Friday, June 21, 2013

Yearning for Magic

So David Brooks did a thing:

At the highbrow end, there are scholars and theorists that some have called the “nothing buttists.” Human beings are nothing but neurons, they assert. Once we understand the brain well enough, we will be able to understand behavior. We will see the chain of physical causations that determine actions. We will see that many behaviors like addiction are nothing more than brain diseases. We will see that people don’t really possess free will; their actions are caused by material processes emerging directly out of nature. Neuroscience will replace psychology and other fields as the way to understand action.
These two forms of extremism are refuted by the same reality. The brain is not the mind. 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.
They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.

And a lot of people have appropriately pooh-poohed him, mainly on account of his anti-materialism (Neurocritic, Bjoern Brembs, the entire comments section after his column).  So I won't really bother with that, except to concur wholeheartedly with Bjoern that materialism (the belief that all mental phenomena are inextricably linked to physical phenomena in the brain) does not necessarily lead to determinism (in this context, the belief that all behaviors are predictable if everything is known at once about the brain's physical state).

Instead I'd like to ask why poor Brooksie felt the need to even write that column.  Why is he so scared of the possibility that we might simply be "nothing but neurons" (and glia)?  I think it's because he yearns for magic.  The physical processes of a human's brain are insufficient to predict that human's mental experience or subsequent behavior (same thing, really) because that would mean that humans don't have a layer of magical soulness tethered to them that truly represents what they are.  Or at least it would imply that such magic isn't necessary.

People love magical reasoning because it quickly transforms the unexplained into the explained and the REALLY hard-to-explain into the simply unexplainable.  Now a phenomenon that you don't understand needn't make you feel ignorant - you don't get it because you can't get it.  So relax, don't worry about it.  We can't really understand the mind because it's partly magical, somehow mysteriously tied to its physical underpinnings.  There's no point to claiming that understanding the brain will enable us to predict what the mind experiences - it simply can't because magic.

Note that Brooksie's belief in the magical inscrutability of the human mind derives largely from his desire to feel special.  At least, that's how it works for me (and if David Brooks is allowed to psychoanalyze all of America based on his gut feelings, then I'm allowed to psychoanalyze him based on mine).  Of course, I don't actually "believe" that my mind is a magically non-determined by my brain, but I can imagine what that's like.  If my brain predicts my mental experience, then I'm not special anymore!  I'm not magical!  I'm just another stupid hunk of meat, herpty-derping around like the rest of them.

So in my thoroughly unresearched and undoubtedly unoriginal opinion, the fear of accepting ignorance and the fear of admitting that you're not special drive belief in magical reasoning.  And on the flipside, a lot of it also has to do with the positive reinforcement that comes when you invoke a magical explanation.  It's a combination of the joy of thinking you've just understood something with the joy of feeling like you took a shortcut to get there. 

After all, who doesn't love feeling accomplished, efficient, special, and unignorant?

Maybe someone should do an fMRI experiment to see if accepting a magical explanation leads to higher nucleus accumbens activity than accepting ignorance...

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