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SCIENCES CIVIL WARS: SEND IN THE PHILOSOPHERS

Ralph Windle Posted by Ralph Windle.

Ralph Windle is the editor of The Poetry of Business Life, as well as the author of Boardroom Ballads and The Bottom Line, and co-editor (with William Keyser) of Public Enterprises in the EEC.


At times of intellectual doubt or change it’s often best to have early recourse to the dictionary, to check again what the words being bandied about are basically meant to ....

At times of intellectual doubt or change it’s often best to have early recourse to the dictionary, to check again what the words being bandied about are basically meant to mean.

So mea culpa – a confession first! The regular elision into ‘arts/science’ of the key parameters of the inter-disciplinary mission we promote has proved a ‘shorthand’ too many. For ‘arts’ we need to revert to ‘arts and humanities’, the older, wider specification which then fell out of fashion but is re-emerging as the crucial mediator in the current undeclared Wars of the Sciences.

For, as my concise OED reminds me, the ‘ Arts’ are “ the branches of creativity, such as painting, music, drama” … or “ subjects of study mainly concerned with human culture ( as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects) …”; whereas ‘ Science’ is “ the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment …”.

What, then, between these clearer parameters would the words - ‘and Humanities’ -add to the party? Would it adhere more closely to the ‘art’ or ‘science’ component? And why does it matter?

The answer is that, alongside literature, art, and history, ‘humanities’ re- opens the door to ‘philosophy’ which has re-emerged as key mediator in the furious, and escalating, battle now raging between the aggressively garrulous wings of the neurosciences; the more ‘classical’ mainstream scientists; and the endangered custodians of the ideas of free-will, human self-consciousness and choice on which our notions of a moral society have been slowly but precariously built.
(The OED again: - ‘ philosophy’ is “ the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence”; and the study of their theoretical basis …).

These ‘ wars’ may be ‘undeclared’ but they have already spilled out beyond the sciences and humanities into a dispirited public awareness.

A good example is the recent article in the ‘Guardian’ by Rafael Behr, perceptively sub-titled “This pop neuroscience fad is taking all the joy out of being human “.   He comments on the wave of ‘best-sellers’, like David Brooks’ ‘The Social Animal’ which reports on “the ‘revolution in consciousness’ through which, Behr claims, “ science has junked most of what we thought we knew about how people make life choices ” . He comments on the ‘support regiments’ of ‘cognitive psychologists’ and ‘ evolutionary biologists ’ and then …

“ Finally, there are the neuroscientists who watch bits of our brains light up as we perform mundane tasks inside magnetic resonance imaging scanners. They conclude that conscious decision-making is often a retrospective justification for a course of action that the unconscious mind has already embarked upon”.

As a non-scientist he feels  modestly obliged to concede “ This is all good science, “… (though there is some cause to doubt this, as we will see )……

His sensible conclusion ? “… the abundance of jaunty popular tracts weaving all these insights together smells like a fashionable orthodoxy in the making ”.

It’s heartening to know that many scientists are themselves among those doubting that ‘this is all good science’.   Pre-eminent among these has been Professor Denis Noble, Oxford physiologist and systems biologist, whose 2006 ‘The Music of Life – Biology Beyond the Genome’ mounts an elegantly simple but devastating attack:
“ The self is not a neural object …..At the level of neurons and parts of the brain, what we normally mean by the self - that is, you or me - is more like a process than an object . We can certainly ask questions about how you or I would be affected by damage or alteration to our brain … but when we start to talk about the location of the self, we are talking about a person. Such talk belongs to a context in which it makes sense to refer to persons. It leads to semantic confusions to recast these as questions about locations in the brain.”

“The symphony of life that we call a person is not just the playing of individual instruments in the orchestra. And there is no Cartesian opera theatre in the brain. “

It is no surprise that Noble has also played a leading role in bringing the philosophers back into the dialogue. More on that below.

Among ‘their own’ it is probably Raymond Tallis, distinguished former Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Manchester University and Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences ( for his research in clinical neuroscience, no less! ) who has, over many moons and through many books, most scathingly exposed the inexorable torrent of claims of neuroscience and evolutionary theory to have explained human consciousness, behaviour, culture and society – down to ( his especial bête noir) the aesthetics of art and literature.

His latest – “ Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen 2011) is a massively detailed and sustained polemic, deeply felt and persuasive – and, just occasionally, deafening!

From a deep experience he is able to question and illuminate some of the more extravagant interpretations of the ubiquitous ‘brain-scan’ methodologies and related technologies; but, for me, he is most compelling on the ‘ continuity of evolution ‘ and the concept of ‘cognitive community’.

“ Our consciousness, and the engines that shape it, cannot be found solely in the stand-alone brain.”

“ … It participates in, and is part of, a community of minds built up by conscious human beings over hundreds of thousands of years. This cognitive community is an expression of the collectivisation of our experiences through a trillion acts of joint and shared attention…. To seek the fabric of contemporary humanity inside the brain is as mistaken as to try to detect the sound of a gust passing through a billion-leaved wood by applying a stethoscope to isolated seeds .”

And there are many others; but note that, as with Noble and Tallis, the final rebuttal – or validation - of an alleged erring science inevitably invokes philosophical scrutiny – ‘the study of the theoretical basis of a branch of knowledge or experience’. Noble and Tallis both know this, and have the appropriate experience within their repertoires. But there is a clear deficiency, in this respect, among many of the more noisy combattants. The philosophers are, however, now increasingly engaged.

One of the most notable of such engagements was the massively impressive “ Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience” (Blackwell Publishing 2003 ). It was no accident or surprise that it should have a short but compelling Foreword by Denis Noble. Its joint authors are PMS Hacker, of St John’s College, Oxford, a distinguished philosopher of mind and language; and MR Bennett, a leading neuroscientist and Professor of Physiology at the University of Sidney.

This book is a totally uncompromising and hard-hitting analysis which doesn’t shirk the need to cope with the pervasive influence of philosopher Daniel Dennett on this field via his much publicised view that “philosophy is allied with, and indeed continuous with, the physical sciences “. The authors, philosopher and neuroscientist alike, disagree; and provide a very detailed appendix ( Dennett’s Methodology and Presuppositions ) to explain why. “ We do not think that any philosophical problem can be solved through scientific enquiry “ prefaces their comments on this fundamental schism.

As clear and accessible are their wider joint conclusions .

“ … there is no such thing ( except figuratively ) as ‘getting inside’ ( a person’s) mind … We can ‘get inside’ another person’s brain, but no amount of investigation of another person’s neural processes … will allow us to inspect his reasoning or what he is thinking . If we want to know what Newton or Kant thought, and wish to examine his reasoning, we read his writings - and there is nothing ‘indirect’ about that .” ( page 94 )

Sir Anthony Kenny, a former President of the British Academy, commented: “ This remarkable book, product of a collaboration between a philosopher and a neuroscientist, shows that the claims made on behalf of cognitive science are ill-founded … The book will certainly arouse opposition, but if it causes controversy, it is controversy that is long overdue “.

This is by no means a little local contretemps. One of the more spectacular skirmishes took place this year in the March and June editions of the New York Review of Books; between American philosopher, Colin McGinn and neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, on the occasion of McGinn’s Review of Ramachandran’s latest book, ‘The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human ( Norton USA 2011). Readers in the UK will recognise much of the book from the author’s BBC Reith Lectures.

McGinn pays handsome tribute to Ramachandran’s irresistible enthusiasms and bravura as the book gallops at great pace through his experimental phenomena on phantom limbs, visual illusion, blindsight, Capgras syndrome, Synesthesia, mirror neurons. As usual, he is soon leaping into breath-taking conjecture on how it throws light on diverse questions of no mean importance - autism, the evolution of culture, origins of language, development of aesthetic sense, and much else. ( We plan to return to some of these more seriously in a forthcoming review of our ongoing language and music interests.)

Behind a fair coverage of content, the inevitable basic questions of a philosopher begin to surface.
“ Is studying the brain a good way to understand the mind? Is ‘thinking’ what the brain does in the way that ‘ walking’ is what the body does?  Ramachandran thinks yes, McGinn no.

“ Ramachandran acknowledges no limit to neural reductionism, but there is a very big issue here that he slides over: the mind-body problem”, McGinn writes. “ His suggestion that by identifying the part of the brain involved in voluntary decision we turn a philosophical problem into a neurological one could only be made by someone who does not know what philosophical problem is in question – to put it briefly - whether or not determinism conceptually rules out freedom of the will. – These are conceptual questions, not questions about the neural machinery that underlies choice…”

The sequel ( the Tell-Tale Brain – An Exchange. June 23, 2011) was no less interesting, but arrived more quickly at where the battle lines are still drawn…..

Ramachandran: “ To a philosopher who demanded that he define consciousness before studying it scientifically, Francis Crick once responded, ‘My dear chap, there was never a time in the early years of molecular biology when we sat around with a bunch of philosophers saying let us define it first We just went out there and found out what it was: a double helix”.

McGinn: “ Crick’s dismissive reponse to the question of defining consciousness shows a total blindness to the possibility that ‘consciousness’ might be a highly ambiguous word, covering very different types of phenomena – sensory experience, cognition, attention, wakefulness, self-consciousness. Obviously any investigation of something called ‘consciousness’ will have to be clear about which of these senses might be in question, distinguishing self-awareness from simple perception. Philosophers have done much to clarify these distinctions “.

“ Ramachandran reveals his lack of understanding of philosophicl problems in suggesting that neurology can resolve questions like free-will and qualia – though it may provide relevant data. These questions are not going to be resolved by discovering the neural correlates of such things. Here I suggest an introductory text in philosophy of mind ..”

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In the history of human affairs the sounds of gunfire have often drowned out the voices of wisdom and progress. The case for the mutual needs of ‘the sciences’ and the ‘arts and humanities’ for each other has been inching only slowly ( too slowly?) forward; so it’s a beautiful and hopeful paradox that the ‘arts and humanities’ should now perhaps be needed to play the critical role in the synthesis of the diverging sciences.

Paradoxes, however, often come in pairs. A few weeks ago we had the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Leszek Borysjewicz, dourly warning ( Guardian, 20 October) that “ Cash value placed on degrees threatens arts and humanities “.

Why should a distinguished medical scientist and former head of the Medical Research Council be saying such things ? Because fewer high quality graduates would be drawn to research in these ‘purer disciplines’ if their expectations of future earnings were downgraded.

Why should a scientist care?  Because the arts and humanities, in fields like history, language learning, archaeology etc ” provide a distinctive way of engaging with problems” which broad-based universities need. “ The arts and humanities enriched peoples’ lives. Medical Science can make us live to 90. What’s the point of living to 90, if you haven’t got the arts and humanities … ?

More communiques from the trenches soon!.

Ralph Windle