, or as it is more commonly known, narrative. And it is a direct result of misconceptions discussed there that we see a constant glut of so-called “science” articles making claims such as “neuro scientists say that evil no longer exists,” (Slate article) or “neuroscience versus philosophy, taking aim at free well.” (Nature.com article). Let me use these two articles as an example of what is actually an epidemic that needs immediate and complete overhaul. (Image by petercallesen.com.)
The Slate article is considerably more egregious than the latter, as it presents a singular interpretation as the only possible answer to a very complicated question that has challenged the best humans minds throughout our sordid history.

However, both are unified in this particular detail: they depend on a materialist presupposition at the outset and then using this model as a self-evident proof of materialist claims. I know that sounds somewhat abstract, so let’s look at the position posed by these articles directly.
Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?
Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general. A phenomenon attested to by a recent torrent of pop-sci brain books with titles like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Not secret in most of these works is the disdain for metaphysical evil, which is regarded as an antiquated concept that's done more harm than good. They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain.
Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable, say the new brain scientists. For one thing, there is no such thing as "free will" with which to decide to commit evil. (Like evil, free will is an antiquated concept for most.) Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.
It would seem that for every benefit neuroscience gives us, it puts us back an equal amount when it comes to our sense of personal agency. Or, contrarily, I can stab you in the eye and say my brain made me do it. And since we're all mechanical beings, if my kidneys start to go, I'll just carve yours out of your back.

Granted, society—a meta-machine, if you will—can and should lock me away in either event as a means of self-defense. So functionally, there's no difference.

But functionally there is no difference between determinism and free will to begin with. That's not the point. This is a misappropriation of science for myth-making.

The free will vs determinism argument is irrelevant to scientific enterprise, but very relevant to how we look at the world. Philosophy in many instances is meta-mythology. Rather than posing an example clothed in the engaging narrative of the specific, it instead looks for the abstract. But make no mistake, for the most part, it is dealing in mythology. 

Ultimately, one side or the other—free will or determinism—isn't upheld by "discoveries in neuroscience." 

Why? The underlying premises of the article are specious on two accounts: idealism vs. materialism and free will vs. determinism. In both cases we're talking about conceptual carts and horses. Attribute "cause" to one side, "effect" to the other; or similarly, "primary" and "secondary." We are the ones attributing value. We are the ones myth-making.

This kind of thinking is easily outmoded by models in both science as well as philosophy the past 50 years, so this isn't a case of neuroscience having outstripped philosophy or the other way around. Rather, it's a case of the article writer trying to paint a picture, and attempting to use science as a cover for some bad literature. 

It is maybe somewhat ironic that both of these arguments are silently penned atop a myth that goes back to Descartes, that old yarn about mind / body dualism. As I said, this way of looking at the world has mostly been done away with as an accurate model, neatly dividing mind and matter. What we have instead is an admittedly more willy-nilly view of consciousness that calls to mind the paradoxical existence of light simultaneously as wave and particle. I would ask that the writers of these articles use modern philosophical models to frame the modern scientific discoveries their espousing, rather than a framework grounded in the 17th century. 

Should we consider light to behave as a wave or a particle? Well, it depends on how you look at it. The same can be said of our minds.  (Note that I didn't say "is light a wave or a particle." Both of these things are models.)  

shoulderblades
Is our consciousness intrinsically tied to the electrochemical goo inside our skulls? Yes, it certainly seems that way. Can we thereby reduce all issues to a quantifiable, strictly behaviorist, materialist, (even positivist) science, and finally “solve” all philosophical quandaries through scientific measurement? Hardly. 

To explain why would take us on a long journey through the history of both the past 100 years in science and philosophy. We might consider some major steps along the way to include the works of Neils Bohr, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Werner Heisenberg (though let's be honest: nobody truly  understands Quantum mechanics,) and of course Albert Einstein. The questions relevant to this particular inquiry seem simple enough, but they remain as perplexing today as they were in the age of the Ancient Greeks: what is the nature of mind? what is the nature of matter?

It is a criticism of ventures in this direction that such questions often lead to semantic arguments. We are no longer concerned with such "fluff," the modern consumer of pop science literature clearly wants "hard answers." 

Semantic arguments are not necessarily just semantic arguments. Our presuppositions about consciousness, how we define it, how we define concepts such as “will” or “freedom,” are far more important than neuroscans when it comes to our consideration of whether our actions are “free” or “determined.” It is highly probable that our our nervous system has made up its mind about something before we become consciously aware of that decision—or so neuroscientists tell me—but that is merely “passing the buck” as they say. (For non-English natives, that idiom means "deferring responsibility." I'm told that idioms are "bad writing" because they don't translate well. So there you go.) 

Within the context of the conundrum of consciousness, free will seems merely a footnote. What these articles, and those like them, seem to be proclaiming is actually this: "Philosophy and myth are dead. Long live science."

Few would argue that our consciousness is brought about by brain and nerves, but the question remains, can we have a unified theory of mind and matter, or must we continue to think of carts and horses? Is it our language itself that creates this delineation, which says “my body,” as if it was a bio-mechanical walker that my brain is floating in, and within that, a mind. (And within that? It’s “turtles all the way down.”)

Pop science likes to pretend that we are just around the corner from “answering” such questions, as if they can be answered without posing another framework that needs exploration. The truth is that we’ve instead fallen far off the wagon, having lost any sense of the intellectual history that has brought us to this point. 

In other words, in the long tradition of wrestling with these questions, we’ve continually confused the role of myth and the role of science. The nature of mind is not measured, it is explored, just as the realm of experience is not weighed but rather felt.

Richard Feynman made a speech on “cargo cult” science that I’ve mentioned here before that nevertheless seems relevant to point out again.
I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
Of course, the neuroscience that articles such as these are pointing toward are “real” science, so this is even more treacherous ground for the unwary. They are drawing unscientific conclusions from scientific research. This, as I’ve said before, is the realm of myth—and that is well and good, except for when we fool ourselves into mistaking the metaphor for reality. We are then, in some ways, no different from the fundamentalist Christian that takes the Bible for literal truth. (Those who think that I am trying to somehow tarnish the name of scientific exploration should refer back to “Is Myth Dead?”)

If we posit a premise: we are biological robots, from that we can—no, must—build a myth. But whether we are "just" biological robots, or whether it is a magical thing, that falls to the simple aesthetics of the myth we’re constructing.

This is where our myths begin—which is why I feel such fire in regard to getting these ideas out there to you. I recognize that most people don't understand the importance or relevance of immanent mythology. Hopefully our work these past few years—and in the coming years—will make that clear enough that many others will take up the work, as they are in other disciplines that are gradually becoming aware of the greatest mystery of all: the narrative is not an afterthought. The narrative is everything.

[Check out some of the books, albums, and soon movies produced by Mythos Media and our various media partners.]

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