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Theatre of dreams: The results of an fMRI scan (Wellcome Collection)

"I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by scientific prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to honours." 

Dr Johnson didn't say "scientific" (he said "literary"), and the word "poetical" came before "honours", yet his message still applies. Today there is a common reader of science. The trouble is that even when popularised its "refinements of subtility" can place it further beyond reach than those of literature. 

As a minister for science I was acutely aware of this. Had I been able to rely on scientists themselves for rational and detached advice — what else are they for? — things would have been simpler, but my impressions of those I met convinced me of two things: their awesome intelligence and real achievements, but in some cases an equally awesome propensity to overweening ambition and incurable condescension towards the common man.

I arrived with my own prejudices. As a diplomatic specialist in Communism, in China and the Soviet Union I had witnessed at first hand the biggest live experiment in history, as more than a billion human beings, caged in their own countries like laboratory mice, were subjected to the parascientific creed of dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism. (The term parascience, nicely evocative of paranormal and la pataphysique, I borrow from Absence of Mind, essays on science and religion by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 2010.) Of the outcome — some hundred million dead, three million in China during 1966-69 the years I was there — there is little more to be said, except to recall how many Western scientists, some eminent, went along with the experiment in the face of the scepticism of Johnson's common reader. 

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John Bowes
June 14th, 2012
10:06 AM
All aspiring neuro scientist's should read Vasily Grossman's novel, 'Life and Fate', and especially Chapter 51.

Robert Mack
April 27th, 2012
1:04 AM
Just a few belated points ... perhaps still relevant. With regards to the protest that pieces such as this reinscribe notions that "the humanities are filled with a bunch of pretty-talking ninnies" ... I hear you: as a member of Humanities department at a University that thinks remarkably highly of itself, we all know such perceptions are nonsense. The humanities are in fact filled with a bunch of jargon-prone, amusingly out-of-date careerists still pursuing "approaches" (in the name of a sanctified "inter-disciplinary") discarded by those working in the fields from which they have originally been "borrowed" (i.e., abstracted without being at all understood) decades ago. (Think: Marx, Freud. Lacan ... you couldn't make it up!). Two books that avoid the extremes that can plague discussions of this topic more effectively are: Slingerland, Edward. "What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture: Beyond Dualism" (New Approaches to European History) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. and of course Brian Boyd's excellent: "On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction". London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009.

David Bailey
April 22nd, 2012
6:04 PM
Here is a paper that questions the reliability of fMRI results on statistical grounds. It is fairly easy reading, and I would recommend it.

moesy pittounikos
April 11th, 2012
7:04 AM
Prepare to be very confused my friends. Do you remember the recent BBC science program staring Dr Michael Mosley and professor David Nutt? Mosley ingested a chemical called psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and Nutt monitored his brain to see which part would 'fire up'. It turned out that Mosley's brain 'dampened down' instead. The experiment showed that it is possible to have a profound experience and the brain to switch off! This was been shown in a scientific lab and you can watch the clip on Youtube. Now about this looking at the brain business and proving that the brain produces consciousness. I can look inside my BlackBerry, I can see which parts are lighting up when I make a call or which bit is working when I'm watching You Tube, and I can also see how the electric current is moving around the silicon chip at exactly the same time as I am watching the clip of Dr Mosley having a psychedelic experience on my Blackberry phone.. Does this mean the my phone is producing You Tube or that my phone makes the Internet? Isn't it better to argue that my phone is receiving the internet signal? Professor Nutt's findings suggest that the brain is a consciousness receiver of some sort! Many scientists have been arguing for years that the brain my indeed be some sort of receiver of consciousness (I am not making this up)! Research it my friends, what's the worst that can happen? If you managed to read the Orwellian nostalgia that George Walden is peddling, then this is good news coming out of a scientific lab I think.

Ted Schrey Montreal
April 9th, 2012
1:04 AM
I gather the question is whether the brain can explain the mind, to put it bluntly. Oh, and explain consciousness too, I almost forgot that one. It seems to me our mind changes whenever knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is added. It should be worth keeping track of this change of mind as research progresses.

April 8th, 2012
2:04 PM
In the same paragraph that Walden writes, "I am not saying this is the new Marxism," he goes on to compare neuroscience to the ideology fueling the actions of the pigs in Animal Farm. Unfortunately, in addition to disavowing his consistent comparison between neuroscience and the violent nationalistic ideologies of the 20th century, Walden also uses rather reductive logic to dismiss claims he doesn't seem to take very seriously to begin with. He asks for vigilance, but instead offers defensive reactions to claims that appear to make him uneasy. It is odd, for example, to conclude that criminals would have, across the board, extended sentences. Au contraire, if it were true that criminal agents were to some significant extent swayed (will be damned) by their brain chemistry, would we not have cause to seek to better understand them individually rather than merely lock them away unthinkingly? Neuroscientific determinism seems to me a cause for more compassionate criminal justice, rather than either anarchy or Marxism. (Does Walden permit any other possibilities than that it implies the latter?)

Marty Brandon
April 7th, 2012
12:04 PM
This kind of nonsense contributes to the perception that the humanities are filled with a bunch of pretty-talking ninnies. "The problem is that many neuroscientists are materialists and reductionists for whom it is axiomatic that man is no more than an animal" No, the problem is that current evidence suggests this understanding of the world. True, some scientists dogmatically assert their theories -- show me a field where that is not the case. Presenting evidence for an alternative explanation to the thing you find disagreeable would be more effective then doing a "chicken little".

April 6th, 2012
3:04 PM
Pace the many comments here by the acolytes of Scientism, the anti-Faustian thesis of this article remains timely. No one fears that neuroscience will render the spiritual obsolete. The fear is that the preliminary findings of a highly immature science may lead insidiously to harmful public policy. Those who dismiss these concerns out of hand both their naivete and their short memories. For them, I have one word: Eugenics.

April 6th, 2012
10:04 AM
This is a smart piece, but I think the author is a bit confused about the relationships between the brain, consciousness, and he body (the latter is simply, and tellingly, missing in his account) as they are understood by contemporary neuroscience. I share his chagrin about the reductive quality of much popularized or applied neuroscience (unfortunately, Jonah Lehrer's recent book falls in this trap), and likewise feel that it is a "discipline in its infancy." I don't think you could find many neuroscientists that would disagree with that last observation. But like more than a few neuro-skeptics, Walden implicitly invokes a transcendent dualism as the opposite number of scientism. (Why else would he distance himself from the reasonable notion that "man is no more than an animal with a more evolved brain"? What else does he think man is? If anything, the problem in that statement is the phrase "more evolved," which I would replace with "differently evolved.") I wish it were possible for more folks to acknowledge the present limitations of our understanding of the brain without throwing up their hands and surrendering before the mysteries of consciousness.

April 5th, 2012
9:04 PM
Perhaps the other reductionists like michael farr, so dismissive of this short article might take the time to read what some other neuroscientists understand. Start, for example, with Alva Noe's "Out of Our Heads - Why you are not your brain".

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