Minds, Magnets and Morals

by Jon Mandle on March 30, 2010

MIT researchers have shown that people’s moral judgments change when the functioning of a certain part of the brain is suppressed using magnetic stimulation. Here’s the abstract:

When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor’s mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor’s mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.

So basically, they have identified a part of the brain that is important in attributing mental states to others. And the moral judgments of normal adults depend on attributing mental states – intentions, specifically – to others. When they suppress the functioning of this part of the brain, moral judgments alter.

“We judge people not just for what they do, but what they’re thinking at the time of their action, what they’re intending,” [Liane] Young says. But, she says, a brief magnetic pulse was able to change that.

[The resulting judgments are] the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Young says.

Interesting. The researchers themselves seem to be fairly careful in stating their results, but Joshua Greene – psychology professor at Harvard, Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton – swings for the fences (although note that this is mostly a reporter’s paraphrase):

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.

[According to Greene,] The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms.”

If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.

But of course the scientists are not adjusting morality with a magnet, they’re affecting people’s moral judgments. I don’t think anyone ever doubted that manipulating the brain in various ways can lead people to alter their judgments – moral and otherwise. This is obvious to anyone who has observed the results of alcohol, for example, or – much more indirectly – framing effects.

The experiment really doesn’t have much to say one way or the other about souls, meta-ethics, or the justification of any ground-level moral judgments. (Actually, it might suggest that you shouldn’t rely on your interpersonal judgments when the neural activity in your right temporoparietal junction is being disrupted by transcranial magnetic stimulation, or perhaps just when you’ve volunteered as a subject in an MIT lab.) Rather, it highlights the importance of attribution of intention in the moral judgment of normal adults, shows how localized in the brain this function is, and demonstrates how easily it can be suppressed in isolation from other functions. A plausible next step:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a brain expert at University College London, said the findings were insightful.
“The study suggests that this region – the RTPJ - is necessary for moral reasoning.
“What is interesting is that this is a region that is very late developing – into adolescence and beyond right into the 20s.
“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

{ 80 comments }

1

Salient 03.30.10 at 10:40 pm

What it tells me: If you’re planning to break up with your sweetheart over the phone, hold the cell phone to your left ear.

2

Jamie 03.30.10 at 10:45 pm

But of course the scientists are not adjusting morality with a magnet, they’re affecting people’s moral judgments.

Too bad, Jon. I was thinking one of them Morality Magnets could come in mighty useful.

3

Kieran Healy 03.30.10 at 11:48 pm

Amazingly, you can also change people’s mathematical judgements in much the same way (including with alcohol), which may be disconcerting to people who view physical laws as some kind of immutable, lofty feature of Nature. But such people will just have to get used to this radical new world.

4

Jamie 03.31.10 at 12:11 am

So, Kieran, you’re saying that numbers are also magnetic? Or just alcohol-solvent?

5

koreyel 03.31.10 at 12:34 am

What Kieran is saying is that (as per usual) doing some math clarifies the argument.

To wit:
If you can pulse a magnet that gets people to say 2+2=5, it means absolutely nothing in regards to the objectively shared reality that 2+2=4 remains eternally true.

6

jdw 03.31.10 at 12:40 am

So can they reverse the polarity on this baby so that fighting hideous wars is okay, citing good intentions?

7

W.P. McNeill 03.31.10 at 1:10 am

A quibble: my sense is that the word “soul” in this context means something like “those ineffable aspects of human consciousness that do not lend themselves to mechanical explanation”, making the claim in the final sentence in the NPR article a tautology. I suspect the author paraphrased the hell out of Joshua Greene in order to end on a punchy religious note.

8

tomslee 03.31.10 at 1:17 am

Pay no attention to Joshua Greene. He’s just a brain process.

9

jdw 03.31.10 at 1:20 am

BREAKING– A reporter says a similar type of irradiation appears to have affected this man , who says he will not criticize Israel for the blockade of Gaza because it is too obvious

10

mcd 03.31.10 at 1:55 am

But who knows, perhaps if the earth’s natural magnetic field were different, all our moral judgments would be different.

“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

See Lawrence Kohlberg, stages of moral development.

11

Alex 03.31.10 at 3:18 am

If you can pulse a magnet that gets people to say 2+2=5, it means absolutely nothing in regards to the objectively shared reality that 2+2=4 remains eternally true.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a magnet tugging on a human face – forever.

12

Saul 03.31.10 at 5:16 am

Right TPO junction. Nice idea but it is a pretty complex bit of the world; primary auditory cortex just in front (superior temporal gyrus), spatial memory just below (mesial and inferiolateral temporal cortex) and a whole mass of capacity for spatial organisation and sequencing behind (parietal lobe). In other words, did the participant simply fail to understand and process the auditory stimuli. Nothing to do with morality except in as much as the possible implications were not noted.

What was needed are some morally neutral control tasks to see if it is simply a failure to appreciate implied information as well as some bits of basic auditory comprehension to make sure one hadn’t disrupted language subtly.

TMS paradigms make fMRI paradigms look easy to design.

13

JulesLt 03.31.10 at 7:40 am

Ah, whole new opportunities for electoral fraud and super-magnets.

14

JoB 03.31.10 at 8:12 am

Finally we now that magnetic attraction is something real! ‘Here I come, baby, you are irresistible.’

15

alex 03.31.10 at 8:31 am

Indeed, who’da thought it? Fuck with people’s brains and they can’t think straight. Next up, pitching curveballs is tough with a broken wrist…

Something makes me suspect that this is really interesting research into the internalised ‘theory of mind’ that makes interpersonal negotiation possible, and may indeed be an inherent part of what constitutes ‘consciousness’, but that’s just not so sexy for the journos.

16

a.y. mous 03.31.10 at 8:51 am

“We judge people not just for what they do, but what they’re thinking at the time of their action, what they’re intending,” [Liane] Young says. But, she says, a brief magnetic pulse was able to change that.

So, they’ve found the Aspergers switch?

17

Ben Saunders 03.31.10 at 9:10 am

Why are we assuming that people’s moral judgements without a magnet nearby are somehow correct or unbiased and that the magnet somehow distorts them? We are, after all, in the presence of the Earth’s magnetic field all the time. Maybe the magnet is a corrective – like glasses – that allows us to ignore all that intention stuff and think only about the consequences…

18

kid bitzer 03.31.10 at 9:14 am

#11 is the best.

19

Walt 03.31.10 at 9:44 am

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a magnet tugging on a human face – forever.

The magnet pointed at my head right now makes me think that’s a beautiful picture indeed.

20

engels 03.31.10 at 10:59 am

Following Ben’s point, why does Blakemore assume that the changes she speculates occur between the moral reasoning styles of young adults and older adults is a process of ‘development’, rather than, say, decay?

21

dsquared 03.31.10 at 11:20 am

“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

yes that sounds like an amazingly interesting area! I’m surprised that nobody has studied it before, frankly. Thank heavens we have the magnet people to tell us to be interested in these things.

I’ve always thought that the subject of romantic love and marital infidelity might be worth somebody taking a look at, but until I get the MRI scans I won’t know.

22

belle le triste 03.31.10 at 11:49 am

Big Bang Theory is basically the examination of the subject of romantic love and etc when giant magnets are attached.

23

Chris Bertram 03.31.10 at 12:13 pm

#21 Actually, there’s quite an interesting talk at TED by one of the magnet co-authors that looks at moral development and the attribution of intention:

http://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_saxe_how_brains_make_moral_judgments.html

24

Chris Bertram 03.31.10 at 12:19 pm

… and, I’d forgotten this bit, also has the magnet stuff in it.

(The video give a good sense of what the researchers are up to.)

25

Zamfir 03.31.10 at 12:52 pm

I’ve always thought that the subject of romantic love and marital infidelity might be worth somebody taking a look at, but until I get the MRI scans I won’t know.

Science will march on. One day, someone will look at a graph and say “These resonance patterns suggest someone should write a book about Odysseus in Dublin”

26

jdw 03.31.10 at 1:25 pm

Ms SaxeLab, sponsored by IBM, shows a little kid puppets of two pirates, each owner of a cheese sandwich, and when the kid predicts one pirate takes the other’s sandwich, she says obviously the kid has a late-developing moral sense of some kind. But Chris Bertram would have said exactly the same thing, because the protagonist is a pirate, for pete’s sake. Her initial remark to the effect that “philosophy” claims “I have a mind, and the rest of you are robots”, was, I thought, just a tad prejudicial too. I was unable to watch the thing through to the “bit about the magnets”, because my bullshit detector shorted out, sorry.

27

Tom Hurka 03.31.10 at 2:47 pm

Josh Greene’s comments about whether “morality [i]s a lofty and immutable human trait” are ambiguous. By “morality” does he mean the moral truth itself or our human capacity to recognize it?

Given that he’s talking about a human trait it should be the latter, but who ever thought that was immutable? What’s the point of moral education if not to improve it? If he means the former, then for the reasons J0n gives there’s nothing at all in the magnet facts to undermine the idea that there are immutable moral truths.

As so often, the appearance of profundity depends on ambiguity.

28

Chris Bertram 03.31.10 at 2:51 pm

“But Chris Bertram would have said exactly the same thing, because the protagonist is a pirate, for pete’s sake.”

Are you on medication jdw?

29

dsquared 03.31.10 at 2:59 pm

yes, I was going to say that #21 was a bit unfair and the quote was probably stitched together by the journalist, but then I went off and had a sandwich instead. I’m a lot less conscientious since I bought this neodymium hat.

30

Cartesian 03.31.10 at 3:27 pm

” [According to Greene,] The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms.”

If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.”

Soul can have different definitions and it can be attached to matter and immaterial as well. But it is true that for some philosophies it can be a problem.

31

jdw 03.31.10 at 3:47 pm

re # 28: Perhaps I was not as clear as I could have been. I meant that in the story of the pirates and the sandwiches, the answer of the first little kid, that the pirate will take the better sandwich, even if it belongs to the other man, is an answer anyone would have given (not just Chris Bertram), because even little kids know that it is the job of pirates to take other people’s stuff. Still, I admit that “are you on medication” is considered a very powerful and convincing rebuttal in certain sectors of the blogosphere.

32

Chris Bertram 03.31.10 at 6:29 pm

#31 Since you have posted 6 comments in the past two weeks, of which 4 have mentioned me by name, and three of which were on CT threads initiated by people other than myself, I believed you might be in the grip of some kind of obsessive disorder.

33

jdw 03.31.10 at 7:05 pm

Ah well. It is true I was interested in exploring how you were thinking on a couple of occasions, in hopes you would perhaps bounce the ball back. But I see I have made you uncomfortable, and I will desist.

34

novakant 03.31.10 at 7:26 pm

I wish people would cease to equate being on (or alternatively off) medication with being deranged – seems to be an old internet tradition, but it’s pretty nasty actually.

35

dsquared 03.31.10 at 8:01 pm

In this thread, however, it’s on topic since the subject is the fact that behaviour and judgement can be affected by material causes.

36

Hidari 03.31.10 at 8:26 pm

You see, this is part of the problem with this ultra-reductionist viewpoint.

http://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_saxe_how_brains_make_moral_judgments.html.

I’m sorry? How brains make moral judgements?

It’s a particularly egregious fallacy* in that the actual article linked to talks (correctly) about how we make moral judgements. (‘read each others minds’).

But to talk about how brains make moral judgements is preposterous.

‘Do you think murder is wrong?’

‘Of course not. I think it’s fantastic. But my brain thinks it’s terrible. We argue about it all the time’.

(In fact, I have a distinct memory of this being a source of much amusing merriment on the Simpsons).

*The mereological fallacy.

37

Alex 03.31.10 at 9:21 pm

Do you want them instead to be talking about how your spleen makes moral judgements?

38

chris 03.31.10 at 9:27 pm

“But to talk about how brains make moral judgements is preposterous.”

Are you in the habit of making moral judgments with your elbow, instead? I don’t see what could be controversial about the idea that your brain makes your moral judgments.

The reason your example is absurd is not that your brain can’t have an opinion, but that *you* can’t have an opinion distinct from your brain’s opinion. There’s no other you that is capable of having opinions.

39

novakant 03.31.10 at 9:34 pm

#35

I don’t see that at all, the phrase is being used in the standard sense, i.e. “are you nuts?”

40

Hidari 03.31.10 at 9:46 pm

‘I don’t see what could be controversial about the idea that your brain makes your moral judgments.’

If you don’t think that’s controversial, trying killing someone and then having as your defence the argument that it wasn’t you that decided to kill the guy, it was your brain.

Send me a postcard from jail, er I mean freedom.

41

novakant 03.31.10 at 10:29 pm

#40

Are you a mind-body dualist?

42

Hidari 03.31.10 at 10:34 pm

‘Are you a mind-body dualist?’

No.

43

dsquared 03.31.10 at 11:39 pm

you don’t have to be a dualist to believe that “you” are something distinct from your brain. There’s any number of Daniel Dennett essays from the 90s on this.

44

tomslee 03.31.10 at 11:42 pm

#38 I don’t see what could be controversial about the idea that your brain makes your moral judgments.

I think what pisses some people off, me included, is encapsulated in this sentence: ‘The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms.”.

Apart from the casual slap at philosophers, it’s a coarse and blanket reductionism. Green’s statement certainly sounds like a claim that, while we know people’s morals can be affected by other people, by culture, by persuasion, and so on, it’s when they are modified by magnets that we’re really getting somewhere, because now “something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation”. It certainly sounds like he’s claiming that “morality can be reduced to mechanical causes”.

But we are not mechanical beings, we are evolutionary beings. A self is not solely a product of the particles that make it up, it is also a product of the stuff it is immersed in – language, culture, family and so on. If a human child was raised in isolation – no language, no culture – it would not have a self in the same way the rest of us do, and it certainly would have a different sense of morality (if any) to us, with or without magnets.

Language is as essential as a right temporoparietal junction to morality, and language is abstract, not mechanical. In that sense we are not just mechanical beings, even though we inhabit a purely materialist universe.

45

lurklurk 03.31.10 at 11:56 pm

See Lawrence Kohlberg, stages of moral development.

The popular uses neuroscience has been put to in the last 5 or so years, such as the NPR article here, are so depressing. When they’re not suggesting that we will one day discover whether people’s moral sensibilities change from childhood to adulthood, people interfacing with the public about this stuff almost invariably move to “prove” some Western landmark individual “correct,” e.g. “this fMRI proves Hume was correct about empathy” or “Proust was a neuroscientist.” I’m sure the dead white men are flattered, but then why do we need fMRIs?

I’m not accusing brain science of being all pro white guy; only the people who pull the fMRIs out of the printer shouting SEE??

46

john c. halasz 04.01.10 at 12:12 am

@ 43:

On the other hand, if you have to rely on “any number of Daniel Dennett essays from the 90s on this”, perhaps you’ve already missed the point.

47

novakant 04.01.10 at 12:25 am

Yeah, after reading “Consciousness Explained” back in the day, I came away with the impression that Dennett’s main talent lies in knocking down strawmen, missing the point and explaining away the hard problems …

48

ajay 04.01.10 at 11:08 am

42: ‘Are you a mind-body dualist?’
No.

Really? Neither of you?

49

Hidari 04.01.10 at 12:27 pm

‘Really? Neither of you?’

Well I discussed it with my brain, and we came to a consensus that the answer was no.

I’m still in two minds about it, though.

50

tomslee 04.01.10 at 12:30 pm

@ajay, Hidari – I hope the three of you come to a reasonable agreement on this.

51

Richard J 04.01.10 at 1:09 pm

All four of them surely? (Though if we bring in the Jungian collective unconscious, does that count as one or seven billion for our purposes?)

52

MQ 04.01.10 at 4:20 pm

The main thing I learned from this is not to sign up for experiments at MIT. I don’t want anybody fucking with my brain with magnets, although the right kind of alcohol might work.

I think she talks about “how our brains make moral judgements” so she can stake her turf claim that neuroscience labs are the right authorities to be talking about morality and interpersonal relationships, instead of priests, psychologists, novelists, your wise old uncle, etc. Those types might know people, but they don’t know BRAINZZZ.

53

Alex 04.02.10 at 2:19 am

But we are not mechanical beings, we are evolutionary beings. A self is not solely a product of the particles that make it up, it is also a product of the stuff it is immersed in – language, culture, family and so on. If a human child was raised in isolation – no language, no culture – it would not have a self in the same way the rest of us do, and it certainly would have a different sense of morality (if any) to us, with or without magnets.

Have you not heard of neuroplasticity?

54

tomslee 04.02.10 at 3:29 am

“Have you not heard of neuroplasticity?” – I don’t understand. I have, but so what?

55

JoB 04.02.10 at 7:58 am

I have heard of neuroplasticity!

Oh yes: so what?

(but thanks anyway for highlighting tomslee’s post; it’s always nice to have evidence that one’s common sense is not totally uncommon)

56

chris 04.02.10 at 3:21 pm

But we are not mechanical beings, we are evolutionary beings.

Those categories are not disjoint.

I’m not sure what you mean by “raised in isolation” — you can’t raise a child in a lack of surroundings, you can only raise it in different surroundings. Even hard vacuum is a set of surroundings (albeit an instantly fatal one which would elicit no interesting behavior whatsoever from the child).

Whatever you mean by it, since you appear to be performing a thought experiment, how can you be so confident what psychological state of the child would result? I would say that if you raise a child in surroundings different from those that any child has ever been raised in, it would be difficult to predict the result (other than death, which could be confidently predicted from a great many sets of surroundings, including any simplistic sense of “isolation”).

Whatever entity or system you relied on to provide for the child’s physiological needs until he/she was old enough to do so him/herself, I think there is a high probability that the child would adopt the intentional stance toward that entity/system, a substantial probability that the child would spontaneously attempt to communicate with it, and some possibility that he/she would adopt it as a parent or god figure. (Without any intentional communication running the other way, the child’s “understanding” of its intentions or desires would necessarily be at the superstitious-pigeon level.) I’d consider the probability of failing to develop a self/other distinction very low, and I wonder why you draw the opposite conclusion (if you do).

language is abstract, not mechanical.

I disagree that language “is” abstract. People construct abstractions related to language, but all actual use of language occurs concretely, in the world. ISTM that you are putting the cart before the horse by considering the abstraction more real than the reality.

Language is as essential as a right temporoparietal junction to morality

IIRC, some forms of morality have been observed in non-language-using animals, but I don’t have a cite handy so I could be mistaken about that.

57

tomslee 04.02.10 at 8:28 pm

chris – I don’t think I can address all your points, but let me try a couple.

I was trying to say that whereas Joshua Greene and some neuro-science types seem to think “mechanical” explanations of behaviour are the bees’ knees, they seem to me partial at best. Not sure if you agree with that assertion or not.

Yes, my elbow is both mechanical and evolutionary and so is my brain – I agree these categories overlap. But we do have aspects to us that are evolutionary but not material, and I think language is one of these. There’s nothing supernatural or spiritual about this, and I didn’t mean to give that impression. Without language we could have only the fuzziest sense of who we are – superstitious-pigeon sounds about right – and our morality would be pretty fuzzy too, at best. Would you disagree? It seems kind of obvious to me but I don’t suppose I could prove it. If Kaspar Hauser wasn’t a fake I guess we could have learned from him.

However closely you look at the brain, you’ll not see language there. Or mathematics. Or music perhaps. You’ll see bits that process these things, but not the things themselves. But if you need language and culture to explain a big part of how humans behave, then there are big limits to what neuro scientists can tell us, and that’s I think why I and others in this thread get pissed off at the combination of ignorance and arrogance that comes across in phrases such as “The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

I suspect that’s just as confused as my first attempt at it. Next time I’ll stick my head in a magnet and see if that helps.

58

Alex 04.03.10 at 2:06 am

You’re talking nonsense. You can see the language areas of the brain. Look at the picture here for instance:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language#Natural_languages

If language wasn’t found in the brain, where else would you find it? As I said above, in the spleen??

59

john c. halasz 04.03.10 at 2:50 am

@58:

Er, think again. Just because there are specific processing areas in the brain for aspects of language, doesn’t mean that no “global” or holistic processing occurs to put such complex phenomena together, (as would be the case for many other “mental” phenomena), and just because language, obviously requires a processing-substrate capacity in brains to at all exist and function, it doesn’t follow that an account of such processing areas gives a completely “causal” account of natural language, to the exclusion of communicative processes across the external world between organisms equipped with such brains, which are, er, extra-cranial. You’re baldly confusing necessary and sufficient conditions for any adequate “explanation”.

60

onymous 04.03.10 at 3:40 am

However closely you look at the brain, you’ll not see language there. Or mathematics. Or music perhaps. You’ll see bits that process these things, but not the things themselves. But if you need language and culture to explain a big part of how humans behave, then there are big limits to what neuro scientists can tell us

It’s not as if neuroscientists never look at what the brain is doing in response to music or mathematics or language. You seem to be attacking the straw man that one can learn all about brains by studying them in isolation from the rest of the world. I don’t see anyone defending that idea.

61

onymous 04.03.10 at 3:41 am

Unless they’re talking about these or these, anyway.

62

JoB 04.03.10 at 9:41 am

“People construct abstractions related to language (..)”, one such abstraction is morality and as far as human morality goes it is moreover self-referential – in that it is assumed humans need to have some knowledge on what is moral in order for their actions to be moral or immoral. So I’m certain that their are scientists that are discovering ‘morality’ in animals all the time, but they’re just not discovering what we normally would use the abstraction ‘morality’ for when dealing in a context of humans.

63

tomslee 04.03.10 at 11:15 am

I wrote “However closely you look at the brain, you’ll not see language there. Or mathematics. Or music perhaps.”

and I got this:

58: “You’re talking nonsense. You can see the language areas of the brain.”

60: “It’s not as if neuroscientists never look at what the brain is doing in response to music or mathematics or language.”

You know, when I wrote that second comment I read chris’s notes and, while I disagreed, I thought there was something there, so I tried to voice what I still believe while giving him credit for being a non-stupid individual. And then you get people like this who think sarcasm is an excuse for not reading. I mean, give me a break. Thanks to john halasz and JoB for clarifying, but there’s no point. If you think “language areas of the brain” are the same as “language”, or that “looking at what the brain is doing in response to music” is the same as “music” then you’re either not thinking or you’re not interested in a constructive conversation.

64

novakant 04.03.10 at 11:26 am

I see the danger that “language” and “communication” have become the modern substitutes for “god”, “spirit” or “ideas”, in the sense that they are used to delimit a spiritual or immaterial realm that doesn’t fall under the laws of the natural world – if that is the intention, then we have merely rephrased the age old dichotomy that has been haunting philosophy since its earliest days. The fear seems to be that materialists, like myself, try to take away the baby Jesus of humanity, culture and morality through reductionist accounts. But while some materialists are reductionist physicalists, that is only one of many versions, and I feel very comfortable locating language and everything that flows from it within the material realm, while acknowledging that the complexity of human semiois is so mind-bogglingly complex that it is probably impossible to ever produce a comprehensive account that would relate all our higher-order actions and interactions causally to their material base.

65

tomslee 04.03.10 at 11:59 am

Thank you novakant. I’m as materialist as anyone, and if I’ve given the impression of trying to bring a spiritual realm and so on into the discussion then I’ve not been clear.

But after many years of being reductionist, it now seems mistaken to me. Scientific attempts to explain human behaviour surely cannot ignore evolution, and evolutionary explanations are not reductionist – that is, they demand an investigation of history and environment, not just component pieces. In the case of human behaviour, that history and environment includes our culture. We may be explainable in principle in terms of physics, but it would be the physics of the whole universe, not of our brains.

66

JoB 04.03.10 at 12:44 pm

64- I am as tomslee (perhaps a tad more reductionist) but I heard you say this a couple of times now and, really (although I otherwise tend to like your comments), it’s just a knee-jerk thing. In God and Jesus we worship some absolute; language and communication we cannot worship. I do not fear you will take away ‘spirituality’ because 1. I loath spirituality and 2. whatever is will not be taken away by you. I fear you will regiment people and their utterances into a matrix that is a couple of order of magnitudes too narrow, thus preventing them from being themselves.

And in the end, this breed of hard determinism (‘it is knowable only not by us’) is worse than the mechanical versions because it allows to make definite sounding statements (like you make) but evade having to prove them. Or – dismissing as armchair philosophy anything that tries to prove that what we can utter in language is underdetermined by what we can predict from physics.

67

Hidari 04.03.10 at 2:25 pm

It seems to me that the debate about ‘reductionism’ is about people confusing ontology and epistemology (a very common problem, in intellectual circles). Of course, other people might see things differently, but I think that reductionism is an epistemological position, not (or at least not primarily) an ontological one.

In other words, reductionism is a method, not a truth claim, and a method which is either appropriate or not appropriate in certain contexts, not a Timeless Truth (or not).

For example, in the context of buses, sometimes reductionism questions are appropriate (for example, asking what has gone wrong with the engine), and sometimes they aren’t (asking what the next stop is).

Likewise, in the context of human brings, sometimes ‘brain reductionist’ answers are appropriate to specific questions and sometimes they aren’t. If someone has had a stroke for example, or has Alzheimers, I would have no problem with a strict, neuropsychological, reductionist answer to the question: ‘what is happening here?’ and ‘how do we prevent this from happening?’.

In other issues, for example, ‘what are the causes of depression or ‘schizophrenia” then a strict reductionist approach seems more questionable, and when we get to broader issues of morality or politics, less useful still.

In other words, reductionism is useful or not useful as an approach to certain problems, it’s not ‘true’ or ‘false’. The old aphorism of ‘if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’ seems appropriate here, as does the old joke about the Irishman looking for his key under the lamppost ‘cos ‘the light’s better here’.

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onymous 04.03.10 at 3:06 pm

If you think “language areas of the brain” are the same as “language”, or that “looking at what the brain is doing in response to music” is the same as “music” then you’re either not thinking or you’re not interested in a constructive conversation.

tomslee, I think I’m actually in complete agreement with you. On everything except one point: I don’t think neuroscientists are the sort of simple-minded reductionists you think they are. They can’t study brains in their natural environment, so they do the best they can to alter that environment in the lab (exposing them to images, texts, music) and learn what they can from that environment. Obviously to understand the real environment — the real richness of language and music and social interaction these brains encounter outside the lab — one needs a much richer sort of knowledge (history, culture, psychology) than neuroscience alone provides. But this doesn’t mean that neuroscientists, in their limited way, aren’t learning something about how our brains work in response to stimuli that is relevant and applicable to all these other fields that study how people operate.

As I said, I don’t think we really disagree, except that I suspect most neuroscientists are aware of their own limitations and that the quotes in the article that make them look like tools are misleading and unrepresentative.

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JoB 04.03.10 at 3:27 pm

“I suspect most neuroscientists are aware of their own limitations”, no quarrels there but it’s the unfortunate case that those that make the more fantastic claims get more attention – and I’m not speaking about traction in the peer reviewed sense. Which is why it is à propos to react to all the fantastic claims.

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novakant 04.03.10 at 4:23 pm

#65/66

We’re not all that far apart it seems, since, to cut a long story short, I’m not a reductionist but some sort of emergentist I guess. Yet, and here might be the root of our possible disagreement, I’m also a strict materialistic monist who refuses to take any concept simply as a given without at least making the attempt to determine its ontological status. Now the points about “the physics of the whole universe” or “this breed of hard determinism ” are well taken, but the flipside is that we are equally unable to say with any certainty that there are realms that are not governed by the laws of nature, which might or might not entail determinism – I don’t know enough about the contemporary scientific models but I do know that the problems of free will and consciousness are as of yet unsolved and that they will be incredibly hard to solve. And at this stage of our knowledge I find it inappropriate to make strong claims about e.g. language being a realm onto its own that is fundamentally distinct from the material world.

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tomslee 04.03.10 at 4:35 pm

Hidari – if I could vote up comments here I’d definitely vote up that one. It clarifies some things for me.

onymous – fair enough: I don’t know any neuroscientists and I know plenty of people who have been misquoted or misrepresented in the press, so I guess they deserve a break. But all we have to go on is the words in the press unfortunately.

novakant – “I find it inappropriate to make strong claims about e.g. language being a realm onto its own that is fundamentally distinct from the material world”. Don’t think I (or JoB probably) would claim “fundamentally distinct”, but it’s something you have to include in any attempt to understand morality and it’s mighty difficult to represent in terms of physics :)

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novakant 04.03.10 at 7:32 pm

Well, I’ll drop “fundamentally distinct” and up the ante a bit by claiming that it’s not a “realm onto its own” at all, which could be understood in any comprehensive sense when viewed in isolation from the material world. Instead language has evolved due to physiological changes and very pragmatic needs, its transmission and storage relies in various non-trivial ways on the material world and interaction via language is in many cases as much an action with material consequences as a physical action.

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Alex 04.03.10 at 9:12 pm

“But after many years of being reductionist, it now seems mistaken to me. Scientific attempts to explain human behaviour surely cannot ignore evolution, and evolutionary explanations are not reductionist – that is, they demand an investigation of history and environment, not just component pieces. In the case of human behaviour, that history and environment includes our culture. We may be explainable in principle in terms of physics, but it would be the physics of the whole universe, not of our brains.”

This is why I brought up neuroplasticity. Because you seem to be attacking a strawman. Who are these reductionists, who don’t think the brain interacts with the environment?

Like when language was brought up above. The language areas of the brain can be seen. And when we hear someone talking, the communication has to pass through our brain in order for us to understand it. You are attacking a strawman.

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JoB 04.04.10 at 9:22 am

71 & 72- I would in fact claim ‘fundamentally distinct’ (not that it matters given this comment is to be drowned under iPad or Greenwald comments on the top right of this page). But I admit I’m struggling with a pertinent way of argueing it. I think the line of Carnap is probably fruitful – and certainly if you’re open to emergentism – as there are concepts (cultural) that can’t but be there as a result of language. A coarser but maybe more black and white line of reasoning would make something solid out of a thought experiment in which 2 materially identic states come about in a different context – the difference in context being for instance that a certain phonetic utterance has a different connotation; surely one would not want to argue that these states – considered on the whole – would be identical. Surely one would argue against this rather by saying that the two states can’t be materially identical; but that argument is at least as suspect as mine.

Although – I know – it’s dangerous to to thinking out loud on a blog; probably as dangerous as it is to pick up the soap in the prison shower area ;-(

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Hidari 04.04.10 at 10:49 am

‘ it’s dangerous to to thinking out loud on a blog; probably as dangerous as it is to pick up the soap in the prison shower area ;-(‘

Errmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm………………………………………………..no.

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JoB 04.05.10 at 11:07 am

Didn’t realize you were going to take that literally. Ouch!

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chris 04.05.10 at 3:49 pm

If you think . . . that “looking at what the brain is doing in response to music” is the same as “music”

I think our inability to see the listener’s perception of music on a brain scan is a limitation of the observer and/or scanning device, not proof that the perception is actually taking place in a non-material realm of abstractions or some such.

Furthermore, I think that in theory (though not presently in practice) we could make someone perceive music through direct brain stimulation rather than through making the air near their ears vibrate.

And I think that “maybe you could do that, but would it be music?” is a pointless quibble about semantics, rather than a meaningful question about the world.

(P.S. I don’t know *what* morality is, or even whether or not it *is* anything at all other than a collection of thoughts about it. I tend to incline toward anti-realism mainly because I can’t form any coherent concept of what a moral reality could be, let alone how anyone would perceive it or why they would get such divergent answers when they try.)

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john c. halasz 04.05.10 at 5:12 pm

@77:

Ya. The other is inherently unreal and therefore morality can not exist. The only thing that’s real is our solipsistic brain processes, which we can pick like our noses.

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chris 04.05.10 at 5:48 pm

The other is inherently unreal and therefore morality can not exist.

I don’t understand what you mean by “the other” here. Clearly not other *people* — which are obviously real, but their reality has no bearing on the moral realism problem.

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john c. halasz 04.05.10 at 6:50 pm

@79:

The “other” is a source of intentionality that is not manifested in any of the products or expressions of that intentionality, that “withdraws” from its own manifestations. All language usage, one way or another, at least implicitly, involves a relation to an other, to the unobjectifiable “space” of an other.

Ethics concerns actions and material or symbolic exchanges with respect to relations with others qua other, (i.e. as completely separate beings). And moral norms are counterfactuals, so, of course, they don’t “really” exist. “Morality” is not somehow a Platonically objective order, underwritten by the universe itself. But then saying that morality is unreal, with the sense that somehow it should be real, is just another version of the same mistake. That moral questions are not amenable to the same sort of consensus we expect from matters concerning ordinary material objects does not eo ipso render them nugatory: that, among other things, would be to reduce validity to consensus. Rather than the question of the “reality” of morality, the question should be what sort of “force” moral questions exercise. That moral conflicts might not be “ultimately” and “universally” resolvable doesn’t mean that they should or could cease to trouble us, which suffices. Yes, there is plenty of room for “skepticism” on such matters, but not of any easy sort. And appeals to “materialism”, ( as the presumed arbiter of the real, as if that is the only “thing” which should concern us), don’t serve to eliminate the issues involved, but rather just lend them a particular “accent”.

More generally, you seem to be rushing past your own mistakes. Appealing to an instrumental manipulation of a phenomenon doesn’t serve to delimit and “define” or identify that phenomenon per se. (Such instrumentalism might actually destroy rather than serve to understand the phenomenon in question). And the extreme nominalism that dismisses such questions as “semantic quibbles” assumes, implausibly, that one can pick out the real itself, without any recourse to any sort of “semantics”. In the end, it’s the disclosive function of language, as opening up to the world and its phenomena, that renders it irreducible to material reality and deterministic causality: recombinant symbolism and the counterfactuality (and hence questioning) that it opens up is very much the point of language, which renders a reduction to material causes meaningless, nonsensical. Language is regulated by structuring rules other than material causality.

Materialism vs. idealism is just another metaphysical aporia and one wouldn’t want to get impaled on either horn of that dilemma, nor does one escape from metaphysics through emphatic declarations of “materialism”. At some point, over-egging materialism, as the key to the really real, just builds up an excess of motivation that implicitly veers in the other direction, and “materialism” becomes a uselessly spinning wheel that actually does nothing: one can’t squeeze any more blood out of that turnip. But this thread is approaching its sell-buy date.

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