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On brains, persons, and responsibility

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Here is a thoughtful and insightful review by Roger Scruton of some recent books that try to connect our values, evolution, and neuroscience. An excerpt:

We are human beings, certainly. But we are also persons. Human beings form a biological kind, and it is for science to describe that kind. Probably it will do so in the way that the evolutionary psychologists propose. But persons do not form a biological kind, or any other sort of natural kind. The concept of the person is shaped in another way, not by our attempt to explain things but by our attempt to understand, to interact, to hold to account, to relate. The “why?” of personal understanding is not the “why?” of scientific inference. And it is answered by conceptualising the world under the aspect of freedom and choice. People do what they do because of events in their brains. But when the brain is normal they also act for reasons, knowing what they are doing, and making themselves answerable for it.

And at the end:

But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of “I” as it tells us about the validity of mathematics, the nature of scientific method or the value of music. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?

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2 Comments

  1. Travis says:

    This is indeed a very thoughtful essay. Thanks for posting a link. I can’t wait to read Prinz, though I sympathize with the author that Beyond Human Nature is unlikely to rival masterpieces like Pinker’s The Blank Slate. It will be interesting to see how he tries to escape the circularity of Durkheim’s Sui Generis (explaining culture with reference to culture), or the circularity of Alfred Krober’s explanation of culture as a superorganic entity, with no reference to individual minds or human nature: There is not doubt that culture shapes us, but explaining our experiences with reference to culture begs the question of why culture exists in the forms that it does. We can’t say that it is because of culture, or we’ll have made the same mistake of circularity as Durkheim, so we need exogenous explanations for the manifestations of human culture. The obvious place to look is the bio-behavioral sciences, where weight is given both to our evolved psychological tendencies as well as the social and ecological environments which gave rise to them.

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  2. Ben J. B. says:

    An excellent essay. The author is correct that the standard, environmentalist social models of today are born out of optimism, not scientific reasoning. People like Prinz seem all to common in philosophy. They argue concepts such as heritability are meaningless in order to avoid the data and conclusions produced by behavioral genetics research which challenges the egalitarian/environmentalist/liberal social models. I wonder how Prinz will handle a fairly recent GWAS which has shown that the narrow heritability of fluid IQ is *at least* 0.51 and that the narrow heritability of crystallized IQ is *at least* 0.4. Unlike all of the other kinship and monozygotic twin studies that have been used to establish the broad heritability of IQ, this study looked directly at DNA in order to establish those figures, destroying a library’s load of books that critique past behavioral genetics research. Other studies involving MAOA and OXTR (genes that influence behavior) have further weakened the pillars of the standard environmentalist model of the social sciences, giving us more evidence that differences in genes have a relationship with differences in behavior. Of course, the biggest enemies of research like this are liberals that hate the idea that evolution applies to human behavior and realize that their culture-only theories of human differences are untenable in light of genetics research.

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