Through the shining light of rational science, most reasonable people have stopped attributing epidemics of infectious diseases and natural disasters to deities or demons. Instead, they have come to accept the scientific reality of disease-causing microorganisms and natural processes such as earthquakes and tropical cyclogenesis. Again and again, scientific explanations have replaced alleged mystical or religious claims in fields as diverse as cosmology, astronomy, geology and biology. Although mysterian beliefs about the world has largely cracked under the evidence and retreated from the natural sciences, some people still cling to the misguided notion that the human mind exists independent of and above-and-beyond the brain. These individuals, called mysterians, often come in one of two flavors. The religious flavors rejects mind-brain physicalism because if it was true, that would mean the end of both souls and deities (as they are considered brainless minds). The secular, non-religious flavor rejects mind-brain physicalism because if it was true, they (falsely) believe that it would mean end of moral responsibility, human appreciation of art and beauty, freedom and equality.
Although careful not to go into details about neuroscientific research, journalist and social commentator David Brooks made a similarly unpersuasive case against mind-brain physicalism in his op-ed column called Beyond the Brain. It starts with a straw man of neuroscientific research, claiming that neuroscientists consider it a theory of everything and that humans are viewed as nothing but neurons. It continues to list some important limitations and current neuroscientific research. It finishes off by drawing the unjustified and preposterous inference that these limitations imply that the mind is not the brain.
Scattered through the article are a couple classic anti-psychiatry and neuroscience denialist talking-points, such as the rejection of mind-brain physicalism and the claim that addiction is not a brain disease.
Neuroscience is not a theory of everything
Brooks cannot even get past the first paragraph without making a straw man assertion about neuroscience.
It’s a pattern as old as time. Somebody makes an important scientific breakthrough, which explains a piece of the world. But then people get caught up in the excitement of this breakthrough and try to use it to explain everything. This is what’s happening right now with neuroscience.
Neuroscience is used to explain everything? Show me a peer-reviewed scientific paper published in a reputable journal that claims that neuroscience explains the phases of Venus, nuclear fusion, the nature of dark matter, trade winds, earthquakes, the four color problem, the fact that cytochrome c is evolutionarily well-conserved or the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. I doubt that Brooks can actually do this if he tries. In other words, the goal of neuroscience is not to be a theory of everything. I have the creeping suspicion that the real problem for Brooks is that neuroscience is beginning to explain those features for which he prefers a mysterian account.
Personal anecdotes and another straw man
From personal experience, I can tell you that you get captivated by it and sometimes go off to extremes, as if understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior. This is happening at two levels.
Arguing from personal experience about a well-established scientific field for which one has little or no theoretical and practical experience is perhaps the weakest kind of evidence, just slightly above a mere assertion. Brooks is claiming that modern neuroscience has gone to extremes, yet he provides no actual evidence for this.
Indeed, modern neuroscience does not claim that understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior. In reality, neuroscience claims that understanding the brain is an integral and indispensable tool for understanding thoughts and behaviors. That does not equal a rejection of the fact that other factors (such as biological factors besides the brain as well as environment) also contribute to cognition and behavior. The interaction between biological, psychological and environmental/social factors is evident from brain development and learning to the origin of mental conditions.
So what two levels are Brooks talking about?
Examples listed by Brooks are not cases of “neuroscience extremism”
Brooks calls the two levels “highbrow” and “lowbrow”. Presumably, he thinks the former is something you would often see talked about in magazines and sensationalist newspapers. The latter may be things he thinks are being seriously discussed in the scientific literature.
In the “lowbrow category”, he includes things like correlations between brain activity and political affiliation, brain scans as lie detectors, and criminal responsibility. However, serious research has been done these issues and they cannot be dismissed out of hand (Greene and Paxton, 2009; Lagleben and Moriarty, 2013; Kanai et al, 2011; Jost and Amodio, 2012; Eastman and Campbell, 2006). Sure, it may be the case that such research turns out to be a dead-end, but that has to be debated and decided in the scientific literature, not by a journalist.
In the highbrow category, he includes the claim that humans are “nothing but neurons”. This is a straw man as groups of neurons can perform tasks and functions that single neurons cannot accomplish on their own (compare superficially to water tension with individual water molecules). The next claim is that neuroscience holds that understanding the brain will allow us to understand behavior and that neuroscience will replace psychology. This repeats the same straw man (i.e. the idea that only the brain is relevant for behavior) that was dealt with above. He also mentions the naturalistic origin of the mind and the position that contra-causal freedom does not exist, which indeed are neuroscientific consensus positions.
Brooks makes a flawed anti-psychiatry assertion regarding addiction
Perhaps one of the most shocking claim made in the article is that this alleged “highbrow extremism” also includes the position that addiction is a brain disease. Since the entire article is an attack on this perceived “extremism”, one can reasonably concludes that Brooks rejects the position that addiction is a brain disease. This is a classic anti-psychiatry trope and can be refuted once we noticed that science has shown both neurological mechanisms and genetic risk factors for substance addiction (see the sixth paragraph here).
This is yet another example among many that a lot of journalists often screw up when talking about science.
Brooks fails to “refute” mainstream neuroscience
So after erecting the straw man of neuroscience extremism, how does Brooks attempt to knock it down? He attempts to do this in two ways: (1) the bare assertion fallacy (asserting, without evidence, that “the mind is not the brain”) and the (2) appeal to ignorance (pointing out that methodological limitations exists). Let us take them on, one by one.
These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind.
Not only does Brooks reject neuroscientific consensus, but he also does so without providing a shred of positive evidence for his claim.
It is probably impossible to look at a map of brain activity and predict or even understand the emotions, reactions, hopes and desires of the mind.
It is probably impossible to look at the DNA of living organisms and construct the exact mutation-for-mutation transformation that occurred in all lineages. You might get the most probable transformations or the transformations that predict the evidence with highest probability, but scientists will have a hard time determining the actual sequence of mutations. This, however, is in no way, shape or form an argument against common descent. The fact that we do not know exactly how life evolved from a common ancestor does not mean there is any reasonable uncertainty regarding the question of whether it did. Similarly, the fact that we might not know how the brain cause the mind in every minute detail is not an argument against our knowledge regarding whether it does. Believing that it poses a problem is a classic denialist tactic known as confusing mechanism with fact.
The remainder of the article mentions methodological limitations of current neuroscientific research, such as brain regions having multiple functions, the same behavior can arise from different brain activity etc. but these are additional arguments from ignorance and confuse mechanism with fact. The fact that there exists methodological difficulties with finding out how the brain cause the mind (and behavior) is not an argument concerning the questions of whether the brain cause the mind (and behavior).
The mysterious “they”
Right now we are compelled to rely on different disciplines to try to understand behavior on multiple levels, with inherent tensions between them. Some people want to reduce that ambiguity by making one discipline all-explaining. They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.
When everything else fail, bring up the horrid specters of “reductionism” and “determinism”. As detailed in my post Naive Philosophical “Criticism” of Reductionism in Science, people doing that rarely understand what reductionism or determinism means, let alone how these concepts are applied in the natural sciences. Science uses hierarchical reductionism (understanding something by the way its parts interact) and not greedy reductionism (which misses out on important levels of analysis).
It is also unclear exactly who “they” represent. Journalists writing flawed popular science? Individual neuroscientists? Scientific organizations? The scientific community? Brooks does not say. Guess a story about abuse is more exciting if the bogeymen are left unidentified. He finishes off his article by repeating the assertion that the brain is not the mind (again without providing a shred of evidence).
David Brooks’ attack on neuroscience turns out to be little more than bare assertions, straw men and appeals to ignorance. He confuses the question of finding out how the brain cause the mind and behavior with the question of whether the brain cause the mind and behavior. Especially problematic is the anti-psychiatry claim that addiction is not a brain disease as genetic risk factors and charted neurological mechanisms says otherwise.
Eastman, Nigel, & Campbell, Colin. (2006). Neuroscience and legal determination of criminal responsibility. Nat Rev Neurosci, 7(4), 311-318.
Greene, J. D., & Paxton, J. M. (2009). Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(30), 12506-12511.
Jost, J. T., & Amodio, D. M. (2012). Political ideology as motivated social cognition: Behavioral and neuroscientific evidence. Motivation and Emotion, 36(1), 55-64. doi: 10.1007/s11031-011-9260-7
Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults. Current biology. 21(8), 677-680.
Langleben D.D., Moriarty J.C. (2013). Using Brain Imaging for Lie Detection: Where Science, Law and Research Policy Collide. Psychol Public Policy Law. 19(2):222-234.