Neurotrash and Neurobabble

Colourful images of brain scans tend to dominate the science sections of the popular media, and it is now fashionable to affix ‘neuro’ to most words of English. But there is a predictable grumpy backlash. The philosopher Roger Scruton finds the recent wave of neuroscience rather distasteful. It is all merely (in a phrase he borrows from Raymond Tallis*) ‘neurotrash’–which wonderfully evokes lurid synthetic pop manufactured in some disco den in Berlin (is Neuropop–or God forbid, the Neurovision–the next step?). Although Scruton makes a cursory reference to some arguments against current neuroscience**, it seems clear enough that what provokes his outrage isn’t some philosophical disagreement. It is that this new wave of neuroscience–or if you prefer, neurotrash–is just so obnoxiously vulgar.

In a somewhat more considered piece in the New York Times, the philosopher Tyler Burge makes a very similar complaint about ‘neurobabble’. Burge’s main substantial objection is that locating things in the brain isn’t any kind of genuine explanation, a point that is correct but also old and familiar. Like Scruton, Burge doesn’t distinguish the best of recent neuroscience, which draws heavily, if in qualified ways, on neuroimaging, from sensationalist popular science reports about ‘love’ and ‘God’ centres in the brain. (It would be somewhat unfair to indict the whole of contemporary philosophy just because you don’t especially like Alain de Botton.) In any case, despite the surface similarity to Scruton’s neuroscepticism, the Burge’s real agenda is to highlight the promise of what he takes to be the serious science of vision—a broadly naturalistic and reductive project that Scruton is likely to find just as distasteful.

I do not want to get here into a defense of neuroscience, let alone into the very old debate about materialism, naturalism and reduction that is really behind the discomfort that neuroscience arouses in some people. What interests me is that while some people feel this visceral discomfort, others are terribly enthusiastic about reductive accounts of things—they find it satisfying to be able to point to some blob in the brain and say ‘this is romantic love’, or even ‘romantic love is nothing more than this’  (though the reductive impulse can find more subtle outlets). This is after all why the media is so fond of neuroimaging studies, however silly.

That people have these contrasting responses is itself a psychological phenomenon, which is presumably reflected at the neural level—though I’m not suggesting that anyone should drag the reluctant Scruton into a scanner. But (as Scruton will no doubt insist) these opposing responses are not merely psychological, let alone neural. They also reflect differences in people’s sense of the value of things. Scruton doesn’t just think that it’s a grave theoretical mistake to reduce love or religion to brain activity. He also seems to think that it would be terribly unfortunate if love could be reduced to brain activity; it would mean that we would be, in some sense, reduced. These two views often go together, but they are separate. After all, we do not live in the best of all worlds. Even if the reductive view would reduce our value, this doesn’t mean it is not true. (I’ve discussed this distinction here.)

But would the truth of reductionism really reduce our value? Would it really mean that we are ‘trashier’, vulgar beings? Scruton and others simply assume that this is the case, but they this assumption is rarely explained, let alone defended. It may not even be true. I think that these are interesting questions that deserve more attention.

* It doesn’t help that Tallis misreports quite a bit of the science he mentions.

* Scruton’s main artillery is the cripto-behaviourist work of Hacker and Bennett. But perhaps Scruton is unaware this pair has recently indulged in exactly the kind of ‘neurolaw’ that he finds so distasteful.

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One Response to Neurotrash and Neurobabble

  • Greg says:

    I’m not going to comment on whether the truth of reductionism would reduce our value (I don’t think it does), but rather ask a different question.

    While I agree there is an over emphasis on neuroscience in certain circles, I wonder if the people who are viscerally opposed to it in relation to “love” or “god” would say the same thing about what it can tell us about disorders and diseases? If we could find areas or “circuits” responsible for certain maladies, would this also be neurotrash? And if not, why the difference?


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