23 December 2011

Sociobiology's Challenge to Neuroskeptics

From E. O. Wilson (1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis:

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. The biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain. These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions - hate, love, guilt, fear, and others - that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. That simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers, if not epistemology and epistemologists, at all depths. Self-existence, or the suicide that terminates it, is not the central question of philosophy. The hypothalamic-limbic complex automatically denies such logical reductions by countering it with feelings of guilt and altruism. In this one way the philosopher's own emotional control centers are wiser than his solipsist consciousness, "knowing" in evolutionary time the individual organism counts for almost nothing.


  1. past time to begin distinguishing between mind and brain .. and allowing for things like the evolution of consciousness and emotional healing that have nothing to do with the brain, except after the fact.

    current neuroscience will be thought of as phrenology 2.0 later in this century.

  2. Fascinating comment. I'd almost see the tendency going in the opposite direction - the 'psy-ing" and "evo-ing" of brain science. But thanks for commenting.

  3. But what if you could produce a mathematical proof that implied suicide was logical?

    If suicide can't be a philosophical consideration simply because we are hard wired otherwise then nothing other than what we are hard wired to do can be considered rational.

    Agreeing to live under laws such as "don't kill" can hardly be something hard wired into us yet we choose it (some might argue it is hard wired as self preservation).

    If the only ideas that are valid to consider are those we are permitted by our evolutionary structure then the following should be self evident:

    1. murder is OK
    2. theft is not only OK but mandated
    3. lying is the highest form of communication
    4. cheating is best

    A Buddhist master once taught me that because the entire existence of humanity is very fleeting nothing at all really matters - nothing we do has any real impact on the universe and all we are left with is how we negotiate our way to termination together, with compassion. But he also pointed out that compassion does not preclude you from killing or from theft - it only requires that you are not blind.

    Suicide and murder and theft etc are all pointless actions in the long term (as are averting them) - they have no meaning and it does not matter what you think you are thinking about them.

    Consequently, discussing any issue whatsoever is "philosophy" - ie pointless ramblings about meaningless issues