Soul on the slab: is there no limit to what neuroscience can do?

Battle of Ideas festival 2013, Sunday 20 October, Barbican, London


Neuroscience provides previously unimagined access to the inner workings of the brain. For enthusiasts, it could be the scientific holy grail, unravelling the mechanics of consciousness and uncovering the biological basis of the human character. Certainly, astonishing claims are made for new techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Every new advance in brain scanning technology leads to greater claims for the power of science. Scanned subjects’ response to different stimuli, when regions of the brain ‘light up’, are said to correlate with emotions, intentions, and feelings. Might an ability to visualise the mind within the brain provide a window into our innermost thoughts, reveal the sources of our deepest desires?

Despite the tremendous potential of breakthroughs in neuroscience, there is now increasing disquiet at the alleged exaggerations made in its name. Critics such as Thomas Nagel, Sally Satel and Raymond Tallis argue the overzealous application of brain science undermines notions of free will and responsibility, reducing all human behaviour to crude determinism. Others fear the rise and rise of neuroscience is side-lining centuries of insights into the human condition provided by the humanities, philosophy, psychology, politics, even religion. But such concerns are often dismissed as outdated and ill-informed, and even heretical when voiced by scientists themselves. So neuroscience’s colonisation of all aspects of life looks unstoppable, spawning a range of new disciplines such as neurolinguistics, neurogenetics, neuroeconomics, as well as educational, behavioural, cognitive and evolutionary neuroscience. Meanwhile, the supposed unlocking of the secrets of the human mind has attracted fashionable enthusiasm far beyond the world of science: policy makers, marketeers, pollsters, artists, lawyers now see neuroscience as the key to unlocking everything from why consumers make certain choices to why people vote left or right, from why we listen to music to why some of us commit crimes.

Has the explanatory power of neuroscience been overestimated or is it the key to reading our minds? Are those calling for a radical neuro-transformation of criminal responsibility, education, public health, social policy too credulous about what some term ‘neurobollocks’? Or is scepticism about neuroscience driven by a stubborn refusal to accept that we are less autonomous than we think? Should we anyway be seeking to keep what goes on in our brains out of public policy?

Dr Julian Baggini

founding editor, the Philosophers’ Magazine; author, Freedom Regained: the possibility of free will and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World

Professor Bill Durodié
head of department and chair of international relations, University of Bath

Professor Geraint Rees
director, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience; senior clinical fellow, Wellcome Trust

Dr Sally Satel
resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; psychiatrist; author, Brainwashed: the seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive