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The Limits of the Neuroscience Explanation

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Psychologist Gary Marcus writing in The New Yorker has a succinct essay on the problems inherent in our cultural obsession with everything neuroscience.  As he observes:


The real problem with neuroscience today isn't with the science--though plenty of methodological challenges still remain--it's with the expectations. The brain is an incredibly complex ensemble, with billions of neurons coming into--and out of--play at any given moment. There will eventually be neuroscientific explanations for much of what we do; but those explanations will turn out to be incredibly complicated. For now, our ability to understand how all those parts relate is quite limited, sort of like trying to understand the political dynamics of Ohio from an airplane window above Cleveland.

It's an a good observation, but I'm not so sure that neuroscience will someday provide explanations for most of what we do.  Or rather, I'm not sure that's even the right way to approach the issue.  In the end, my sense is that neuroscience explanations just ring hollow because they really don't tell the human experience.  It's been said that humans are unique above all animals because only humans can provide reasons for their actions.  And while neuroscience offers reasons, they just don't cut it in the final analysis.  There's something more, something quite valuable, in the human condition beyond firing synapses and the brain alight with deoxygenated blood.  It's the human narrative that inexorably needs to be told.

 

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