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Neuroscience as Star Trek: The Spocks vs. the Kirks?

In the New Yorker, culture critic Adam Gopnik adds to the groundswell of protest against neurobollocks—the practice of claiming great insight into human nature from the modest findings of brain scans:

Writers on the brain and the mind tend to divide into Spocks and Kirks, either embracing the idea that consciousness can be located in a web of brain tissue or debunking it. For the past decade, at least, the Spocks have been running the Enterprise: there are books on your brain and music, books on your brain and storytelling, books that tell you why your brain makes you want to join the Army, and books that explain why you wish that Bar Refaeli were in the barracks with you. The neurological turn has become what the “cultural” turn was a few decades ago: the all-purpose non-explanation explanation of everything. Thirty years ago, you could feel loftily significant by attaching the word “culture” to anything you wanted to inspect: we didn’t live in a violent country, we lived in a “culture of violence”; we didn’t have sharp political differences, we lived in a “culture of complaint”; and so on. In those days, Time, taking up the American pursuit of pleasure, praised Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism”; now Time has a cover story on happiness and asks whether we are “hardwired” to pursue it.

… and Gopnik, dancing between two stools, offers an interesting insight …

The really curious thing about minds and brains is that the truth about them lies not somewhere in the middle but simultaneously on both extremes. We know already that the wet bits of the brain change the moods of the mind: that’s why a lot of champagne gets sold on Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, if the mind were not a high-level symbol-managing device, flower sales would not rise on Valentine’s Day, too. Philosophy may someday dissolve into psychology and psychology into neurology, but since the lesson of neuro is that thoughts change brains as much as brains thoughts, the reduction may not reduce much that matters. As Montaigne wrote, we are always double in ourselves. Or, as they say on the Enterprise, it takes all kinds to run a starship.

It’s still way too neat, but it certainly makes more sense than, say, no-free-will neuroscientist Sam Harris.

See also: Katje (daughter of P.J.) Myers gets Sam Harris’s number

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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One Response to Neuroscience as Star Trek: The Spocks vs. the Kirks?

  1. 1

    “Neuroscience can’t rob us of responsibility for our actions, but it can relieve us of guilt for simply being human.” — nicely said!

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