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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: neurotrash (41/50)

Roger Scruton is the latest contributor to our series on the best ideas of the century

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton

To me it has always seemed that the greatest service philosophy can provide is to save the intellectual life from plausible nonsense. The last decade has abounded in plausible nonsense, whose effect has been felt throughout the intellectual world: the evolutionary psychology of “altruism”, for example, and of beauty (that wretched peacock’s tail); the feminist theories of “gendered” knowledge; the habit among physicists of rewriting every irreducible “between-ness” relation as (yet) another dimension – not to mention the poison that still flows through literary studies from Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari. Most of that, on the other hand, has little impact on analytical philosophy.

In one area, however, philosophers have taken a great interest in fashionable nonsense and in many cases have also fallen for it. I refer to what the philosopher, poet and neurologist Raymond Tallis calls “neurotrash”. By this he means the rewriting of the human person as the human brain, and using the resulting pseudoscience as a purported answer to some philosophical problem – as in Libet on free will, Zeki on aesthetic taste, Ramachandran on self-knowledge and “mirror neurons”, Joshua Greene on moral reasoning, and a thousand similar attempts to reduce the I to the fMRI.

The problem with neurotrash is not that it clutters up the pages of unreadable philosophical journals like Mind (where it could after all do no great damage) but that it finds its way into the culture. People are eager to believe this stuff: deeply relieved to discover that they are after all not responsible for their actions since “it is my brain that did it”, that there is no such thing as love given freely from one person to another but only propensities to attachment that are “hard wired” in the cortex, that the love of beauty is after all no big deal since it is just a special case of the peak phenomenon observable in the dietary choices of rats, and that sex is just a matter of dopamine secretion.

Of course we philosophers can blame it all on Patricia Churchland, or at least on her serotonin count, but until recently nobody did much to stamp this nonsense out. That is why I welcome, as major contributions, both Ray Tallis’s attempt at a fine-grained description of human relations which shows the impossibility of describing them in neural terms, and Max Bennett and Peter Hacker’s detailed demolition (in The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience) of the “mereological fallacy”. Bennett and Hacker have been subject to abusive attack from Dan Dennett, but in terms which show, to my way of thinking, that they were right to identify a systematic fallacy in “neuroscientism”. This is the fallacy of reducing a whole to one of its parts, while assuming we understand the whole sufficiently well that the part will not thereby become mysterious. But of course it does become mysterious, and the net result of neurotrash is not to explain the human person, but to make nonsense of the brain.

Further reading
Why the Mind is Not a Computer: A Pocket Lexicon of Neuro-mythology, Raymond Tallis (Imprint Academic, 2004)

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher, public commentator and professor for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences

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6 comments for “Ideas of the century: neurotrash (41/50)”

  1. Another interesting article, but mainly as a guide to further reading.

    To draw a comparison, Norman Malcolm used to dismiss the scientific study of dreaming by observation of rapid eye movements, but his view was felt to be implausible as it ignored new information that might change our use of language for the better.

    Surely we cannot rule out the idea that the brain has some light to shine on thinking?

    Posted by Stephen | December 15, 2010, 10:03 am
  2. “People are eager to believe this stuff: deeply relieved to discover that they are after all not responsible for their actions since “it is my brain that did it” [...]”

    Incidentally, it would be interested to have some evidence for this statement about unnamed “people”. Presumably “some people” is meant, as the author and perhaps his readers are excluded. But there is no empirical example of someone thinking they are not responsible for their actions. Lack of space might be an excuse here, but I for one find the statement implausible.

    Posted by Stephen | December 15, 2010, 10:08 am
  3. Has Scruton just discovered that there are philosophers out there who are determininsts about free will, and now blames it all on neuroscience? I’m not even sure this uninformed rant counts as an article, but it is in any case very confused.

    Perhaps Scruton should have read him some neuroethics before jumping so eagerly on the neurotrash bandwagon.

    Posted by Tea | December 15, 2010, 11:25 am
  4. [...] Roger Scruton, without arguing the case, does express a current of growing irritation about the pervasion of ‘something’ [...]

    Posted by Neurotrash « FeelingFeelings | December 15, 2010, 5:22 pm
  5. [...] HER i The Philosophers’ [...]

    Posted by Roger Scruton om neuroscience – ateisternes nye gud « Veritas Universalis | December 16, 2010, 5:47 pm
  6. I tend to agree with Roger Scruton’s critique but from, as it were, the other side. Unlike Scruton, who I think of as a conservative philosopher, I am on the other side, a radical philosopher. The problem with “neurotrash,” but also the problem with what I think Scruton would defend, is that they both think that they are really getting at it. That there is an it to really get at. I would criticize neurotrash for having a diminished view of being human. And I would offer my vision – as we all would – of being human as a better vision to enact. It’s not that the neurotrashists or Scruton are getting humans wrong and I am getting them right, i.e. as they truly are. It’s that the neurotrashers view is deficient in the ways that my view says they are. We are all in a struggle to define what we think we are and what we think we, individually and collectively, can become.

    I want the neurotrashers to continue their inquiries and see how far they can develop their views using brain science and the like. The problem is with the dominance of a certain view and its power relative to other views.

    Posted by Jeff Meyerhoff | December 17, 2010, 11:10 pm