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Understanding through neuroscience, unpromising and promising

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For any die-hard reductionists out there, here’s an article on the promise of “neuroeconomics”:

Yet it is likely that one day we will know much more about how economies work – or fail to work – by understanding better the physical structures that underlie brain functioning. Those structures – networks of neurons that communicate with each other via axons and dendrites – underlie the familiar analogy of the brain to a computer – networks of transistors that communicate with each other via electric wires. The economy is the next analogy: a network of people who communicate with each other via electronic and other connections.

Well, good luck on that! Similarly, one might hope that we’ll all be better at using Excel spreadsheets if we start studying how electrons move about in the CPU.

On another note, here is an interesting interview with Michael Gazzaniga talking about the interplay between neuroscientific accounts and broader social structures, particularly in discussions of free will:

For me, it [the interplay between mind and brain] captures the fact that we are trying to understand a layered system. One becomes cognizant there is a system on top of the personal mind/brain layers which is yet another layer–the social world. It interacts massively with our mental processes and vice versa. In many ways we humans, in achieving our robustness, have uploaded many of our critical needs to the social system around us so that the stuff we invent can survive our own fragile and vulnerable lives.

This seems to me the way to go. We shouldn’t simply dismiss neuroscience, of course; but the interesting question is how the “bottom-up” causal story connects with the “top-down” causal story.

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3 Comments

  1. Alex Rosenberg (ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY), founder of philo of econ, and a die-hard reductionist, would, I think, reject the extravagance in this characterization of the “promise” of neuroeconomics for the simple Darwinian reason that arms races — blind variation and, his preferred way of putting it, “environmental filtration” — and the rate at which they follow upon each other owing to tech, rule out too much of the predictive power required.

    I would love to know what you, Charlie, and Kleiner, make of Rosenberg’s fun and sweeping book.

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  2. Sandi says:

    “Die-hard” anything is inherently problematic…in my opinion.

    Mind-sets typically lead to bias and deeply entrenched paradigms–inadvertaently creating blindspots in human thought and reasoning.

    This is perhaps the greatest role of philosphy today–to demand more of logic than science does.

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  3. Sandi says:

    @Huenemann, “We shouldn’t simply dismiss neuroscience, of course; but the interesting question is how the “bottom-up” causal story connects with the “top-down” causal story.”

    I couldn’t agree more! I think you are right on with your assessment.

    @ Rob, While Rosenberg’s rhetoric is clever, useful, interesting, and undoubtedly “correct” it is at once not necessarily “true”. (Yes Kleiner, I stole that from Heidegger and you :) At the end of the day, it is Rosenberg’s inflexibility and reductionary–primarily technological–approach that neither reflect nature nor Darwinian reasoning. Brilliant thinker? Yes. Convincing? Yes. “Right”? No.

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