November 26, 2012

Explanatory Pluralism Ignored By Many Neuroscientists And Journalists

Here's a must read for scientific secular thinkers confident that neuroscience is our best hope for developing a comprehensive, ultimate understanding of human behavior: Psychological Concepts and Biological Psychiatry: A Philosophical Analysis (2000) by Peter Zachar.  From the text (128-134):

"The most obvious response to someone who wants to talk about psychology only in terms of neurophysiology is the infinite regress critique; i.e., if psychology is really the activity of the nervous system, then neurophysiology is really the result of biochemical interactions, which in turn are really the activity of subatomic particles.  If sensations are 'really' brain processes, then brain processes are 'really' actualized genetic programs, which are 'really' incredibly complex arrangements of atomic particles.  Ultimate, everything will have to be eliminated in favor of subatomic physics.  Scientistic thinkers (followers of strong scientism) are most vulnerable to this regress because physics is presumably more scientific and therefore more real than biology or psychology.

"The regress is such a ridiculous consequence that eliminativists (deterministic reductionists) have to admit multiple levels of analysis.  They merely want to make separate levels more consistent with each other, their famous unity of science goal.
"Endorsing what he calls 'explanatory pluralism,' McCauley (1996) suggests that different levels of analysis make separate explanatory contributions, with each level having its own internally consistent legitimacy.  Part of this legitimacy involves a unique research tradition, with research techniques, and specific kinds of professional problems to solve.
"Modern day eliminativists think that higher level neuroscience can move into the level of analysis now occupied by psychology, but still be called neuroscience.  If I am correct, once neuroscience gets to the psychological level, new and complex problems endemic to that level will emerge.  These include perennial problems indigenous to psychology that no comprehensive model at that level of analysis can escape."
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Therefore, strong deterministic, reductionistic scientism ignores or downplays various levels of analysis of emergent phenomena beyond the nervous system, and descends into an infinite regress to the concepts, theories and methods of subatomic physics that simply cannot explain higher level phenomena.  The problem here does not lie only with journalistic license.  Neuroscience practitioners such as Sam Harris and many others seldom if at all acknowledge the need for explanatory pluralism encompassing numerous levels of analysis above the nervous system.  Neuroscientific reductionism and determinism are not enough.  Research efforts at all levels are needed.  Such a pluralistic approach is discouraged by journalistic and neuroscientific pseudo-comprehensive claims that free will and the self are illusions, intuition and psycho-evolutionary moral foundations in our brains are the real drivers of political behavior, and that there are economic marketplaces and value computing neurons in our brains.

Zachar's book is a good place to start thinking pluralistically about human behavior and skeptically about neuroscientific reductionism-determinism.

Further Reading

The Science of Bad Neuroscience by Dorothy Bishop, Oxford neuroscientist, a video of a 2011 talk
Neuroscience: Under Attack by Alissa Quart, The New York Times, November 23, 2012
Neuroscience Fiction by Gary Marcus, The New Yorker, December 2, 2012
BishopBlog, blog of Dorothy Bishop
Mind Hacks
The Neurocritic