02 January 2012

Philosopher Steve Fuller Defends Neuro-History: Neuro-Reality-Check (Part V)

Guest Author, Professor Steve Fuller 

Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology 
Department of Sociology, Warwick University
Thanks for drawing attention to my general education course focused on the brain (PDF here).  While it does indeed make the brain appear to be the focal point of Western intellectual history, it is not guilty of some of the other crimes charged in Casper’s essay, especially the attachment to a bio-evolutionary meta-narrative. In fact, one of the historically interesting features of the brain (and neuroscience, more generally, to speak somewhat anachronistically) is its semi-detachment from foundational problems in biology, while always remaining central to defining the human condition. And whatever one makes of McGilchrist’s split-brain historiography, it is interesting to see just how many of the defining debates in Western culture feed back into speculations about the human brain, the science of which has been consistently pursued only over the past couple of generations.

In this respect, the significance of the brain as a cultural trace (or ‘boundary object’) predates and has related variously to its strict scientific study.  As a matter of fact, the nascent field of ‘neurohistory’ has been largely preoccupied with the long-term effects of significant shifts in dietary regimes. The people undergoing those shifts did not understand – or perhaps even studied – the effects but noted them and tried to promote or inhibit them in various ways, in line with their other more deliberately pursued agendas. What neurohistory promises here is a kind of long (or deep) history of collective mood formation and change. I see it as a materialist version of psychohistory, somewhat akin to the Annales School and, more generally, historical psychology and collective memory studies – all of which were formed in the late 19th and early 20th century, long before the current (even if early) stages of neuroscience.

Of course, particular neurohistorical theses may be true, false, undecidable or simply not worth pursuing. But Casper appears to object to the very idea of neurohistory. His grounds seem to be twofold: (1) The research frontier changes too quickly for historians to draw any lasting intellectual sustenance from neuroscience (or perhaps even tell what the frontier is); (2) The research itself is suspiciously fashionable, with lots of money and power propping it up, perhaps for insidious ends, and probably not in proportion to its true intellectual merit.  I think both of these grounds are self-incapacitating for the critical historian of science. Indeed, Casper’s rhetoric runs dangerously close to turning the historian into an impotent bystander to his own times, carping from the sidelines, Cassandra-like. To be sure, such roles do encourage a certain amount of positive feedback, so I understand if Casper or perhaps readers of The Neuro Times do not find Cassandra such an unattractive precedent.

In any case, (1) was an attitude championed by Thomas Kuhn, who despite having earned a Harvard PhD in physics, never wrote about physics after the 1920s, and typically focussed on the previous generation. He believed that the major paradigmatic disputes had to be closed, and so the history of that phase of the science completed. Only then does it become possible to say what all the fighting was about, and why people interpreted things as they did. While this view draws a nice temporal division of labour between, say, history and the rest of the social sciences (past v. present), it effectively consigns historians to be morticians, taxidermists and perhaps even necrophiles. In any case, historians are not cast as creative agents in the intellectual, cultural and political events of their own time.

As for (2), I ask the reader to imagine where a historian with this attitude would have stood, say, while genetics was developing as a science in the first half of the 20th century. After all, most of the leading practitioners were eugenicists who differed more over the political regime under which selection should be practiced than the details of the science itself. Of course, there was a lot of money and power behind it all. Wouldn’t such a historian be inclined to dismiss genetics as a pseudoscientific Trojan Horse of the eugenics agenda, and warn colleagues to steer clear from it in all its forms?  But wouldn’t such a historian turn out to have offered the wrong advice?  After all, even though the historian would have been right about eugenics leading the genetics research agenda, and even though that did have disastrous consequences, nevertheless the science remains strong and the attendant normative issues have not disappeared, but if anything have been revived in wider reaching and more technical form (via advances in biotechnology). Of course the historian can continue raising the alarm and instruct his colleagues not to meddle with such a dangerous and inconclusive science, but surely there must be more constructively critical ways than such a ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ strategy, however, warm the reflected glow of one’s own sanctimony may feel.

Fuller's Address at Neuro-Reality-Check (Audio)

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