In probing our brains, we’ve lost our minds.
All this emphasis on the biological basis of human behavior is not to everyone’s liking. The British philosopher Roger Scruton, for one, takes exception to the notion that neuroscience can explain us to ourselves. He rejects the thought that the structure of the brain also structures the person, since an important distinction exists between an event in the brain and the behavior that follows. And, by the same token, the firing of neurons does not in a strictly causal sense account for identity, since a “person” is not identical to his or her physiological components. Even more damning are the accusations in Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, which argues that the insights gathered from neurotechnologies have less to them than meets the eye. The authors seem particularly put out by the real-world applications of neuroscience as doctors, psychologists, and lawyers increasingly rely on its tenuous and unprovable conclusions. Brain scans evidently are “often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system … so seeing one area light up on an MRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions.”
What makes these arguments, as well as those swirling around evolution, different from the ideas that agitated Trilling can be summed up in a single word: perspective. Where once the philosophical, political, and aesthetic nature of ideas was the sole source of their appeal, that appeal now seems to derive from something far more tangible and local. We have shifted our focus from the meaning of ideas to the means by which they’re produced. The same questions that always intrigued us—What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will?—take a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry. Instead of grappling with the gods, we seem to be more interested in the topography of Mt. Olympus.