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What Neuroscience Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves
What neuroscience does not do, however, is provide a satisfactory account of the conditions that are sufficient for behavior and awareness. Its descriptions of what these phenomena are and of how they arise are incomplete in several crucial respects, as we will see. The pervasive yet mistaken idea that neuroscience does fully account for awareness and behavior is neuroscientism, an exercise in science-based faith. While to live a human life requires having a brain in some kind of working order, it does not follow from this fact that to live a human life is to be a brain in some kind of working order. This confusion between necessary and sufficient conditions lies behind the encroachment of “neuroscientistic” discourse on academic work in the humanities, and the present epidemic of such neuro-prefixed pseudo-disciplines as neuroaesthetics, neuroeconomics, neurosociology, neuropolitics, neurotheology, neurophilosophy, and so on.
The failure to distinguish consciousness from neural activity corrodes our self-understanding in two significant ways. If we are just our brains, and our brains are just evolved organs designed to optimize our odds of survival — or, more precisely, to maximize the replicative potential of the genetic material for which we are the vehicle — then we are merely beasts like any other, equally beholden as apes and centipedes to biological drives. Similarly, if we are just our brains, and our brains are just material objects, then we, and our lives, are merely way stations in the great causal net that is the universe, stretching from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch.
Most of those who subscribe to such “neuroevolutionary” accounts of humanity don’t recognize these consequences. Or, if they do recognize them, then they don’t subscribe to these accounts sincerely. When John Gray appeals, in his 2002 book Straw Dogs, to a belief that human beings are merely animals and so “human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mold,” he doesn’t really believe that the life of John Gray, erstwhile School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has no more meaning than that of a slime mold — else why would he have aspired to the life of a distinguished professor rather than something closer to that of a slime mold?
Wrong ideas about what human beings are and how we work, especially if they are endlessly repeated, keep us from thinking about ourselves in ways that may genuinely advance our self-understanding. Indeed, proponents of the neuroscientific account of human behavior hope that it will someday supplant our traditional understandings of mind, behavior, and consciousness, which they dismiss as mere “folk psychology.” According to a 2007 New Yorker profile of professors Paul and Patricia Churchland, two leading “neurophilosophers,” they like “to speculate about a day when whole chunks of English, especially the bits that constitute folk psychology, are replaced by scientific words that call a thing by its proper name rather than some outworn metaphor.” The article recounts the occasion Patricia Churchland came home from a vexing day at work and told her husband, “Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.” Such awkward chemical conversation is unlikely to replace “folk psychology” anytime soon, despite the Churchlands’ fervent wishes, if only because it misses the actual human reasons for the reported neurochemical impairments — such as, for example, failing to get one’s favored candidate appointed to a post.
Moreover, there is strong reason to believe that the failure to provide a neuroscientific account of the sufficient conditions of consciousness and conscious behavior is not a temporary state of affairs. It is unlikely that the gap between neuroscientific stories of human behavior and the standard humanistic or common-sense narratives will be closed, even as neuroscience advances and as our tools for observing neural activity grow more sophisticated.
In outlining the case that neuroscience will always have little to say about most aspects of human consciousness, we must not rely on weak mysterian arguments, such as Colin McGinn’s claim, in his famous 1989 Mind paper “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?,” that there may be a neuroscientific answer but we are biologically incapable of figuring it out. Nor is there much use in appealing to arguments about category errors, such as considering thoughts to be “kinds of things,” which were mobilized against mind-body identity theories when philosophy was most linguistically turned, in the middle of the last century. No, the aim of this essay is to give principled reasons, based on examining the nature of human consciousness, for asserting that we are not now and never will be able to account for the mind in terms of neural activity. It will focus on human consciousness — so as to avoid the futility of arguments about where we draw the line between sentient and insentient creatures, because there are more negative consequences to misrepresenting human consciousness than animal, and because it is human consciousness that underlines the difficulty of fitting consciousness into the natural world as understood through strictly materialist science.
This critique of the neural theory of consciousness will begin by taking seriously its own declared account of what actually exists in the world. On this, I appeal to no less an authority than the philosophy professor Daniel Dennett, one of the most prominent spokesmen for the neuroevolutionary reduction of human beings and their minds. In his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, Dennett affirms the “prevailing wisdom” that
there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter — the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology — and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain.... We can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth.
So when we are talking about the brain, we are talking about nothing more than a piece of matter. If we keep this in mind, we will have enough ammunition to demonstrate the necessary failure of neuroscientific accounts of consciousness and conscious behavior.
It is a pure dedication to materialism that lies behind another common neuroscientistic claim, one that arises in response to the criticism that there are characteristics of consciousness that neuroscience cannot explain. The response is a strangely triumphant declaration that that which neuroscience cannot grasp does not exist. This declaration is particularly liable to be directed at the self and at free will, those two most persistent “illusions.” But even neuroscientists themselves don’t apply this argument consistently: they don’t doubt that they think they are selves, or that they have the illusion that they act freely — and yet, as we will see, there is no conceivable neural explanation of these phenomena. We are therefore justified in rejecting the presumption that if neuroscience cannot see it, then it does not exist.