Thursday, November 24, 2011

Neuroscience: a Disclaimer

I have, in these pages (or on these screens) had occasion to say some unkind things about Neuroscience;  and hope, if I am spared, to live to say many more, each one more cutting than the last.   But to prevent any possible confusion:   Neuroscience is by no means synonymous with Cognitive Science.   In an unfair nutshell:  Neuroscience takes the brain seriously, Cognitive Science takes the mind seriously.   Since the brain is a stinking lump of meat, while the mind is the reflection of the soul during this incarnation, you can imagine where my sympathies lie.

The theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution  has more in common with the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature, and with the psychoanalytic theory proposed by Sigmund Freud, than with behaviorism, social constructionism, and other versions of the Blank Slate.  Behavior is not just emitted or elicited …
-- Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002), p. 40

(Ignore that term “revolution” -- that’s just marketing.  But it is nice to see a nod to faith that is not merely dismissive.   We have also had occasion to defend Freud against his eliminative-materialist detractors.)

There seems to be a sociological distinction as well:  Neuroscientists being mostly hunchbacks who seldom bathe, and who don’t return the volumes they have borrowed; Cognitive Scientists being gentlemen and scholars, witty at table and good fellows all round.  And at least one of them -- Steven Pinker -- writes like an angel;  you may be hearing more about him in/on these pages/screens.    As it happens, I deeply agree with him on a number of issues:  but beyond that, simply writing like an angel  goes a long way.   No stylist is more dazzling than the Mighty Quine, at whose logico-philosophical teats I suckled when but a wee undergraduate at Harvard; yet that tyrant Time has taught us that… at times… just a little maybe … he might be something of a…. (using the term loosely)…. [whispered]:   Nominalist ….
Yet still I honor his memory and his name, and re-read his classics as I do those of Chesterton:  with roaring appreciation.

~     ~     ~

That being said … those neuro bozos are at it again.  Here, in the current issue of Scientific American, and selected for special mention by Arts & Letters Daily.

A word first, to the young -- lest you (in your innocence) imagine that appearing in a publication of that title  is any sort of recommendation for anything.

Scientific American used to be a very good monthly magazine.  My father (an Oak Ridge chemist) read it faithfully for many years, and as a young lad in the 1950’s, I was introduced to new ideas and images, such as through the wonderful mathematics column by Martin Gardner.

Later, it was sold to some foreign moneybags, and was re-created in the image of People magazine (so far as the Weltanschauung) and USA Today (so far as the layout, targeting those with ADHD).   By now it is mostly trivial.

The good traditions of the old Scientific American of the Eisenhower years  live on in an unrelated publication, American Scientist.

That said, we turn to the actual article -- an interview with (as the magazine puts it) “Celebrated neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga”  (let us pause briefly to celebrate).
(Note to connoisseurs of le style c'est l'homme:   in the absence of the definite article before the epithet, in this case Scientific American is harking back to the golden or rather the pinchbeck age of Time.)

He resorts to the ploy we dissected here :  People used to believe that the world was flat, he informs us (actually, the ancient Greeks were already well aware that it is not);  yet it is not flat, he informs us again (as though neuroscientists were the first to discover this);  ergo, what you simple little people may believe about free will is wrong as well.

He is not a complete eliminative materialist:  He allows as how there are “layers”, and then reveals this startling recent finding of his science:

One becomes cognizant there is a system on top of the personal mind/brain layers which is yet another layer -- the social world. It interacts massively with our mental processes and vice versa.

That sound you hear  is sociologists slapping their foreheads.  “The social world ! How could we have missed that?”

No -- this must stop.  It is impossible to quote the man without resorting to satire.  So I shall fall silent, and simply report a couple of his epigrams without comment.  But, to make it fun, this will be in the form of a contest.

After dismissing free will as an illusion, the great professor delivers himself of one of the following classic quotes.  Can you guess which?  (Hint:  Look for signs of genius born of endless hours in the lab.)

(a) Free?  There is no free lunch !

(b) Free is like being on sale, only it sells for nothing.

(c ) You may think you have free will.  You’re wrong, but you are certainly free to think that. -- Ha ha, just kidding.

(d)  Free from what? What does anybody want to be free from? I surely do not want to be free from the laws of nature.

And what of that quaint old notion of Morality, which no-one since your grandfather has taken seriously?   Again, our philosopher unveils one of the following insights:

(a) We need to get over this idea of “morality” and celebrate our identity as innocent automata.  That way we can live in peace.

(b)  Certainly morality exists.  It is secreted by the pancreas.

(c )  How can you hold anyone responsible for a so-called “crime”, if our actions are completely pre-determined?  It is obvious that you cannot.  Yet the science-deniers continue to deny this.

(d) I think we will get over the idea of free will   and accept we are a special kind of machine, one with a moral agency which comes from living in social groups.

Ah, well, the one thing better than freedom is tenure.

~     ~     ~

Postscript  and  Palinode

Nice - man - in -  lab - coat -  just - reprogram - my - brain
Big -  professor - man - he - got - big - mojo - - U - do - wat - e - sai
U - no - doo - bad - ting -- U - dU - wat - E - seh …

(O mee vrrry bad, me muss B punish)
[selfadministering electricshock ouch]
[selfadministering electricshock ouch]
[selfadministering electricshock ouch]

Here  - link - to - anthem - mighty - New - World - Order

[Update 9 III 14]  A skeptical and level-headed review (by an astrophysicist, Adam Frank) of an apparently tilty-headed (if enjoyable) work of neuropop (by a string-theorist -- thus, each is straying outside his professional domain) in this morning’s NYT Book Review:


  1. You're merciless -- if I'm free to say so.


  2. Astrodreamer: Apparently your 185th neuron fired, forcing you to write that. And I find myself strangely impelled, to -- no! don’t want to! -- to -- Aarrrrghh…. -- post your note.
    What, btw, is this “mercy” whereof you speak? Obviously no such thing could survive under Darwinism. And even the mere concept (however impossible of implementation, I mean just as an abstract idea) would seem to make no sense in the context of Eliminative Materialism. We robots know nothing of this.
    Bye now -- I’m forced to go off and get some coffee.