God of the Neural Gaps

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Fascinating response to David Brooks’ neuroscience piece earlier this week from an actual neuroscientist!

The statement: “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings,” seems particularly odd. If you remove the word “mysteriously” this is actually a good summary of the materialist model of neuroscience. Yes – everything we experience as mind and self is an emergent property of the firing of networks of neurons in the brain. Brooks seems to be arguing that because this process is still “mysterious”, meaning that it is not well understood scientifically, that it is therefore justification for mysticism. This is nothing more than a god-of-the-gaps argument – inserting mysticism into the current gaps in our scientific knowledge.

Assessing scientific knowledge is always more informative if we take a dynamic rather than static view. In other words – how successful has the current paradigm been in framing meaningful questions and predicting outcomes of research, is a far better question than – are there gaps in our understanding at this moment in time. The purely materialist paradigm of neuroscience has been wildly successful – and increasingly so recently. But the brain is outrageously complex, so of course we still have a long way to go. This is no way points to the need to insert mysticism into the process.

Is there a parallel between Brooks “inserting mysticism” into neuroscience as a way to explain gaps in scientific knowledge and the way political pundits insert/impose “narratives” as way to explain gaps in their own empirical observations? Discuss.