Neuroscience as an antidote to commonsense? I doubt it!


Advances in neuroscience have given us new insights into the workings of the brain, at least to the extent that the measurement of blood flow suggests which parts of the brain are operating at any one time. When we make a decision, the only physical evidence for how we do it is in terms of brain activity, just as when we go for a walk, the only physical evidence for how we do that is the movement of muscles and limbs, along with the corresponding unconscious brain activity. Such an observation is in accord with a common sense view of the mind, for few today would subscribe to the idea that we have a disembodied self, independently capable of pulling our physical puppet-strings. We think, we walk and we decide what to do – that is how we experience ourselves. We are real and we are embodied.

I am utterly frustrated, therefore, by those who take a further step and try to suggest that the self is nothing other than neural activity, or that our every decision is an illusion, created by neural activity that has taken place prior to our becoming aware of it. They suggest that, because they can detect activity even a fraction of a second before we make a decision, it is not we who have made the decision at all, but our brains, and therefore that we have no more than an illusion of being in charge or of being morally responsible for our actions. At this point, neurodeterminism parts company with common sense. We know what it is to agonise over a decision and then take responsibility for it, and no analysis in terms of neural activity is going to render that process illusory, any more than a Mozart symphony is rendered illusory by being analysed in terms of a sequence of sound waves. Of course there is no symphony without sound waves, nor some extra-terrestrial ghost of Mozart, but no list of frequencies is going to replace what we mean by the symphony or our experience of hearing it.

Neurodeterminism only makes sense if we assume that the human brain is the cause of its own activity and that human social interaction and communication are merely its by-products. Indeed, some enthusiasts for neuroscience mock the common sense view that we have of ourselves as thinking, choosing, creating, conscious beings as a relic of a pre-scientific outlook. If it can’t be measured, it can’t exist!

In fact, I would argue that the relationship between self and brain is exactly the reverse. Communication and social interaction, with the development of signs and language, provided the context within which natural selection favoured the development of mental capacity. Those best able to identify one another, communicate and make good decisions about how to act together, were able to survive in a competitive world, and the brain capacity that made possible such thought and communication therefore increased over time. To suggest otherwise requires belief in some external force that appears to have determined that hominids should have ever-increasing cranial capacity. But – if natural selection is a valid way of looking at evolution – it just doesn’t work that way. Change requires context and competition. It is because we flourish as a species if we think, decide and communicate, that our brains develop over time. Pure Darwin.

Notice that it is the reality of countless individuals in their interaction with one another and with their environment that enables this evolution to take place; it provides the context within which increasing brain-power makes sense. But, quite apart from evolution, we also know that the brain is plastic and constantly changing. It responds to our choices and actions. As we learn a new skill, the relevant neural pathways enlarge to reflect that achievement and to facilitate it further. We don’t find that we have a new skill because the neural pathways have changed; they change as we learn the skill!

This popular and ‘reductive’ misconception of neuroscience is not just a matter of putting the cart before the horse, its having a cart with no horse at all – and that is a recipe for going nowhere, and for having no explanation for how the cart arrived in its present position! Let Darwin come to the rescue of commonsense on this one!

What happens in the brain mirrors and continues to make possible what happens to us as persons and as social agents. We are more than our brains, and even if neuroscience were one day to achieve the impossible and give a full description of the activity of each and every neuron, it would still not explain what consciousness is like, or what it means to be a human being. That may be a common sense view, but I think it is none the worse for that!

For more on my views on The Philosophy of Mind, visit my website.

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