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Pinker on Neuroscience and the True Foundation of Morality

The brililant and witty neuroscientist tells us we’ll treat others better once we’re convinced by studies that show that they possess consciousness too. It’s probably the case that we’re hardwired by evolution never to comprehend completely the mystery of consciousness, although we will precisely locate consciousness in the brain. Neuroscience is already revealing that we’re not really free agents responsible for our actions, and so that any improved "moral" behavior its discoveries may cause will not be really voluntary or moral in the strict sense at all. I was recently told, quite insistently, by certain followers of Plato in Charlottesville, VA that neuroscience is merely confirming a key classical insight: Voluntary action and personal moral significance or dignity are both merely illusions. I disagreed on what both the classical and neuroscientific studies really show. Some of the most penetrating commentary available on neuroscience includes what Tom Wolfe says in his essays in HOOKING UP and in his novel I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS.

Discussions - 14 Comments

I tend to think that what is extraordinary about neuroscience today is how little progress it has made in understanding the nature of consciousness itself as opposed to the physical processes that accompany acts of consciousness; this is especially obvious with respect to attempts to comprehend creativity, for example. Unfortunately, rather than admit that certain aspects of conscious life might prove elusive they seem more content to redefine the rules of the game; following Ryle, we can always just retranslate ordinary discourse into technical speak free of any metaphysical implications. It would be more in tune with common sense to accept the limts of neuroscience as a discipline than to accept such an impoverished view of human nature.

You disagreed, based on ...what? Science can be wrong, but at least it is open to evidence. Are you?

Besides, I don’t think neuroscience is saying we are biological robots. We do make decisions based on environment cues, although our preferences are probably strongly rooted in biology. What’s the problem with that?

I’ve read Pinker and a few others...they all admit that consciousness is an "emergent property." Every science, hard and soft, has trouble dealing with such...in time they will improve the fit of their conceptual models.

Well, not all of them are so philosophically temperate but still, part of the problem is that "emergent" so often turns out to mean epiphenomenal and ends up justifying further leaps in the direction of material reductionism.I think it’s interesting to see how medical/therepeutic advancements have greatly outpaced the project of theoretical comprehension; I tend to think the speed of the former pressures the pace of the latter. We might only be half Cartesians today in this sense: we certainly buy into the project of contriving "infinite artifices for infinite maladies" but we haven’t entirely given up our metaphysical eros. If anything, we’ve just done our best to replace the aporetic aspect of our metaphysical curiousities with an emphasis on technical precision, which is more easily satisfied.

Well, this discussion is off to an excellent start--thanks to the always thoughtful and spirited dain and our newcomer Ivan... I will say something when I have a few minutes later.

One thing to keep in mind is that from the beginning neuroscience was understood not only to be a more scientific substitute for traditional psychology but philosophy and morality too. In Civilization and its Discontents (1929 I think), Freud saw the oddly unscientific character of his psychoanalysis as a temporary moment to soon be overcome; eventually, his structural theory of the mind could be neurophsiologically mapped and his theory of instincts chemically demonstrated. And if one could map the superego and chart its physical manifestation, then one could give a purely mechanical account of morality.

So, assuming that this is correct, nothing produced in neuroscience is worthwhile or useful? Puleeze. Any science can be misused, just as any religion (or any ideology) can be twisted to serve perverse human ends. I am sorry that so many people feel threatened by this science.

Nothing I’ve written could justify the inference that "nothing produced in neuroscience is worthwhile or useful". However, a thoroughgoing scientific reductionism is hardly a fringe element of contemporary neuroscience. On the philosphical end of the literature, even the purportedly moderate "compatibilists" only square biological hardwiring with free agency by radicaly redefining agency. Also, the great chemical/therapuetic advancements made have to be balanced against the interpretations of happiness, theoretically counterintuitive and sometimes plain creepy, that interfere with the use of a more moderate, circumspect approach to medicinal prescription.

I’m not sure what you’ve read. What I have read seems reasonable to me. Most of these scientists link the physical brain to overt behaviors and even attitudes. For instance, brain-damage victims clearly indicate that "being human" seems to rely on the physical properties of the brain. Some experiments suggest a universalist standard of beauty, again suggesting a definitive architecture to the brain (and thus the "mind"). Of course, there is much they do not yet know...I’m willing to wait.

Link does not work.

Thanks anon, but the problem seems to be with TIME. Don’t know how to fix it...

If you get on the Time website and use the search function (type in ’Pinker’), you can find the issue and the story. It is accessible, but a pain. The story is so-so...his books (e.g., The Blank Slate) are much more informative and (I think) to the point.

dain is right...you all know what pinker thinks anyway...this link stuff is often perfunctory...i don’t think neuroscience is useless, but knowing the hardwiring of consciousness if far different from knowing what consciousness is and what it’s for, if anything.

I suspect we’ll find that "consciousness" is pretty straightforward...an emergent property of even the simplest animal minds. The ability to objectify ourselves, to look into the past and future, now these will take some explaining.

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