“And if our technological progress is so great, why don’t we have transporters yet?”

I’m certainly not yet willing to to concede the ontological premise that human minds are no more than manifestations of physical processes in the brain. I’m even a little afraid of the picture of the mechanical dog that the materialist Daniel Dennett has on his website, becaue I’m suspicious that he looks at people and sees the same thing. But for purely instrumental purposes, it has proved to be an extremely useful hypothesis to grant for the current wave of neuroscience. Which is what makes the recent broad assault on the whole notion of a scientific understanding of the human mind and behavior by Theodore Dalrymple rather bizarre. Granted, this is a man (or more precisely nom de plume of a man) who always reminds me of what Principal Skinner once said to Mrs. Krabappel: “I admire your ability to be personally offended by broad social trends.” But when he says:

Those who say that we are on the verge of a huge increase in self-understanding are claiming that enlightenment will suddenly be reached under the scientific bo tree. The enlightenment will have to be sudden rather than gradual because, if it were gradual, we should already be able to point to an increase in human contentment and self-control brought about by our already increased knowledge. But even the most advanced societies are just as full of angst, or poor impulse control, of existential bewilderment, of adherence to clearly irrational doctrines, as ever they were. There is no sign that, Prozac and neurosurgery notwithstanding, any of this is about to change fundamentally.”

it’s really quite strange, given that earlier in the article he mentions that some scientists have discovered that when people see someone they claim to be in love with an ancient lizard part of the brain (literally) gets activated. Is that not a significant growth in knowledge of the human heart and mind? Well, some of us cynics would claim it’s more just a confirmation of an intuition, but still an important one. He also mentions the amazing before-and-after videos of people being treated for Parkinson’s and Tourette’s syndrome. That doesn’t constitute an “increase in human contentment and self-control”? Whatever, it’s impossible to argue with the kind of people that dismiss any claims to progress in human history because the occaisonal war still breaks out. It’s shall we say a rather anecdotally-based view of the world. He also complains: The fact is that, however many factors you examine, you cannot fully explain behaviour, not even relatively simple behaviour.” So? Even if it is true I see that more as a healthy sort of modesty about the limits of knowledge than a discouragement to future research and investigation. It’s like proclaiming that quantum physics is worthless because it can’t pinpoint exactly the location and motion of subatomic particles simultaneously. Well, actually some people do claim that, but still. Again, I certainly don’t think that one need accept all the claims of neuroscience as absolutely true, but working within that framework has been very fruitful in recent years. And just as it’s starting to get off the ground to complain that it hasn’t already arrived at some ill-defined ultimate goal of total self-knowledge is like bitching about medical science not having made people live forever yet. Even if it has already vastly increased the understanding of human behavior there’s no reason to think that that knowledge would have diffused throughout the population and ushered in a golden age of self-understanding, since most people don’t know the first thing about neuroscience. And the weird assertion that perfect neuroscientific understanding of the human mind would necessarily take the form of a scanner that could read everyone’s thoughts seems anachronistic even in its premises, since one of the most provocative current areas of research is the study of how the mind deceives itself even in its inmost thoughts for evolutionary purposes. And sure it is (at least in my own experience) that people spend a lot of time constructing elaborate principled rationalizations for what they do in their own self-interest. Again, I’m not sure that any of this is ready to compete with 42 to explain Life, the Universe and Everything, but at least give it some time.

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