Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

For my latest 3QD post, I expanded on my answer to a Quora question: Is neuroscience ruining the humanities?


Here’s an excerpt:

“Neuroscience is ruining the humanities”. This was the provocative title of a recent article by Arthur Krystal in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  To me the question was pure clickbait [1], since I am both a  neuroscientist and an avid spectator of the drama and intrigue on the  other side of the Great Academic Divide [2]. Given the sensational  nature of many of the claims made on behalf of the cognitive and neural  sciences, I am inclined to assure people in the humanities that they  have little to fear. On close inspection, the bold pronouncements of  fields like neuro-psychology, neuro-economics and neuro-aesthetics — the  sorts of statements that mutate into TED talks and pop science books —  often turn out to be wild extrapolations from a limited (and internally  inconsistent) data set.

Unlike many of my fellow scientists, I have occasionally grappled  with the weighty ideas that emanate from the humanities, even coming to  appreciate elements of postmodern thinking. (Postmodern — aporic? — jargon is of course a different matter entirely.) I think the  tapestry that is human culture is enriched by the thoughts that emerge  from humanities departments, and so I hope the people in these  departments can exercise some constructive skepticism when confronted  with the latest trendy factoid from neuroscience or evolutionary  psychology. Some of my neuroscience-related essays here at 3QD were  written with this express purpose [3, 4].

The Chronicle article begins with a 1942 quote from New York intellectual Lionel  Trilling: “What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us”.  This sets the tone for the mythic narrative that lurks beneath much of  the essay, a narrative that can be crudely caricatured as follows. Once  upon a time the University was a paradise of creative ferment. Ideas  were warring gods, and the sparks that flew off their clashing swords  kept the flames of wisdom and liberty alight. The faithful who erected  intellectual temples to bear witness to these clashes were granted the  boon of enlightened insight. But faith in the great ideas gradually  faded, and so the golden age came to an end. The temple-complex of ideas  began to decay from within, corroded by doubt. New prophets arose, who  claimed that ideas were mere idols to be smashed, and that the temples  were metanarrative prisons from which to escape. In this weak and bewildered state, the  intellectual paradise was invaded. The worshipers were herded into a  shining new temple built from the rubble of the old ones. And into this  temple the invaders’ idols were installed: the many-armed goddess of  instrumental rationality, the one-eyed god of essentialism, the cold  metallic god of materialism…

The over-the-top quality of my little academia myth might give the  impression that I think it is a tissue of lies. But perhaps more nuance  is called for. As with all myths, I think there are elements of truth in  this narrative.


Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily: Is neuroscience really ruining the humanities?

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