Why Neuroscience Is Better Than Philosophy If You Want To Understand The Human Brain

Flickr / M.Kemal
Flickr / M.Kemal

When people ask questions, there are several methods they can implement in order to reach a conclusion. Daily, human beings use intuition, common sense, testimony, congruent experiential memory, and even blind guesswork to come to a variety of conclusions. In the past, the aforementioned often-erroneous methods of reasoning were the only methods available. In the modern era, humanity has available a few demonstrably effective methodologies that help to augment our oftentimes unreliable closed circuit reasoning faculties. A methodology is a “… set of methods, rules, or ideas that are important in a science or art: a particular procedure or set of procedures” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  Refined sets of principles, some even appearing necessarily true (due to the impossibility of the contrary, such as the Law of Identity) help to steer humans away from the erroneous conclusions of the past.  Some examples are astrology and its replacement with astronomy, E=MC2 replacing Newtonian Physics, and evolutionary theory replacing creation myths. Within any methodology, of course, there exist a variety of principles and rules, and even opinions. Nevertheless, all fields of study have a least a few core principles – a foundational methodology or modus operandi. Philosophy’s methodology includes such principles as:  the principle that certain necessary truths exist (for example, A=A, but not ~A, the Law of Excluded Middle, ex nihilo nihil fit, etc.) and the principle that reason is a reliable source of knowledge. These principles are certainly useful; the methodology of philosophy helps us to critically assess arguments, to formulate useful questions, and to explain our reasoning for our conclusions. Nevertheless, there are some topics that the methodology of philosophy ineffectively addresses, and some questions better answered by scientific methodologies. One such topic is the philosophy of mind. For this essay, I will argue that science better answers questions of the mind, and I will illustrate that point by way of comparing a specific epistemological hypothesis formed by the philosopher John Locke – the idea that all people are born with a mind that is a tabula rasa  to a few current conclusions in the field of neuroscience that illustrate that the mind is the brain, and that the brain is entirely deterministic and equipped with evolutionarily crafted cognitive principles, i.e., not a “… white paper void of all characters, without any ideas” (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 311).

Before discussing Locke’s arguments and why neuroscience better answers the questions he asks in his essay, it might be prudent to first discuss why philosophy and scientific methodologies are different. It is a common misconception by many that both philosophy and science are “on the same team” as it were: two equally valuable and capable methodologies that are useful tools for addressing any and every kind of question. This is not the case, however, as philosophy is an internal, closed circuit mental methodology (its foundation is reason and logic, and evidence need not be observable) while science is a naturalistic methodology (whose foundation is prediction, experiment, and demonstration). Philosophy asks questions, enunciates a solution, and attempts to justify the solution – and all of this can be done without any outside evidence. There may be a few assumptions in science, and some things are not observable (as in the case of the Higgs boson particle – now proven) but the fact is that a naturalistic methodology is less prone to human error. The naturalistic methodology of science, in contrast to philosophy, formulates a theory, makes a prediction, experiments and tests the prediction, and then demonstrates the veracity (or failure) of the theory. This distinction between an internal, reasoning-based methodology and a naturalistic methodology is important when considering questions of the ‘mind’, since a proper understanding of the nature of the methodology itself helps us to understand what a particular methodology can accomplish. Philosophy asks; science answers.

Before moving on to Locke, let us answer a question the reader may be asking at this point in the essay: doesn’t a scientific methodology simply assume a material universe, and because of this assumption, a scientific methodology is equally as plausible as philosophical methodologies, who also make certain assumptions? Time constraints disallow me from fully explaining all of the evidence and arguments for materialism in this essay, and so I must ask the reader of this essay to accept my claim that materialism is true on little grounds despite the fact that I have written about it elsewhere. That is unfortunate, but, for now, I can say only this: science itself has already proven the reliability of the assumption of materialism; it has assumed a material universe because the assumption is necessitated in the same way that a few basal assumptions of philosophy are necessary to the methodology, and that assumption has allowed science to make predictions, experiments, and to demonstrate the veracity of the original assumption; scientists assumed materialism, and a material universe is just what we find to be demonstrably true. Further than that, all I can do is continue to discuss Locke’s arguments in the hope that the reader at least tentatively (whilst reading this essay) accepts materialism, and I hope that they do, because a material and deterministic universe (and brain) is just what disproves Locke’s tabula rasa theory.

At one time, Locke’s arguments concerning the mind seemed highly plausible, because in his time, science had not yet demonstrated any finding that disproved any of his ideas. In fact, Locke’s arguments would seem exactly as plausible today, if it were not for scientific discoveries. Remember that Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, argued that the mind is a “…. white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas…” and asked, “… how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it, with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?”  Locke’s answer: “To this I answer, in one word, from experience; in all that our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself” (Locke, 77). In summation, Locke argued that the fact that there are difference in opinions among men, the fact that there are no innate ideas in our memories, the fact that our ideas concerning substances are not innate, the fact that children are not born with innate ideas, and the fact that any line drawn around an idea for the purpose of calling it innate ultimately appears arbitrary inevitably leads us to one conclusion: “… ideas and notions are no more born with us than arts and sciences, though some of them indeed offer themselves to our faculties more readily than others, and therefore are more generally received…”(Locke, 69).  This idea was attractive to Locke, and remains attractive to many today, because of its implications: if we are all born without innate ideas, then we are all equal. The tabula rasa theory could, it would seem, dissolve racism, sexism, and prejudices of all kinds (if people were not subjected to those opinions as they formed their initial ideas about the world). So then, is the mind a tabula rasa? To answer that question, we must look to neuroscience.

Fortunately for those living today, the field of neuroscience has made much progress in its goal of understanding the operations of the human brain. Thanks to brain mapping and other advances in neuroscience, it has become increasingly apparent that the brain comes equipped with a set of innate principles that invariably result in a particular modus operandi of the brain. In other words, our brain is programmed – it determines how we will think, and an individual’s particular genome configuration determines what he or she will think – a far cry from a “… sheet void of all characters…” (Locke). As Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and psychologist says in his book The Blank Slate, “I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome” (Pinker, 73). Thus, Pinker argues, “Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software than can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary” (Pinker, 40). The evidence Pinker gained to inform himself of the facts of consciousness is too vast to be detailed here (or even in one book) and thus his long career writing about the topic. Later in this essay I will present hard evidence that concurs with Pinker, but for now, suffice it to say that it seems clear to those informed that universal principles exist. If my claim concerning cognitive principles is true, then what of ideas?

Proponents of the tabula rasa theory may argue that the existence of universal cognitive principles is not enough to refute Locke’s theory, since, they say, a modus operandi is not an idea, but this merely begs the question, and such a position is contradicted by neuroscience. No, ideas are not separate from the brain or contained in a supposed immaterial ‘mind’, and they are not immaterial things, but simply the firing of neurons, which is simply to say that the brain is the brain, or, in other words, that ideas are exactly equivalent to the processes of the brain. Locke, in his essay, does not even address this possibility, and he assumes that there are things with mental properties, or as he calls it, things of the ‘spirit’.  Dr. Richard C. Vitzthum, a Stanford English Professor and long-time author on philosophy topics including (most famously) materialism in a transcription of one his lectures (November, 1996) explains why Locke’s position is now disproven:

“Neuroscience has concluded that the firing, or spiking, of cells in the brain known as neurons is the foundation of all brain functioning. Every brain has billions of these neurons, joined together in billions of networks by tiny filaments called dendrites and axons. Incoming signals, in the form of tiny electrical impulses generated by other neurons, pass down the dendrites to circuit-breaker-like gaps around the neuron known as synapses, which chemically monitor all the incoming signals and, when all the signals have reached the appropriate level, suddenly depolarize the electric differential outside and inside the neuron and cause the neuron to fire, or spike” (Vitzthum).

That’s right: at the end of the day, a ‘mind’ is a network of simple toggle switches. Of course, the dualist finds this fact unsavory. No, says the dualist, the ‘mind’ is irreducible. Neuroscience disagrees. Even in the 1990s, a scientific theory existed (now more fully supported) that explains how simple neural firing results in complex ideas, emotions, and thoughts. Vitzthum further explicates:

“One promising theory is that networks of neurons in the brain consist of subsidiary groups of neurons or even individual neurons that serve as the axes of a multi-dimensional system of coordinates that can mathematically translate one kind of value to another kind of value. For example, someone sees an apple hanging from a tree. His brain locates the apple in an abstract visual space calculated in terms of how many degrees above a distant horizon the apple is, how close to him the focusing of his eyes tells him the apple is, and so on. But in order to pick the apple, his brain must translate its abstract visual calculation of the apple’s location into an abstract motor-muscular space which will tell the muscles of his arm at which angle they will have to set themselves in order to approach the apple. What happens here, it is theorized, is that an array of neuronal networks transforms the values of his visual space into those of his motor space by means of a mathematical tensor, or formula, that translates the multi-dimensional coordinates, or vectors, of visual space into the vectors of motor space — all the angles of sight are translated into angles of arm-bending. Although it does not seem so to the person reaching for the apple, his behavior is the result of a vast number of mathematical computations in his brain, which, because of its parallel computing capacity, it is able to carry out almost instantly” (Vitzthum).

Locke, if he were alive today, would find Vitzthum’s statements (and the evidence of scientific findings relating to Vitzthum’s statements) inescapable, unless he blatantly ignored any possibility that things that seem immaterial could possibly be reduced to physical phenomena, without justification, as he did in his essay. Indeed, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke’s words seem to indicate that he accepts without any question many of Descartes’ dualistic assumptions. After all, how could he talk about dualism at all, if he were informed of the evidence to which Vitzthum was speaking? Locke’s weakness was his pre-commitment to dualism, and thus his definition of ‘mind’ was flawed, as was his definition of ‘idea’. Assessed by reason alone, the questions he asked were malformed, and his conclusions do not conform to any of the current available evidence.

Immaterial ideas do not exist – whether innate, or experiential. Innate cognitive principles do exist, however, and neural firings (ideas, thoughts, concepts) exist, innately, firing according to the particular configuration of each individual’s modus operandi. The brain is the mind, and ideas are simply one manifestation of an underlying physical process; they are the macrocosm of a simple binary spark. Sam Harris, alluding to this fact and to the conclusion that the mind is holistic, materialistic, deterministic, and equipped with innate principles, in his book Free Will, wrote: “You are not in control of your mind – because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts ” (Harris, 38). He further explains: “We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises”. Yes, our thoughts arise from the void, because we ourselves are deluded by the illusion of our own agency, and this was the fact that Locke failed to notice when defining his terms and formulating his theory.

So, thus far we have seen that Locke:

  • Begged the question and assumed that the mind was immaterial, and that ideas were also immaterial and of some sort of ‘spirit’ kind.
  • Was incorrect in assuming that only experience imparts us with ideas, for we are born with innate principles, drives, and a modus operandi.
  • Poorly defined (due to question begging) his terms, specifically ‘mind’ and ‘idea’.
  • Implemented concepts and terms that contradict all available evidence.

Locke also failed to notice the following demonstrable facts:

  • The fact that the brain is equipped with innate principles, and the fact that mind = brain.
  • The fact that ideas are simply neural firing – a macrocosm of a simple binary spark. 
  • The fact that manifestations of consciousness are illusory.
  • The fact that consciousness is reducible to a set of physical phenomena.

What further evidence do we have for the fact that Locke’s tabula rasa theory is incorrect, and the above points are correct?

Even now, brain mapping is being taken to new levels with projects such as BigBrain, which has successfully created a 3D image of the brain that is more detailed than any predecessor. The famous Libet experiment “…used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move” (Harris, 8). Another experiment where subjects were asked to press buttons in response to questions found that “… subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made” (Harris, 8). Even more impressive, a more recent study found that the “… activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it” (Harris, 8). Interesting to those who might still follow Locke, these phenomena are not simply limited to decision making, but also concern personality traits. In a 2014 issue of “Brain Mapping” magazine, a summation of recent studies using fMRI led to the conclusion that creativity is a brain state, one that can be augmented or changed by changing the brain itself: “Using a novel ‘thin slice’ creativity paradigm in 55 fMRI participants performing verb-generation, we successfully cued large, conscious, short-duration increases in state creativity, indexed quantitatively by a measure of semantic distance derived via latent semantic analysis” (Green, 1). The brain is so deterministic and so programmed with binary firings, that we aren’t even aware of what we are choosing, until we choose it, and our creativity, so long awed by poets and artists turns out to be merely neural firing, a brain state. Even the question of free will is dissolved by neuroscience.

In only this one example (refuting Locke’s blank slate theory and its assumptions) I have shown that neuroscience is a superior methodology to philosophy for questions of the mind. The same is true of all other questions of the mind. As Martha J. Farah said, in her article “Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating,”The human brain is responsible for the abilities identified by Locke and his successors as crucial for personhood: intelligence, rationality, self awareness, cognition about the future, linguistic communication, mental states of all kinds, including mental states about other people’s mental states, and all forms of consciousness” (Farah, 39).  John C. Eccles, an evolutionary biologist, gives us the studies to show how this all came about. Eccles states: “… consciousness appears to have come into the mindless world of biological evolution with the origin of mammals,” and he goes on to say how consciousness would give “evolutionary advantage” (7323). Nathan Stemmer, a psychologist, has given us much evidence for the existence of universal cognitive principles, and tells us that these principles had “survival value” (Stemmer, 16). The evidence is clear, on all fronts: the brain is the brain, the mind is the brain, and ideas are the brain. 

Locke’s theory was incorrect; neuroscience has disproven his arguments. The naturalization of Locke’s theories into the realm of science is but one example of what will occur to all of philosophy, given enough time, and enough evidence. Philosophy is nothing more than a precursor to science, as is evidenced by the current philosophical evolution towards naturalized philosophy. Why do all questions of identity lead to contradiction or relativism? Why are so many epistemological questions malformed? Why did Locke get it wrong? The answer: philosophy is simply an ineffective methodology, in comparison to science. In order to answer life’s most important questions, we need evidence, demonstration, predictive capability, and a natural methodology, not simply internal reasoning or argumentation. The proof of this claim is in the success of science itself, as it disproves perfectly valid and cogent arguments – like Locke’s – with hard evidence. Though Locke’s philosophy remains important, it is clear that neuroscience better answers questions of the mind, because it demonstrates the workings of consciousness. Philosophy asks interesting questions, but science gives us the answers. Eventually, a naturalization of philosophy is certain to occur. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Works Cited
Eccles, John C., “Evolution of Consciousness” (JSTOR).
Farah, Martha. “Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?” The American Journal of Bioethics. Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. <http://www.psych.upenn.edu/~mfarah/Neuroethics-Personhood.pdf&gt;.
Green, A. E., Cohen, M. S., Raab, H. A., Yedibalian, C. G. and Gray, J. R. (2015), Frontopolar activity and connectivity support dynamic conscious augmentation of creative state. Hum. Brain Mapp., 36: 923–934. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22676
Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York: Free, 2012. Print.
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.
Stemmer, Nathan. “Hume’s Solution of the Goodman Paradox and the Reliability Riddle (Mill’s Problem).” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 132.2 (2007): 137-59. JSTOR. Web. 9 May 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/25471853?ref=no-x-route:65a42814510f8001fe827a8bac8a1ea5&gt;.
Underwood, Emily. “BigBrain Atlas Unveiled.” BigBrain Atlas Unveiled. Science, 20 June 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2015. <http://news.sciencemag.org/2013/06/bigbrain-atlas-unveiled&gt;.
Vitzthum, Richard C., Dr. “Philosophical Materialism.” Philosophical Materialism. The Secular Web, n.d. Web. 7 May 2015. <http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_vitzthum/materialism.html&gt;.

Philip Gregory received his Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from Eastern Washington University, and his Master’s in Epistemology from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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