December 12, 2011

Neuroeconomics? - Neuroscience No Panacea For Understanding Humankind

UPDATE
How Reliable Are The Social Sciences? by Gary Gutting, The New York Times, The Opinionator, May 17, 2012
The Value of Social Science by Elizabeth Clark-Polner and Margaret Clark, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, May 18, 2012
Overcoming "Physics Envy" by Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, March 30, 2012

The Neuroeconomics Revolution by Robert J. Shiller, Project Syndicate - A World of Ideas, November 21, 2011

From Konrad Lorenz's ethology of the 1950s to the sociobiology of the 1970s to the "new" neurosciences beginning in the 1990s there seems to be no end to the desire to link societal functions and their underlying cultural beliefs and values to the anatomy and physiology of the human brain and/or the biochemistry of our DNA.  Here's an incomplete but representative list of assertions made over the past two decades giving clear evidence that behavioral science explanations of human behavior and societal functioning are being passed over in favor of a reductionist, deterministic neuroscience and genetics that explain by describing neuronal or chromosomal locations and activities:

The Y chromosome causes violence to be higher in males than females.
Homosexuality has a genetic basis.
There's a gene that predisposes us to a belief in God.
Brain activity shows we make decisions before we are conscious of them.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, when the new behavioral sciences, beginning with Freud in psychology, Durkheim in sociology and Boas in anthropology and others in these disciplines, had taken human social and cultural behavior from 19th century armchair speculation and placed it in the labs, couches, and ethnographic present of science and thereby encumbered the study of Humankind with the scientific method of objective, testable, and replicable observation and experiment, expectations within the academy and society at large went sky high.

Surely, academics thought, we will one day have a physics and chemistry of human behavior, an anthropology in the strictest sense of the term.  Meanwhile, humanists in the arts and literature, including humanistically-inclined thinkers in the behavioral sciences, continued on in a tradition begun during The Renaissance and extended during The Enlightenment by practitioners of what later became known as the academic disciplines of history, modern philosophy, art, literature and music.  Their conviction was and remains that human psychic, cultural, and social life can be adequately described, portrayed, and explained holistically without deterministically reducing it to physics and chemistry.

Scientifically-inclined behavioral scientists on the other hand, suffering from what a friend of mine calls "physics envy" or perhaps finding the pursuit of another grand theory such as Darwin's irresistible, embarked on a search for experimental and observational data that would reveal the "laws" of human behavior.  Scientific theories of mind, society and culture began to abound.  Some were grand theories purporting to explain all, others proffered more modest models and descriptions of specific aspects of how we think, how we organize and behave as groups, and how we learn, use and change the various beliefs and values that make up cultures.

By the 1960s, however, the natural sciences had us walking on the moon while the behavioral sciences strongly declared the ascendancy of the needs of the individual over the needs of the group, and defined as inviolable the notion that humans could only be truly understood withing the context of their own societies and cultures.  Contributing to this unparalleled ascendancy of the individual in the West was postmodernism - a paradigmatic shift in art in the 1970s that rapidly found its way into literature and into the hearts and minds of many of the humanistically/politically-inclined faculty of the behavioral science departments at the academy.

Where at one time there was one scientific approach to the study of the stars, atoms and human behavior, there now was a rift.  Behavioral scientists held on to the methods of the natural sciences, of course, but their aims became different from those of the natural sciences.  Natural scientists continued to conduct experiments and observations to gather particulars and their goals remained unchanged - extrapolate from the particulars to explanations and theories of processes and patterns; and where possible, apply these broader understandings to technology and problem solving.

Behavioral scientists, on the other hand, for the most part, contented themselves with the particulars of their observations and experiments and applied the explanations they derived to particular problems of society and the psyche - advances in applied anthropology, sociology and psychology being most notable.  The dream of a unified grand theory of mind, society, culture and behavior was no longer the dominant paradigm if not dead in most behavioral science departments.

But the ethologists and sociobiologists during the latter half of the 20th century had neither gone away nor given up their efforts to bring into being a biology of human behavior on an equal footing with physics and chemistry.  In fact, their efforts have vigorously continued and beginning in the 1980s and up to the present they have been bolstered by the new field of evolutionary psychology and a newly robust neuroscience.  The endeavor of explaining and predicting human behavior reductionistically and deterministically that had been abandoned by most in the behavioral sciences has now become the frontier of genetic and neurological research.  The efforts in genetics, especially as they apply to disease diagnosis and treatment, have been truly revolutionary.  Neuroscience, unlike genetics, continues to aggressively pursue the commanding explanatory height for all human behavior, sometimes making extraordinary claims about how much of human behavior its findings can explain.

Enter "neuroeconomics" as briefly described in the link at the beginning of this post.  I have not read Paul Glimcher's book Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis (2010) reviewed favorably in the link or another popular treatment of the same subject, Neuroeconomics: The New Science of Making Choices (2008).  However, I gather from the link that the essential pursuit in this "new academic field" (as Amazon.com describes it) is "to advance some of the core concepts of economics by linking them to specific brain structures."  Link author, Yale economics professor Robert Shiller, describes Glimcher's efforts as follows:

Glimcher is skeptical of prevailing economic theory, and is seeking a physical basis for it in the brain. He wants to transform “soft” utility theory into “hard” utility theory by discovering the brain mechanisms that underlie it.  In particular, Glimcher wants to identify brain structures that process key elements of utility theory when people face uncertainty: “(1) subjective value, (2) probability, (3) the product of subjective value and probability (expected subjective value), and (4) a neuro-computational mechanism that selects the element from the choice set that has the highest ‘expected subjective value’…”

Despite their efforts, Shiller reports, Glimcher and his colleagues "have yet to find most of the fundamental brain structures" that are responsible for the various aspects of economic theory.  "This research" Shiller continues, "might help us to understand how people handle uncertainty and risk in, say, financial markets at a time of crisis" and concludes "it is likely that one day we will know much more about how economies work – or fail to work – by understanding better the physical structures that underlie brain functioning."  Finally, Shiller is convinced that neuroscience, computer science and economics are complementary in that they solve informational problems.  Therefore, he believes, advances in one of the three fields will enhance efforts in the other two.

The now widely popular notion that the cognitive and communicative use of human language, including its phonemes, symbols, memes, beliefs, values and imaginings, can be deterministically reduced to the images and descriptions of neurophysiological structures and processes is hard for me to accept.  I cannot accept that such neuroscientific explanations will actually be the meanings and processes themselves or their predictors.

Many in neuroscience tar those who do not accept their conviction that the findings of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology are our thoughts as dualists - those who believe that the mind exists separate from the brain.  I am no dualist.  The mind-brain problem has been solved - they are a unity.  There is no magical homunculus in the brain that weaves a life for each of us from the symbols and memes that we create, share, and manipulate to navigate the physical and social worlds.  The brain is the incredible body organ we use to invest language bits with meaning and store them; to craft representations of ideas we call symbols, beliefs and values; to make comparisons and evaluations of environmental circumstances; to choose among behavioral options.  Yes, the electro-chemical activity of brain cells is essential to this process.  But explaining this process is a representation, not an explanation of an idea or a decision.  Brain states that occur when a certain idea is considered or a decision when it is deliberated are not the idea or decision itself.  This form of reasoning would have us explain an American football field goal as the structure and functioning of the kicker's leg.  The fact that the goal was worth three points or that it won the game is not in any way contained in the anatomy and physiology of the kicker's limb.

By extension, the true significance, the most essential essence of an economic theory or other human behavioral explanation is not the neuroanatomy and electro-chemical processes by which it was conceived, nor are such processes that deliberate and choose an economic decision the decision itself.

Neuroeconomics and neuroscience as a whole will not provide the grand theory of human behavior that the behavioral sciences ceased to search for yet ethologists and sociobiologists continue to pursue. At most, neuroscience holds much promise for providing an explanation of the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological structures and functions that make thought possible and influence what and how we think.  Such an explanation will tell us much about what a thought is as a function of the brain, not as a function of personhood, society and culture.  What a thought means is a far more complex matter.  The meaning and definition of the thoughts of our thinking can be best understood using the theories and methods of the behavioral sciences and the humanities.  The grand theory of Humankind is already known.  Each of us live it everyday, for better or worse.

Look To This Day

Look to this day,

For it is life,
The very life of life.
In its brief course lie all
The realities and verities of existence,
The bliss of growth,
The splendor of action,
The glory of power --

For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.

                            - Sanskrit Proverb

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