The Broadening Scope Of Science

Every time you learn something, your brain changes. Children with autism have brains that differ from those that do not. Different types of moral decisions are associated with different patterns of brain activity. And when it comes to spiritual and emotional experience, neural activity varies with the nature of the experience.

In most ways, this is news that shouldn’t be news—at least not this century, nor probably the last. Given what we already know about the brain and its relationship to behavior and experience, these claims don’t tell us anything new. How could it have been otherwise? Any difference in behavior or experience must be accompanied by some change in the infrastructure that implements it, and we already know to look to the brain.

So why do neuroscientific findings of this type still make the news?

In part, it’s because the details might be genuinely newsworthy—perhaps the specific ways in which the brain changes during learning, for example, can tell us something important about how to improve education. But there are two other reasons why neuroscientific findings about the mind might make headlines, and they deserve careful scrutiny.

The first reason comes down to what psychologist Paul Bloom calls “intuitive dualism.” Intuitive dualism is the belief that mind and body, and therefore mind and brain, are fundamentally different—so different, that it’s surprising to learn of the carefully orchestrated correspondence revealed by the “findings” summarized above. It’s wrong to equate mind with brain (perhaps, to quote Marvin Minsky, “the mind is what the brain does”), but we ought to reject the Cartesian commitments that underlie intuitive dualism—no matter how intuitive they feel.

The second reason is because neuroscientific findings about the mind reveal the broadening scope of science. As our abilities to measure, analyze, and theorize have improved, so has the scope of what we can address scientifically. That’s not new—what is new is the territory that now falls within the scope of science, including the psychology of moral judgment, religious belief, creativity, and emotion. In short: the mind and human experience. We’re finally making progress on topics that once seemed beyond our scientific grasp.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that science can answer all of our questions. There are many, many empirical questions about the mind for which we don’t yet have answers, and some for which we may never have answers. There are also questions that aren’t empirical at all. (Contra Sam Harris, I don’t think science—on its own—will ever tell us how we ought to live, or what we ought to believe.) But the mind and human experience are legitimate topics of scientific study, and they’re areas in which we’re making remarkable, if painstaking, progress. That’s good news to me.