David Brooks always seems to write above his pay grade when he weighs in about science. His pop evolutionary-psychology book The Social Animal, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, was pretty dreadful, and, I think, inimical to the public understanding of evolution in its pretense that we have a thorough understanding of the evolutionary roots of our behavior.
But even that isn’t as bad as his op-ed piece in Monday’s New York Times, “Beyond the brain.“ Brooks’s thesis is that “the mind is not the brain”, which is simply a Deepity in the Dennettian sense. For while that mantra implies something deep (i.e., the mind is separate from the brain), what Brooks says is only that the brain and its workings are hard to study. Yet his article flirts heavily with dualism, leaving the reader with a sense that the mind is in some ways independent of the brain, and There Must be More.
I’ll have to quote in extenso to convey the full fatuity of Brooks’s views. He begins by asserting his xkcd-like superiority over both neuroscientists and philosophers:
[Neuroscience] is obviously incredibly important and exciting. From personal experience, I can tell you that you get captivated by it and sometimes go off to extremes, as if understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior.
This is happening at two levels. At the lowbrow level, there are the conference circuit neuro-mappers. These are people who take pretty brain-scan images and claim they can use them to predict what product somebody will buy, what party they will vote for, whether they are lying or not or whether a criminal should be held responsible for his crime.
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.
By equating free will with the absence of determinism and materialism, Brooks implicitly labels himself a dualist. And yet the program of the “nothing buttists” sounds pretty good to me: in fact, it’s the only program that is likely to make progress in understanding how and why we think.
In the last paragraph Brooks makes his big mistake: he equates the difficulty of studying the brain with the conclusion that “the brain is not the mind.” This confusion plagues the rest of his piece.
Here’s why, according to Brooks, the brain isn’t the mind. There are five reasons, none of them having the slightest bearing on his thesis. His quotes are in bold in the bulleted points below:
- “The first basic problem is that regions of the brain handle a wide variety of different tasks.” Brooks notes that the amygdala can light up during fMRI scans during a variety of activities and thoughts, including sexual arousal, fear, novelty, and happiness. To this I say, “so what”? Brain imaging is crude, and yes, brain tasks are farmed out to a variety of regions of the organ. One “region” (which of course comprises millions of neurons) can do several things. But that is one thing we’ve learned from the materialist and reductionist program that Brooks so decries. Again, this is no proof that the brain is not the mind, but only a sign that the workings of the brain are complex.
- Then there is the problem that one activity is usually distributed over many different places in the brain. In his book, “Brain Imaging,” the Yale biophysicist Robert Shulman notes that we have this useful concept, “working memory,” but the activity described by this concept is widely distributed across at least 30 regions of the brain. Furthermore, there appears to be no dispersed pattern of activation that we can look at and say, “That person is experiencing hatred.” Again, this is no evidence for Brooks’s thesis. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking at crude brain scans to understand hatred, but where else can hatred come from but the brain?
- Then there is the problem that one action can arise out of many different brain states and the same event can trigger many different brain reactions. As the eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan has argued, you may order the same salad, but your brain activity will look different, depending on whether you are drunk or sober, alert or tired. This is just dumb, for who ever thought that brain activity, visualized broadly, will be the same in all mental and physiological states, even when you make an identical decision? Does this really suggest that the brain isn’t the mind?
- Then, as Kagan also notes, there is the problem of meaning. A glass of water may be more meaningful to you when you are dying of thirst than when you are not. Your lover means more than your friend. It’s as hard to study neurons and understand the flavors of meaning as it is to study Shakespeare’s spelling and understand the passions aroused by Macbeth. I think Brooks is using the wrong examples here, since the evolved desire for water when you’re thirsty is probably one of the easier mental states to study. Ditto for love. But even the notion that The Sun Also Rises is more meaningful to me than, say, The Purpose Driven Life is a notion that in principle could be studied neurologically, for that judgment is a reflection of my genes and my experiences, both of which must be reflected in the way my brain is wired. For “meaning” is simply “emotional resonance,” and that, too, resides in the brain.
- Finally, there is the problem of agency, the problem that bedevils all methods that mimic physics to predict human behavior. People are smokers one day but quit the next. People can change their brains in unique and unpredictable ways by shifting the patterns of their attention. Here Brooks is mistaking “predictability of behavior” with “source of behavior.” It’s unlikely that, at least in this century, we’ll understand enough about the brain to make good predictions about people’s behavior. For one thing, that behavior depends on the environment, and so you can’t predict one’s behavior from studying a single brain. You also have to predict the behavior of people with which that brain interacts, as well as other things like the weather, the availability of certain foods, and so on. Such predictability is an infinite regress, but says nothing about where the mind comes from. Likewise, the fact that one’s behavior can change says nothing about where those changes come from. You might be able to make a smoker relapse by putting a pack of Camels in front of him, but does that show that the mind isn’t the brain? Our feeling of agency, which we don’t yet understand, may well be an evolutionary adaptation—one also coded in the brain.
At the end, Brooks shows his true colors: he objects to the brain/mind program because it is materialistic and reductionist. In fact, he raises the scientistic fallacy, but to no end. He claims that “material determinism” isn’t the way to understand the brain, but, tellingly, suggests no alternative. Should we look for souls, or the hand of god tweaking our neurons?
What Satel and Lilienfeld call “neurocentrism” is an effort to take the indeterminacy of life and reduce it to measurable, scientific categories.
Right now we are compelled to rely on different disciplines to try to understand behavior on multiple levels, with inherent tensions between them. Some people want to reduce that ambiguity by making one discipline all-explaining. They want to eliminate the confusing ambiguity of human freedom by reducing everything to material determinism.
But that is the form of intellectual utopianism that always leads to error. An important task these days is to harvest the exciting gains made by science and data while understanding the limits of science and data. The next time somebody tells you what a brain scan says, be a little skeptical. The brain is not the mind.
Ah, there it is: “the limits of science and data”! Now where have we heard that from? Could it be. . . . . the theologians?
You know why Brooks would be a bad scientist? It’s because he wants this dualism to be true: he wants there to be something more to the mind than the neuronal secretions of the brain. And yet his objections to the materialist program are not objections at all. Nor does he suggest an alternative. His decrying materialism suggests some kind of festering spirituality, which is odd coming from someone who wrote a book claiming that much of our modern behavior is coded in our genes. For Brooks’s brand of evolutionary psychology is nothing but materialist and reductionist.
In fact, the brain is the mind in the sense that the mind is a product of the brain, and without a brain there is no mind. The brain is in fact the meat computer that, taking in physiological and environmental inputs, produces the mind as its output. That may sound reductionistic and materialistic, but it happens to be true. Unless, that is, there’s a spiritual homunculus sitting in our heads.
Once again Brooks has done science no favors. This piece is simply the usual critique of scientism with the usual flaws. All it does is enable those who want to believe in woo.