Is Neuroscience Today's Phrenology?

Science can't tell us how to live a good life

Posted Aug 22, 2016

In the 19th century, phrenology—the exploration of the contours of the skull—was considered a scientific way to understand a person’s character. For the better part of the 20th century, phrenology was replaced by psychoanalysis, the exploration of the unconscious hidden within the mind. Today neuroscience, the study of the chemistry, genetics and biology of the brain, has replaced psychoanalysis as the latest way to understand human behavior.

Many believed that phrenology was an advance over séances. The thinking was that listening closely to patients’ fears and dreams through the prism of psychoanalytic theory was superior to looking at bumps on the head. Now interdisciplinary molecular study of the brain, with its use of precise scientific instruments and data, is the latest attempt to pin down human nature, replacing speculation with pure empiricism.

No matter how much success science brings in understanding the world in which we live, it cannot by itself lead to full understanding of human nature. Knowledge through empirical understanding is limited by the capacity of the knower. While tools can extend our senses and give us new knowledge and better insights and sophisticated ways to manipulate the environment, our capacity to completely understand ourselves must always fall short because we cannot understand more than what our brains are capable of interpreting. Our brains structure our understanding in such a manner that it is impossible to know anything except through that pre-existing structure.

Neurobiology may tell us why we value some things—and we have learned a great deal in this regard—but it cannot tell us why we should value those things. This type of knowledge belongs in the realm of poets, philosophers, artists and others who provide insight and inspiration. Science is valuable only as it gets contextualized by the values we impose upon it. And value formulation isn’t an empirical enterprise but a philosophical and aesthetic one.

To reject the findings of science is to choose stupidity; to reject the liberal arts is to choose an immature heart.

Morality and the values upon which it rests are about how we ought to live with one another. That means we need to know as much as we can about our fundamental psychological makeup. This takes us only so far, though. Ethics starts with what is, then points to the goal of what it means to live a good life.

All the data generated by science can’t tell us the importance of that data, no matter how nuanced or large the data is and how finely parsed. What to do with that information must be guided by an overarching sense of what makes life meaningful. And meaning isn’t generated from facts but by what the heart and mind chooses to make of those facts and how to put them to use in a manner that is socially beneficial.

These are the reasons why, on occasion, I choose to write my blog in the forms of adages and poems. It is another way of approaching psychology, which is as much about the human heart as it is about behavior.