Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Reductionist Fallacy

It is hard not to be condescending and sarcastic when confronted with a story like this one from the Daily Mail sent along by a reader who thought I might want to blog about it. Sure, like I want to bang on about this dreary village atheist stuff.

This is really basic village atheist stuff, so make sure you get it and you won't be taken in by sophistry.

The article is titled: "Scientists discover moral compass in the brain which can be controlled by magnets." Ooh . . . wow! You can control a person's morality with magnets! It was "discovered" and by "scientists" so it must be 100% true.

Listen to the writer, who obviously gets a tingle up his leg just contemplating the possibilities:
"Scientists have discovered a real-life 'moral compass' in the brain that controls how we judge other people's behaviour.

The region, which lies just behind the right ear, becomes more active when we think about other people's misdemeanours or good works.

In an extraordinary experiment, researchers were able to use powerful magnets to disrupt this area of the brain and make people temporarily less moral.

The study highlights how our sense of right and wrong isn't just based on upbringing, religion or philosophy - but by the biology of our brains."

So here we clearly have an entry in the "Stupidist Argument to Get Published This Year" contest. We have a perfect example of why reading newspapers makes you less intelligent.

So what do we have here?

1. The brain is affected by powerful magnets.

Of course it is also affected by electric shocks, alcohol and LSD. But let's stay with the argument; this is a "discovery" after all.

2. A certain region of the brain gets active when we think about moral evaluation.

Well, you wouldn't expect the brain to be utterly inactive when thinking, would you?

3. The scientists were able to use magnets to disrupt brain activity and cause abnormal behavior.

Again, one wonders if these "scientists" have ever been to a bar. Brains get disrupted by all sorts of stimuli and wierd behaviour results. It happens every night of the week. Did they get a grant to discover this? But so far, this has been relatively lucid, if banal, and a true statement of facts. But now it suddenly gets utterly loopy.

4. The study highlights how our sense of right and wrong isn't just based on upbringing, religion or philosophy . . .

Say what? The fact that you can use some sort of physical force (from a magnet to a club to a perfume to a sight to a whatever) to alter brain activity and cause unusual behavior means what again? That morality is not inscribed on our brains by upbringing, religion or philosophy?

OK, this is totally off base. First, of all, my upbringing involved a swat side the head from time to time that inscribed on my brain some pretty basic morality involving not torturing smaller siblings pretty effectively. So the magnet thing is not exactly much of a surprise. I'm quite sure if my mother had had magnets she would have used them too. Second, the fact that a malignant, foreign force acting on your brain makes you act funny has nothing whatsoever to do with how you acted prior to the magnet - alcohol - LSD or whatever hit you. And it has nothing to do with the origin of the moral beliefs you held.

5. The study highlights how our sense of right and wrong isn't just based on upbringing, religion or philosophy - but by the biology of our brains.

So morality is "nothing but" brain chemistry because a part of our brain is involved in the thought process of moral discrimination. Isn't that kind of like saying that making the winning move in a chess game is "nothing but" the physical process of tendons and muscles causing the hand to pick up a Queen and put on another square? Really? It is nothing but brain chemistry? Just because we use our brains to think about morality?

1 comment:

Andy said...

Craig, you had me cracking up on this one! Excellent post!!