The Magazine

Physical Man

Is science the alternative to philosophy and art?

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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So it isn't surprising that Gazzaniga also uses biology to explain "the moral compass within." Where does our morality come from? While we might "like to think of ourselves as rational beings" able to reach timeless, objective moral truths, Gazzaniga argues that it is "our gut, our intuitive self, that first comes up with the judgment, and our rational self afterward tries to come up with the reasons" to justify prerational moral intuition.

Where do these gut intuitions come from? Although "until recently, all one could do was bat these ideas around without any concrete evidence," now "things have changed" and modern science shows that "we actually have hardwired ethical programming that has been selected for." You guessed it: Morality, like everything else, has been selected for its survival value.

Consequently, the incest taboo needs amendment. This gut instinct has been selected only because, on average, in the long run, it leads to reproductive success. But "if it were rational, then it would not apply to adopted or to stepsiblings." Gazzaniga, in technical terms, explains where this moral belief comes from: "We got it at the factory." He confidently concludes that "moral judgments are not completely rational," they amount to little more than "It feels bad: don't do it."

In fact, all kinds of moral norms lack a rational basis: "Why not dump your sick husband or wife and get a healthy one? That would be more rational. Why spend public money on the severely handicapped, when they will rarely be able to repay it?" In Gazzaniga's world, "a rational person would never go into partnership with someone else because of the high probability that the other rational person would cheat, because if the opportunity presented itself, there would be no rational reason not to."

Which is why Gazzaniga is glad that we don't live in a rational world: "Emotions solve the problem" by repelling us from perfectly rational activities like cheating, lying, and extramarital sex. He appeals to the crudest form of crass utilitarianism and equates its narrow calculations of self-interest--and only these--with being "rational."

Such disregard for any sort of philosophical reflection makes Human a disappointment. While Gazzaniga is a reliable guide on the facts of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, his interpretations of the data and hasty dismissals of other disciplines of inquiry (especially philosophy) are fatal for the task he has set for himself: to understand humanity.

Gazzaniga's thoroughgoing physicalism, which motivates his reduction of human activities to the domain of the natural sciences alone, is unwarranted. To refute the opposing view that the human person has an immaterial aspect, he gives an evolutionary explanation for it, noting that children are "natural believers in essentialism." And that, presumably, is enough. If children believe something, it and all related beliefs must be evolutionarily determined and, therefore, false. We think this way only because "our brain processes have been selected over time."

But if Gazzaniga is correct about this, then his arguments are ultimately self-defeating. For if the brain's output is determined by blind evolutionary forces and has no necessary connection to objective truth, then his neuroscience is also unreliable. How does he know that the methods his brain leads him to use produce results that are true, and not just selected for reproductive success? And, for that matter, how can I assent to Gazzaniga's conclusions? If my brain happens to organize the "chaos of input" (Gazzaniga's term) differently from his, on what basis do we settle the dispute?

In fact, if our personhood can ultimately be explained by recourse to brain states, molecules, and smaller physical parts, then what freedom is left for an "I" to engage in the weighing and sifting of argument and counter-
argument that makes up academic (including scientific) discourse? In explaining the science behind what makes us unique, Gazzaniga has explained away the "us." His evolutionary explanations undercut not only religion and traditional morality, but all rationality and free choice, including scientific theories and the very enterprise of conducting research to develop them.