Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love is in the Brain?

Steven Novella has a post here offering the usual reductionist view of love. What fascinates me about reductionism is that, so often, it is clear that the reductionist, far from answering the philosophical questions posed by his stance, has not yet arrived at the point of asking them. I imagine reductionists as something like the builders of the Maginot Line, laboring for years building a massive, technically impressive structure, impregnable from direct assault, who never asked themselves the question whether someone could simply drive around it.

But philosophy, like the Germans, lies in wait to ask the most pointed questions. The philosophical questions posed by reductionism are always lurking, ready to pop up, and in most reductionist accounts you can see them peeking from behind the curtain, the reductionist passing by in innocence. In this case, after a standard reductionist account and in case the reader is feeling a little uninspired by all the leveling down, Novella finishes with this:

Understanding the biology of love, rather, can be empowering.  Sometimes we make decisions that are not in our best interest because we are in the grip of neurotransmitters and evolutionary signals of which we are not consciously aware. Thinking that those feelings are due to some magical design of the universe or something akin to fate, or to forces outside of your control, are convenient justifications for giving in to feelings that may be leading you to bad decisions. It’s helpful to understand that evolution does not need you to be happy, just prolific. You, however, may prefer to be happy, and therefore may wish to make more reasoned decisions.

Now evolutionary reductionism proposes itself as a total explanation of human nature. That's just what reductionism means - everything about human nature is reducible to explanation within the category of evolution. This doesn't mean that everything about human nature has an explanation directly in terms of selective advantage, of course; there are neutral traits that neither benefit nor inhibit us that are passed on, vestigial organs, etc. But these latter possibilities are themselves all contained within the broader category of evolution as an explanation. So if evolution only needs me to be prolific, what is the foundation for me "preferring" to be happy? Whatever in my nature is the source of that preference must also be conditioned by evolution. It's not a question of "me" opposing "evolution", because there is no "me" apart from evolution. It can't be anything more than an evolutionarily conditioned preference to happiness versus an evolutionarily conditioned need to be prolific. It's evolution vs. evolution, and we know how evolution decides things: By differential reproduction.

The first sentence of the paragraph gives the reader a sense of liberation with the word "empowering." But just what is someone empowered to do with an understanding of the biology of love, or any other knowledge for that matter? The most educated biologist is no more capable of escaping evolutionary conditioning than was the most primitive caveman or the meanest dog. He's no more capable of overcoming the nature evolution gave him after he learned anything than he was before. Evolution - under the reductionist view, mind you - simply doesn't grant any platform from which a liberation might be launched. The sense of "empowerment" you are feeling is just another expression of your evolutionary nature, an expression no more nor less evolutionary than the reproductive urges over which you allegedly triumph. Neither one nor the other can claim to be either more or less evolutionary than the other; if our nature is not 100% evolutionary, if there is some aspect of it that is not subject to evolutionary conditioning; well, then reductionism is in ruins.

One of the philosophical questions posed by reductionism is: If everything is reduced to some one thing, how may any distinctions be made at all? If our nature is entirely reduced to "evolution", then "evolution" is useless in distinguishing one aspect of it from another. There is no distinguishing 5 and 3.14159 insofar as they are both "mathematical"; both are as much mathematical as the other. And if we are at all in the "grip" of neurotransmitters and evolutionary signals, the grip has a hold on the entirety of our being, not merely the occasionally inconvenient romantic desire. Blog posting about the grip is just as much in the grip as the lust the blog post is about.

The only way to distinguish things in a thoroughly reductionist account is to do it... magically. There is nothing "magical" about a design in a universe for a philosophy that has room for a Creator. But there surely is something magical about "empowering" yourself, and breaking the "grip of neurotransmitters, in a philosophy that reduces everything to neurotransmitters and the power of evolution.

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