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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The job for future neuroscientists is to affirm, with Gazzaniga, that the human person stands in continuity with other animals, in many respects. But also in radical discontinuity when it comes to mental life. If traditional philosophical arguments for the immateriality of the intellect are correct, then neuroscientists will need to wrestle with the possibility that our mental life is essentially immaterial, though thoroughly integrated with bodily organs like the brain.

Evolutionary psychology and neuroscience will still matter: If we're really psychosomatic unities, then our biology must be studied, as it helps provide the basis of our inclinations and intuitions and can, if dysfunctional, impede reasoning. But we must maintain that we can, by our freedom and intellect, move beyond such evolutionarily advantageous but immoral behaviors as, say, racist varieties of kin-group affinity.

"The science behind what makes us unique," as presented by Gazzaniga, is ultimately unilluminating. Gazzaniga is skilled at telling us which sections of the brain light up on the MRI machine under which circumstances, and which behaviors might have been selected to increase our reproductive potential, but he offers no guidance on what any of this means for living a human life. Should we do whatever helps our survival according to science? If not, to what standard do we appeal? And how is reasoning about these questions even possible if the mind is only the evolutionarily determined brain?

Some human phenomena simply cannot be reduced to synaptic firings. Gazzaniga explains all human phenomena in this way because that's where his training lies--and his lighting is best. But some human pursuits--for love, beauty, truth, goodness--are greater than the sum of their material processes. Rather than explain what it is to be human, Gazzaniga has explained it away.
There is light beyond the street lamp of neuroscience, and beyond is where the keys to living a fully human life can be found.

Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good a new publication of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.