Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Science Of The Mind: Some Science, Too Much Fiction

Human Behaviour

Charles Myers recording the sacred song of the Malu ceremonies, 1898, Gray writes, adding:
“Rivers, Myers and McDougall were members of the celebrated anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898, and in 1901 an account of the expedition was published by its organiser, Alfred Haddon, under the title Head-hunters: Black, White and Brown. The purpose of the expedition was to study ‘the primitive mind’, using techniques that among other things involved measuring reactions to pain.”

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind (2014)
by Ben Shephard

In a book review essay ("Shocks to the System") in Literary Review, John Gray argues that much of today’s brain science is repackaged Victorian Darwinism meshed with speculative theories of genetics; it makes for good and interesting reading, but there might be more fiction within its pages than science.

Gray, a political philosopher, writes:
Summing up the current intellectual situation, Ben Shephard writes: 'On the face of it we now live in a completely new world. All the old gods are dead - neither nationalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis nor Christianity any longer provides philosophical ballast. Instead, the modern intellectual landscape is dominated by two phenomena, Neo-Darwinian genetics and modern neuroscience - just as it was in the 1890s.'

As Shephard shows in this refreshingly sceptical mix of biography and intellectual history, the present intellectual climate is not as unprecedented as some would like us to think. The belief that a synthesis of Darwinism and neuroscience would revolutionise understanding of human behaviour was pervasive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Linking evolution with neurology, it was believed, would produce a new science of the mind, which would in turn transform our understanding of ethics, politics and the human species itself.
Now, at the start of the 21st century, Christianity may still be retreating in most Western countries (though the opposite is the case in China, Russia and much of the developing world), while Marxism and psychoanalysis may have faded from view, but the idea that we are on the brink of a scientific revelation regarding the nature of the human mind that will transform the way we think of ourselves is as strong as it has ever been. Yet any suggestion that the human sciences can be progressive disciplines like physics remains as problematic as it was a century ago, and the neo-Darwinian theories that proliferate at the present time will surely prove to be as misguided as those that flourished in late Victorian times.
I agree with Gray that neuroscience is hardly a hard science like physics or chemistry; and, more problematic, I also have the same uneasy feeling about the speculative findings of neuroscience and much of evolutionary theory as it applies to human behaviour, both modern disciplines that tend to model the brain as a system or neural network akin to a computer or some other electrical-generating device. In such modelling, human behaviour is controlled, or decided, to a large degree by discrete modules, and so forth. The language of engineering is shockingly apparent, but I think completely misplaced, and as Gray says, "misguided."

Similarity is not sameness, a thought these neuroscientists might understand, but do not put forth in their breathless, over-hyped academic papers. A little bit of history, notably about science, might prove helpful in this discussion. Consider this. On the surface, such theories of the mind sound plausible and “scientific,”but if you dig a little deeper, much of what is proffered as science is speculative fiction, similar to the theories of phrenology during the Victorian era. The Victorians had also thought they had found the scientific doorway to understanding the human mind (“the only true science of the mind,” they called it).

My thinking is that there are multiple doorways, multiple paths of understanding and the human mind will defy any easy explanation, even if conveyed in complex models and colourful images. Some will find this idea disappointing, but continuing along a dead end will not better the human condition in any way.

You can read the rest of the article at [LitRev]

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