BreakPoint Blog

Neuronal Man and the Tragic Loss of Questions

Science, it seems, is supposed to answer the big questions of life. Yet in his article "Brain Drain," philosopher Roger Scruton says that the current cycle of inquiry by academics is stunted.

Mechanistic philosophy has invaded every discipline, including the humanities, thereby rendering the parts (physical brain) more important than the whole (human). Scruton calls this "neuroenvy."

A lot of people have been anxious to climb aboard this neuro-explains-it-all train. It's causing them to lose the ability to wonder or consider other vital questions. As Scruton puts it:
Most of our questions about persons and their doings are about interpretation: what did he mean by that? What did her words imply? What is signified by the hand of Michelangelo’s David? Those are real questions, which invite disciplined answers.
I hope that someone starts asking good questions soon -- before people are thought of as nothing more than automatons.


Two other issues
Not only, as Kevin points out, does this call into question any real ethical possibilities, but it also discredits the very theory of neurobiology, for it is only a product of the processes and therefore devoid of any objective merit. The second issue is more on the personal level. It's ironic that a number of the New Atheists who hold to materialistic reductionism have stated that they find it very hard to enjoy classical music, a sunset or other normal pleasures that many average humans do. But why not? For if you see the spectacular hues and subtleties of a sunset as only a chance collocation of elements arranged in a haphazard and random manner so as to produce a freak refraction of light being acted upon by various configurations of water vapor, then what's to take pleasure in? It seems that isolated and insulated Reason is quite possibly a surer path to madness than ignorance
This is significant
It does seem that, like it or not, neurobiology is increasing in prominence. To me, its chief weakness is the reductionism: for one thing, it's unprovable, and in addition it leads very rapidly to some very unsavory ethical consequences.
If a person says that every thought is merely the by-product of chemical processes, then why should one pay any attention at all to that thought? If that's the case, it has no more significance than the chemical processes taking place in the cylinder of my motorcycle.
But in addition, as the author points out, so many other things follow from this proposal: the loss of human significance, the loss of any basis of ethics or morality, the loss of human responsibility (and the dignity inherent in that), the loss of aesthetics, and so on.
I may have mentioned this before, but I was talking about this with one of the scientists whom I support, whose research is related to neurobiology, and whose wife is a neurobiologist at UCLA. I pointed out that, if it's all chemical, then human responsibility is lost irreparably, and I made the further point that human responsibility and human dignity go hand-in-hand: if my choices do not matter at all (but are merely chemical), then my dignity as a Choosing Being also vanishes. His eyes did light up in recognition when he understood this, and I think he began to grasp some of the issues at stake which arise from this.