Neurons don't a man make

May 23, 2013

Annette Karmiloff-Smith’s cautionary remarks on the limitations of neuroscience in the field of psychology are to be welcomed (“Brain scans go deep, but you need intuition for light-bulb moments”, 16 May); but the critique arguably needs to go much further. Neuroscience is typically reductionistic, materialistic and deterministic, and thus fundamentally contrary to the existential-phenomenological worldview to which many humanistic and transpersonal psychologists subscribe. A thorough-going eliminative materialism has nothing to say about the kinds of existential meaning-making experiences that many psychologists see as being key to the work of a true psychology.

Karmiloff-Smith is right in implying that many academics drop their critical faculties in the face of the seductions of neuroscience, as if something that is new and “scientific” necessarily contains something of value for psychology. Yet at the very least, serious psychologists have a deep ethical responsibility to tease out, and make explicit, the metaphysical assumptions that are entailed in a neuroscientific worldview before we uncritically apply them to the work of the psychological sciences.

In The Reluctant Adult, Jill Hall argues that in late modernity we have embraced a quasi-deterministic view that human beings are all essentially “caused” by, and are therefore victims of, our personal histories and/or our brain chemistries. This worldview has all kinds of implications, most especially in terms of blaming the world/the other/our parents/our genetics for our discomfort or suffering. Psychology is crying out for a reinstatement of “the soul” and the “imagination” in its cosmology as a counterweight to these one-sided developments.

Exactly 40 years ago, in a seminal address to the American Psychological Society, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers said that until we develop an authentic human science, one that takes account of the “exploration of inner, personal emotionalized meanings…based on understanding the phenomenological world of man…,we are but developing a technology for the use of planners and dictators, not a true understanding of the human condition”.

Amen to all that - and not a brain cell in sight.

Richard House
Senior lecturer in early childhood studies
Department of education studies and liberal arts
University of Winchester

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