September 27, 2012

Neuroscience And Genetics - Their Potential Impact On Human Cultural Evolution

The Marketplace In Your Brain: Neuroscientists have found brain cells that compute value.  Why are economists ignoring them? by Josh Fischman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, September 24, 2012

Never mind the fallacious language about economic markets existing in your cranium and the neuron-machine comparison in the above linked title and leader.  The article has much that is useful to say about the relationship between neuroscience findings and how they are responded to within the social sciences, in particular, economics.

I have been skeptical for some time about how journalists, writers, reporters, as well as many neuroscientists, academics, and other professionals, too often exaggerate the findings of neuroscience research.  More disturbing is their insistence that the reductionistic and deterministic approaches of neuroscience research will surely give rise to a biology of all human behavior based on genetics and brain structures and functions.  This would be a sociobiology (Wilson) that trumps the social sciences and humanities and makes them obsolete, subordinate, or relatively weak in terms of their explanatory-predictive power regarding human behavior.  See Ray Tallis for an excellent treatment of such exaggerations and misplaced confidence.

Though extremely skeptical, I can't help but wonder what "new world" awaits Humankind if the natural science of human behavior many neuroscientists and geneticists seek is realized.  What will it mean to have a irrefutable sociobiological, neuro-genetic understanding of human nature expressed in terms of laws, theories, and models equivalent to those in physics, chemistry, and biology?

I hope I live long enough to see a synthesis of neuroscience and social science that produces reliably predictive laws and models of human behavior, if in fact such a natural science of Humankind is possible.  If such laws and models are produced an unprecedented upheaval in the cultural evolution of our species must surely ensue.

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that the greatest challenge facing Humankind is successfully making whatever efforts necessary to bring about a binding global morality and civilization, and an effective human stewardship of Earth - Cultural Evolution, Phase II - Establishing a Unified Worldview.  Will a natural science of human behavior as envisioned by many neuroscientists and geneticists, if it comes into being, enhance or hinder our on-going efforts to realize this vital second phase of Humankind's evolution?

Much if not all of what we accept as being our human nature and what we accept as moral behavior is founded on the principle of individual intentionality, agency, and rationality.  If neuroscience and genetics unequivocally establish that we have have no free will, intentionality, or agency, that our behavior is intuitive, instinctive, and pre-determined and/or otherwise controlled by our genes and brains, the life of the individual within a local and global community of minds will no longer be the reference point for what it means to be human.  The structures and functions of our genes and brain cells will become that which "contains" what it means to be human.

New beliefs and values regarding what we are and how we should relate to each other will need to be created. Our notions of the intentionality and agency of the self and person, our personal obligations and responsibilities to each other, our moral and legal culpability, our notions of human freedom and human rights, our humaneness, our understandings of just warfare, and all other personal, social, and global aspects of who and what we are must be changed.

My worry is who or what will make these changes - competing nation-state governments, religious leaders, scientists, global fora such as the UN, or our brains and genes themselves? How will they go about it? What will the new beliefs and values be? How will we use them?

I am skeptical that such predictive theories and models will ever materialize. If they do they will likely be more probabilistic than predictive. Still, such a future neuro-social science dominated paradigm would be fraught with great risks, many of which would have direct implications for Humankind's survival and Earth's continued life sustaining capability.

What are we to do as individuals, as societies? Remain skeptical. Trust, exercise, and vigorously defend individual intentionality, agency, and rationality. Behave compassionately toward all.

Whatever neuroscience and genetics ultimately reveal about human nature, our future will be an unimaginable journey well worth taking - if we and the planet survive it.

September 9, 2012

Critique - "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt

[The following are notes used by the author for a presentation at a meeting of the Blue Moon Group of freethinkers in Peachtree City, Georgia on September 9, 2012.  The author was invited by the leaders and organizers of the group to give a critique of Haidt’s book. Author's comments after extracts from Haidt are in italics.]

ADDENDUM:  The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt: Critique Postscript, November 21, 2013


Professor Jonathan Haidt is a self-described moral psychologist.  I am neither a psychologist nor a neuroscientist.  As for being a moralist, no, I don’t teach morality but I am, regrettably, prone to moralizing.

Professor Haidt took approximately five years to research and write The Righteous Mind.  To conduct a thorough analysis of his work and the references he cites would take at least half that long.  I haven’t done that.  I have read the book twice and found certain methods and conclusions he has come to objectionable either due to his failure to use the best or most appropriate way to understand human behavior, or because of the language and argumentation he employs is a misleading or incorrect portrayal of Humankind.

Before I turn to that, let me say up front that I am a strong agnostic.  That is to say, if you drew a line in the sand and told me I had to stand on one side or the other, with either the religious believers or the atheists, I would unhesitatingly place myself among the latter.  I am also a secular humanist. 

I am not a Cartesian dualist.  Although I consider consciousness, mind, and self to be emergent properties of the various processes of the brain interacting with the environment via the five senses, I feel reasonably certain that when the body/brain dies, consciousness, mind, and person cease to directly exist.  I will address matters of the self, free will, and person later, in more detail.

As for science, it is not perfect in its knowledge or methods, nor is it immune from political manipulation or inhumane use.  Science produces a provisional truth that encourages skepticism and invites challenge.  A full, over-arching, grand theory or understanding of Life and Humankind cannot be derived from reducing all human behavior to physical and chemical determinism.  Given the complexity of human social and cultural life, past and present, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a theory of human behavior based on our history, and expressed in terms of future probabilities, not certainties or laws.  I’m reminded of the science fiction notion of “psychohistory” developed by Isaac Asimov’s character, Hari Seldon, in the Foundation novels.  Maybe we’ll live long enough to see such a theory and methodology become a reality.  Maybe.

Human language-based cultural behavior is an emergent property of mammalian, primate evolutionary history.   Our high symbolic communication and cumulative culture provide a domain of human expression that transcends (goes beyond) our genes, neural wiring and brain chemistry.  I am therefore fairly certain that the social and behavioral sciences of anthropology, psychology and sociology, or philosophy, will not be replaced by a science of humankind based exclusively on physics, chemistry and neurology.

Finally, I do not regard reductionism and determinism, that is, in the strict materialistic sense that is practiced in most quarters of the natural sciences, as the only valid and therefore best approach for understanding and explaining human behavior.  The nature of Humankind, that which unequivocally distinguishes us as Homo sapiens among all other animals, is most apparent from and best understood by examining and considering the interaction between the conscious, language and culture-bearing human person, and the social and physical worlds.

The work of neuroscience and evolutionary biology is providing important insights.  However, a complete understanding of the nature of Humankind is not solely or ultimately to be found in the brain, its circuits or nerve cells, or in our genome.  To argue that it is or will be, is scientism.  Strong scientism produces dogma.  Dogma is an absolute, inviolable truth and is often associated with supernaturalism and totalitarianism.  It is the antithesis of the provisional truth of science.

Among the numerous unequivocally distinguishing characteristics of our species is human morality.  Let me now turn to Haidt’s book where morality is the major topic.

My goal in this critique is to persuade you to consider that a biologistic, reductionistic, and deterministic approach to morality and other complex human beliefs and behaviors, as Haidt offers, is not, by itself, sufficient.  Haidt believes it is.

I hope to persuade you that insisting on the primacy of such an approach, one that minimizes the influence of self, agency, free will, and the local and global community of minds, past and present, is inappropriate, dehumanizing, and dangerous.

I want to talk about four areas of method and findings in Haidt’s book that are inappropriate or unproductive ways for understanding and explaining human behavior.  These areas are:

I.          The Nature of Humankind
II.         The Biologism of Intuition and Reason
III.       Moral Foundations Theory
IV.       A Better Approach For Understanding Mind And Humankind