Sunday, July 22, 2007
And, following on from psychometrics, there always seems to be a particular science through which we aspire to understand ourselves. Anatomy encouraged the view that we were like the machines of the industrial revolution. Darwinism inspired despair, eugenics or social determinism among late Victorians. Physics after Einstein convinced us we were elements in a gigantic and bizarre mathematical system. Molecular biology, after DNA, portrayed us as fundamentally simple computers. And now the various branches of brain science are converging on the view that we are rather like the internet, a system of connectivity. This is a view that is now very deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream. David Brooks, for example, writes a column about it in the New York Times and I've just read a rather good novel - The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - which starts with a case of Capgras's syndrome and then expands into a meditation on the nature of the self in the light of current findings in neurology. Meanwhile, scientists continue to struggle to cross the final frontier of the brain. As with all previous scientific models, people are assuming that brain science is the discipline that will deliver the final truth of our predicament. Brooks, for example, does what all journalists do when considering the most confident and imaginatively gripping science of the moment, he uses it to confirm his own values. This is understandable - I've been guilty of it myself - because, at any one time, the dominant science seems to be on the verge of finality. In the late eighties, it was the Theory of Everything promised by the physicists. This also was used to under-write values; the physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, said the ToE would have the effect of stopping people reading their horoscopes. The reality is, of course, that we can never know if a science is approaching - or, indeed, has reached - finality. (This is not cheap postmodernism, truth or finality is an essential aspect of scientific thought and science obviously works in ways that other systems of thought do not.) And, if we can't know, then retro-fitting our values to the latest scientific news story is simply superstition. Brain science will move on and we'll move on from brain science. Something remains, but it isn't science. Perhaps, it is nothing at all.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:50 am