The Fallacy of Neuroscience and the Error of Radical Reductionism


SEPTEMBER 22, 2011

The following article is a reflection to Tallis-Buda-Halasz debate on Neuromania.

From my perspective the problem is not the materialistic approach, but the radical reductionism, a mistake what every party can fall into. The fallacy of neuroscience is the assumption that every human experience results from the activity of one network, the neuroaxonal. As Francis Crick (1995) put it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons!” He spelled out his radical reductionistic vision as follows:

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

My usual, disrespectful response to such kind of statements is: “You, but not me!” This rudely radical reductionism is not a characteristic of the neuroscientific field only. A behavioral psychologist would state that you are not more than a package of adaptive behavioral patterns, a radical social psychologist would say that you are not more than the sum of social roles, or a classical psychoanalyst would suppose that you are a bunch of complexes. Richard Dawkins has moved in another direction stating that we are vessels of selfish genes. Science writer John Horgan (2000) criticized such narrow views:

“In a sense, Crick is right. We are nothing but a pack of neurons. At the same time, neuroscience has so far proved to be oddly unsatisfactory. Explaining the mind in terms of neurons has not yielded much more insight or benefit than explaining the mind in terms of quarks and electrons. There are many alternative reductionisms. We are nothing but a pack of idiosyncratic genes. We are nothing but a pack of adaptations sculpted by natural selection. We are nothing but a pack of computational devices dedicated to different tasks. We are nothing but a pack of sexual neuroses. These proclamations, like Crick’s, are all defensible, and they are all inadequate.”

Buda Béla stated that he had not been aware of any representatives of the psychosocial field ruling out the role of the biological level. That is probably true nowadays. However, the first findings of biological psychiatry have met a huge resistance from the psychosocial/psychoanalytical field. For example, the first brain imaging findings of schizophrenia elicited a furious response from those who supposed it to be “functional”. In sum, no representative of any field is vaccinated against radical reductionism.

The other fallacy (not of the neurosciences but its representatives) is the acknowledgment of the bottom-up effects with ignorance of the top-down relationships. In his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker (2003) writes, “culture is crucial, but culture could not exist without mental faculties that allow humans to create and learn culture to begin with.” The effect of culture in shaping brain structure and neuroaxonal function is also permitted. This means that bottom-up and top-down interactions are at work bidirectionally. To avoid the trap of radical reductionism, one must assume that all levels of organization (Table 1) are at work with bidirectional inter-related causative effects.

Contemporary psychiatry suffers from identity crisis: it tries hard to catch up to other medical fields in being objective, biological. However, by doing this overzealously it has been losing its essence the “psyche”, and deserves to be called “brainiatry”. In order to relieve the “inferiority complex” of my colleagues and to avoid the sarcastic disdain of other medical professionals, I may say for encouragement that psychiatrists deal with something more complex than they are themselves. No other professionals of the medical field can come up with a claim like that. Or can you imagine a proctologist stating something similar (i.e. the rectum is above them)?

Table 1. Levels of organizations relevant to the conscious experience

Just in brief about consciousness. The neurological correlates of consciousness can only solve the “easy problem” (Chalmers 1995), what is related to the content of conscious experience but not to its subjective feature, to the phenomenological experience. That is the “hard problem” which is out of the reach of the objective scientific approach per definitionem (since it is subjective). What more is necessary for solving the “hard problem” of consciousness, what other networks may be involved in mediating human experiences – I have addressed in the book Inner Paths to Outer Space (Strassman et al. 2007).

Ede Frecska

Chalmers, David (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3):200-19.

Crick, Francis (1995). Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York, NY: Scribner Publishing.

Horgan, John (2000). The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation. New York, NY: Free Press.

Pinker, Steven (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Strassman, Rick; Wojtowicz-Praga, Slawek; Luna, Luis Eduardo; Frecska, Ede (2007). Inner Paths to Outer Space, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Original lecture:

Related materials (in Hungarian):

Halász Péter:Vajon megváltozik-e az agyunk különböző behatásokra?

Buda Béla: Bezárkózott a biológiai szemlélet

Halász Péter:Vajon megváltozik-e az agyunk különböző behatásokra?

Buda Béla: Tények és értelmezések az agykutatás terén

Raymond Tallis: Neurománia



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