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: