Tyler Burge has a piece in the New York Times Opinionator column entitled “A Real Science of Mind”, in which he takes neuroscience to task for claims that understanding the brain is the right level of explanation for understanding mind (increasingly, a word that is losing its utility, IMHO).  He rightly trounces neurobabble, and points out that correlations “between localized neural activity and specific psychological phenomena are important facts.  But they merely set the stage for explanation.”  Where he gets into trouble is when he continues by saying  “Being purely descriptive, they explain nothing.  Some correlations do aidpsychological explanation.  For example, identifying neural events underlying vision constrains explanations of timing in psychological processes and has helped predict psychological effects.  We will understand both the correlations and the psychology, however, only through psychological explanation.”

Claims of hegemony over insight for one discipline or another are always suspect.  I am all for reducing the amount of neurobabble out there in the world, but trying to predict which level of explanation will have most meaningful answers is a bit like reading tea leaves – it is probably most prudent to watch carefully as the fields mature, and then take the most powerful observations and incorporate them into a new canon, one that has yet to solidify.  Moreover, there is no shortage of neurobabble emerging from psychology, so one should make sure one’s house is in order before casting stones.

Link to Tyler Burge’s NY Times article.


1 thought on “Neurobabble

  1. I read, and was disappointed by, Tyler Burge’s Op Ed piece. It just sounds grumpy. There are many specifics to dispute. For example:
    1. Although correlations may just be correlations, they may be causal. Correlations are excellent clues.
    2. His critique of fMRI is hardly new stuff, and is common among Neuroscientists. The problem is acute because functional imaging gets a lot of press attention, and its typically the popular press, not Neuroscientists, who over-interpret the findings.
    3. As you point out, “mind” is a very fuzzy thing. Tyler Budge says that he studies perception, but that consciousness is a mystery. How can he study perception without addressing consciousness?*
    4. it is almost a triviality to find examples where psychology and neuroscience have worked collaboratively and effectively, with both fields gaining from the interactions. Many other disciples can be added to the mix. Tyler Bunge’s insistence that psychology and neuroscience are at irreducible different levels of explanation is proven wrong by numerous examples. Perhaps in his area of study bridging the gap has proven difficult (in fact, it hasn’t), but in numerous other areas there have been fruitful collaborations. In many areas the boundary between psychology and neuroscience is hard to discern. He picks on emotion as an object of psychology, not neuroscience. It strikes me that great strides in understanding emotion have, in recent years, come from collaboration.

    *To play devil’s advocate, one could argue that “mind” and “perception” are inappropriate objects for scientific assessment since neither are objects of the natural world. If you are a materialist and say that they are objects of the natural world, since both are implemented in brain, you have defeated Tyler Bunge’s main point.

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