Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"A vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions"

Philosopher Ed Feser has a great post on the fallacies of contemporary neuroscience:

We’ve had several occasions... to examine the fallacies committed by those who suppose that contemporary neuroscience has radically altered our understanding of human nature, and even undermined our commonsense conception of ourselves as conscious, rational, freely choosing agents. In a recent Spectator essay, Roger Scruton comments on the fad for neuroscientific pseudo-explanations within the humanities, labeling it “neuroenvy.” 
Here’s an especially insightful passage from the piece:

[Scruton] Neuroenvy… consist[s] of a vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions. And the answers are encased in neurononsense of the following kind:

‘The brains of social animals are wired to feel pleasure in the exercise of social dispositions such as grooming and co-operation, and to feel pain when shunned, scolded, or excluded. Neurochemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin mediate pair-bonding, parent-offspring bonding, and probably also bonding to kith and kin…’ (Patricia Churchland).

As though we didn’t know already that people feel pleasure in grooming and co-operating, and as though it adds anything to say that their brains are ‘wired’ to this effect, or that ‘neurochemicals’ might possibly be involved in producing it. This is pseudoscience of the first order, and owes what scant plausibility it possesses to the fact that it simply repeats the matter that it fails to explain. It perfectly illustrates the prevailing academic disorder, which is the loss of questions.
"A vast collection of answers, with no memory of the questions" is a stunningly accurate way to describe the modern fallacy of attributing mental acts to physical brain processes. No one doubts that mental states are associated with brain states. But it is breathtakingly naive to assert that the mental state is "explained" in any meaningful way by the brain state. Regional changes in brain blood flow measured by fMRI scanning don't explain the love (or hate or anger or joy) we feel at the moment the changes are measured.

Thoughts and emotions are mental acts that inherently entail intentionality (reference to something other than self), qualia (the subjective experience of things) that transcend mechanical explanation. Crude materialist reductionism has little real explanatory power.

Modern neuroscience has provided so many answers that we've forgotten the questions. 

Feser suggests the antidote to neuroenvy:

Materialists typically assume that the Cartesian move is what anyone who criticizes their reductionism must be committed to. (See chapter 4 of Aquinas for a detailed account of the differences between the Aristotelian-Thomistic and Cartesian views of human nature.) And so deeply and unreflectively have they imbibed reductionist thinking that they fail to perceive that the arguments that they think provereductionism really only assume reductionism -- begging the question, and none too subtly at that. In particular, they fail to see that the stuff about increased dopamine levels “proves” that addicts lack moral responsibility, or that Libet’s experiments “prove” that we lack free will, only if we already assume that human action is entirely reducible to the neural phenomena in question, which is of course precisely what is at issue. And they would also beg the question were they to insist that categories like formal and final causation are acceptable only if they can somehow be reduced to those recognized by physics, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience.

Meanwhile, critics like Scruton and Raymond Tallis, while they rightly denounce reductionism of both a materialist or Cartesian sort, fail to put in its place a systematic rival metaphysics like the Aristotelian one. Powerful as their criticisms are, their positive account of human nature is bound to seem obscurantist to those who cannot see any plausible alternative to materialism as a general conception of the natural world. For it takes a metaphysics to counter a metaphysics. Until materialism, scientism, and naturalism are not only criticized but replaced with something better, they will not lose the baneful grip on modern culture that Scruton and Tallis rightly deplore.

Materialist reductionism of the mind is a foolish mistake. A rudimentary mistake.

The Aristotelian hylemorphic understanding of the mind is a correction for that mistake, and seems to me to be closest to the truth. 


  1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyFebruary 18, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    Egnor: "[The] fallacy of attributing mental acts to physical brain processes..."

    Neuroimaging is very seductive. People forget they are looking at nothing more than the output of signal processing software. The whole image is just a inchoate field until thresholds are set to bring out the nice "patterns" one sees. Gronenschild et al even reported (PLoS One) that the images yielded by a popular MRI software package were different on Apple and Windows platforms, and even differed across OSX versions.

    Even more worrisome, inferring "mental states" from fMRI data is no different than inferring "work activity" from aerial infrared imaging of a factory. Yes, you might know that a lot of people in the southeast quadrant are doing something, and you might make some informed guesses about what they are doing, but you really can't tell from the images.

    Neuroimaging is useful science, but the overenthusiastic practitioners are turning it into a modern version of phrenology.

    The truth is, though, a lot of folks want the pretty pictures to be true. The usual suspects, in fact. You know, the.... the...

    skeptics. :-)

  2. Dr. Egnor, have you read Raymond Tallis' Aping Mankind?

    Just finished it this week. Absolutely fantastic. I can't recommend it highly enough, not just to you but to all regular readers of your blog

    - Curio

  3. As a practicing neurosurgeon, has your hylemorphic understanding of the mind led you to do anything differently than a thoroughly materialist brain surgeon would do? Are there treatments you are more or less likely to recommend to patients based on your “superior” understanding?


    1. A KW snark attack. One response Egnor could give is that his philosophy has allowed him to see his patients as human persons and not just collections of neurons. In terms of surgical minutia, probably nothing different. Just like a hylemorphic plumber, a hylemorphic neurosurgeon wouldn't likely be doing anything differently from a materialist or Cartesian neurosurgeon. Egnor has said a few times that his experiences as a neurosurgeon helped him out of materialism. Working with brains all day can shake one out of that naive "we are brains" type reductionism.

      - Curio

  4. Hylemorphic understanding of the mind is a correction for that mistake, and seems to me to be closest to the truth.

    Seriously, Egnor? A philosophy devised by men who thought the brain is an organ to cool the blood - that philosophy is closer to the truth about the mind than insights based on modern science?

    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyFebruary 18, 2014 at 4:49 PM

      What insights derived from empirical data, in particular, bear on the the truth or falsity of the theory of hylomorphism?

    2. That's a good question, 'Admiral'. I'd like to see the proponents of the "theory" of hylomorphism answer that.

    3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyFebruary 18, 2014 at 6:15 PM

      But I'm asking you. You mentioned "the insights of modern science" that presumably, in your... mind?... brain?... ??, bear on the truth or falsity of hylomorphic theory. I'm just curious what those specific empirical insights are.

    4. Why are you asking me? Egnor made the claim that hylomorphic theory is closer to the truth. Perhaps, as a fellow Catholic and, presumably, fellow adherent to the "theory", you would like to support Egnor's claim. I'm all ears.

  5. 'For it takes a metaphysics to counter a metaphysics. Until materialism, scientism, and naturalism are not only criticized but replaced with something better, they will not lose the baneful grip on modern culture that Scruton and Tallis rightly deplore.'

    ...and what of that modern culture? Where is it most poisonous?

    Not so much in the modern artistic culture of elephant dung sculptures in public museums. These we will all be overly familiar with by now.

    Similarly, everyone by now has been invited to regard another meaningless heroin overdose as somehow 'tragic' or 'sad' but always 'meaningful'. Soon forgotten.
    I say that the poisonous political cultures that attack civilisation itself by elevating sexual perversion and debasing marriage take the award.
    These are the true fruits of meaningless materialism.

    These are surly what Jung meant when he warned.....

    'Loss of roots and lack of tradition neuroticize the masses and prepare them for collective hysteria. Collective hysteria calls for collective therapy, which consists in [the] abolition of liberty and terrorization. Where rationalistic materialism holds sway, states tend to develop less into prisons than into lunatic asylums.'
    Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 2) (Page 181)

    John R.

    1. That's interesting coming from Jung, no champion of religious orthodoxy or political conservatism. Been warming up to Freud and psychoanalytic thought as of late - though I still find behaviorism most practical. How'd you find this Jung quote?


    2. Jung was no 'champion' of any orthodoxy as he was such an original thinker, still, he was a Good Catholic though a highly intellectual and almost mystical one. In fact, with respect I suspect you may misunderstand his politics.
      I'm sure the PDF is available. Sorry , didn't check....wait...I'll check...yes try...


    3. Jung was many things, but a good Catholic is most certainly not one of them. Especially given that he was raised Lutheran. Thanks for the PDF, I've enjoy his writings on dreams, synchronicity, anima and collective unconscious.


    4. 'Jung was many things, but a good Catholic is most certainly not one of them.'
      No, you are correct & I stand corrected.


  6. It is a attempt to trun thinking man into a matrix of brain bits.
    The bible says we have a soul that leaves behind our body at death. We think just as well after death as before. Just like God. Jesus brain was irrelevant to his thinking surely.
    If we are just souls, and we are, then I conclude we are just engaged with the material world by our memory.
    Senses all reach us through our memory only. Otherwise our soul knows no senses.
    Our brain , I think, is just one big memory machine. No thinking involved save in the use of the memory.
    this is why all mental problems can be seen as simply triggering failures towards the memory. n
    Its impossible for a soul, not of the material world, to be brain damaged.
    Therefore it never happens. Just memory damaged.
    Remember all we see or hear or feel is a half second after the fact.
    We are always dealing with a recording. its just really fast.

  7. We know that materialism is empty and treacherous, yet it is often difficult to imagine the 'modern' world without the domination of this materialistic ethos; trailing behind the 'scientific progress' that it claims as it's own.

    The provenance of the following is disputed, but the passage always struck me as useful and interesting.

    'Looking forward into the future from the 9th century [the Pope] could even then see the advent of modern materialism as the result of an inescapable fate which must befall Western humanity. It appeared to him as inevitable in the evolution of human consciousness that the Europeans should sink yet more deeply into the three dimensional world of the senses.

    Cardinal Anastasius....his friend and Councillor, believed that only through such a descent could Western man become a strong and independent Ego [sic] and develop the analytical intellect in order to gain a scientific mastery of the Earth. Yet, at the price of such scientific outlook which would bring about the machine age, man would have to cut himself off entirely from all knowledge of the spirit-worlds and fall back entirely on the revelations of the Gospels.'

    'The Spear of Destiny' T. Ravenscroft.
    Pg 134

    This is why the discussion about WWI and the death of much European Christianity a few days ago provided a potentially fascinating discussion. Perhaps it is hard for us today to appreciate what the phrase, 'machine gun' meant to European people by 1918.

    I understand the waging of war as the prime opportunity for the triumph of this materialism in human hearts. Hence, from war all the new machines. Hence the virtual mechanisation of even civilian life; conversation, our diet, our travel all regulated and controlled. The breakdown of civil norms and the disguarding of tradition etc

    This process culminated in the birth of IT. The war made computers. These are at least potentially a diabolical non-human intelligence at work in the world (causing men to wonder at it's works).

    If not that, (yet) then certainly IT/materialism/the logic of progress; these all resulted in the crystallisation of all the finest technical & material achievements of our race in...... mass murder and madness= mutually assured destruction.
    MAD was the apex of the materialistic world. All the finest minds, all the great concentration of resources and inventiveness, all emerged from the sea in those Polaris missiles on their way to incinerate millions of innocent Soviet citizens.
    If you grew up in the 1980s, then you may have admired the raw magical power of the cold war weapons while knowing them to be pure evil. Yet sensible. Obviously diabolical, but indispensable.
    This is where materialistic logic eventually led.
    This is why I think the West is dying and those amongst us without Faith want to die. This is why they embrace suicidal insane notions and pretend not to notice dangerous cults.
    Materialism instructed them that real freedom and true progress results in the destruction of the human race.
    Pity they were such good students.

    John R.