Can neuroscience modernize human self-understanding?

Tearing down old buildings and erecting new ones on the basis of modern science and technology – we are constantly doing it in our cities. But can similar ambitions to get rid of the old, to modernize, be realized even more thoroughly, with regard to us and the human condition?

Can we tear down “traditional” human self-understanding – the language we use when we reflect on life in literature, in philosophy, and in the humanities – and replace it by new neuroscientific terms?

Earlier this spring, the philosopher Roger Scruton published an essay in the Spectator where he eloquently attacks claims that neuroscience can and should replace the humanities by a set of brave new “neuro”-disciplines, like neuroethics, neuroaesthetics, and neuromusicology.

Not only will these purported new “sciences” fail to create the understanding that traditional ethics, aesthetics, and musicology, helped us towards (for example, of Bach’s music). They will even fail to achieve the scientific explanations that would justify the brave new “neuro”-prefix.

In order for there to be explanations at all, there must first of all be questions. What characterizes the purported “neuro”-sciences, however, is their lack of questions, Scruton remarks.

“Neuro-explanation” typically is no more than translation into neuro-jargon. The aim is neither understanding nor explanation, but the ideological one of replacing the traditional by the new, at any cost.

The result of these extreme modernization ambitions running amok in human self-understanding, Scruton claims, and I agree with him, is nonsense: neurononsense.

Yet, something worries me in Scruton’s essay. He almost seems to purify human self-understanding, or the human condition, as if it were a higher sphere that should not be affected by changing times, at least not if they are modern.

I agree that neuroscience cannot explain the human condition. I agree that it cannot replace human self-understanding. But it can change the human condition and challenge our self-understanding. It already does.

Science and technology cannot be abstracted from the human condition. We are continually becoming “modernized” by, for example, neuroscientific developments. These changing conditions are real, and not merely nonsense or jargon. They occur everywhere, not merely among intellectuals or academics. And they reach all the way to our language.

Neuroscience certainly cannot replace the humanities. But it can challenge the humanities to reflect on changed human conditions.

When attempts in the human sciences to understand modern human conditions focus on neuroscience, the prefix “neuro-” could denote a more responsible form of intellectual work than the one Scruton rightly criticizes. It could denote work that feels the challenge of neuroscientific developments and takes it seriously.

Here at CRB, Kathinka Evers works to develop such a responsible form of neuroethics: one that does not translate ethics into neuro-jargon, but sees neuroscientific findings about the brain as a philosophical challenge to understand and clarify, very often in opposition to the temptation of jargon.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

5 Responses to Can neuroscience modernize human self-understanding?

  1. Tafacory says:

    “I agree that neuroscience cannot explain the human condition. I agree that it cannot replace human self-understanding. But it can change the human condition and challenge our self-understanding. It already does.” – Beautifully said. I could not agree more with you if I wanted to.

  2. […] In a previous blog post I commented upon Roger Scruton’s critical attitude to neuroscientific analyses of subjects that traditionally belong to the social […]

  3. […] just as I was shaking my head over Scruton’s article, I came across a response by Swedish philosopher Pär Segerdahl, who cited his colleague, Kathinka Evers, as someone whose […]

  4. […] Yesterday I read Lars Hertzberg’s thoughtful blog, Language is things we do. His latest post drew my attention to a militant humanist, Raymond Tallis (who resembles another militant humanist, Roger Scruton). […]

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