[A] growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain."The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness," says Tali Sharot, in a the peppy, smiley-sounding article. "Is the human tendency for optimism a consequence of the architecture of our brains?" she asks. It is an interesting question, one which we would need to somehow get outside of the architecture of our brains to answer objectively, an achievement, unfortunately, which Sharot does not seem to have accomplished.
But that fact doesn't seem to have slowed her brain processes down any in leaping from her premises about the physical conditions that happen to accompany conscious states to conclusions about the meaning or implications of these states.
Ludwig von Bertalanffy, in his critique of B. F. Skinner's Behaviorism, once unflatteringly described this procedure as the "zoological" or "rattomorphic" fallacy: "the expressed or implicit contention that there is no essential difference between rat and man." It is a process by which, as Hans Jonas puts it:
man-the-knower apprehends man-qua-lower-than-himself and in doing so achieves knowledge of man-qua-lower-than-man, since all scientific theory is of things lower than man-the-knower. It is on that condition that they can be subject to theory, hence to control, hence to use.There is a whole literature on the issue of the cultural danger of the kinds of assumptions like those employed by Sharot in the Time article, and one of its best known commentators is Wendell Berry:
A little harder to compass is the danger that we can give up on life also by presuming to "understand" it—that is by reducing it to the terms of our understanding and by treating it as predictable or mechanical. The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines—that is, that there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation. Our language, wherever it is used, is now almost invariably conditioned by the assumption that fleshly bodies are machines full of mechanisms, fully compatible with the mechanisms of medicine, industry, and commerce; and that minds are computers fully compatible with electronic technology.Michael Aeschliman too, in his book, The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism, points out the cultural implications of this kind of scientific reductionism:
This may have begun as a metaphor, but in the language as it is used (and as it affects industrial practice) it has evolved from metaphor through equation to identification. And this usage institutionalizes the human wish, or the sin of wishing, that life might be, or might be made to be, predictable.
The distinction between means and ends, between things and objects on the one hand and persons and essences on the other is at the root of moral culture and civilization; it is a distinction that the characteristic procedures and terms of the natural sciences can neither discern nor make without violence, contradiction, and confusion, and for which they must depend upon philosophy and religion.In other words, it is not just the cultural consequences of the view that we can simply reduce uniquely human characteristics to material mechanisms that is problematic. It is not just a threat to the culture, but a threat to reason itself. "It is not only an inhumane procedure," says Aeschliman, "it is simply false according to ordinary standards of human reason."
As Chesterton's pointed out in Orthodoxy, the whole idea that you can turn the gaze of a scientific instrument back on the viewer is one which undermines the entire operation itself. It is the "thought that stops thought." I once heard of a doctor who, marooned on a desert island, removed his own appendix. But it would have been an entirely different kind of thing to have done brain surgery on himself. He would, of course, need his brain to perform the surgery, but the procedure itself would prevent him from using it.
Only the Grey Sisters of ancient myth could take the eye out of its very socket and gaze upon themselves. But when we mortals attempt it, it leads only to delusion.
The humorist Peter Benchley once famously described his experience in a college science class where he spent the whole term drawing an image of his own eyelash as he viewed it in a microscope, all the while thinking it was the object in the slide. Putting the brain under the microscope has the inherent disadvantage of objectifying the very thing that is doing the objectifying, calling the whole process into question.
This is, of course, one of the main points of Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape, which we reviewed here.
But in addition to being impossible, what people like Sharot and Harris think they can do--understand conscious states by ferreting out the material conditions accompanying them--is based on a faulty premise. All such discussions are premised on the Identity Theory of Mind, which holds that "states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain." It has the disadvantage of having been pretty soundly refuted. You can say of a brain, for example, how much it weighs, but you cannot say that of a mind. Just because one state is simultaneous with another, does not mean the two states are the same. Having a heart is always accompanied by having a kidney. But having a heart and having a kidney are not the same thing.
I propose that those who examine their heads in this way should have their heads examined--by someone other than themselves. People who believe these claims should have their own brains examined to see if their beliefs about the chemical and evolutionary origin of beliefs has a chemical and evolutionary origin. And if they do, then we need to consider what the scientific and philosophical implications of this are.
If a belief--such as the one that holds that beliefs are the result of a purely causal physical process--is the result of a purely causal physical process, can it at the same time be considered the result of a rational process, the only process according to which such beliefs can be considered true?
The Sharot piece includes a detailed diagram of a brain, with pointers to the areas of the brain associated with optimistic thoughts. What we need is a diagram of Sharot's brain that tells us where she gets the idea that conscious states such as optimism can be explained by pointing to the areas of the brain associated with these conscious states.
What would happen if, instead of optimism, Sharot had trained her reductionist science on the tools by which she conducts her analysis in the first place? What happens when the scientist tries to reduce rationality itself to chemical or material processes? Does anything remain? If that is all her theory is--some chance concatenation of chemical events, then would there be any reason to believe them to be true?