Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Don’t Blame That Idiot's Brain

For example, you might believe that the President is a rash person who tends to speak and act on impulse. That’s your description of his personality, but suppose you want to give a more scientific statement. So you note that in neuroscience, damage to the prefrontal cortex can produce impulsivity. Aha! So maybe Trump’s prefrontal cortex is underactive! Or maybe he has a personality disorder! Yet these aren’t explanations, let alone a scientific ones, for Trump’s rashness. They’re just more sciencey and impressive ways of saying he’s rash.

We don’t need these kinds of quasi-scientific analyses of Trump’s (or anyone’s) character. We should stick to describing and commenting on the behaviour that we can directly observe. If Trump is rash, then that’s it: he’s rash. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in his brain to make him that way. If he’s egotistic and selfish, then just say so – it adds nothing to the discussion to speculate about whether he meets criteria for ‘narcissistic personality disorder’, not to mention that such a diagnosis-at-a-distance is ethically questionable.

More broadly, as I’ve argued previously, neuroscience can answer questions about the brain but most political and social questions are about behaviour. Now, while all behaviour is the product of brain activity, it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms. If you’re thirsty, then you could make me understand your situation by saying “I’m thirsty”, and the solution would be a glass of water. A neuroscientific analysis of activity in your brain’s subfornical organ wouldn’t help anyone.

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