Phrenology

Phrenology has made a comeback: a scientist can now make almost any assertion at all about the human condition, notice that events occur in the brain under certain conditions, and thus claim that his assertion has been proven. Whether the claim is ridiculous on its face, or conceivably true but in competition with many other equally plausible hypotheses, the common person is intimidated by the authority of the claim, accompanied as it is by an imposing technology of observation. But even an astrologer can use a telescope.

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2 comments on “Phrenology

  1. Jay says:

    What do you think about the “God part of the brain”? Specifically the experiment done a few years ago to stimulate a particular part of the brain that causes people to feel a ‘presence’ and report mystical experiences.

    • poseidonian says:

      I don’t know enough about the specific research, but the main problem is alluded to above: we would have to agree on what religion-related cognition and experiences were in the first place, but this is way too complex and variable and culture-dependent for that to be even possible. Even without more information, based on my casual understanding of the research, I’m sure that there are vast numbers of people who never have the experiences that were the object of study who nonetheless think of themselves as religious, and there may be whole religions in which that is the dominant phenomenon. I’m sure that mystical experiences are not of a piece, and I’m sure that mystical experience of any particular kind is not the essence of the religious, but I don’t doubt for a minute that there are very specific kinds of experiences which people call in the right social settings “mystical” which correlate with activity in certain parts of the brain. I also don’t doubt that at least some of the time when those experiences occur, they are not interpreted as of religious significance by the person having them. And last but not least, this part of the brain is not the cause of religion in any stronger sense than that human beings do not engage in activity of any kind when they have no brains. The point remains: the things we are interested in are ultimately cultural and historical, and though you must have a brain to participate in a culture, it is misguided to think that the way to think about either culture or the brain is to see various cultural phenomena as located in the brain in specific places. Which part of your leg is the “winning a gold medal in a track and field event in the Olympics” part? That question seems silly, but for some reason we don’t find it silly when the part of the body is in the brain. But the philosophical confusion here is so deep, so pervasive, and so popular, that a few remarks by me are unlikely to get us very far.

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