Wednesday, August 28, 2013

More on the Neuro-Utopians

A recent article by Benjamin Fong. "Bursting the neuro-utopian bubble" was so widely reported that I have delayed mention of it. In that article he takes on the hubris of some proponents of Obama's "Brain Activity Map Project" that I have mentioned previously. In response to extensive feedback, Fong has issued a clarification of the core of his argument which is worth excerpting here:
One way to present my view would thus be to say that I would like to see a more comprehensive view of scientific inquiry that tames its more “religious” elements, which have gravitated to a particular position that accords the study of the brain a primary importance, and the investigation of psychosocial factors a definitively secondary one...I believe that the $100 million going to the Brain Initiative shows where our priorities lie. We are still far from rectifying a gross imbalance in funding and focus, one that has stemmed, in my view, from an ardent desire for an increasing instrumental control over the world and ourselves.
I attempted to consider two conceptions of scientific inquiry, one of which (science as agent of technological mastery) has come to dominate the other (science as critical examination of our current practices). Drawing on the tradition of critical social theory, I called one “instrumental” and the other “communicative.” My point in distinguishing these two forces was not to give preference to the subordinate party but to argue for the necessity of maintaining a healthy tension between them, especially when it comes to the problem of mental health. I thus heartily agree with many responders that we need concern in the piece was not with “abuses” of science but with the very desire itself and what it unconsciously represses. One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to know that our desires often make us do things of which we are not aware.
In short, it was not my primary intention to argue against the advances of neuroscience, but simply to convey a philosophical wonder about the fact that the idea of changing human physiology — transforming the human being itself — is, at least in some circles, both more “scientific” and more “realistic” than changing human society.

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