The perils of neurophilosophy

The more I reflect on what I write, the more I flatter myself that I’ve slowly but surely become a gadfly for a number of communities: “skeptics” who are too quick to dismiss and ridicule, scientists who embrace the excesses of scientism, and philosophers who engage in dubious or even pseudo-philosophy. Or maybe it’s just a leftover effect from watching the wonderful “Socrates” by Tim Blake Nelson. Be that as it may (and hoping nobody’s going to give me some hemlock), today is the turn of neuro-philosopher Nayef Al-Rodhan, who wrote a recent piece for the blog of the American Philosophical Association.

Al-Rodhan tells us that “neurophilosophy has practical implications for governance and policy-making: understanding the neurochemical underpinnings of human nature, our frailty and malleability, as well as our hardwiring for survival are critical for devising appropriate governance paradigms that correspond to the attributes of our nature.” Which is why I’m writing about this here, on a site devoted to practical philosophy.

Except that I think neuroscience — while interesting from a scientific perspective — tells us little or nothing of interest to ethics. The reason being that its level of description of human phenomena is too fine grained compared to both (prescriptive) ethics, a branch of philosophy, and (descriptive) psychology, a scientific discipline. In a sense, it would be like insisting that a molecular “understanding” of a table will shed crucial new light on the art of carpentry. No, it won’t.

It is no chance that Al-Rodhan is fond of Patricia Churchland’s so-called “eliminativist” approach to the description of human conscious phenomena, such as pain, or color perception. She published a pioneering book, Neurophilosophy, back in 1986, and has attacked “the unscientific, ‘common-sense’ and ‘folk psychology’ that previously served as foundation for theories of human nature.” But in fact human nature had already been studied for more than a century by both evolutionary biology and psychology — neither of which is “folk,” and both of which are more appropriate levels of description for the phenomena of interest to ethicists.

There are two ingredients (well, eight, really) to Al-Rodhan’s approach to neurophilosophy: three (alleged) characteristics of human nature, and five (alleged) motivators of human behavior. Let’s tackle them one class at a time.

The three (alleged) characteristics of human nature

The first trait that Al-Rodhan thinks is characteristic of human nature is emotionality: “Extensive research into the human brain has revealed that emotionality is central to decision-making and cognition. While rationality is celebrated too often as a distinctively ‘positive’ trait and emotionality as something that weakens judgment, we are in fact far more emotional than rational. The human amygdala, for example, which is often studied in emotional processes, has a crucial role in acquiring fear-conditioned responses – elements critical for survival.”

There is a lot of factual inaccuracy and conceptual confusion in this short paragraph. To begin with, research in neuroscience has not shown that emotionality is central to decision-making and cognition, but rather that emotionality is highly integrated, and in continuous feedback loop, with the rational decision centers of the brain. Just check any book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, particularly Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens. Second, it is simply bizarre for a philosopher to put “positive” in scare quotes when referring to rationality. As if we were living in a world the chief problem of which is that people are far too reasonable. Third, even if we are, factually “more emotional than rational” (though since the two components, again, are highly integrated, I wonder how one can, ahem, reasonably tell), it certainly doesn’t follow that that’s a good thing. That would be to invoke an appeal to nature, which I’m sure Al-Rodhan knows is a logical fallacy. Lastly, the reference to the human amygdala is both correct and somewhat besides the point. Not even the most rationalist of rationalists would argue that the fight-or-flight response is not adaptive. Though she would argue that it may misfire in modern cultural environments, which aren’t at all the same environments where said response evolved. Hence the importance of reason.

The second trait of human nature of interest to Al-Rodhan is amorality: “Nothing in neuroscience (at least with the evidence acquired thus far) suggests that humans are innately moral or immoral. A more accurate description is of amorality, which means we do not possess hardwired understandings or predispositions for good or bad but instead, we are born as a predisposed tabula rasa and our moral compass will be shaped by conditions in the environment.” 

Again, this is both factually incorrect and conceptually confused. Maybe neuroscience hasn’t shown any human predisposition toward moral behavior, but comparative primatology and developmental psychology certainly have. Frans de Waal and collaborators have amassed a wealth of evidence to the effect that social primates in general display non-cognitive behaviors that would be classed as moral if they were observed in a human being. And it is rather strange that Al-Rodhan doesn’t seem to be aware of this, since he actually quotes de Waal right at the beginning of his essay. So, no, we are not born amoral. We are born with built-in predispositions toward pro-social behavior, or what the ancient Stoics called a predisposition toward virtue. Of course, it is true that such predisposition is then shaped, and hopefully (but not necessarily) augmented by cultural exposure.

Al-Rodhan tells us that the environment affects our morally salient decision making: “Chronic stress leads to neural atrophy of the medial PFC and the dorsal medial striatum, a circuit that is known to be implicated in setting goals and goal-directed actions. Stress also exaggerates the propensity for discounting future rewards in favor of smaller immediate rewards.” Well, no kidding. That’s why we either (a) try not to have people make important decisions when they are stressed, or (b) train them to be resilient to stress so that they may still be able to arrive at good decisions under pressure. And guess which part of the human neuro-machinery plays a major role here? Yup, reason.

Indeed, Al-Rodhan himself reminds us that “stress is negatively correlated with utilitarian responses in moral decisions and that it is correlated with more egocentric moral decisions. Interestingly, stress is also shown to lead to more prosocial behavior and trust (as part of a protective mechanism, making it easier to cooperate with and rely on others) but also to less generosity.” Right. So, again, we want to consciously train ourselves not to react impulsively (shall we say, emotionally?) When under stress. Because if we do so we’ll allow ourselves to be more egocentric and less generous than we ought.

Finally, we have egoism as the third characteristic of human nature: “This is primarily linked to the pursuit of survival of the self, which is a basic form of egoism. Egoism, however, is not only about biological survival but also about the attainment of life goals and the opportunity to express one’s authenticity.” Yes. And no. To begin with, for a social primate such as us, survival depends on cooperation with others, which makes the whole egoism / altruism thing more than a bit fuzzy. Also, bringing in the attainment of life goals and authenticity in this mix is a non sequitur. Natural selection certainly doesn’t care about that sort of stuff, but only about reproduction (and, secondarily, survival, insofar it is necessary for reproduction). So if “egoism” is what drives us toward authenticity and the like, it ain’t the same kind of egoism that is a basic motivator for survival of the self.

What, then, can we sensibly say about human nature that is pertinent to ethics? I have written a separate essay on that topic, but it can be summarized in the following fashion: we are social primates, with natural instincts toward cooperation and fairness; cultural evolution, however, has driven us to levels of sophistication in terms of ethical behavior that are unparalleled by any other species. Our brains are plastic, multi-purpose instruments, that allow us to figure out the best way to solve social problems. Our emotional apparatus is necessary for us to give a damn about things, but our “ruling faculty” (as Marcus Aurelius would call it) is what allows us to make the best decisions given the circumstances. We are complex bio-cultural creatures, rational-emotional, not amoral, and not egoistic. That’s quite a different picture from the one drawn by Al-Rodhan.

The (alleged) five motivators of human behavior

Al-Rodhan then introduces (but barely discusses) his five motivators of human behavior: “I theorized about five crucial factors that drive human nature, which I called the Neuro P5. These are: power, pleasure, profit, pride and permanency,” where the latter means desire for survival and life extension.

Well, sure, if one defines these five broadly enough, they fit the bill. But obviously there is quite a bit of variation among human beings in the relative importance of the five motivators. Speaking for myself, for instance, I seek little or no power, modest profit (enough for a good life without hardship and a modicum of surplus), I actively try to suppress my pride, and I attempt to control my pleasures. Even when it comes to life extension, I am only cautiously in favor of it, provided that (a) more life (quantity) corresponds to good life (quality), and so long as it isn’t at the expense of others, due to radical inequality and privilege.

Oh, and we absolutely do not need neuroscience to identify the P5. Regular psychological research (or even simply paying attention to human behavior) will do that. Another case of unhelpful level of description.

Also, again, there seems to be a confusion between descriptive and prescriptive aspects, which is especially damning for a philosopher. I am most certainly not suggesting that the two aspects are independent of each other. I fully believe that human ethics is bounded by human biology and psychology. Still, not everything that comes natural to us should be allowed to control our lives. 

And Al-Rodhan himself provides an obvious example, if unwittingly: “These powerful human motivators are undergirded by the fact that the brain is pre-programmed to ‘feel good,’ and it will do everything it takes to attain neurochemical gratification, maintain it and, if possible, enhance it.” Right. In other words, if we let it, the human brain will rather have us hooked at a drug pumping machine and be done with it. But clearly that would be neither a natural life (as in: a behavior favored by natural selection) nor an ethical one (as in: the sort of life that people would choose after critical deliberation on their priorities). 

Al-Rodhan concludes: “Neuroscience started to explain this in neurochemical terms. Studies in the neurochemistry of power reveal spikes in dopamine levels, the same neurochemical responsible for the neural circuitry of reward and for creating a sense of pleasure. Power is intoxicating, instilling a ‘neurochemical high’ comparable to any strong addiction. … The same goes, to a large extent, for all the other forms of the Neuro P5 motivators of pleasure, profit, pride and permanency: it is through accountable and sustainable good governance that excesses of human nature can be kept at bay.”

But the same spikes in dopamine levels are also caused by seeing the face of your loved one. Or by binging on a good Netflix show. Which means that talk of dopamine and other neurochemicals isn’t particularly helpful here. Because it is, one more time, the wrong level of analysis. It is surely interesting to untangle brain processes. But because they are far more basic than psychological and social ones, they give us a distorted view of things. Literally everything that gives us pleasure will spike dopamine. Because that’s the chemical that functions as a trigger in the pleasure centers of the brain. But precisely because it is triggered by such an inordinate variety of stimuli it tells us nothing about what “sustainable good governance” should look like.

Governments aren’t in the business of constraining human nature. They are in the business of providing a fair distribution of resources so that their citizens are able to pursue a flourishing life in whatever way seems suitable to them, short of exploiting or hurting other citizens. Philosophers and psychologists have a lot to say about how to actually do that. Neuroscientists? Not so much.

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