WSJ: Rethinking Thinking: How a lumpy bunch of tissue lets us plan, perceive, calculate, reflect, imagine-and exercise free will.

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    Nov 13, 2011 8:46 PM GMT
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204618704576642991109496396.html?mod=ITP_review_2

    Entire article too long to post. May require online subscription to Wall Street Journal to read entire article.

    The world of academe is currently in the grip of a strange and worrying ¬epidemic of biologism, which has also captured the popular imagination. Scientists, philosophers and quite a few toilers in the humanities believe—and would have the rest of us believe—that nothing fundamental separates humanity from animality.

    Biologism has two cardinal manifestations. One is the claim that the mind is the brain, or the activity of the brain, so that one of the most powerful ways to advance our understanding of ourselves is to look at our brains in action, using the latest scanning devices. The other is the claim that Darwinism explains not only how the organism Homo sapiens came into being (as, of course, it does) but also what motivates people and shapes their day-to-day behavior.

    These beliefs are closely connected. If the brain is an evolved organ, shaped by natural selection to ensure evolutionary success (as it most surely is), and if the mind is the brain and nothing more, then the mind and all those things we are minded to do can be explained by the evolutionary imperative. The mind is a cluster of apps or modules securing the replication of the genes that are expressed in our bodies.

    Many in the humanities have embraced these views with astonishing fervor. New disciplines, prefixed by "neuro" or "evolutionary" or even "neuro-evolutionary," have been invented. "Neuro-aesthetics" explains aesthetic pleasure in terms of activity in certain parts of the brain observed when people are enjoying works of art. A propensity for aesthetic brain-tingles, implanted in us by evolution, causes us to tingle to the right kinds of things, such as pictures of landscapes loaded with food.

    "Neuro-economics" can explain why we buy things we don't need or can't afford, by identifying ancestral imbalances between the want-it center in the amygdala, deep in the cerebral hemispheres, and the wait-until-you-can-afford-it center in the prudent frontal lobes. Those toxic subprime mortgages, it appears, were in fact "neurotoxic." Conspicuous consumption and our trillion-dollar debts are due to a desire to advertise our genetic health, analogous to a peacock virtually crippled by its meretricious tail.

    A brain in good working order is, of course, a necessary condition of every aspect of human consciousness, from basic perception to the most complex constructed sense of self. It does not follow that this is the whole story of our nature—that we are just brains in some kind of working order. Many aspects of everyday human consciousness elude neural reduction. For we belong to a boundless, infinitely elaborated community of minds that has been forged out of a trillion cognitive handshakes over hundreds of thousands of years. This community is the theater of our daily existence. It separates life in the jungle from life in the office, and because it is a community of minds, it cannot be inspected by looking at the activity of the solitary brain.

    Biologism commands acceptance in the humanities because it is promoted or endorsed by scientists whose prowess in their chosen field seems to qualify them to pronounce on what are essentially philosophical questions. Thus it is notable when two books written by neuro-biologists of the greatest distinction are nonetheless critical of the simplifications—both scientific and philosophical—of biologism. Both authors look outside the conceptual frameworks upon which biologism depends.

    "Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter" by Terrence Deacon, a professor of neuroscience and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, does not deliver on its subtitle, but the author acknowledges the depth and complexity of the problem. This mighty work of scholarship is long, slow-moving and peppered with neologisms, but it is infinitely preferable to the flashy tomes of the Professors of Legerdemain who assure us that the mind could emerge from matter in the brain "just like that" simply because "the brain is the most complex object in the world."
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    Nov 14, 2011 3:59 AM GMT
    True enough. But I am bothered by all these hybrid fields that have emerged. To merge true science with, say, anthropology or psychology gives me the creeps.

    It is true that there is much to be learned and gained through such academic alliances. But we give fields such as anthropology, sociology, psychology (etc.) more respect and credibility than they deserve by providing them the imprimatur of actual science.