Holy Grail of Neuroscience

This Salon interview with neurologist Robert Burton hits on all cylinders. Intellectual honesty and humility are beautiful things. These excerpts should be required reading for the evangelical atheist crowd, especially Sam Harris:

You write that even after 2,500 years of contemplation and research, we still have “no idea what a mind actually is.” Why do we keep hitting our heads against the wall?

We can’t help ourselves. Given our brain’s tendency to seek out patterns and avoid ambiguity, we are physiologically condemned to question the very entity that is responsible for generating the questions. This paradoxical state is likely to be at the core of many age-old philosophical conundrums. For example, because we have an innate sense of agency and yet simultaneously believe that mental states must have preexisting physical causes, we are left debating free will versus determinism. If we didn’t have a sense of agency, I’m not sure that the free will question would even arise.

So these questions are fundamentally misguided?

The mind exists in two separate dimensions – as the subjective experience of what goes on inside our heads, and as abstract concept. Neither can be objectively assessed. We can study brain function and ultimately arrive at a good working model of how the brain works. However, there is no scientific method to address subjective experience. The Holy Grail of neuroscience would be to understand how the brain converts biological activities into subjective consciousness. Presently we have no clues, not even reasonable suspicions. The ongoing failure to even formulate the problem coherently is reflected in the inability of neuroscientists and philosophers of mind to come up with a reasonable hypothesis, let alone convincing experimental data.

You argue that neuroscience is different from other sciences because the mind is both the subject of investigation and the instrument with which neuroscientists investigate the mind. Perhaps it isn’t the most reliable arrangement.

It’s the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal. The road to a better understanding of the mind should begin with a healthy dose of humility and skepticism. Question your methodology and your motivation. Recognize when you have reached the limits of your data and have moved into the realm of speculation. Despite the demands of the media, avoid the urge to publish premature or oversimplified conclusions. Above all, keep in mind the unavoidable philosophical limits of neuroscience.

So much for certitude. After years of studying brain evolution, cognition, and consciousness, I’ve reached similar conclusions.

And this excerpt brings to mind something I’ve been saying about evolutionary religious studies, nearly all of which are driven (or underwritten) by personal agendas that are never disclosed:

You propose that neurological studies should be supplemented with brief autobiographies of the researchers involved, revealing their personal backgrounds and beliefs. Why is that important?

Data can be assessed via scientific method; conclusions are stories told by scientists based upon the evidence they have acquired, but filtered through their own idiosyncratic biases. Though public self-revelation runs counter to the traditional presumption that scientists can be entirely objective, it’s time that we step back from thinking that scientific conclusions about the mind are free from personal perceptions and motivations. Our understanding of neuroscience would be very different if every study contained a paragraph or two in which the author revealed his or her understanding of what agendas drove the study.

Over the past 20 years, the field of evolutionary religious studies has exploded in size and scope. While these studies are presented as unbiased and objective, most researchers in the field are driven by either atheistic or theistic agendas. These should be disclosed. The search for truth demands intellectual honesty.

On an unrelated note, here is my candidate for photo of the year. This Femen protestor is going “topless jihad” (in support of Tunisian activist Amina Tyler) next to the Grand Mosque in Paris:

"Topless Jihad" Femen Activist (Photo AFP)

“Topless Jihad” Femen Activist (Photo AFP)


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13 thoughts on “Holy Grail of Neuroscience

  1. jayarava

    None of us need to be entirely objective, because science, scholarship, is not a narrative, it is a dialogue. We exchange and critique ideas. So I see the flaws in your presentation and try to respond; and you tell me that I’ve misunderstood, or, rarely, you change your mind or I do. And together *millions* of us work together to get around the weaknesses of the individuals. And thus individual biographies are irrelevant. The proposition about the role of individuals is nonsensical. Individuals don’t really matter in science because, despite our lauding certain people, they are always members of teams of scientists in dialogue with peers and colleagues and standing on the shoulders of giants.

    “However, there is no scientific method to address subjective experience.”

    I’m not sure this is true any more. Work on imaging the brain has recently opened the door to studying experience I think.

    I would say that the greatest hindrance to understanding the mind is the legacy ideas and terminology from Western philosophy. Many of the claims of philosophers are shown to based on incorrect assumptions. By properly defining the subject of inquiry we make better progress than we do chasing the phantoms of the imagination of philosophers. Two of the most misleading terms are objective and subjective. If objectivity is problematic, then how much more so the idea of subjectivity? And yet where is the criticism of it? Why do we not question the very idea of subjectivity? In a word, *bias*.

    The lack of criticism of the very idea of subjectivity exposes a Romantic streak in the criticism. The view is that some aspect of us that remains forever beyond the ken of mere science. Effectively the subjective becomes a kind of soul, immaterial by definition and thus ineffable. The Romantic critique of science certainly has a role to play in keeping scientists on their toes, but it is so often blind to it’s own presumptions and tediously triumphalist. As though a Romantic view has a sort of unassailable moral high-ground. It’s just a point of view laden with it’s own preconceptions about experience. One of the problems with Romanticism is that it over-emphasises the individual and individual experience at the expense of the collective and shared experience (see my first paragraph).

    And there in fact are hypotheses:

    Orpwood, Roger. ‘Qualia Could Arise from Information Processing in Local Cortical Networks.’ Frontiers in Psychology. 2013; 4: 121. Published online 2013 March 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00121

    I’m far more optimistic about scientific progress in understanding our apparatus of understanding. Especially as we strip away the philosophical and particularly the Romantic confusions. And as we pay attention to what can be observed and to what can be inferred from these observations, and have discussions about it.

    The greatest obstacles to progress often turn out to be our own preconceptions.

  2. Cris Post author

    Of course it’s impossible to be “entirely” objection, but we should strive for it and disclose our preferences and predilections as we proceed. These disclosures can speed up the pace of conversation and prevent many of us from going down blind alleys or being deceived. This is especially so when it comes a research subject such as “religion,” which is bound up in preferences and predilections.

    We’ll just have to disagree about individuals and their role in science. Individuals make a huge difference and some are recognized authorities or giants in their fields. They may stand on others’ shoulders and collaborate and dialogue, but individuals play key roles as individuals. Ideal science may be a collective endeavor and over the very long term it may be a group narrative, but in our lifetimes and given our limited expertise, we have to (and do) rely on individual scientists doing individualist work.

    I don’t think brain imagining studies tell us much about minds, consciousness, or anything really. Though there is a huge critical literature on this topic, a good primer is Matt Crawford’s “Limits of Neurotalk” piece in the New Atlantis. In fact, all this brain imaging tells us almost nothing — it amounts to tautology, or statistical voodoo. It typically posits effects as causes.

    While there are plenty of hypotheses about how brains give rise to minds or thinking or experience, Burton is right when he says that none of them have given rise to a research program that is testable. Our understanding of things like “qualia” and consciousness is primitive at best.

  3. jayarava

    I don’t mean to completely discount individuals. After all individuals make up the millions, and often provide insights. But in the face of that kind of highly biased criticism it seemed fair to put some emphasis on the other side of things in the interest of balance.

    Kind of a glass mostly empty view of neuroscience. All I can say is that it has taught me a shit load about my own mind, else I wouldn’t still be interested.

    Sorry, but if you read that paper, if you even read the abstract, it does propose a testable program! That’s the whole point.

    Crawford is a political philosopher turned journalist. Don’t get me started.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    (1) Autobiographies
    I agree that autobiographies are incredibly helpful if not essential to some degree in helping to expose experimental bias. In medicine, it was such insights that makes many journal require explicit declaration of funding. Actually, it was exactly for this reason that when I started my atheist blog I started by sharing my background and experiences.

    (2) Impenetrability of Subjectivity
    “there is no scientific method to address subjective experience.”
    This seem way overkill to me. Qualitative research has helped us expose a lot of the geography of subjectivity with greater and greater certainty as techniques improve. Perhaps he means something far different. Should we look at his autobiography and see if it is steeped in reading so post-modernism?

    (3) Evangelical Atheists
    I am incredibly thankful to those Atheists who evangelize against theists who make false empirical claims and spout deadly exclusivist ideology using mistaken epistemology. I can’t see how these quotes you choose are helpful in criticize their efforts. Evangelical Atheists have made this country safer for my kids, thank you. But then, I really don’t know your autobiography. Have you posted it? Funding and such.

  5. Cris Post author

    Crawford may be those things but the points he makes in this article seem mostly correct. There are many neuroscientists and cognitive scientists who agree with all the points he makes in it. As I said, that article is merely a primer for the much deeper, more informed, scientific critical literature which makes the same points.

    You are far more optimistic about the brain-mind sciences than many mind scientists and mind philosophers. Good for you!

    I’m familiar with that paper, and while it proposes a testable program (like most such papers do), operationalizing the hypothesis is an entirely different issue. Gerald Edelman has been proposing the exact same thing for several decades, and it’s never been done (despite having funding). This is not for lack of trying. Francis Crick has made similar proposals and they’ve never been operationalized or tested. Why? Because we can’t measure the concepts they are using, and any measurements that are taken will just be fitted into the concepts, in tautological fashion.

    Have you ever read my article on the human brain which can be found (in pdf) under the Bio tab of the blog? If not, it might interest you. It also speaks to this conversation.

  6. Cris Post author

    Well, Sabio, most scientists dismiss qualitative research because it is not scientific and despite having a methodology, it’s too “subjective” in the end to amount to science. This is what he means, or at least what I think he means. I’m not aware of any scientific experiments on subjectivity. We can’t even agree on the basic concepts, like so-called “qualia,” so how could we possibly measure it in an empirical way or using scientific methods? Two Nobel prize winners (Edelman and Crick) have devoted their entire late careers to these issues, and they have made very little testable scientific progress. They have lots of interesting hypotheses and ideas but not much else.

    As for the evangelical atheists, I appreciate the gutter work they do against fundamentalists. But then they always go several bridges or claims too far, and that’s where I disagree with them and criticize. It takes one fundamentalist to battle another. I’ve done many posts over the years on where they go wrong and why they should be criticized. If you search for “new atheism” or “new atheists” using my box, you’ll understand my beefs.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    Well, Cris, calling the atheists fundamentalists or evangelical, always strikes me as a move of those either living privileged by the status quo religious establishment, or who don’t put the same weight I do on the harm cause by fundamentalists and evangelical. Using those terms in pejorative rhetoric (your style in this essay), is as cheap of a move as calling the radicals. Further, as I point out, using this interview on epistemology, to bolster your attack on certain types of atheism seems as sloppy as the overreaching you feel the atheist you criticize are doing themselves. Ironic. So I thought I’d stand up against the rhetoric and for those who fight against Christianity — fundamentalist or any other which drives politics, exclusivism, distain of atheists and more. Even nice liberal Christians think atheists are disgusting. You don’t have to be a fundie to distrust an atheist in America. And so their rhetoric, and their god-talk just often reinforces centuries of bigotry. So I am happy for the atheists who fight not only fundamentalism but the Bible myths and more — centuries rhetoric need weakening from all angles.

  8. Cris Post author

    I’m glad they are fighting the fight. That fight doesn’t interest me. Fundamentalists don’t interest me.

    Ontological and epistemological truth claims are my interest. When evangelical atheists make very public statements about these kinds of claims, I will call them out for it with more than just rhetoric. I’ve been doing it for over 3 years on this blog and will continue to do so. You apparently haven’t been following those, or you would know that my attacks are neither rhetorical nor, as you put it, “sloppy.” So my style here is somewhat dependent on a previous knowledge (and perhaps appreciation) of the issues and posts.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m an equal opportunity attacker: both kinds of fundamentalists raise my ire. I will say, however, that since the atheist fundies are more learned and interesting, I single them out more often. They are more worthy targets.

    All that aside, there are far more effective, subtle, and permanent ways to undermine (rather than “fight”) religion. That brand of atheists does more harm than good. Gentle persuasion, of the genealogical variety, tends to work long term wonders. Genealogies are a form of debunking. You don’t fight the bull by running at him all loud and mad. You sneak up on him.

    And by the way, my “well Sabio” was used only because I got a bunch of comments all at once, and was responding to all at once and wanted to identify each. But I’m happy to see you took umbrage and threw it back at me. Nicely done.

  9. Sabio Lantz

    Well, I am addressing this post — not your whole body of work. I am addressing use of rhetoric here. Bloggers often refer back to previous works and decry criticisms saying, “Well, obviously you haven’t read all my stuff.” But that is the nature of blogging, isn’t it. So, it is important to take smaller bites — which you usually do. I love your posts. But as you speak out when someone speaks on ontology or epistemology, I speak out when someone uses rhetorical arguments and styles and not substance to attack something I value.

    Yes, I have seen you attack fundies and other Christian stuff — I am not concerned with your positions on that stuff, but this attack again some atheists seems to be unfocused and cashing in on poor rhetoric — way too broad. As I said, ironically so.

    I think there are lots of ways to “fight” religion — to undo much of the harm it causes us. And I am glad there is variety in those ways. Some styles (which may not be to your liking) persuade some folks and other gentle, sweet ways may be more persuasive for others.

    Do you have any empirical evidence that your “gentler” methods work better in the “long run”? Or did you just though that out there assuming I was to nod my head to it. I think brave, rough, harsh outspoken people have done a wonder of good in the battle against the ugly side of religion. And I think the softer approach has done wonders too. Those that try to prescribe the “best” way to approach religion are just telling us more about themselves then they are methodology. That gets back to your point about autobiographies. You can indeed fight the bull by making him mad — bull fighters do it all the time. Your claim is empirical — using analogies to make your point won’t work.

    I hate doing this in type — I am a much more congenial person in person. :-)

  10. Cris Post author

    Well, Sabio (smile), rhetoric is of course one of the great gifts to humankind, or so says Aristotle. He’s probably right.

    The irony here is that the evangelical atheists use all known (and some perhaps unknown) rhetorical tricks in service of their agenda (with which I empathize on a gutter level — wink), yet it appears okay with you because they are fighting the good fight. Moreover, they confuse their rhetoric with truth, and then make epistemological and ontological claims. They argue by way of assertion, which is a rhetorical trick. When it is all gussied up in the guise of “science,” it’s all the more rhetorically impressive isn’t it?

    I empathize with you having to raise a child in what might be called a primitive or mythopoeic society or culture. If confronting the bull head on works for you and your children, that’s great. But as 300 years of post-Enlightenment history have shown, it’s probably a losing one. Enlightenment atheists were much better rhetoricians (and deeper thinkers) than the current crop of “new atheists.” If it didn’t work for these “ancients” and hasn’t worked since, what makes anyone think that the current batch of militants can do any better?

    I’m not trying to fight religion or Christianity or anything else. What I am doing is pursuing the truth, small-t, without regard to current cultural or political circumstances. In my estimation, this pursuit may lead to more sensible behavior over the long-term and on larger-scales.

    The world doesn’t need any more prophets or gurus or ideologues. It needs more humble people who pursue truth correspondences.

  11. Sabio Lantz

    I think that the folks you are labeling “evangelical atheists” — again, a term I am curious to see you define (perhaps you have), would agree with you about most the points above. Do you imagine they wouldn’t?

    Objecting to them on specific points on poor rhetoric (the word has many uses) or arguments is the way to go instead of just labeling a whole class of atheists and telling us that this post some how addresses them and that they are somehow ignorant of these issues.

    But as 300 years of post-Enlightenment history have shown, it’s probably a losing one. Enlightenment atheists were much better rhetoricians (and deeper thinkers) than the current crop of “new atheists.”

    Wow, I’d love to see those terms defined and the empirical claim quantified. “Militants” was the cream.

    I am wager that the work you do and the impact it has has a much smaller impact then you may imagine. But you have told yourself, it seems, that such is the far nobler work with far more deeper, better impacts in the long run. Again, an empirical claim. I don’t suspect that. Some of the most outspoken atheist — ones you have labeled “militant” or “radical” or “evangelical” have probably helped give other atheist the bravery to come out and speak more gently. The room many of you gentler people have is riding on the shoulders of those far more vocal.

  12. Cris Post author

    I’m happy that all this works for you. It is not my interest, as I’ve explained. I’m in this for the long and enduring haul, and I’m fairly confident that the book(s) I’m writing will not be yet another atheist tract espousing the same old, hoary atheist arguments. This blog has nothing to do with my work or my agenda or my goals.

    The only reason I blog (i.e., jot notes) is because I thought it might be useful for some as they journey towards truth correspondences. I’m not interested in today’s debates, politics, or agendas. I’m also not interested in winning or proving blog arguments or observations. Take it or leave it for what it may be worth. If you don’t like it, that’s fine by me. I have a long-term, post-life, non-monetary perspective on my work, and I don’t need any validation, acclaim, success, or notoriety in this life. In other words, this blog is but a blip.

    I don’t really care about other “atheists” or their bravery or their issues or being vocal (and wrong on major issues). “Atheism” as a category is fairly banal and lacking subtlety, insight, or depth. The vocal, evangelical atheists (and yes, I’ve named them — Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and Coyne) are juvenile thinkers when it comes to certain issues. The world is much bigger (and people are more complex) than theism v. atheism and the debates in which they are engaged (and you seem to be invested) hardly begin to capture it.

    Be supple my friend, and drink Dos Equis.

  13. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris,
    I do try to think subtle, and your writings help. I look forward to your book and think your voice is important. I dislike the “atheist” category too and feel it is extremely banal and horribly lacks insight and depth — no matter who uses it. I wrote a post where I say that I am only secondarily an Atheist – and actually, it should probably be 20th at best.

    BTW: As for your beer recommendation, may I ironically recommend Stone Arrogant Bastard when you are OK drinking a local’s loco brew (just over the border)! It is a little more powerful and deeper than that Heineken family beer you recommend which uses an advertisement by an American actor (“the Most Interesting Man in the World”) while made in Monterrey, Mexico (et. al.)!

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