Neurononsense: Roger Scruton at AMU

Neurononsense: Roger Scruton at AMU

Roger Scruton visited Ave Maria University from October 5th-9th. Over the course of his visit, he offered three lectures, each in an area of his expertise. Below follows a summary of the second public lecture he delivered on Tuesday, October 7, 2014. 

Roger Scruton, with his typical dry humor, opened his lecture on persons and how they relate to their brains with the words: “To my astonishment, the room is full.” But Scruton’s lecture, entitled “Neurononsense: Why Neurosciences Cannot Explain the Human Condition,” promised to be anything but dull. Once again, dozens and dozens of students, faculty, and members of the Ave Maria community packed into the Lecture Hall to hear renowned philosopher Roger Scruton speak for the second time during his visit to Ave Maria University.

Scruton introduced the topic of neuroscience through the ideas of Patricia Churchland, a Canadian philosopher who has “taken a very strong and reductionist view of what we human beings are.” In essence, Churchland proposes a sort of “folk psychology”—a proto-science that explains humans far better than “old fashioned philosophy” does. But what is even better than folk-psychology, according to Churchland, is neuroscience. As neuroscience expands, she argues, it is bound to replace “folk psychology” as the best way of explaining the human condition.

Neuroscience, Scruton explained, is the understanding of the brain in much the same way as how a computer functions: The brain takes in input, translates it and transmits it to a central databank, then uses the data to animate a response. Many add to this view an evolutionary psychology, trying to understand how brains developed through the pressures of evolution. Scruton gave the example of sexual jealousy arising as a strategy for the male to ensure that his genes are passed on, and not those of some other male. “All sorts of explanations come forth from evolutionary psychology that seem to impress on us that, really, what we are is our brains and our brains are digitally organized,” Scruton remarked. “But how would you understand love of music in this way?” he asked. The answer is: You can’t.

Scruton then moved into a discussion of the difference between explanation and interpretation. “You look at me with a meaningful look,” he said, “and I want to know how to interpret that look. I don’t want to know how to explain it, or only to explain it so that I can understand it.” Man has always had reasons for his actions, and he looks for these reasons as the means for understanding human behavior. Churchland argues that eventually we will be able to do away with all of that (i.e. giving reasons for our action). Soon, we will have an advanced neuroscience that will tell us exactly how we respond to each other as neurological machines.

But, Scruton pointed out, Churchland’s response brings up important questions about freedom. “How do we fit freedom into that?” he asked. “Or do we have to deny that we are free, that we make choices?” He went on: “When addressed by you, I respond. ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘I chose to do it.’” Our responses to one another, he said, don’t describe what’s going on inside the organism, but are our way of making ourselves accountable. “There is nothing inside that you’re calling ‘I’. Where is ‘responsibility’ in the human organism?” he questioned. “It’s only the whole of the human organism judged as a person that can offer the right to use these words.”

To illustrate his point, Scruton showed Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” which depicts a reclining nude Venus. “In looking at this picture,” he said, “you see a woman. You have lots of thoughts about that woman—her size, shape, character, her look. Titian is making you see this woman both as a highly attractive sexual object, and also as a deeply intimate subject, someone who has an eye of her own, and she’s interrogating you.” His point being, something is communicated to the brain when we look at this image other than the mere arrangement of colored pixels along an x-y axis. Yes, there is supervenience between the two; that is, there is a relation between the image and the pixels such that when the pixels are illuminated, the picture is there, but that supervenience doesn’t explain the picture. “There is a habit in philosophy that Mary Midgely dismissed as “’nothing buttery,’” Scruton said. “Nothing but…a load of colored pixels. … In a similar way, someone might say the human being is nothing but the brain.”

Scruton went on to urge “a coming to earth.” We should step back and think about how we really understand things, how we really understand each other. A computer can never see the image that it projects; it simply transmits an input to an output. Man, on the other hand, sees the image, interprets it, and understands it. “The pixels never challenge anyone,” he said. “But she does.” Gesturing to the image projected on the screen, Scruton said that the woman is asking: “Are you desiring me, and do you have the right to?”  

His reply? “Oh dear! My mistake.”

Scruton then discussed the fallacy of reduction. The “thinking that you can reduce things and gain some kind of understanding of them. On the contrary, you don’t gain understanding but lose understanding. [Neuroscience] pretends to be advanced in understanding the human condition only because it is reducing the human condition to something that it is not.”

There is, in the spirit of our times, Scruton warned, a sort of neuroimperialism, an impulse “to take over all the humane disciplines, one by one, and rewrite them as forms of neuroscience.” But could neuroaesthetics or neuro-arthistory, he asked, really replace the elementary things that he had noted about Titian’s painting? Pictures have this property of “aboutness” that the neurosciences can’t explain. Pictures refer to things. “In the world of the spirit,” he explained, “Everything is ‘about.’ Aboutness attaches to all our words, many of our actions, all our looks, and so on. That’s why we have to interpret, to know just what something is saying.”

To conclude, Scruton showed an image of Manet’s painting “Olympia,” interpreting it as an ironical comment on Titian’s recumbent Venus. The two pictures “show the way in which objects fit into our world as objects of interpretation rather than of explanation. We have to, in some sense, leave science behind. That’s why the critic is necessary to us. The critic explains, gives meaning, introduces understanding, arouses interest.” The critic shows us not just how we see, but also how we ought to see.

The same sort of normative judgment enters into our understanding of each other as persons. We think about how we ought to address ourselves, and we change to align with that judgment. “That way of interacting with other people,” Scruton concluded, “is something that raises us to a completely different level. …. What we are as persons, how we relate to each other as persons, and what we expect from each other … will fulfill us and not leave us in the condition of ordinary organisms abandoned in nature. [Neuroscience] is never going to take us to the point that we need to arrive at, and it is this other thing that a real university should be teaching.” 


The event, which was co-hosted by the Philosophy and Biology Departments and the Wojtyla Society, was followed by a brief response from psychology professor Dr. Keith Houde, and concluded with a Q&A session. Some of the questions and answers follow below, edited. 

Q. How can we have understanding without explanation? In art, for example, determining the medium, or examining the brushstrokes, often adds meaning.

In the case of art, it would be absurd to think it wasn’t made as an object of understanding. Interpretation is the most important and spontaneous thing we do. There are, of course, sciences involved as well. You could imagine that someone who really understood the science of pigments would have a lot to say about Renaissance portraiture that was very interesting, but he wouldn’t be talking about the meaning of the paintings, only how they were put together. One of the intellectual diseases from which we suffer is scientism—to pretend something is a scientific question when it isn’t, to think that something scientific is casting light on something when it isn’t.

Q. As far as your methodology goes, how do you plan on reaching people in different disciplines in this age of specialization?  

It’s true, there is this specialization in the academic world. There are real differences in how you put things back together once they’ve been pulled apart. Our curriculum in the humanities involves an organically connected thing, and pulling it apart can cast light on certain things. But if you pull a cat apart, you can look at all the bits, but you can’t put it all back together and get a cat. Perhaps things got bad in universities when publication became the standard for advancing—publication rather than teaching. Young people don’t want all these fragmented disciplines, they want to know how they all hang together, and a good teacher explains that.

Q. Do you think art and beauty ought to be studied, and if so, why?

Beauty is a controversial idea, because in the modern world a lot of people have turned their backs on it, particularly those in the art world, saying that it’s just kitsch. It doesn’t relate anymore. We live in a destroyed world, an alienated world. I object. [Beauty] is a deep experience; it has its origins in that first exchange of smiles between mother and child. But it’s something more than that, and it reaches forward into our lives. Learning not just to discover beauty in the world around us, but also to create it, is important to education.

Because of specialization, we always take as examples of beauty the great works, works of supreme genius, that no one in this room could conceive of achieving. But there is an everyday sort of beauty that you can teach. [You can’t teach how] to make great works of architecture, but [you can] learn how to make things fit together. We can … teach people to behave beautifully to each other, to be gracious, to be objects of agreeable contemplation and agreeable company.

Q. What do you think of the possibility that many people have gotten so good at acting like machines that scientists don’t have many examples of free choice at work? 

I didn’t really go into the problem of free choice, but there is a real question of whether science can ever take the idea of free choice seriously. There is a famous experiment by Libet in which, using brain imaging technology, he tries to plot the moment at which a decision is made. But always, the motor neurons fire before the person becomes conscious of having made a decision. If you look inside the brain, you’re not going to find “free choice.” Freedom is not observable in the physical world. Some people say that each person has to make up his mind about this, that there are question that surpass the human intellect. But Kant said we know that it’s true we act freely—nothing can be more evident—because self-knowledge presupposes freedom. I know that I have it, but I can’t understand how it’s possible. If it’s good enough for Kant, it’s good enough for me.  

Q. What is the difference between the mind and the brain?  Can you explain the interaction between the two?

I would say that there is no interaction between the two, if you mean by “interaction” that there are two things that have a reciprocal causality of each other. The mind is something like the organization that we perceive in the brain or in the person; the brain is part of the cause of that reaction, but the mind is not a separate entity that feeds back into the brain. The mind is there when the brain is there. Thinking in terms of mind, we are conceptualizing the human being in a different way, not as an organism, but as an object that we relate to. There is no interaction between Titian’s Venus and the canvas on which she is painted. They are the same, but she’s not reducible to it. We have the image of the mind as something floating above the brain, but that image is wrong. We should use the supervenience image, and build up from there.

Q. Why not approach the topic from metaphysics, which is based on natural reason?

Some metaphysics we all share, but there are all kinds of metaphysical issues which divide people. This has been true since the beginning of philosophy. If we put the issue about the mind in metaphysical terms, we find ourselves in the midst of heated conflict. I’m not saying metaphysics isn’t, in the end, necessary, but it is a realm in which you have to proceed carefully, bit by bit, if you aren’t going to loose your opponent.