Across the cultural corpus callosum

Update: we’re all friends again, and it’s very likely it was entirely in my head. But I think the things below still puzzle me.

I’m skirting an argument with a prominent neuroscientist, in which I feel both of us are slightly puzzled that the other one shows signs of thinking less respectably than we might have thought at first meeting, and I think it comes down to the language we use. Of course it does, you say, and you’re right to point out the triviality of my insight, but it’s important to me to understand exactly where our individual assumptions about the world are being reflected in our speech, and you are not even real. So I am going to try and collect some examples of language that troubles me — that’s all, just causes me concern — so that I stand a chance of understanding our miscommunication and avoiding what would be a disagreeable falling-out, one that would damage me professionally far more than it would them.

The tendency of neuroscientists to use the word “learning” where other people might say “recall” is pretty widely acknowledged, I think (and came up again today, with a speaker from a neuro background).

One of the articles sent to me by the academic first referrred to uses phrases like “…the part of the brain responsible for…” (not going to quote for Google reasons), and this bothers me: using the word “responsible” implies agency, and this seems to indicate some assumptions about identity, mind and body, causality and so on that are, to my knowledge, still reckoned as unresolved by most people who have given it some thought. Far better to stick to the positivist roots and say “..the part of the brain where we see a certain kind of activity when we see someone display this behaviour”.

Actually, this is the kind of things that got Susan Greenfield into trouble at her recent book launch: a crowd of philosophers and theologians and psychologists gently (for the most part) pointing out that for a long time other people have been thinking about aspects of mind and behaviour that neuroscience has only just begun to recognise, and that perhaps she ought to stick to doing very good neuroscience instead of very bad philosophy.

I think it’s starting to look as though my problem lies with what I percieve to be a lack of self-awareness on the part of some neuroscientists, in that the language they use reveals assumptions about the world that for them are unchallenged, and yet to those who have given them a little more thought are far from certain. When they talk about the brain and their experimental data I am enthralled and fascinated: when they extrapolate naively into domains that have been much more thoroughly examined by others they do so with no respect for the traditions of thought that might teach them to be less confident in their generalisations.

Probably better I put that here than in an email. To be continued, I think: there’s something big here to be given more thought.