20 April 2010

Is cognitive science the final word?

Who are we? The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks but the task of science.

- Erwin Schrodinger, Science and Humanism, 1951

Would an ever expanding knowledge of how the brain and the mind work culminate in the undisputed victory of natural science in the Science Wars? Although cognitive science covers various disciplines, including a few from the social sciences, its methodology is mainly that of the natural sciences; objective empirical study with the aim of developing predictive, falsifiable theories. Given the speed at which new understanding is acquired on how the physical brain produces non-physical phenomena like thoughts and emotions, cognitive science is becoming ever more indispensable in our ancient quest to know ourselves, as individuals and as a species. Meanwhile, social science is playing catch-up as it finds its ideas continually overturned by some latest discovery in neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. It seems that the more social science tries to emulate the methods of natural science, the more open it leaves itself to criticism or refutation.

In Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (2001), economic geographer and urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg acknowledges that social science isn’t as capable as natural science in discovering objective facts or developing predictive theories. And neither should it try to do so, he argues. Flyvbjerg thinks that the social sciences are best at discovering what Aristotle called phronesis; practical thought or wisdom. While the natural sciences are adept at acquiring episteme – knowledge of things-as-they-are – the social sciences are better at articulating modes of action that enhance the quality of life. According to Flyvbjerg’s view, natural science is descriptive while social science is (mainly) prescriptive.

I admire Flyvbjerg’s honest appraisal of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of social and natural science. However, his delineation of social and natural science isn’t as clear-cut as he perhaps hoped it would be. The act of phronesis – assigning value and power to actions and choices – is carried out by a person’s mind. The mind consists of physical activity in the brain, and the brain is an object existing in space and time that can be studied. Suppose we finally come to know a lot about how the brain creates the mind. Wouldn’t this transform phronesis into just another kind of episteme? It all comes back to the physiology of the brain!

Any modern, educated person familiar with the scientific literature on the brain – and the human psychology arising from it – must surely be skeptical about the existence of a soul or transcendent self, of a ghost in the machine. While Flyvbjerg’s ideas do not explicitly invoke such a ghost, there is the tacit assumption that there is an extra-physical ‘self’ that engages in phronesis, the ‘you’ (that is somehow separate from your brain) that makes ethical choices. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that many (perhaps all) of our actions, thoughts, decisions and emotions ultimately derive from chemical and electrical activity in our staggeringly complex neurological system. If it turns out that there is a purely materialistic explanation for the amazing phenomenon called the human mind (and given the rate of discovery in cognitive science, this possibility is becoming more and more likely as time goes by), then any theory that requires an immaterial ‘self’ is rendered obsolete.

All this has serious implications for normative (virtue) ethics. If normative ethics has no objective basis apart from the evolutionary adaptations of Homo sapiens, then the central idea of existentialism is correct; we are the creators of our values and morals (or at least those values and morals not determined by our evolution). Many concerned thinkers conclude that neuroscientific determinism will remove any foundation for morality and personal responsibility. If free will doesn’t exist (because, obviously, we need a soul independent of the body in order to have free will, right?), then can we be held accountable for our actions, good or bad? Do we then deserve praise for virtuous deeds, or punishment for vile ones?

Such questions are a non sequitur. The same evolutionary forces that gave us a brain capable of greed, deceit, rage, lust and homicidal tendencies also gave us one capable of altruism, empathy, self-control, co-operation, affection and aesthetic appreciation. Add to this the undeniable influence of random chance and any fear of mechanistic determinism is shown to be baseless. Free will can exist despite our brains being biologically determined and our mind and its components (thought, emotion, decisions, imagination, dreams etc) having entirely physical causes. While our thoughts and actions may be constrained by many factors apart from the makeup of our brain, we are still free to choose from among options available within those limits. So yes, we do earn praise or blame because we are inescapably both biological and ethical agents. In his erudite book The Science of Good and Evil (2004), Michael Shermer eloquently explains how free will can be derived from determinism via several scientific concepts and fields of study: the uncertainty principle of quantum indeterminacy, fuzzy logic, neuroscience, genetics, evolutionary theory, and chaos and complexity theory.

But if a future arrives in which our knowledge of the human brain, and thus the human mind, is so comprehensive to the point where scientists can predict, with a high degree of accuracy, the actions or choices of individuals, what would some of the outcomes of this technology be? Perhaps a Minority Report-style legal system which allows pre-emptive arrests? Or discrimination on the basis of genetic neurological predisposition? Or the revival of eugenic theories and practices? Maybe we need to consider if the definite victory of cognitive science will bear not only sweet fruit, but bitter ones as well.


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