Nature, nurture, neither or both? What neuroscience can and cannot tell us
Neuroscience has been one of the most dynamic life sciences in the twenty-first century. Profound progress has been made in relation to brain imaging that has the potential, its proponents claim, to reveal previously hidden secrets about human motivation, behaviour and consciousness. The human mind has long been seen as one of the last frontiers of discovery, and many neuroscientists believe they are well on the way to demystifying it for good.
The findings of neuroscience are often taken up by policymakers, not least in the field of parenting and child-rearing. By informing theories about how our brains develop, how we learn and what causes dyslexia, neuroscience has influenced how children are taught, too. Most fundamentally, conclusions drawn from neuroscience research have been used to criticise the concept of free will, with many neuroscientist philosophers – such as Daniel Dennett, David Eagleman and Sam Harris – maintaining that free will is illusory.
There are philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel and Raymond Tallis, who contest this deterministic relationship, arguing that the claims made on behalf of neuroscience are excessive and lacking nuance. Others, such as Julian Baggini, seek to reconcile free will and determinism, arguing that they are not mutually exclusive. But many neuroscientists reject these counterarguments, maintaining that our attachments to the idea of free will and sovereign conscience are outmoded, and that everything from the bonds we form to whether or not we commit crimes can be explained at a neurological, even a molecular level.
Is it still meaningful to talk of free will against the backdrop of these extraordinary developments in brain imaging? We are indisputably biological entities after all, so is it the case that the more that is understood at a physical level, the less mysterious we seem? Or is there a danger of overstating the explanatory potential of neuroscientific inquiry? Are neural pathways our only routes to understanding ourselves?