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The Limits of (Neuro)science

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticOctober 26, 2011 4:10 AM


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Will science ever understand the brain?

To start off with, it must be admitted that science has done a pretty good job of explaining pretty much everything else in the universe, so just going on past experience, it probably will.


But some say that, sure, the scientific method is fine for things like chemistry, but not for others. The human brain (or some aspect of it: consciousness, the mind, love, belief, or whatever) is the most popular exception. Science just won't work on it, we're told. It's too complex.

Maybe, but I find this view rather blinkered. It relies on taking our current state of knowledge as an eternal truth.

To see humanity as a mystery surrounded by a world of unmysterious things is a very new idea. It would have seemed bizarre just 300 years ago. Back then, nature was pretty much inscrutable. At best human life was no more mysterious. In many ways, less so. There were no end of philosophical, psychological and religious theories, many of them so plausible that they're still around today.

The notion that humans are complex and hard, while nature is easy, is an illusion created (ironically) by the successes of reductionist science. Some of the biggest questions facing mankind for eons have answered so well, that we don't even see them as questions. Why do people get sick? Bacteria and viruses. Why does the sun shine? Nuclear fusion. Easy.

But only easy now. Think of the billions of people who lived and died before say 1800 - they saw the sun every day and they had no idea why it shone, and they knew no-one else did. You may not understand nuclear fusion, but you know that physicists do, you know it's no mystery. 300 years ago, it would have been very tempting to think that no-one would ever know, that the answers were known only by God.

So, to confidently claim that explaining the human mind will just be too hard is presumptuous. It may or may not be, I don't know. Historically, though, the theory that things are inexplicable has a bad track record.

Then there's the idea that humanity is not so much hard, as different. Philosophers have spent many pages coming up with new ways of phrasing that point. Nature is material, but we're spiritual. Nature is in-itself, but we're for-itself. And so on. If we can understand the mind at all, it certainly won't be through reductionistic, mechanistic, rationalist, objectivist (phew) science, they say.

Again, this seems perfectly plausible... to us, now. But people used to say the same thing about living things in general. That was vitalism, the idea that physics and chemistry were fine for inert matter, but anything alive was radically different.

At a certain point in history, when biology was almost completely seperate from (and primitive compared to) the other sciences, that seemed fine. But it turned outto be wrong. With the benefit of hindsight. Nowadays, no-one sees a radically difference between nature and bacteria, plants or animals... well, except humans.

Maybe the mind will never be understood within the framework of the rest of science. I don't know, but I don't think anyone else does right now, either.

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