Anibal and I are having a lively exchange in the comments to Peter's post below on the forthcoming paper on "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience."
Because Adam has not yet forced me to give the keys back to his blog, I figured it might be easier for interested parties to see if I moved it to an actual post.
Regarding Peter's post, I commented:
This is fascinating, thanks for the links. A couple of points leap to mind: first, while this is a sophisticated critique which engages the scholarship on its own (quantitative) terms, there are to my mind some compelling theoretical and conceptual reasons for doubting many of the conclusions drawn by both scientists and lay people alike. (I'm thinking of Bennett and Hacker's notion of the mereological fallacy, Searle's critique of eliminative materialism, Pustilnik's trenchant analysis of the role neuroscience has played in criminal law, Racine, Bar-Ilan, and Illes's articles on neurofallacies and neurorealism, etc.)
These are, of course, the neurofallacies, but what I think is most interesting about the Vul et al. critique is that it essentially states that scientists rather than just laypersons and journalists have perpetrated these fallacies.
This leads to my second point: why is it that so many, scientists, reporters, and laypersons alike, seem to push these fallacies so hard? What is at stake? Why is it important? The SciAm article with Vul touches on it, but I want to suggest that these are actually crucial questions, that tell us a great deal about the culture of science and its role in American society. Very recent data documenting the large amounts of waste that are attributable to medical imaging is quite compelling, in my view, and Vul et al's paper lends even more urgency to the questions of what it is about neuroimaging that seems so compelling, that drives so many to make the claims Vul and others critique.
In response, Anibal observed that
On the theoretical and conceptual side is also legitimate to say that not all agree with the mereological fallacy and other debunking statements about the sole and only matter of fact about neuroscience: the mind is what the brain does.
Certainly it is true that not all agree with the mereological fallacy, nor did I state as such. I happen to think they are quite right, however, and if so, that has serious implications for the conceptual coherence of neuroimaging techniques.
Moreover, part of my argument above is to note that I do not remotely agree with the vast majority of neuroscientists that "the mind is [merely] what the brain does" (this is not just my impression -- there is literature demonstrating that this is exactly what neuroscientists do in fact believe). I added the "merely" to emphasize Searle's point, that of course the brain is a sine qua non for mind, in the sense that without a brain, there is no mind. The mistake that most interlocutors make, IMO, is to infer that mind is therefore nothing but/reducible to brain. That is an extremely serious error, one that is pervasive in neuroscience. Naturally, most neuroscientists do not think this is an error; it is in many ways one of the conceptual foundations of the entire field.
However, I have no problem whatsoever in stating that I think those who believe that the mind is reducible to the brain are badly mistaken.
there are a lot of epistemological and metaphysical positions about how to know the mind/brain, and what is the mind/brain... and i notice the gross error in believing blindly what neuroscience (a nascent field) tell us, as you did mentioning "neurorealism" and other tendencies to accept without critic neuroscientific data.
But if the mind is not reducible to the brain, how we can find valid machanistical explanations about our mental life.
Where the mental life is suppose to be grounded?
I think these are excellent questions, many of which I address in my forthcoming dissertation (Shameless Self-Promotion Alert). Here's what I would say to Anibal:
Why do we have to find "mechanistical" explanations about our mental life? That's the crucial (and exceedingly interesting) point, IMO. What does it mean if in fact there are aspects of our mental life that cannot be objectified, or categorized in mechanistic explanations, or quantitated? Why is this so difficult to imagine?
Of course, I hasten to add that I am not remotely ascribing to a notion of mentalism in which mental substances are simply floating in the ether. That's absurd; without physical brain, there is no mind. Searle's point is that a notion of subjectivity is also a requisite component of consciousness. This subjectivity is not reducible, is not categorizable in mechanistic terms, and it cannot be quantitated. Mental life is "grounded" in the brain, but is not reducible to it. Neuroscientists typically move from the premise, which is absolutely correct, IMO, to the conclusion, which is absolutely fallacious, IMO, without a moment's hesitation.
But if Searle is correct, why is this such a problem? It does not mean we cannot study consciousness in the powerful objectifying modalities utilized in neuroscience. It simply means that not all phenomena that we think are important to our lived experiences, to our consciousness, can be explained mechanistically. And I honestly fail to see any reason why this is a serious problem, other than that it significantly challenges some of the tacit notions in neuroscience that eventually, we can progress to the point where scientific modalities can explain everything and account for all of our lived experiences. This is an assumption, IMO, and one that typically goes unexamined. Science, and especially the science of the brain, is the great social legitimizer of the 20th and 21st century. But the possibility that it cannot explain everything really should not be threatening, for it hardly undermines the significant power of such science. It just means that not everything we might like to know about our mental life is susceptible to objectification, mechanistic explanation, and quantitation.