Raymond Tallis writes: The grip of neuroscience on the academic and popular imagination is extraordinary. In recent decades, brain scientists have burst out of the laboratory into the public forum. They are everywhere, analysing and explaining every aspect of our humanity, mobilising their expertise to instruct economists, criminologists, educationists, theologians, literary critics, social scientists and even politicians, and in some cases predicting a neuro-savvy utopia in which mankind, blessed with complete self-understanding, will be able to create a truly rational and harmonious future.
So the smile-worthy prediction, reported in the Huffington Post, by Kathleen Taylor, Oxford scientist and author of The Brain Supremacy, that Muslim fundamentalism “may be categorised as mental illness and cured by science” as a result of advances in neuroscience is not especially eccentric. It does, however, make you wonder why the pronouncements of neuroscientists command such a quantity of air-time and even credence.
It would be a mistake to assume their authority is based on revelatory discoveries, comparable to those made in leading-edge physics, which have translated so spectacularly into the evolving gadgetry of daily life. There is no shortage of data pouring out of neuroscience departments. Research papers on the brain run into millions. The key to their influence, however, is the exciting technologies the studies employ, notably various scans used to reveal the activity of the waking, living brain.
The jewel in the neuroscientific crown is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), justly described by Matt Crawford as “a fast-acting solvent of the critical faculties”. It seems that pretty well any assertion placed next to an fMRI scan will attract credulous attention. Behind this is something that goes deeper than uncritical technophilia. It is the belief that you are your brain, and brain activity is identical with your consciousness, so that peering into the intracranial darkness is the best way of advancing our knowledge of humankind.
Alas, this is based on a simple error. As someone who worked for many years, as a clinician and scientist, with people who had had strokes or suffered from epilepsy, I was acutely aware of the extent to which living an ordinary life was dependent on having a brain in some kind of working order. It did not follow from this that everyday living is being a brain in some kind of working order. The brain is a necessary condition for ordinary consciousness, but not a sufficient condition.
You don’t have to be a Cartesian dualist to accept that we are more than our brains. It’s enough to acknowledge that our consciousness is not tucked away in a particular space, but is irreducibly relational. [Continue reading…]