Saturday, April 03, 2010

More BS About Brains Morality from Neuroscientists

Well, there's this ridiculousness.

Back when I was in grad school, psychological conclusions about morality (or that impinged upon philosophy at all) were an endless source of amusement and outrage. Where philosophically interesting claims were at issue, you could usually rely on psychology to produce some sketchy experimental data, and then to draw the most absurd conclusions from it.

I mean, philosophers get used to scientists confidently saying that philosophy is silly...and then going on to say silly things about philosophy. (Philosophers also say all sorts of silly things, and all sorts of silly things about science. But that's a different story for a different time.)

Also back in grad school, neuroscience started to get trendy in philosophy. Many philosophers thought that neuroscience would finally provide the empirical results we needed to throw some light on philosophical problems. That is, that neuroscience would succeed where psychology per se had failed.

Alas, much of what we got was more ridiculous BS.

I have to say, it's fairly painful to encounter the smirking neuroscience groupies--who are all over the web (their blogs seemingly invariably festooned with pictures of them laughing impishly...) gushing over every new alleged success of neuroscience, glibly and uncritically reporting on philosophically-relevant conclusions. But the stuff you get still, as often as not, is a morass of confusions about the very philosophical issues they are purporting to illuminate.

Take this, for example.

First, we get a report telling us that scientists have discovered that we can "change moral judgments" by putting magnets to humans' brains! ZOMFG!!!!11 We can make people think differently just by screwing with their brains?!?!?!?

Er...this counts as an astonishing discovery?

Second, it turns out that...well...what we can really do is inhibit people's ability to understand other people's motives. That is, we can inhibit an ability to form a certain type of hypothesis about purely factual matters by messing with the brain.

Now realize:

(a) Again, we have known for a very, very long time that it is possible to change the way people think by altering their brains. We've known about the consequences of head trauma for...well, a very, very long time.

(b) Even if the researcher's claims about what they did are correct (something we always have to be a bit skeptical about), it has nothing to do with morality or moral judgment directly or per se. What they did is inhibit people's ability to discern each other's motives. Of course we make moral judgments partially on the basis of beliefs about motives, but that's not really relevant here. We also make moral judgments on the basis of actual actions. But just because we can inhibit people's ability to tell what other people are doing by blindfolding them (that is. messing with their eyes), this does not show that moral judgments are made in the eyeballs, nor is it true in any interesting sense that we can change moral judgments by altering eyeballs, nor that morality is nothing more than electrical activity in the eyeballs.

Third, and most importantly, note the suggestion here of a pervasive fallacy in neuroscience. Goes like this: we found a brain center that is necessary for x, therefore x is unreal/lacks rational authority/is "nothing more than" a brain process.

Repeat after me: to find that something depends on part of the brain does not show that that thing is unreal/BS/lacking in cognitive authority/etc.. Believe me, there are parts of the brain that are necessary for reasoning. There are parts of the brain that are necessary to do mathematics. There are parts of the brain that are necessary for the recognition of physical objects. There are parts of the brain that are necessary for doing science. But finding them will not mean that math, nor science, nor physical objects are "nothing more than" brain processes.

No one would be tempted to accept such a lame argument unless they already thought that the subject in question was BS. The typical, unreflective attitude of many such scientists is that morality lacks rational authority--it's just made up, or fully and merely emotional (where emotions are taken to be rationally arbitrary). They won't be tempted to to assert that science is "just" a brain process, no matter what they discover in the brain.

That it is the brain that enables us to do what we do is no surprise. The brain gives us the capacities that generate both good and bad ways of thinking, both valid and invalid reasonings, beliefs about both what is real and what is fake. Merely finding that some part of the brain is associated with some type of thought does nothing that I can see to show that such thought is bogus, or second-rate, or whatever.

In fact, one might reasonably argue that, since the relevant part of the brain is also associated with out-of-body experiences (something asserted in the Metafilter paragraph), this gives reason to think that there is something objective about morality, as it (like out-of-body experiences) has to do with seeing ourselves from an external, impersonal or third-person perspective. (In fact, that's a fairly interesting suggestion there...though a suggestion is all that it is.)

Philosophy is weird, frustrating...and possibly entirely (and certainly largely) BS, I'll admit. But scientists are generally better at what they do if they know a little of it--especially if they're going to make pronouncements about propositions that impinge on things philosophers have been thinking about with some care for thousands of years.

(Note: this was written in even greater than usual haste.)


Anonymous BongoBob said...

I've been enjoying your admirably clear writings for a while now. I wonder what you think of this interesting quote from Jonathon Miller. I myself am a biologist and not a philosopher, so naturally I think this makes some sense, and it implies that biology can have relevant things to say about philosophical matters

"The job of philosophy is not to find out the meaning of life, or our relationship to the larger metaphysical principles of the universe; it is finding out the relationship of the mind to the world. How the world is represented in the mind; how do we come to have knowledge; what do we mean by certainty. These are the only things about which you can ask questions . . . There is no point wasting time asking questions for which there are no answers, or pondering problems that have no solution. First of all you have to ask yourself if something is really a question just because it has a question mark after it."
Jonathan Miller, Paris Review, Spring 2003

8:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Hey, thanks BB. Some of Miller's sentiments here are common, some not, but I'm not in general sympathetic to his claims, FWTW.

He's probably right that some questions are pseudo-questions. And lots of people agree that "what is the meaning of life?" is one of them. I'm weakly inclined to disagree, though I do think that the question is poorly-formulated.

It's unusual to think that the only real philosophical questions have to do with the relationship between mind and world, I'm not sure what he's thinking, and I doubt that that's true. I'm not sure what he means by "our relationship to the larger metaphysical principles," but I do think that it's the job of philosophy to think about "large" metaphysical principles...even if the heavy lifting there might ultimately end up being done by physics.

But I don't think my opinions here should carry much weight, to tell you the truth.

10:34 AM  

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