In 1996, the writer Tom Wolfe wrote an article entitled, “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died.” In it, he described how brain-imaging technologies such as PET scans and fMRI scans were contributing to the rise of what he called a “unified field theory” of neuroscience.
“Unified field theory” is an expression borrowed from physics, where it refers to a “theory of everything” that explains how the universe works. Similarly, brain-imaging technology was on the verge of reducing notions such as the soul and even human consciousness to the status of quaint relics.
All you needed to understand what it means to be human is a well-constructed experiment and the right equipment.
That was the claim, in any case, and the next sixteen years reinforced Wolfe’s concerns. But recently there has been some significant “push back” against this reductionism, and it has come from an unexpected direction.
This “push back” was the subject of recent articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker. The Times article described the emergence of a group known as the “neuro doubters.” These science writers, blogging at places with names such as “Neurocritic” and “Neuroskeptic,” specialize in “[pointing] out the lapses and folly contained in mainstream neuroscientific discourse.”
And it isn’t only bloggers: publications such as the Guardian, the New Statesman and the New York Review of Books have all recently gone after what the Times called “this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.”
“Everything” is not an exaggeration: a recent book excoriated by science writers claimed that people who vote Republican are genetically and neurologically distinct from people who vote Democratic.
As the Times put it, “Neuroscience has joined company with other totalizing worldviews—Marxism, Freudianism, critical theory—that have been victim to overuse and misapplication.”
The irony is that, as the New Yorker pointed out, those pictures of the brain that form the basis of all this sloppy reductionism aren’t what they appear to be.
As Gary Marcus, who teaches at New York University, pointed out, the idea that the “neural tissue that lights up most in the brain is the only tissue involved in some cognitive function” is incorrect. As he put it, “most of the interesting things that the brain does involve many different pieces of tissue working together.” Assigning any aspect of being human, such as emotion, to one part of the brain is, in his words, “misleading.”
Then there’s the fact that we aren’t actually looking at the brain in those pictures. What we’re looking at are “elaborate reconstructions that depend on complex mathematical assumptions.” These reconstructions can vary depending on something as simple as what computer is being used. It’s closer to a painting than to a photograph and it doesn’t begin to approach the real thing.
Neither the “neuroskeptics” nor I would be pointing this out if the technology’s use was limited to the clinical sphere: diagnosing and treating illness.
But as Wolfe predicted, it’s become the basis of a worldview that pretends to explain, well, everything.
Given the enormity of the claim and the lack of evidence warranting such a claim, it’s necessary and fair to point out that the Emperor is as naked as the human brain appears to be during an fMRI scan.
In other words, your soul is still kicking.
Come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and we’ll link you to the Times and the New Yorker articles—as well as to a great book on neuroscience and spirituality recommended by Chuck Colson.