We've talked quite a bit recently about neuroscience, not to mention scientism -- which again, I take to be:
the idea that science is applicable to any domain of inquiry that is meaningful, and will inevitably provide a solution to all meaningful questions
Mark calls it "the dreaded scientism," I think because he doubts it's so prevalent or powerful; whereas I find it a constant, cultural irritation, and I've been meaning to catalog the examples as they come up.
Here's one: V.S. Ramachandran has written the kind of book that for me has the effect of something like crack: The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human.
generally lucid, charming, and informative, with much humor to lighten the load of Latinate brain disquisitions. He is a leader in his field and is certainly an ingenious and tireless researcher. This is the best book of its kind that I have come across for scientific rigor, general interest, and clarity—though some of it will be a hard slog for the uninitiated.
But McGinn also criticizes Ramachandran's "reductive discussion" of aesthetics and "speculative chapter on the brain and self-consciousness:"
It is undoubtedly fascinating to read of these bizarre cases and learn about the intricate neural machinery that underlies our normal experience. It is also, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable to propose bold speculations about what might be going on, even if the speculation seems unfounded or far-fetched; as Ramachandran frequently remarks, science thrives on risky conjecture. But there are times when the impression of theoretical overreaching is unmistakable, and the relentless neural reductionism becomes earsplitting.
And more importantly, when it comes to free will:
Learning about the parts of the brain responsible for free choice will not tell us how to analyze the concept of freedom or whether it is possible to be free in a deterministic world. These are conceptual questions, not questions about the form of the neural machinery that underlies choice. His book has all the charm of an enthusiast’s tract—along with the inevitable omissions, distortions, and exaggerations.
This review has led to one of the New York Review of Books' famous, testy exchanges. Here's the most unfortunate (but telling) part of Ramachandran's reply to McGinn's review:
Early in any scientific enterprise, it is best to forge ahead and not get bogged down by semantic distinctions. But “forging ahead” is a concept alien to philosophers, even those as distinguished as McGinn. 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 the table with a bunch of philosophers saying ‘let us define life first.’ We just went out there and found out what it was: a double helix.”
For which he gets soundly spanked:
Ramachandran’s reply confirms my impression that he combines scientific expertise with philosophical naiveté.
Crick’s dismissive response 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—for instance, distinguishing self-awareness from simple perception. Philosophers have done much to clarify these distinctions.
Again, Ramachandran reveals his lack of understanding of philosophical problems in suggesting that neurology can resolve questions like free will and qualia—though it may provide relevant data. Philosophers want to know whether free will is possible in a deterministic world and whether qualia are reducible to brain states (among many other things): these questions are not going to be resolved by discovering the neural correlates of such things. Here I suggest that he consult an introductory text in philosophy of mind.
My advice would be to spend some time studying some basic philosophy, instead of caricaturing it (“‘forging ahead’ is a concept alien to philosophers”); that might lead to a neuroscientist with philosophical sophistication—which would be something of real value in today’s intellectual culture.
Harsh. I'll wait until I've read Ramachandran's book to pass judgment on him in particular; but it seems to me in general that the popularizers of science (themselves usually prestigious scientists) often feel compelled to engage in philosophical speculation, even while they have little respect for the discipline of philosophy. And in Ramachandran's case, the fact that a prestigious philosopher has called him out seems to mean very little to him. Philosophy, after all, isn't a hard science, doesn't involve the same prestige as the hard sciences, and as far many are concerned does not involve a subject matter that won't one day simply be dissolved in a scientific elixir. That's the position of scientism, and I think we have many good reasons to believe that it's false. But in the meantime, it's a dominant cultural idol, and to the extent that there is a public discourse on such subjects, they will be dominated by sophomoric, pseudo-philosophical speculations that are hardly better than astrology.