01 July 2009

the throne of the mind

What determines the question a scientist pursues? One side in the so-called science wars holds that the investigation of nature is a purely objective pursuit, walled off from the influence of the surrounding society and culture by built-in safeguards, such as the demand that scientific results be replicable and the requirement that scientific theories accord with nature. The gravitational force of a Marxist, in other words, is identical to the gravitational force of a fascist. Or, more starkly, if you're looking for proof that science is not a social construct, as so-called science critics contend, just step out the window and see whether the theory of gravity is a mere figment of a scientist's imagination.
  That the findings of science are firmly grounded in empiricism is clear. But the questions of science are another matter. For the questions one might ask of nature are, for all intents and purposes, without end. Although the methods of science today may be largely objective, the choice of what question to ask is not. This is not a shortcoming, much less a fault, of science. It is, rather, a reflection of the necessary fact that science is, at bottom, a human endeavor. Running through both psychiatry and neuroscience is a theme that seemed deeply disturbing to me almost from the moment I began reading in the field ... when my conviction that the inner working of the mind was the only mystery worth pursuing made me vow to become a psychiatrist. What disturbed me was the idea that free will died with Freud—or even earlier, with the materialism of the triumphant scientific revolution. Freud elevated unconscious processes to the throne of the mind, imbuing them with the power to guide our every thought and deed, and to a significant extent writing free will out of the picture. Decades later, neuroscience has linked genetic mechanisms to neuronal circuits coursing with a multiplicity of neurotransmitters to argue that the brain is a machine whose behavior is predestined, or at least determined, in such a way as seemingly to leave no room for the will. It is not merely that the will is not free, in the modern scientific view; not merely that it is constrained, a captive of material forces. It is, more radically, that the will, a manifestation of mind, does not even exist, because a mind independent of the brain does not exist.

Jeffrey Schwartz, The Mind & The Brain (2003: 7-8)