Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Who's in charge — you or your brain?"

That question is debated in this Guardian piece. It's a flawed question, since your brain is part of you.

It reminds me of this excellent article: "'Is it evolutionary, or is it . . .?'" The point of the article is that that's probably not a good way to start a question, since you can agree with an evolutionary explanation of human behavior while also agreeing with other explanations of the same behavior. (Previously.)

The "brain" article ends with this passage by neuroscientist David Eagleman, which I strongly agree with:

It is not contradictory to recognise that we are sealed off from most of reality, and that we can discover more of it by a process of careful experimentation. That is the endeavour of science. For example, you cannot see, hear or touch radio waves, but you can build machines to translate the waves into the biologically delimited language in which you can understand them. You can build such machines only because science reaches beyond what we know to discover new realms.

Neuroscience is uncovering a bracing view of what's happening below the radar of our conscious awareness, but that makes your life no more "helpless, ignorant, and zombie-like" than whatever your life is now. If you were to read a cardiology book to learn how your heart pumps, would you feel less alive and more despondently mechanical? I wouldn't. Understanding the details of our own biological processes does not diminish the awe, it enhances it. Like flowers, brains are more beautiful when you can glimpse the vast, intricate, exotic mechanisms behind them.
One problem is that reductionism is very tempting. Reductionism means feeling unsatisfied with making an observation based on evidence — "Hey look, here's something" — and feeling the need to rule out the possibility of other types of observations by adding: "And it's the only thing." Reductionism can make people feel contrarian and scientific, without actually being scientific. There can be multiple layers of explanation that are all accurate and not mutually exclusive; different kinds of description can peacefully coexist.