No doubt you have noticed like me this growing undesirable effect of the popularity of neuroscience: it frequently replaces the classical paradigms of psychology by their opposites, without real experimental demonstration, as if reading functional MRIs taught us the springs of the human personality…
Examples flood our journals that have become neuro-psychological. The nuances, detours and sometimes esoteric journeys of psychoanalytically inspired psychology have been replaced by peremptory interpretations. Neuroscience has flattened the brain engine and tells you how to get the wheels up in the right order.
The disappointment is great to draw no Eureka!, to find no personal history, only generalities. It is indeed an engine that is decrypted and not a personality. Such a dehumanized plan fundamentally misses something. Certainly Freudian theory probably saw too many myths and occult talents in the unconscious universe. But its flattening by the steamroller of neuroscience does not make it a neural-mental unifying theory. The mind was simply thrown in the trash with all its illusions.
Neuroscience portrays us as artificial intelligence. The only benefit, perhaps: to facilitate the integration of our digital acolytes. Moreover, the passion for our smartphones is not foreign to the success of neuroscience. They are getting a little closer to us because we are now closer to them.
The Phalanx of the Innate against the Horde of the Acquired
There is no shortage of examples of this invasion. We are accustomed to the dryness of ontological approaches, based on neural exchanges. However, even teleological approaches, which start from our feelings, quickly forget them. Take Samah Karaki, biologist and neuroscientist, who has just published ‘Talent is fiction’. She criticizes the idea of genius and talent as an innate gift, asserting on the contrary forcefully that the acquired is more essential than genetics.
This position is contrary to the usual neuroscientific theses, rather behaviorist, that is to say privileging the innate in behavior and skills. In ‘Restorative Free Will’ (2016), Bruce N. Waller sought to exonerate us by insisting on the animal filiation dominating our impulses: no need to blame ourselves if we do not achieve the desired destiny. Some authors estimate up to 80% of the weight of the innate in individual success, based on the studies of twins placed in contrasting educational environments and who occupy comparable adult situations.
Samah Karaki argues otherwise. The innate does not matter so much. The acquired is able to counteract the worst genetic starts, as long as we avoid reinforcing them with preconceived ideas. The antagonistic positions of these researchers are not lacking in arguments. So who to believe?
The surprise is not so much that neuroscience shakes up our certainties. It is rather that they can support one thing and its opposite. I find no better consensus than among the psychologists of the last century, already embroiled in the heated innate/acquired debate. One could have hoped for better from the ontological approach to the mind. This discrepancy highlights the absence of real mental theory in neuroscience. Neural correlations did not make it possible to cross the neural/mental divide.
Where activism breaks through
I would gladly support the approach of Samah Karaki, charming in every way. But Samah makes too many mistakes in the detail of her argument. Her book is not mature. She criticizes the positivism operated on oneself: “We ignore a whole invisible backpack of advantages and privileges that can explain why we have come to this“. This is not to break our spirits but to twist the neck of the negativism that goes with it: “The same goes for failure stories: they are attached to something that would be internal to their author, to psychological dispositions, to a certain capacity for work and relentlessness.”
In short, all these preconceptions about biological determinism “make it possible to justify inequalities in access to power by identifying problems within individuals rather than within structures“. Samah does not hide her activism. For her, deterministic fiction serves as an alibi for privileges of access to power, according to physical size, gender, race and other natural predispositions. Even IQ tests are designed to measure the traits of psychological dominants and select only those. The school evaluates similar things, she says.
The spirit is never what the idealists say
Vengeful speeches readily contradict each other in the text. This is the case for Samah who recognizes the interest of positivism on individual motivation. She would like to preserve positivism without negativism, “starting from the postulate that students’ intelligences are equal“. Is it really a good idea to base education on such a chimera? After the failure of Marxist egalitarianism in the last century, do we want to reintroduce it as an educational foundation? Do we hope a society of clones concerned above all with erasing their differences? Has Samah understood that there is no positivism without contrast, that individualism is by nature a rivalry, the conviction of being able to bring or conquer more than others? Finally, the most remarkable achievements do not come from positivism but from the strongest rebellions against negativism.
I let you listen to Samah’s conclusion:
“When we believe in our merit, we lose compassion for others. If I tell you that you will win by your own skills, you will become less generous to others. But if I tell you that your victory depends largely on luck, you will be more generous to others. Believing in our individual merit is therefore neither good for us nor for others.“
Did the last sentence raise your eyebrow? It is beautiful but has nothing to do there, clinging to the previous ones. Believing in one’s merit is not bad for oneself of course. Samah cheats by applying the look of the collective. In fact, she repeats twice that the conviction of individual merit is not good for the collective. For the individual it is the opposite.
Neuroscience, an essential tool that should not be overlooked
Samah thus misses the true fundamental principle that governs the relationship between individuals and society, the tension between ‘individualizing’ and ‘being part’, a tension that never has a lasting balance. Clear-cut positions on the innate or the acquired miss the omnipresent nature of this conflict. It is present both in genetics —the inscription of the best solutions to conflict— and in social integration —the testing of variants. Psychologists have long since learned to show some humility on this debate. After all, trumpeting what’s good for everyone… remains an individual music.
Neuroscience is the new power. In science, as elsewhere, power attracts militancy. I may wish our young philosophers and cognitivists to quickly adhere to a unifying theory of mind before wantoning their specialty and making us intelligences as similar as neural chemical exchanges.
Croire en notre mérite individuel n’est bon ni pour nous ni pour les autres, Samah Karaki 2023
1 thought on “Disguising your activist ideas with neuroscience”
Yes, I have a friend who wrote a book on consciousness,years ago. It, like other efforts, met with limited success. Over several email exchanges, I shared some ideas with him and he is investigating further. He is nominally a neuroscientist after pursuing a college-level teaching career. I have elsewhere expressed concern over interdisciplinary blending of physics and various branches of mind science and whether that was helpful or hurtful. I think it can be a problem.