In Geoffrey Harpham’s first contribution to “On the Human” he wrote,
One of the most striking features of contemporary intellectual life is the fact that questions formerly reserved for the humanities are today being approached by scientists in various disciplines such as cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, robotics, artificial life, behavioral genetics and evolutionary biology.
“Approached” is too weak a word. A better word might be “overtaken.” In the 21st century the understanding of ourselves that the humanities have claimed to provide will finally be replaced by or grounded in scientific knowledge. As I shall argue, the more likely outcome is replacement, and the consequence must be a different role for the humanities from the one they have aspired to.
Hard science—first physics, then chemistry and biology—got going in the 1600s. Philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz almost immediately noticed its threat to human self-knowledge. But no one really had to choose between scientific explanations of human affairs and those provided in history and the humanities until the last decades of the 20th century. Now, every Friday the “Science Times” reports on how neuroscience is trespassing into domains previously the sole preserve of the interpretive humanities. Neuroscience’s explanations and the traditional ones compete; they cannot both be right. Eventually we will have to choose between human narrative self-understanding and science’s explanations of human affairs. Neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuro-art history and neuro lit crit are just tips of an iceberg on a collision course with the ocean liner of human self-knowledge.
Let’s see why we will soon have to face a choice we’ve been able to postpone for 400 years.
It is hard to challenge the hard sciences’ basic picture of reality. That is because it began with everyday experience, recursively reconstructing and replacing the everyday beliefs that turned out to be wrong by standards of everyday experience. The result, rendered unrecognizable to everyday belief after 400 years or so, is contemporary physics, chemistry and biology. Why date science only to the 1600s? After all, mathematics dates back to Euclid and Archimedes made empirical discoveries in the 3rd century BC. But 1638 was when Galileo first showed that a little thought is all we need to undermine the mistaken belief neither Archimedes nor Aristotle had seen through but that stood in the way of science.
Galileo offered a thought-experiment that showed, contrary to common beliefs, that objects can move without any forces pushing them along at all. It sounds trivial and yet this was the breakthrough that made physics and the rest of modern science possible. Galileo’s reasoning was undeniable: roll a ball down an incline, it speeds up; roll it up an incline, it slows down. So, if you roll it onto a frictionless horizontal surface, it will have to go forever. Stands to reason, by common sense. But that simple bit of reasoning destroyed the Aristotelian world-picture and ushered in science. Starting there, 400 years of continually remodelling everyday experience has produced a description of reality incompatible with common sense—including quantum mechanics, general relativity, natural selection and neuroscience.
Descartes and Leibniz made important contributions to science’s 17th century “take off.” But they saw exactly why science would be hard to reconcile with historical explanation, the human “sciences,” the humanities, theology and in our own interior psychological monologs. These undertakings trade on a universal, culturally inherited “understanding” that interprets human affairs via narratives that “make sense” of what we do. Interpretation is supposed to explain events, usually in motivations that participants themselves recognize, sometimes by uncovering meanings the participants don’t themselves appreciate.
Natural science deals only in momentum and force, elements and compounds, genes and fitness, neurotransmitter and synapses. These things are not enough to give us what introspection tells us we have: meaningful thoughts about ourselves and the world that bring about our actions. Philosophers since Descartes have agreed with introspection, and they have provided fiendishly clever arguments for the same conclusion. These arguments ruled science out of the business of explaining our actions because it cannot take thoughts seriously as causes of anything.
Descartes and Leibniz showed that thinking about one’s self, or for that matter anything else, is something no purely physical thing, no matter how big or how complicated, can do. What is most obvious to introspection is that thoughts are about something. When I think of Paris, there is a place 3000 miles away from my brain, and my thoughts are about it. The trouble is, as Leibniz specifically showed, no chunk of physical matter could be “about” anything. The size, shape, composition or any other physical fact about neural circuits is not enough to make them be about anything. Therefore, thought can’t be physical, and that goes for emotions and sensations too. Some influential philosophers still argue that way.
Neuroscientists and neurophilosophers have to figure out what is wrong with this and similar arguments. Or they have to conclude that interpretation, the stock in trade of the humanities, does not after all really explain much of anything at all. What science can’t accept is some “off-limits” sign at the boundary of the interpretative disciplines.
Ever since Galileo science has been strongly committed to the unification of theories from different disciplines. It cannot accept that the right explanations of human activities must be logically incompatible with the rest of science, or even just independent of it. If science were prepared to settle for less than unification, the difficulty of reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity wouldn’t be the biggest problem in physics. Biology would not accept the gene as real until it was shown to have a physical structure—DNA—that could do the work geneticists assigned to the gene. For exactly the same reason science can’t accept interpretation as providing knowledge of human affairs if it can’t at least in principle be absorbed into, perhaps even reduced to, neuroscience.
That’s the job of neurophilosophy.
This problem, that thoughts about ourselves—or anything else for that matter—couldn’t be physical, was for a long time purely academic. Scientists had enough on their plates for 400 years just showing how physical processes bring about chemical processes, and through them biological ones. But now neuroscientists are learning how chemical and biological events bring about the brain processes that actually produce everything the body does, including speech and all other actions. Moreover, Nobel-prize winning neuro-genomics has already combined with fMRI and clever psychophysical experiments to reveal how misleading introspection and interpretation is about how the brain drives behavior.
These findings cannot be reconciled with explanation by interpretation. The problem they raise for the humanities can no longer be postponed. Must science write off interpretation the way it wrote off phlogiston theory—a nice try but wrong? Increasingly, the answer that neuroscience gives to this question is “afraid so.”
Few people are prepared to treat history, (auto-) biography and the human sciences like folklore. The reason is obvious. The narratives of history, the humanities and literature provide us with the feeling that we understand what they seek to explain. At their best they also trigger emotions we prize as marks of great art.
But that feeling of understanding, that psychological relief from the itch of curiosity, is not the same thing as knowledge. It is not even a mark of it, as children’s bedtime stories reveal. If the humanities and history provide only feeling (ones explained by neuroscience), that will not be enough to defend their claims to knowledge.
The only solution to the problem faced by the humanities, history and (auto) biography, is to show that interpretation can somehow be grounded in neuroscience. That is job #1 for neurophilosophy. And the odds are against it. If this project doesn’t work out, science will have to face plan B: treating the humanities the way we treat the arts, indispensible parts of human experience but not to be mistaken for contributions to knowledge.
Geoff Harpham concluded his original contribution to “On the Human” thus:
We stand today at a critical juncture not just in the history of disciplines but of human self-understanding, one that presents remarkable and unprecedented opportunities for thinkers of all descriptions. A rich, deep and extended conversation between humanists and scientists on the question of the human could have implications well beyond the academy. It could result in the rejuvenation of many disciplines, and even in a reconfiguration of disciplines themselves-in short, a new golden age.
Nothing could rejuvenate the humanities more than the recognition that they do not compete with the sciences in providing knowledge, and that the sciences can never compete with them in providing pleasure.