About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Neuro-backlash? What backlash?

by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld

[This is a guest post by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Sally is a psychiatrist, and Scott a psychologist. They are the authors of Brainwashed - The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Basic Books, 2013). They have recently been interviewed for a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast.]

This summer, a popular neuroscience blogger established a new site called neurocomplimenter.blogspot.com. “I’m starting a backlash against the fashionable anti-neuro backlash,” he announced. His concern was shared by some neuroscientists and commentators who had earlier charged New York Times columnist David Brooks, yes that David Brooks, with spearheading a backlash against their field.

Some backstory. In a June column, Brooks had expressed skepticism that “understanding the brain is the solution to understanding all thought and behavior.” He referred to some recent books on the topic, ours among them. These books did four things. First, they urged readers to be skeptical of definitive conclusions about subtle contents of the mind from brain-based data at least within the current state of technological development. Second, they cautioned against the premature application of brain scans in the courtroom, and other non-research venues. Third, they challenged neurocentrism, the assumption that human experience and behavior are best explained from the predominant, let alone exclusive, perspective of the brain, at the expense of psychological or social perspectives. And, fourth, the books affirmed the value of neuroscientific inquiry while seeking to preserve its credibility in the public’s eye by pushing back against these excesses.

As for Brooks, he concluded his column stating: “The brain is not the mind.” Reaction was swift. Brooks was castigated as a “neuroscience hater,” and was said to have “call[ed] neuroscience pointless,” “lash[ed] out” at the field, and launched a “general condemnation of neuroscience.” Worse, Brooks was excoriated for allegedly endorsing dualism, the long-discredited notion that the mind and the brain are independent of each other and composed of different physical substances with consciousness existing in a spiritual world separate from the body.

To some extent, this reflexive response is understandable. Any critique, no matter how measured or how circumscribed, can always be abused by one’s enemies to discredit an entire enterprise. And, Brooks, a political columnist, may not have parsed technical terms as precisely as an expert would have. Still, if there is a shadowy “anti-neuro” lobby looking to twist legitimate scrutiny into a wholesale denunciation, it must be pretty ineffectual. Indeed, the brain is riding high: stunning new discoveries are pouring out of labs; the Obama BRAIN initiative is well under way; university neuroscience programs are thriving; academically serious disciplines such as neurolaw and neuroeconomics are part of many graduate school curricula; and popular-science books about the brain are flying out of publishing houses.

So, we don’t see any neuroscience backlash threatening to toss out the neuroscientific baby with the brain-water. And we’re glad about that. What we do see, however, is value in examining the language people use when talking about the relationship between the brain and the mind.

Let’s begin with the proposition, suggested by Brooks, that the brain and the mind are “different.” Does this necessarily mean that the two are materially separate domains? Virtually all psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, ourselves included, certainly don’t think so. Every subjective experience, from the ache of nostalgia to the frisson of a Christmas morning, corresponds to physical events in the brain. The mind - the realm of feelings, desires, ideas, memories, intentions, and subjective experience - is produced by the action of neurons and brain circuits. How else could it work? Yet, as Brooks observed, the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it. So, to say that the brain and the mind are different is not necessarily evidence of scientific ignorance. It means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological or behavioral level.

As an analogy, consider the words Shakespeare wrote on a page. They are, of course, “material,” but one could not capture the meaning of his plays by conducting a chemical analysis of the ink in which the letters of his words were written. The brain and the mind are different levels of explanation of the same phenomenon; when we talk about the brain, we talk about mechanism underlying perception, emotion, and cognition; when we talk about mind, we talk about awareness and meaning. Because brain and mind are different levels of description, they have different properties. This position, which we endorse, is called property dualism.

Similarly, one cannot rely on the brain alone to predict or understand everything important about human subjectivity or behavior. This is because many psychological phenomena are emergent properties of lower-order constituents such as neural circuits, neurons, proteins, and genes. “Constitutive” reductionism - reducing complex entities to the sum of their component parts to facilitate study - is not controversial in the scientific community. But, radical or “eliminative” reductionists go a crucial, and questionable, step further. They insist that everything mental will ultimately be explained fully at the material level of analysis. This variant of reductionism ultimately eliminates the need for the psychological level of analysis, not to mention all other levels - social, cultural, and so on.

In his 2006 book, An Argument for Mind, Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan notes that the appreciation of an impressionistic painting requires far more than the sum of its parts. [1] “As a viewer slowly approaches Claude Monet’s painting of the Seine at Dawn there comes a moment when the scene dissolves into tiny patches of color.” When we adopt the eliminative reductionist position, Kagan states, “the coherent psychological component vanishes.”

Some philosophers of mind take a different view. They speculate that such properties (the painting in full) will ultimately prove reducible to more basic elements (the paint). They may prove correct. But for the foreseeable future, valuable information is often lost when descending from higher explanatory levels, such as mental states, to lower levels, such as neuronal systems.

The distinctions between substance and property dualism and between constitutive and greedy reductionism may appear arcane, but overlooking them can lead us to overestimate the explanatory power of neuroscientific findings. Take addiction, for example. The dominant view among researchers is that it is a “brain disease,” plain and simple. Without a doubt, chronic drug exposure often changes the brain, but knowledge of the neural mechanisms underlying addiction typically has less relevance to the treatment of drug addiction and alcoholism than the psychological and social causes. To be sure, intervening directly on the brain, say with medications such as methadone, can sometimes be of value too. But understanding the brain of addicts gives us only partial insight into why they become addicted and how they recover.

A similar point holds for clinical depression. Although depression is clearly influenced by biological factors, including a genetic predisposition, this does not mean, contrary to common assumptions, that it is necessarily best treated by medication. In fact, certain psychological treatments, especially cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal psychotherapies, appear to be at least as effective as medications for depression while having no known physical side effects and showing superior prevention of future episodes.

As for a neuroscience “backlash,” well, we just don’t see it. Distinguishing brain from mind, or criticizing the excesses of brain imaging, is hardly a repudiation of the great insight of human neuroscience: that our mental lives arise from brain activity. Both levels, the brain and the mind, are essential to a complete description of human experience and behavior. Psychology and neuroscience can test theories that explain and forecast human behavior - and someday, we will know much more about how they are integrated.

For now - and for the foreseeable future - we mustn’t lose the mind in the age of brain science. Like the Seine at Dawn, if we get too close to the elements of a grand tableau, we will miss the coherent picture.


[1] Kagan, J. (2006). An Argument for Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.


  1. My first gut reactions to this piece is that, one, you're using the term property dualism inappropriately and two you're overstating the problems with reductionism. In other words I don't think there is any need to introduce a word as terrifying as dualism in our vernacular just to emphasise the importance of appropriate levels of description.

    1. What the authors are calling "property dualism" seems to conform to what Howard Robinson, in the article "Dualism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, calls "predicate dualism." "One might say that [according to predicate dualism] we need more than the language of physics to describe and explain the weather, but we do not need more than its ontology. . . . [By contrast,] Genuine property dualism occurs when, even at the individual level, the ontology of physics is not sufficient to constitute what is there. The irreducible language is not just another way of describing what there is, it requires that there be something more there than was allowed for in the initial ontology."

      However, (1) Robinson's distinction rests on the presumption that the word "property" has some genuine ontological import, rather than being merely the material-mode equivalent of "predicate." The authors seem to presume the contrary position, that a supposedly ontological difference in properties is just the shadow of a logical difference in predicates: "Because brain and mind are different levels of description, they have different properties." (2) Even under Robinson's scheme, the authors' position still falls under the term "dualism." And (3) all of these scholastic refinements of terminology are immaterial to the main point, which is that a rejection of the most ambitious claims of neuroscience does not presume "that 'the mind' is something ineffable, ethereal, and immaterial," as Paul Waldman says in the piece cited by the authors.

    2. Miles,

      Re your (2): What's in a name? The fact that predicate dualists give themselves that name doesn't necessarily mean that this is a form of dualism in a helpful sense. I think that predicate dualism (as the SEP describes it) is so different from traditional dualism that it's misleading to put them together in one category.

      Of course, we could just ignore the fact that the authors called their position "property dualism", and say that it doesn't matter what they call it. But since the issue of dualism (in the more traditional sense) is already in play (and mentioned earlier in the OP), their use of the same term in an (arguably) different sense is confusing.

      It's also possible that these terms carry baggage which is not explicitly stated by their proponents. The linked Guardian article makes the point that, even if we call ourselves materialists, we may still think like dualists (and I assume the author means "dualist" in the traditional sense). Perhaps predicate and property dualists carry more traditional dualistic baggage than they realise. I note that the OP also uses the word "emergent", which to me is another red-flag word. It can be used in a harmless ("weak") sense, but to me the term usually seems to carry a kind of baggage verging on the dualistic. I think it's best avoided altogether.

      I agree with your (3), but much of philosophical error and disagreement turns on problems of terminology, so such problems deserve our careful attention. Much of the argument over neuroscientific excess seems to depend on whether authors agree with crude statements like "The mind is the brain". If they could see that there's no one right answer to such questions (it depends what you mean), then the camps might be less polarised.

  2. Good article. An appropriately nuanced view. (Though conceding property dualism has bigger metaphysical implications than is let on here.)

    Either conscious states are irreducibly causally efficacious or they are an epiphenomeon, and are therefore causally inert. There is no real middle ground.

    Of course, the idea that consciousness is epiphenomenal is ugly and stupid.

    1. Off topic but couldn't resist:

      "Either conscious states are irreducibly causally efficacious or they are an epiphenomenon, and are therefore causally inert. There is no real middle ground."

      Not sure about that. Conscious states - conscious experiences like pain - are causally efficacious and thus not epiphenomenal from a subjective standpoint (I grimace *because* I feel pain) even though they don't figure in third person accounts of behavior since they aren't observable (you can't see my pain, only its neural correlates). From a third person perspective something is epiphenomenal only if it's part of an observed system but doesn't play a causal role in the system’s operation (e.g., Huxley's whistle on the steam locomotive). Since conscious experience doesn’t appear from a third person perspective on the brain and behavior, it isn't part of the observed system and so isn’t in a position to be epiphenomenal.

      - http://www.naturalism.org/privacy.htm

    2. Interesting point, Tom. I think that your observation amounts to this, that from a third-person perspective, conscious states are not epiphenomena because they are not, properly speaking, phenomena at all. A phenomenon is an observable occurrence, and conscious states cannot be observed. Other people, obviously, cannot observe my conscious states, but only what goes on in my body; but also (though less obviously), I cannot observe my own conscious states, but can only have them. So the contrast between conscious states and neural states is not a contrast between two kinds of phenomena but between a first-person (perhaps also second-person) perspective and a third-person perspective. That's an irreducible distinction, but of grammar, not of ontology.

    3. Miles, I've long suspected that part of the confusion over consciousness arises from people reifying first-person experience, treating it as a phenomenon. But I still feel quite confused about the whole subject.

    4. Richard, I was a bit sly in using the word "grammar" in my last sentence. I intended my statement to be defensible on a common understanding of the word "grammar." So understood, saying that the contrast between first-person and third-person perspectives is a difference of grammar and not of ontology suggests a disparagement of the issue about mind and body. But for my own private purposes I had in mind the Wittgensteinian sense, in which grammar is something that can be investigated for as long as it gives rise to conceptual perplexities, which is to say, potentially endlessly.

  3. Science measures and divides the Universe into pieces that have been found by science itself to be uncertain or only probable at best. The problem is science itself!
    The solution by and by, to dust the cobwebs off the sky, is the whole picture, the Universal picture, the indivisible, the self-evident, the absolute, truth.


    1. MJA,
      One of those days I'm going to understand what you are talking about.

    2. brainoil,

      Good luck. When it happens, please explain it to me too.

    3. "A smell of petroleum prevails throughout."

    4. Understanding

      Quantum mechanics, today's physics is uncertain or only probable at best. Physics is based on a dice game, do you understand that Professor? A crap shoot! If you do understand the quagmire science finds itself in, is that good enough for you? Do you understand the grey area versus the clarity of light? Enlightenment? Is maybe the best science or you can do?

      What about philosophy Professor, you write a lot about it. Has philosophy defined the absolute yet, the truth? Have you?

      And religion and their faith; is God real? The Pope said they had yet to find the proof. What is real, anything? What does mankind understand, what pray tell do you?

      Thanks for having me,
      I think I can help,


  4. One solution: Build a conscious robot and ask it whether it thinks that the code being executed by its circuitry is the same as the circuitry.

    1. We are conscious robots (built by nature).

    2. Philip,

      The problem is that your sentence is just as true as it is unhelpful...

    3. You mean, is nature conscious or not that it too is a robot?

  5. "... [T]he mind is not identical with the matter that produces it. So, to say that the brain and the mind are different is not necessarily evidence of scientific ignorance. It means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological or behavioral level."

    The authors seem to be implicitly suggesting that the neuroscientific view sees the brain in isolation.

    This is the key point surely (only obscured by talk of dualism and 'the mind'): that the brain would not function as a normal brain (generating social responses, speech, etc.) were the body of which it is a part not in a particular kind of physical environment – namely one involving a whole bunch of other bodies interacting socially.

    If the brain is seen in its broader physical context, and we accept the (obvious) need for different levels of description, then, as Louis Burke suggests, I think we can do without talk of dualism.

    Whereas ordinary, casual uses of the word 'mind', and idioms like 'make up your mind', are obviously fine and quite harmless, serious talk of 'the mind' does tend to encourage dualistic ways of thinking in my view.

    (And who is talking about 'completely predicting', by the way?)

  6. "knowledge of the neural mechanisms underlying addiction typically has less relevance to the treatment of drug addiction and alcoholism than the psychological and social causes"

    "In fact, certain psychological treatments, especially cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal psychotherapies, appear to be at least as effective as medications for depression"

    It's telling that in both of these examples, the overall efficacy of our treatments is not very good. Questions about what exact type of dualism or reductionism is being espoused are only useful insofar as they inform an eventual model of human behavior. Almost everyone agrees that this model will contain descriptions at multiple levels of organization.

    The practical question has to do with what lines of research we follow to get to a decent model -- something we are nowhere close to having. Are we really at risk, at this point, of discarding research at the higher levels of organization? Or is the excitement surrounding research at lower levels a reasonable reaction to hitting a vein of research methods that will hopefully improve our descriptions at all levels?

    Yeah, it annoys me to hear overconfident and exclusionary predictions about neuroscience research. But it's the results, not the predictions, that will end up mattering. And it's worth remembering that the results we're getting from our current high-level approaches are nowhere near good enough.

  7. Meanwhile, the neuro-hype continues to come out:

    "Researchers discover source of imagination in human brain" (Lance Tillson, The National Monitor, September 17, 2013):

    >>According to a news release from Dartmouth College, researchers have discovered the source of imagination in the human brain. Their research answers several longstanding scientific questions: what gives people the ability to make beautiful art, construct novel tools and achieve other extremely distinct actions. . . .

    >>“Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively,” notes lead author Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, in a statement. “Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”<<

    Such statements conflate conceptual questions about what imagination and creativity are and how they work with empirical questions about what mechanism in the brain makes it possible for human beings to have imagination and creativity. The research bears on the latter sort of question, but it is touted as if it bore on questions of the first sort.

    1. Yes, one would have to do that to be fair to the authors. My point was just that neuroscience was being puffed, no matter who was doing the puffing. I deliberately chose this piece of reportage rather than the press release that it cited (which I looked up through a link in the former) for my quotation because the article represented the findings of the study in a more inflated fashion than did the press release.

  8. I've said this before, but I think the Computational Theory of Mind (which I view to be not only consistent with naturalism but necessarily true in a naturalistic framework) leads to dualism of a kind.

    There is more than one form of dualism, and not all of them are superstitious. Dualism should not be a dirty word, and my kind of dualism has more in common with mathematical Platonism than it does with Descartes.

    More on why I think dualism is both consistent with naturalism and entirely reasonable on my blog:

    Dualism is not a Dirty Word

  9. By the way, my earlier comment was not a criticism of the article, which I think was good! However, I do see the mind as more than just a different level of description than the brain. I see it as a mathematical structure which could in principle be implemented on a different substrate while remaining essentially the same mind (hence, mind uploading while probably practically infeasible is not incoherent a priori).

  10. Brooks takes a right wing dualist perspective because neuroscience can be used in areas like media advertising and other marketing techniques. We may talk in dualisms, reductions, epiphenoma and emergence but neuroscience has little to say why "mind" sees the world as such.

    Why do we make a possible category error as seeing consciousness as an individual trait when consciousness produces the train whistle of language and culture which are social traits?

  11. Thanks for the note on reductionist "brain disease" approaches to addiction. Jeff Sheff's new book "Clean" certainly appears guilty, though not necessarily fully embracing all of Pop Neuroscience. He rightly points out what's wrong with 12-step approaches to addiction support.

    However, he has two failures after this.

    The first is not to say ONE WORD about alternatives to AA/NA, like Lifering, SMART or SOS. Not one word.

    The second is to, per your comments, proceed to looking at drugs that can (but not always) reduce cravings for alcohol, or opiates, and from there hope for the holy grail -- an addiction vaccine. The man is on some level so ignorant of the real, complex nature of addiction, despite his son's addiction that led to his first book, it's scary.

    That said, Pop Neuroscience reflects the typical American love with what I call salvific technologism on my blog, that is, the idea that the cavalry of a technological fix are just over the hill. Surely Pop Neuroscience will, via better fMRIs, point the way to laser-guided quasi-lobotomies for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more!

  12. The ink vs Shakespeare analogy doesn't work. You can talk about the characters in a play without referring to the language it is written in, but you can also say something about the content of the play in terms of clusters of consonants or word counts. However, you cannot say anything meaningful about a play in relation to the ink it was printed with. The play is not at all the ink, but it is an instance of the language of which it is composed.


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