Nearly a month ago, author Benjamin Fong wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes- Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble. Most opinion pieces about neuroscience, and there are plenty of them, flit from my memory pretty quickly, but this one has stuck with me. Fong was the first to put into words the danger underlying our inflated hope in neuroscience. He did so by talking about tuberculosis.
Most philosophers who’re wary of neuroscience critique it by talking about the problem of consciousness- What is consciousness? Most commonly they point out that many neuroscientist’s solution to this question is implicit in their methods and research: they’ve already assumed that consciousness is just a product of brain juices, now the task is just to find which brain juices. When they find the right brain juices, they then take that as confirmation of their initial assumption- that consciousness simply is those brain juices. I tried to make that understandable by saying “brain juices,” but the point these philosophers are making is that neuroscience is side-stepping the question by assuming its answer from the beginning.
Now I think the question What is consciousness? is one of the most exciting philosophical questions of our time; so don’t get me wrong when I say that those essays, the ones I summarized above, leave me unmoved. They make it seem like philosophical ideas are the only thing at risk when we place too much hope in the discoveries of neuroscience. When it comes down to it, I don’t really care about the questions of consciousness- not in the same way I care about health. Perhaps that’s why Fong’s argument about the dangers of implicit assumptions hit home.
His argument is similar to one Richard Lewontin made in his book Biology as Ideology. We know that you can’t get tuberculosis without a tubercle bacillus- but does that mean this bacteria is the “cause” of tuberculosis? It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but wherever we identify the cause, especially with disease, is where we will go hunting for cures. So it’s important to know that tuberculosis was also a disease common in sweatshops in the 19th century. Now the question becomes more clear- is the cause of tuberculosis the social-economic conditions which foster sweatshops or the mycobacteria that thrive in those sweatshops?
When it comes to mental health, the question becomes even more poignant. We know that low socioeconomic status at birth is related to schizophrenia. But the vast majority of research today is seeking the organic cause of the disease. Such a discovery could lead to dramatically improved treatments and a better quality of life for those suffering from schizophrenia. I’m not arguing against this research and neither is Fong.
But he is pointing out that when we become focused on the organic causes of illness, we begin to lose sight of the social conditions that foster the emergence of the illness. Just like the philosophical issues with finding consciousness- when we set out to discover the organic cause of a disease, we’ve begun with a particular answer already in mind. That bias, that initial assumption, obscures other solutions. Social conditions are messy; they’re complex, hard to study, and even harder to change. But in the end we are social creatures, embedded in and affected by social environments. This social environment is intrinsically related to mental health: think about the joy you feel when seeing a friend or the emotional weight of loneliness.
If we lose sight of the fact that we are social creatures, then we risk creating half-solutions to illness. We may relieve symptoms and make life easier, but we haven’t fully cured the disease. Perhaps more importantly, when we focus solely on organic causes, as though we are machines to be fixed, we risk losing an essential part of our humanity.