According to a widespread view, a complete explanatory reduction of all aspects of the human mind to the electro-chemical functioning of the brain is at hand and will certainly produce vast and positive cultural, political and social consequences. However, notwithstanding the astonishing advances generated by the neurosciences in recent years for our understanding of the mechanisms and functions of the brain, the application of these findings to the specific but crucial issue of human agency can be considered a “pre-paradigmatic science” (in Thomas Kuhn’s sense). This implies that the situation is, at the same time, intellectually stimulating and methodologically confused. More specifically—because of the lack of a solid, unitary and coherent methodological framework as to how to connect neurophysiology and agency—it frequently happens that tentative approaches, bold but very preliminary claims and even clearly flawed interpretations of experimental data are taken for granted. In this article some examples of such conceptual confusions and intellectual hubris will be presented, which derive from the most recent literature at the intersection between neurosciences, on the one hand, and philosophy, politics and social sciences, on the other hand. It will also be argued that, in some of these cases, hasty and over-ambitious conclusions may produce negative social and political consequences. The general upshot will be that very much has still to be clarified as to what and how neurosciences can tell us about human agency and that, in the meantime, intellectual and methodological caution is to be recommended.
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In presenting a critical view similar to the one defended in this article, Racine, Bar-Ilan and Illes  have coined two neologisms, “neuro-realism” and “neuro-essentialism”. According to them, the first term can be used to describe “how coverage of fMRI investigations can make a phenomenon uncritically real, objective or effective in the eyes of the public. This occurs most notably when qualifications about results are not brought to the reader’s attention. For example, commenting on an fMRI study of fear, one article states, ‘Now scientists say the feeling is not only real, but they can show what happens in the brain to cause it’”. As to the term “neuro-essentialism”, it refers to the cases in which fMRI research is presented “as equating subjectivity and personal identity to the brain. In this sense, the brain is used implicitly as a shortcut for more global concepts such as the person, the individual or the self”.
For a defense of a liberal form of naturalism, which does not imply that, even potentially, the sciences of nature, including neurobiology, could exhaustively account for human mind and agency, see . For one thing, for example, some of the explanations of the social sciences may well be proved to be informative and irreducible to the explanations of the natural sciences.
A recent paper by Ed Vul et al. has sparked a great deal of debate among social neuroscientists even before publication . It consists in a meta-analysis of fifty published articles that explore the high correlations between measures of personality or emotionality in individuals and fMRI scans of specific brain areas. The authors maintain that those “correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures”. A problem arises when “using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds”. The authors call it “non-independent analysis”, and allegedly it “grossly inflates correlations”. Then they argue that “other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases”. According to them, “if researchers select only highly correlated voxels, they select voxels that “got lucky”, as well as having some underlying correlation. So if you take the correlations you used to pick out the voxels as a measure of the true correlation for these voxels, you will get a very misleading overestimate”. Several neuroscientists have replied, however, that the study is flawed and unfair [87, 88; and a series of commentaries published along with 86]. The debate is surely bound to continue.
Another recent line of criticism of the indiscriminate use of neuroimages questions the statistical methods underlying the interpretation of fMRI data. Indeed, according to Colin Klein, “neuroimages present the results of null hypothesis significance tests performed on fMRI data. Significance tests alone cannot provide evidence about the functional structure of causally dense systems, including the brain. Instead, neuroimages should be seen as indicating regions where further data analysis is warranted” .
According to many authors, including Leibniz, Hume, J.S. Mill, and legions of contemporary philosophers, intentions, desires and wills have to be causally determined if freedom is to be possible at all. The opposite would actually generate mere casualness, which is incompatible with freedom.
Bennett and Hacker [81: 228–231] raised a similar criticism against Libet’s experiment.
Enlightening analyses of what neurosciences can do for the free will issue are developed in ; (Roskies, A. 2009. Can neuroscience resolve issues about free will?, unpublished manuscript).
The group of scientists complained also that the data presented by Iacoboni and colleagues was not peer-reviewed. It has to be noted, however, that Iacoboni’s team had already published the results of similar research in a peer-reviewed journal .
The participants in the experiment did not have any previous knowledge of the candidates whose political competence they were asked to assess.
This comment was inspired by an anonymous post on the Brainethics website (accessed on 21 January 2008).
The social constructionist approach to homosexuality is “that there is no ‘natural’ sexuality; all sexual understandings are constructed within and mediated by cultural understandings”; on the contrary, essentialism is the view that “sexuality is innate or biologically driven”, “a deep, unchosen characteristic of persons, regardless of whether they act upon that orientation” .
One could make the case that the often unjustified expectations that today surround neurosciences are similar to those that were provoked by the astonishing results that Newtonian physics reached in its own domain. For a couple of centuries, most intellectuals were confident that Newtonian explanations of fields as different as atomic theory, ethics, and the social sciences were at hand. We now know that that confidence was ungrounded—but this fact, of course, does not affect the huge intellectual value of the Newtonian theory in itself.
Cf.  for a defense of this claim based on the discussion of some historical cases.
It should be noted, that while the Hartian version of utilitarianism accepts the idea of negative retribution, it refuses the idea of positive retribution—i.e., it does not claim that all people who deserve punishment should be punished, whatever consequences their punishment may have.
On the compatibilist tradition, see above, “Neurosciences and Free Will”.
It is fair to say, however, that there are also studies that, more prudently, only aim at investigating the cerebral basis of social hierarchies (and remain neutral in the evaluations of the data) or at discovering the neural mechanisms underlying the correlation between low social status and poor health [101–103].
It is important to consider how the investigations on the role that oxytocin plays in the cerebral mechanisms linked to trust are presented to the general public. Sometimes, an overambitious framing of these investigations may lead to the deceptive impression that such a nuanced and decisive component of social interactions can be reduced to the prevalence or lack of a certain neuropeptide. For example, if the experiments carried out with an oxytocin spray (which seems to increase the generosity of individuals exposed to it) are not properly put into context, they may generate the unjustified expectation that we are on the verge of inventing a “kindness pill” . Moreover, in the long term, this attitude could lead to a sort of “neurobiological resignation”, reinforcing beliefs such as that the brain of mistrustful individuals is predisposed to diffidence, and therefore there is no point in trying to change their behavior or that the egoism of uncooperative individuals merely depends on a lack of oxytocin. In that scenario, investments in pharmaceuticals would of course be considered much more effective than the attempts at increasing the trust among the members of a society [105, 106].
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Lavazza, A., De Caro, M. Not so Fast. On Some Bold Neuroscientific Claims Concerning Human Agency. Neuroethics 3, 23–41 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-009-9053-9
- Human agency
- Free will
- Social neuroscience