Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

For my latest 3QD post, I expanded on my answer to a Quora question: Is neuroscience ruining the humanities?


Here’s an excerpt:

“Neuroscience is ruining the humanities”. This was the provocative title of a recent article by Arthur Krystal in The Chronicle of Higher Education. To me the question was pure clickbait [1], since I am both a neuroscientist and an avid spectator of the drama and intrigue on the other side of the Great Academic Divide [2]. Given the sensational nature of many of the claims made on behalf of the cognitive and neural sciences, I am inclined to assure people in the humanities that they have little to fear. On close inspection, the bold pronouncements of fields like neuro-psychology, neuro-economics and neuro-aesthetics — the sorts of statements that mutate into TED talks and pop science books — often turn out to be wild extrapolations from a limited (and internally inconsistent) data set.

Unlike many of my fellow scientists, I have occasionally grappled with the weighty ideas that emanate from the humanities, even coming to appreciate elements of postmodern thinking. (Postmodern — aporic? — jargon is of course a different matter entirely.) I think the tapestry that is human culture is enriched by the thoughts that emerge from humanities departments, and so I hope the people in these departments can exercise some constructive skepticism when confronted with the latest trendy factoid from neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. Some of my neuroscience-related essays here at 3QD were written with this express purpose [3, 4].

The Chronicle article begins with a 1942 quote from New York intellectual Lionel Trilling: “What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us”. This sets the tone for the mythic narrative that lurks beneath much of the essay, a narrative that can be crudely caricatured as follows. Once upon a time the University was a paradise of creative ferment. Ideas were warring gods, and the sparks that flew off their clashing swords kept the flames of wisdom and liberty alight. The faithful who erected intellectual temples to bear witness to these clashes were granted the boon of enlightened insight. But faith in the great ideas gradually faded, and so the golden age came to an end. The temple-complex of ideas began to decay from within, corroded by doubt. New prophets arose, who claimed that ideas were mere idols to be smashed, and that the temples were metanarrative prisons from which to escape. In this weak and bewildered state, the intellectual paradise was invaded. The worshipers were herded into a shining new temple built from the rubble of the old ones. And into this temple the invaders’ idols were installed: the many-armed goddess of instrumental rationality, the one-eyed god of essentialism, the cold metallic god of materialism…

The over-the-top quality of my little academia myth might give the impression that I think it is a tissue of lies. But perhaps more nuance is called for. As with all myths, I think there are elements of truth in this narrative.

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily: Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?


About Yohan

I'm a neuroscientist at the Neural Systems Laboratory in Boston University. My PhD was in Cognitive and Neural Systems, and my work involves computational neural network modeling, mostly of cognitive-emotional interaction and psychiatric disorders. Apart from neuroscience, I spend a lot of time engaging with music, history, politics, philosophy, and religion.
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