The neuroscientists exploring the brain are like the physicists exploring the universe. We are reminded of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: no cat, lots of string.
We enjoyed The Frontal Cortex’s answer to our question on the distinction between brain and mind: “The mind is really just a piece of meat.” Still, that’s more than some physicists think of the universe.
The neuroscientists now appear in danger similar to that of the physicists, of generating both politics and mythologies. What amounts to a case study argument has recently developed at the New Humanist Blog, with Raymond Tallis trashing, literally, in his article titled “Neurotrash,” the neuroscientists as social engineers, and Matt Grist responding in his article titled “Neuroscience can help tame the elephant” (caution: metaphors on the loose), offering the neuroscientist as the savior of juvenile delinquents: says Grist, “We are now properly understanding human behaviour (if only in outline) in the holistic setting of our actual dwelling, rather than in terms of the abstractions of Platonic philosophy. And the lesson seems to be that being a rational, creative, happy and well-behaved human being is a social achievement that takes time, dedication and certain kinds of environments.”
At this point, readers might be hearing the radio in their brains switched on; it’s the West Side Story song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” where once again we find the poets beating the scientists to the punch.
To Tallis’s point, the neuroscientists (like some of the physicists) have yet to explain emergence, where the whole is more than not equal to the sum of the parts, but where the individual part does not even predict the whole. To Grist’s point, the neuroscientists are not alone but have joined with the other social sciences to better build a holistic view of human behavior.
But we are concerned with Grist’s warrants and the toll they appear to take on freedom. Just what, exactly, is a “well-behaved human being,” and why is it, whatever it is, a “social achievement”? Who will be selected, using what rubric, to become well-behaved?
Certainly there are environments that produce predictable results, where predictable results are what we are looking for, but in the brain, as in space, so far our explorations suggest that nothing is predictable – such is our freedom, which we seem to share with the universe. There’s a lot of dark matter yet to digest. Perhaps what the neruoscientists need is an iconoclast like Garrett Lisi, whose “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” rocked the physics world a couple of years ago. Then again, the neuroscientists already seem to have their exceptionally simple theory of the mind: “…just a piece of meat.” Fries with that? For if the mind is just a piece of meat, who decides, and how is the decision made – who says how it should be seasoned, prepared, cooked, and eaten? The specialist? The neuroscientist? Perhaps Grist thinks Swift was not joking. “Taming the elephant”: we won’t soon forget that metaphor, for what becomes of a tamed elephant?