Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions
1. Are we nothing but brains?
2. When we say that our identity is largely constructed by external forces, are we engaged in infinite regress in which the next question becomes: what external forces largely shaped your recognition that external forces are so dominant?
3. Is neuroscientism a dual illustration of (a) the seemingly inescapable drive of mavens of an idea to exaggerate it and (b) the persistent domination of Platonism in Western thought and practice?
On September 6th I mentioned on my other blog the excellent book by Mary Midgley, Are You an Illusion. I probably would not have been stimulated to think about these questions any further had I not encountered this 2-decade old claim of Francis Crick:
You, your joys and sorrows, your memories, your sense of identity, and your free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their attendant molecules. I am just the detailed behavior of a set of nerve cells.
In the same vein the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield writes "All there is to any of us are acts that result from our reflexes or damage to our brains." The New Scientist editorialized in 2013 that many see the self as nothing more than an elaborate illusion.
While such contentions are rife with definitional problems, the contention seems to be that human consciousness is a comforting fairy tale. What we think of as our aspirations, dreams, intentions, hesitations, fundamental values, motivations, and personal narrative are no more real than the Easter Bunny.
But if that contention is true, how would we explain the choices these seers seem to have made to do the work in their labs to bring us this disconcerting news? They had many possible choices of career; their research programs could have moved in diverse directions; they could have given up after the first few efforts to establish publishable findings; they could have lived lives of dissolute pleasure seeking; they could have chosen not to tell us what they believe is the case because they did not wish to disabuse us of our so-called illusions; they could have decided to spend their lives constructing meaningful social relationships.
Or would they claim that through some purposeless evolutionary process, it just so happened that their chemical make-up and their neurological processes they happen to be the carriers of the news of the death of the self? And if that explanation is impressive to them, would they not be more than a little nervous that their claim is entirely non-falsifiable?
I find the argument I am implying above somewhat awkward. I do not see much validity in the idea that consciousness directs our behavior often. I think it constrains and pushes our behavior, but not enough such that I would ever be comfortable with the language of economics replete with talk about how the chooser does X, and the chooser does Y.
But I am similarly dissatisfied with extreme sociological models that seem as mechanistic in their elevation of external events as causal variable in our lives as are the statements of extreme neurological scientists who slay the self with barely restrained sanctimoniousness. Are external events impervious to human transformation? And if the answer is "no", is it not the case that external causes and consciousness constitute a tangled web of causation?
The announcement of the death of the self by certain neurological scientists provides yet another illustration of creative and useful hypotheses run amuck. Our expanding understanding of the brain has been especially beneficial in treating those of us whose brains misfire. But the hubris of neurologists cannot be delimited to that productive research program. Instead, they move forward to the very kind of Platonistic excess about which Nassim Taleb warns us in Chapter 1 of The Black Swan.
1. John Keats wrote of "negative capability", the ability to tolerate a world of mysteries and uncertainties without grasping at any grand narrative that might limp along with multiple promises of guaranteed certitude. Why do some of us have that capability in large amounts, while others have so little?
2. What would it even mean to say we are nothing but a brain?
3. Why must economists and the neurologists to whom I referred in this post cast themselves as hard and tough thinkers, while their opponents are intellectual softies who need to believe in fairy tails? Simply rhetorical excess?