We’ve had several occasions (e.g. here, here, and here) to examine the fallacies committed by those who suppose that contemporary neuroscience has radically altered our understanding of human nature, and even undermined our commonsense conception of ourselves as conscious, rational, freely choosing agents. In a recent Spectator essay, Roger Scruton comments on the fad for neuroscientific pseudo-explanations within the humanities, labeling it “neuroenvy.”
Here’s an especially insightful passage from the piece:
Neuroenvy… consist[s] of a vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions. And the answers are encased in neurononsense of the following kind:
‘The brains of social animals are wired to feel pleasure in the exercise of social dispositions such as grooming and co-operation, and to feel pain when shunned, scolded, or excluded. Neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding, parent-offspring bonding, and probably also bonding to kith and kin…’ (Patricia Churchland).
As though we didn’t know already that people feel pleasure in grooming and co-operating, and as though it adds anything to say that their brains are ‘wired’ to this effect, or that ‘neurochemicals’ might possibly be involved in producing it. This is pseudoscience of the first order, and owes what scant plausibility it possesses to the fact that it simply repeats the matter that it fails to explain. It perfectly illustrates the prevailing academic disorder, which is the loss of questions.
This seems to me almost exactly right. Consider the way addiction is often discussed these days in pop science and journalistic contexts. Everyone has always known that smoking, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, looking at pornography, eating sweets, etc. can be habit forming. Everyone has also always known that the reason has to do with the pleasure involved in such activities. Yet when neuroscientists tell us that such activities involve an increase in dopamine levels, which are associated with pleasure, this is treated as some major breakthrough in understanding addiction, even one that undermines our belief in moral responsibility. Hence we are told in one pop science article that:
In the past, addiction was thought to be a weakness of character, but in recent decades research has increasingly found that addiction to drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is a matter of brain chemistry.
To see how very silly such a remark is, suppose someone who has been reading up on the chemistry of paint decided that he had hit upon something that would revolutionize aesthetics, declaring:
In the past, the beauty of a great painting was thought to involve craftsmanship, composition, a balance of colors, and so forth, but in recent decades research has increasingly found that it is a matter of paint chemistry.
The reason I say that Scruton has things “almost exactly right” might be evident from this comparison. Paint chemistry might have some relevance to understanding the beauty of a painting; for example, it would not be without interest if it turned out that certain colors retained their vibrancy for a longer period of time if they were painted with paint having such-and-such a chemistry. Similarly, we can allow that neuroscience can give us some insight into human behavior. (Obviously, if one were chemically to intervene so as to prevent an increase in dopamine levels, this might have an effect on the subject’s tendency toward addiction -- though whether this would be a good way to deal with addiction is another story.)
But paint chemistry is obviously only a part, and a relatively small part, of understanding the beauty of a painting. And brain chemistry is only a part, and a relatively small one, of understanding human nature. In particular, it gives us only what Aristotelians call the material cause of human behavior, and part of the efficient cause; but it does not give us the formal or final causes, or the entirety of the efficient cause. All four aspects are irreducible components of any action, and an analysis which focuses on one or two is like an analysis of a painting which focuses exclusively on the chemistry of the paint. Scruton gestures in the direction of this point when he writes:
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? What did her words imply? What is signified by the hand of Michelangelo’s David? Those are real questions, which invite disciplined answers. And there are disciplines that attempt to answer them. The law is one such. It involves making reasoned attributions of liability and responsibility, using methods that are not reducible to any explanatory science, and not replaceable by neuroscience, however many advances that science might make.
Questions of meaning, responsibility, reasons for action and the like are questions about the formal and final causes of the behavior of rational animals, and thus lie necessarily beyond the domain of reductive neuroscience. When I intentionally type these words into my computer, there is the material cause of the action, which is the associated neural and other physiological activity, and the efficient cause of the motion of my fingers, which includes this physiological activity; but there is also the final cause of the action, which is the end or goal of conveying some philosophical ideas, and the formal cause, which is the human soul -- “human soul” here understood, not in the popular sense of a wispy, ghostly thing that enters into a body in order to animate it and exits it at death, and not in the Cartesian sense of an immaterial substance, but rather in the technical Aristotelian sense of the substantial form of a rational animal. And the efficient cause of the action includes the intellectual activity distinctive of something with that sort of substantial form (as contrasted with the merely sensory or imaginative powers that a non-rational animal possesses) -- where the intellectual element and the neural element are not two things (as they are for the Cartesian dualist) but rather two irreducible aspects of one thing (just as a sentence is one thing with two aspects, material and semantic).
This Aristotelian understanding of a human being, like the Aristotelian understanding of every natural substance, is radically anti-reductionist. The “higher-level” features of human beings -- their thoughts, volitions, actions, perceptions, and other activities and properties of the organism as a whole -- are no less real and fundamental than their “lower-level” features (e.g. their neural processes). Indeed, the latter are themselves only properly understood by reference to the whole of which they are a part. To give a purely neuroscientific description of human behavior is to abstract from actual concrete reality, just as to ignore the differences between a falling human body and a falling sack of grain for the purposes of physics is to abstract from actual concrete reality. In both cases the exercise in abstraction can be very useful for certain purposes. And in both cases it would be ludicrous to treat the abstraction as if it captured the whole of the phenomena in question.
Materialists and Cartesians alike share the tendency to reify abstractions and then reduce the things of our experience to the abstractions. In particular, both treat the necessarily partial description that natural science gives of the human body as if it were an exhaustive description. Cartesians just tack on to this abstraction a separate “immaterial substance.” They rightly see that there is no way that a completely materialist analysis can account for consciousness, intentionality and rationality -- that is to say, for those human activities and properties that science itself, in whose name the materialist puts forward his reductionist position, necessarily presupposes. But having reified abstractions -- reducing the human body to the sort of mechanical system describable by physics and raising the human mind to a complete substance in its own right -- they make of a human being a bizarre Rube Goldberg contraption, a ghost mysteriously moving around bits of clockwork, which understandably raises the suspicions of materialists.
Materialists typically assume that the Cartesian move is what anyone who criticizes their reductionism must be committed to. (See chapter 4 of Aquinas for a detailed account of the differences between the Aristotelian-Thomistic and Cartesian views of human nature.) And so deeply and unreflectively have they imbibed reductionist thinking that they fail to perceive that the arguments that they think prove reductionism really only assume reductionism -- begging the question, and none too subtly at that. In particular, they fail to see that the stuff about increased dopamine levels “proves” that addicts lack moral responsibility, or that Libet’s experiments “prove” that we lack free will, only if we already assume that human action is entirely reducible to the neural phenomena in question, which is of course precisely what is at issue. And they would also beg the question were they to insist that categories like formal and final causation are acceptable only if they can somehow be reduced to those recognized by physics, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience.
Meanwhile, critics like Scruton and Raymond Tallis, while they rightly denounce reductionism of both a materialist or Cartesian sort, fail to put in its place a systematic rival metaphysics like the Aristotelian one. Powerful as their criticisms are, their positive account of human nature is bound to seem obscurantist to those who cannot see any plausible alternative to materialism as a general conception of the natural world. For it takes a metaphysics to counter a metaphysics. Until materialism, scientism, and naturalism are not only criticized but replaced with something better, they will not lose the baneful grip on modern culture that Scruton and Tallis rightly deplore.