The future looks familiar
Theodore Darymaple is almost always worth a few moments of your time. In this article, he takes his subject – advances in neuroscience – as a real thinker should.
The appetizer is a bit about the setting and subject:
During the conference, I heard one of the best lectures I have ever heard by a professor at the Salpetriere in Paris. (This hospital, of course, has one of the most distinguished histories in neurology of any hospital in the world.) Not only did the professor speak brilliantly, with wit, learning and charm, but he showed astonishing before and after videos of patients treated surgically for a variety of conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome. It was difficult then not to succumb to a sort of euphoria, that consisted of the belief that at last we really did understand, at least in principle, what it was to be a human being. This was further reinforced by neuroimaging studies showing the areas of the brain that were active when a man in love perceives his beloved: the neurological basis of romantic love, as it were. Somewhat disappointingly for romantics, the parts of the brain that are activated during the encounter are primitive from the evolutionary point of view, and present in the pigeon and the lizard.
In fact, the professor from the Salpetriere, being a cultivated man, was comparatively circumspect in his estimation of the wider significance of his work. The operations he described were performed on people with gross and relatively discrete pathology, who were abnormal in a very obvious way. In fact, for all the wizardry of the means used, the extension of our knowledge upon the basis of which the operations were performed was not of an order of magnitude greater than previous advances, nor was that knowledge different in kind from that which we had already long possessed.
Nevertheless, several speakers strongly implied that with the exponential growth of neuroscientific research, we were about to understand ourselves to a degree unmatched by any previously living humans. I confess that, whenever I heard this, I thought of the old proverb about Brazil: that it is, and always will be, the country of the future.
From here, Darymaple moves on to sketch the real issue, the one that the tinkerer and the mechanically minded continually stumble over:
The fact is that, however many factors you examine, you cannot fully explain behaviour, not even relatively simple behaviour. And if you cannot explain relatively simple behaviour, how are we to explain the immense, indeed infinite, variety of human behaviour? How are we fully to account for the infinite variety and originality of human utterance, for example? (It is vanishingly unlikely that the last sentence, or for that matter this one, has ever been written before.) How does one develop a universal law that explains an infinite number of unique events that are infused with meaning and intentionality? It was on this question that the programme of behaviourism, that (as everyone now completely forgets, though it was not so very long ago) promised a complete and sufficient explanation of human behaviour, foundered.
A neuroscientist might reply that he is not trying to develop a theory that explains everything in detail, but only in general: that is to say, to explain the important and significant generalities of human thought, feeling and conduct. But on a purely scientific or naturalistic view, nothing is more important than anything else, in the sense in which the words are being used here. In a universe deprived of intentionality as a whole, a volcano is no more important than the death of a beetle, or the explosion of a star. Nothing is important or significant but conscious thinking makes it so: the type of thinking, moreover, that employs moral categories that are inherently non-natural.
You see the problem now, surely?
His conclusion is correct, as well:
In my opinion, the great philosopher David Hume understood why human self-understanding was forever beyond our reach. It is not a coincidence that he always expressed himself with irony, for the deepest irony possible is that of the existence of a creature, Man, who forever seeks something that is beyond his understanding.
Hume was simultaneously a figure of the enlightenment and the anti-enlightenment. He saw that reason and consideration of the evidence are all that a rational man can rely upon, yet they are eternally insufficient for Man as he is situated. In short, there cannot be such a thing as the wholly rational man. Reason, he said, is the slave of the passions; and in addition, no statement of value follows logically from any statement of fact. But we cannot live without evaluations.
Ergo, self-understanding is not around the corner and never will be.
It’s one of the stranger paradoxes of modern life in the west. We hold that the most important thing is our ability to choose what is right for us, and at the same time we think that choosing is impossible because there is no true “I”. We’re just evolved, animated robots made out of meat, but boy, you’d better respect our choices. Weird, huh?