Some fine observations here by philosopher Roger Scruton on the reductionism that often accompanies new developments in neuroscience. He makes the excellent point that descriptions of the activity of neurons have little to do with matters of art, morality, philosophy, and even psychology.
I read this stuff with mounting scepticism, especially now, when the overblown celebrations of Darwin’s anniversary have begun to stick in the throat. I am reminded of the street evangelist who cries “Jesus is the answer”, but who never defines the question. In the same way, we have an accumulation of answers, with no questions asked. Take any aspect of the human condition in which people have invested their hopes and fears — the love of God, of neighbour, of beauty, of virtue — boil it down to a few neurons, and tell the whole story in Darwinese, and you create the impression that some part of the human mystery has been solved. The amazing and puzzling qualities that distinguish us from the rest of nature are merely adaptations, and all are “hard-wired” in the brain.
No doubt there is a part of the brain associated with mathematical calculations. And mathematical competence is an adaptation: if you can’t add, you won’t multiply. Does this tell us what numbers are? Does it solve the great philosophical conundrum of the foundations of arithmetic, or help us to interpret Gödel’s theorem? Of course not. It tells us nothing about mathematics, but only something, and something fairly routine, about the brain. Likewise, the neurononsense that I have summarised tells us nothing about the self, about free will, about God or about beauty. It associates ideas with parts of the brain; but it does not tell us what the ideas mean, or what they refer to. It tells a story about neurons, which cause my arm to rise; but it says nothing about what I do when I raise my arm. And the talk of “adaptations” turns out, on inspection, to be trivial. It tells us that the love of God, of neighbour, of beauty and virtue are not dysfunctional from the point of view of reproduction. Otherwise they would have all died out. Big deal.
The entire article is short and incisive.