How to Think about Neuroscience

Thinking back over my recent posts about science and subjectivity I wanted to just share a brief comment about how to think about neuroscience.

It drives me crazy how people think neuroscience has illuminated anything about human consciousness. So here's my comment:

Don't mistake correlational science for explanatory science.

When it comes to consciousness, neuroscience is wholly correlational. 100% It doesn't explain anything

Ponder the basic datum of neuroscientific research: "When we observe brain activation at location X, we observe psychological Y." For example, a classic finding: Aphasia is associated with damage to Broca's area. 

Now notice: That observation is wholly correlational. When we see X, we see Y. X and Y regularly, even lawfully, co-occur. And yet, we have no idea why this location in the brain is associated with language. Nor do we know how neurons in this part of the brain create language problems rather than, say, sensory hallucinations. The mechanics of neuronal transmission are identical across the brain. The laws of chemistry are universal and invariant. And yet, the identical chemical mechanisms of neuronal transmission produce radically different subjective experiences. How? Why? Because those neurons are here rather than there? Give me a break. Neuroscientists have no clue how to answer any of these questions. All we have are correlations, zero explanations. 

And yet, it's a pervasive problem with neuroscience that people mistake correlations for explanations. Because we have brain scans, it's assumed, there's nothing more to explain. The truth is, nothing has been explained. Correlations are not explanations. Yes, such regular and lawful correlations presume some causal explanations. But let's be clear, we don't have that, not even close. The fundamental truth about our lives remains a baffling mystery. 

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