How Much Does Neuroscience Rely Upon Inference? First of Two Essays on Neuroscience

5000 words

(Essay 2. From Neuroscience to Neuro-Consciousness. See next blog)

Headings for Essay 1.

  • Movements in the Brain
  • A Clean Start to Life?
  • Are We Like a Computer?
  • The God Gene
  • The Brain and Love
  • Tracing Neural Activity
  • The Offshoots of Neuroscience
  • Determinism or Freewill
  • Consequences of Flaws in Science

Neuroscience Neuroscience is the study of the brain, nervous system and cognitive functions in both humans and animals. This science examines both health and disease.

Neuroscience attracts significant sums of money from medical, biological, military and psychology industries for research into the brain. These industries often have the interest to produce medicine to treat numerous aspects of human and animal mental and physical behaviour through drugs and injections.

Other aspects of science seem to have fallen under the spell of neuroscience through adopting the view that the condition of the brain determines our experience of the body and the mind.

Neuroscience stays faithful to a core underlying scientific belief system deeply rooted in the West, namely research into matter/energy to resolve questions about life. Such sciences start with the belief in reductionism to know reality. Reductionism puts forward an explanation of complex life-science processes and phenomena in terms of physics, biology and chemistry.

The doctrine of reductionism reduces the complexity of phenomena and associated data to the inter-action of the smallest particles of a substance. Scientists examine the smallest particles, which retain its chemical and physical properties, and develop bodies of knowledge from their research. This principle governs neuroscience.

Science infers it has resolved many of life’s pressing issues. Our educational system turns to science to provide us with answers to our deep questions about life.  Are searching in the right direction? Have we handed too much authority over to men and women in white coats? Does the science community infer it knows reality? An inference offers an opinion based upon the science-based information available at the time. There may be accuracy in the inference or way off. We should not underestimate the influence of personal traits, gross or subtle, upon evidence-based science.

Science tells us that the brain weighs around 1.5 kilos with some 55 – 70 billion neurons and performs 38 billion operations per second. It is the centre of the nervous system and located within the skull. These specific cells called neurons create networks which fire in dependency of each other and create memories, thoughts, and emotions. These neurons work under the influence of the genetic makeup of the brain.

Does this mean that the condition of the brain causes all our behaviour? The worldwide neuroscience community differs in their views upon this question. How much do scientists rely on inference in terms of their exploration of the brain?

Articles and books on neuroscience leave the impression that we live our lives under the total influence of the brain. Scientists refer to this viewpoint as biological determinism.

The neuroscience literature abounds with countless examples of the neurological impact which shapes our feelings, thoughts, moods and states of mind.

Countless different views arise from an examination of the same brain scans and the same brain images. Neuroscience keeps producing an ever-expanding range of interpretations of the functions of the brain.

Scientific papers draw different conclusions. Neuroscientists agree with each or disagree with each other. Some agree with some of what their fellow scientists write and disagree with other parts that they write. Some neither agree nor disagree.

How do the conclusions of an evidence-based science differ so frequently between various neuroscientists? Non-scientists find themselves bemused at the range of inferences and interpretations

Let us take some questions pertinent to the brain which lack a uniform answer.

  • Does evolution determine our present and future?
  • Do our genes determine our present and future?
  • Is our brain a product of evolution?
  • Is our brain a product of the family?
  • Is our brain a product of the environment?
  • Is our brain a product of evolution, family and environment?
  • What approximate percentage in the brain comes from evolution?
  • What approximate percentage comes from the family?
  • What approximate percentage comes from the environment?

These unanswered concerns leave thoughtful people in the dark. Science struggles to measure the impact of determinism, family, social, environmental influences and personal choice upon our lives.

Neuroscientists need to make it clear why they hold to a view of biological determinism. They need to show the evidence for deterministic or non-deterministic behaviour. We need to know the difference between inference and insight/truth?

Ambiguity appears as the dominant paradigm in the neuroscience community, despite decades of research and mega grants from governments and the pharmaceutical industry for the exploration into the functions of the brain.

Neuroscience does not appeal to everybody in the quest to know reality It offer a reductionist view of reality at the expense of a diverse, comprehensive and insightful view of humanity and our relationship to enviro-mental life.

Movements in the Brain

Scientists have shifted from declaring the brain to be hard-wired brain to emphasising its plasticity. The concept of malleable, formable neurological activities applies everywhere – to feelings, states of mind and bodily activity (watch a yoga teacher or ballet dancer). We witness the adaptability of the elements, so we can create, design and make things. The brain exercises plasticity like everything else. Yet, we experience the process of learning and reflecting much broader than activity in the brain. We witness change and we respond or react and learn in the aftermath whether this reaction was helpful or not. This helps us to learn, create and adapt even to unknown situations.

Scanning the brain reveals pathways. The pathways facilitate activity with the presence of networks within networks. These activities travel along from one circuit to another. Neurons have the capacity to fire and fuse together. Scientists develop brain maps to find out what goes in the organ and what manifests outwardly in terms of human behaviour. Not surprisingly, any fixation around the brain often draws a similar inference: “We are our brain.”

Neuroscientists often perceive the brain as the cause of the mind and source of the mind. The mind then becomes an offshoot of biological materialism which neuroscientists tend to  regard as a very subtle form of matter.

Schools of thought in ancient India also advocated the material world as true reality. Indian yogis, sages and philosophers claimed that matter lay at the root of all life. Those who adhered to this view had the name Charvakas. The Charvakas dismissed the notion of God, rebirth, karma and ethics. They claimed matter as the supreme reality rejecting conclusions about the nature of the material world. They insisted all attempts to comprehend Nature were doomed to failure.

This sect took the view that views about matter only showed the mind’s search for answers. All direct perceptions, via the senses confirmed matter. Charvakas considered any metaphysical views as irrelevant. Cerebral activity could not shed light on reality because all views spring from the brain. They dismissed the duality of mind and matter insisting that the mind consisted of a subtle form of matter.

Just like the Charvakas, modern science reduces everything that can be known about human experience to what we can know about its physical compounds. Is true that the sum of the compounds of biology, chemistry and physics is all there is to life?

Charvakas rejected any kind of inference to establish valid and universal knowledge. They stated that whenever one infers a truth from a set of observations, one must acknowledge doubt as all inferred knowledge is conditional and can change, sooner or later.

A Clean Start to Life?

Proponents of a clean start to life adopt the view that the brain developed from a single uncorrupted cell. From conception, the brain grows slowly with the rest of the body. As a foetus in the womb, we start life without any thoughts, experiences, stories or insights.

We can  question the viewpoint that we start life in a state of purity through an absence of any underlying influences.

  • Are we born with a long history?
  • Are there underlying tendencies?
  • Where do these influences come from?
  • Why do babies, children and adults behave in different ways from their biological parents?
  • Why do twins or triplets show markedly different patterns of behaviour?
  • Did the brain deceive us into thinking we are not bound to evolution and our genes?

When consciousness/brain/mind develop in the womb, the unborn baby absorbs and develops a range of images, pictures, sensations that come to form experiences.

In the brain, a natural co-ordination takes place of impressions received through the five sense doors. These impressions absorb and integrate into the wealth of daily experiences, feelings, thoughts and memories. These dynamics raise another set of questions.

  • Where in the brain lies the faculty that coordinates impressions and sensations?
  • How do impressions, feelings, thoughts, accumulate to form various states of mind?
  • Why does the mind fall apart for some people in certain circumstances?
  • Why do other people survive the same circumstances unscathed?

Based on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, scientists believe that the brain has evolved over millions of years through natural selection. If we are products of the long past, then the force of evolution leaves little room for independent choice about anything. We learn from evolutionary scientists that the brain functions for survival purposes and to reproduce life.  Evolutionary psychology link together Darwinism, evolution, natural selection and neuroscience.

  • Are survival and reproduction the top priorities of the brain?
  • Why do we think we have a choice?
  • If not, what are the top priorities?
  • Does the brain have any priorities?
  • If survival ranks as the top priority, why do people go to war and have to face death?
  • Why do people want to commit suicide or do commit suicide?
  • Why do people prefer non-existence to existence?
  • If reproduction is the priority, why do so many people live a celibate life or resist having children?

Are we like a computer?

Certain neuroscientists compare the brain to a computer. The screen displays the interplay of the software programs, the hardware of the computer and the fresh data pumped into it. The computer analogy theory has an attraction for some scientists, who state we contain much data already within and more data comes into us for processing.  Just like a computer.

Our inner world and the outer world keep meeting to form states of mind and views revealed in consciousness. Why is that we usually do not feel like a computer?

Our evolutionary history obviously goes back long before we were conceived. Does the long distant past determine our present leaving us helpless in its wake? If so, what can we do to counter balance the impact of evolution upon our lives? If helpful changes do come about, then such consequences also belong to the forces of evolution due to the survival mode kicking in or our desire to reproduce.

Scientists report that the brain reacts to a situation about one third of a second before the mind decides what to act. Neuroscience regards this claim as a confirmation of the brain as the evolutionary powerhouse determining our actions and reactions. Scientists also claim also that our voluntary movements were made up to five seconds before we decided to move. We think we make up our mind whether to act or not. According to evolutionary science, the brain does not offer us such a decision, as the initiation of action belongs to the past, not to the present.

This belief implies that all ‘decisions’ were made seconds before the possibilities to make a decision reached awareness. It leaves no choice in the matter.

People do not respond well to hearing they exist as programmed automatons or a collection of genes which determine our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours without any space for choice or conscious decision making. If this is the absolute truth, then this renders  us as powerless, ineffective and ensnared human beings.

our intentions, will power and determination confirm the past imposing itself as a strategy to get what we want or sustain a self-view we find useful?

The God Gene

The US news magazine told readers on its cover of The God Gene (25 October 2004). The cover said “Does our DNA compel us to seek a higher power? Believe it or not, some scientists say yes.” Other scientists disagreed and others had doubts.

  • Evidence-based God Gene?
  • Belief?
  • Inference?
  • Interpretation?
  • Viewpoint?
  • True reality?

Some neuroscientists claimed the God gene serves the purpose of survival and procreation

Philosophy, religion, culture and the arts have an important contribution to make to our understanding of reality in conventional and ultimate terms. The forming of a deeply held view in sciences does not confirm a truth.

Biology has included religions with its customs, rituals and beliefs into the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest because religion promotes survival including eternal life. The naming of a God gene keeps hard core materialists and fundamental theists happy. The desire to protect a group, society or country and destroy another group, society or country also conveniently supports the survival theory. According to this view our species and other species engage in an innate conditioning of survival and fight for self-preservation.

Such views form a convenient way to avoid responsibility for behaviour and actions. We read about the ‘selfish gene’ or responses such as ‘I blame it on my genes.’ Such mantras have the ring of fatalism. ‘Our life is written in the stars,’ we say.  With its leanings toward determinism, science has plenty to answer for.

Two common responses arise with such views. One person feels good to hold to a scientific view. This person feels that science has nailed down the nature of reality. The other person declines the scientific view. She or he explores alternatives to the Darwinian/evolutionary/neuroscience standpoint based on biology and the brain.

Some advocate a holistic view of reality embracing far more than reductionism and biological determinism. A holistic view explores the world of inter-connection, causes and conditions that make up an expansive view of reality. Holistic medicine explores emotional, mental and social factors rather just examine the symptoms of a disease in the brain or in the body or both.

Others explore the causes and conditions for what arises through evolution. Others determine the dynamics of change without reference to evolution. Some neuroscientists infer great importance to evolution and genes and some infer less importance.

The Brain and Love

Neuroscientists endeavour to explain the ways in which neural pathways reveal wisdom, show unconditional love and develop trust. We read that the prefrontal cortex of the brain includes emotional integration, decision making and social attitudes.

Medical scientist aim to develop in their laboratory pills which evoke experiences and mind states like compassion, empathy, wisdom and oneness. Trials already take place with the aim to put a spiritual pill on the market. It might be the case that psychotherapists in the not-too-distant future will offer such a pill to their clients, so their client can experience a deep feeling of connection with themselves and others.

Clients won’t have to go through analysis, unblock traumas and release fears. A wonder pill will change a client’s view of themselves and others. A daily pill will alter the transmissions in the pathways of the brain to generate a harmonious flow.

In this picture of a brave, new world, a  pill will manipulate the plasticity of the brain so we can dwell in harmony and happily co-operate with others. The researchers see such application of medication to the brain as the key to resolving human suffering. Others resist an Orwellian future in the Matrix. Many people already swallow daily at least one pill believing it will make the mind fit for purpose.

The pharmaceutical industry assiduously explores a biological/neurological solution to the for the range of painful emotions. The industry sees the potential to provide medication to stimulate a range of positive feelings and states of mind and neutralise negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety. The medical approach marginalises the personal history, family, social, political and environmental impact on consciousness. We live a social life rather than a self-contained existence but daily medication easily develops a gap between people  through dumbing down of feelings. We have to develop skills in communication through practices with each other. A daily tablet or two or  more is not  the answer.

The gradual numbing of the human spirit continues so we end up as non-judgemental creatures abiding quietly in the here and now. Daily medication will dissolve our capacity for protest.

Science has developed the technology to make scans of the brain. Much of these changes occurs due to an increase or decrease in blood flow delivering oxygen. Coloured images of brain activity light up on the screen showing the brain. Images can capture neural stimulations, such as falling in love, strong friendship and acts of compassion. Neuroscientists refer to a ‘love spot.’

Such a standpoint fails to appreciate that love manifests in an infinite number of ways. Acts of love cannot possibly always spark a neural response in the same limited location of the brain.

Love does not possess an inherent characteristic that remains the same. A mother loves her baby. She experiences happiness and warmth holding the baby in her arms. The same mother hears the baby crying beside her in the night. She picks the baby up and walks up and down for an hour or two with the baby in her arms. She would much prefer that she and the baby were asleep.

The mother still shows her love for her baby, though her predominant response shows equanimity. A spot in her brain does not light up showing: “Oh I am so happy to be woken up in the middle of the night to hold my baby again.” And again, the next night and the night after that.

Love includes action, subtle or dramatic, and non-action. Love includes doing and being. Love includes calmness and passion. Love includes presence and absence. Love includes feelings, emotions and thoughts. Love includes their absence, too. Love reveals itself through stillness. Love reveals itself through movement. There is no colour to love. No spot of love. No single form of love. There is no love gene. We cannot put love into a box. Neuroscientists can only infer a ‘love spot.’

Tracing  Neural Activity

Many neuro experiments treat human beings as respondents to stimuli in the brain. The belief that  every human response can be allocated to a region in the brain gives selfness to that location. If that were the case, then the same response or reaction would always occur in the same way. This would happen regardless of the inner or outer circumstances.

The brain consists of billions of different kinds of connections. Influences inside t and outside the brain affect its processes. The technology of sophisticated brain scanning is limited to photocopying neural activity and biological impulses.

Certain influential neuroscientists infer that the biology of the brain produces the entirety of states of heart and mind. Brain and mind can experience can correlate at times. A strong impression/emotion in the mind falls together with a specific movement in the brain. Nevertheless, there are important changes in perception which remain undetectable among the 45 billion transmissions.

The experience of water, hot, warm and cold differs from the  scientific concept of water as H2O. Seeing colours and drinking water are part of knowing reality through first-hand experience rather than abstract measurements and definitions.

Scientific ‘truths’ change with more research. The truth of the conclusion’s changes into a non-truth, an insubstantial truth. The science industry regularly delivers false dawns to the public in terms of finding a cure for a sickness or a pill to enhance qualities without side effects.

Our species suffers from an extensive range of sickness, diseases and viruses. We find cures for some only to face new threats to our health.  Food and industrial scientists fail to detail the consequences in the short and long term to all forms of life. Abuse of land, water, heat and air has serious consequences at a global level. Science carries on in much the same modus operandi while claiming to be in touch with evidence-based research while scientists infer different conclusions from the evidence. We cannot rely upon the brain to conclude objectively the ‘evidence.’

For example, two generations ago, scientific research claimed that smoking cigarettes offered little or no risk. Today we know that smoking cigarettes and the chemicals in cigarette paper contributes significantly to numerous kinds of cancer. Yet cigarettes remain easily available everywhere.

The Offshoots of Neuroscience

Neuroscience gives rise to neuropolitics, neuroeconomics, neurosociology, neurotheology (the God gene and more) and so on. Scientists, academics and various researchers write books on the way our brain forms our views and attitudes as if all our mental makeup simply expresses as an outburst or extensions of the brain.

Neuroscientists engage in ongoing research to hold the brain accountable for human behaviour. The pharmaceutical industry engages in laboratory research to provide the medication to adjust the brain. Primary changes necessary for harmony, happiness and integration require co-operation between people. We do not need a daily addiction to tablets to get through the day.

The neuroscience industries slowly move society into a collection of individual brains that need adjustment in order to fit in with the primary aim of society to produce and consume.  A biochemical view of humans reduces us to a set of biological drives that have evolved since the Big Bang. Such reductionism neglects our remarkable capacity to  engage in life beyond daily indulgence in production and consumption.

Protest confirms as a valid response to the system. Dissent goes some way to healing our frustrations through empowering ourselves and others to act.

Our refusal to accept any dogmatic based scientific standpoint provides us with the potential to explore reality, vast, dependently arising and inclusive of consciousness.

Determinism or Free Will?

Those who believe in determinism claim that all events, including ethics, love and empathy, arise due to previously existing causes. Human beings cannot act differently from the way that we act.

Those who believe in free will claim that the self always has the capacity to choose his or her course of action.

Neuroscientists find themselves on the horns of another dilemma that they cannot solve.

  • Is there free will?
  • Is there both free will and no free will?
  • Do we have some free will?
  • Is there neither free will nor determinism?
  • Are we subjected to determinism?
  • Are we not subjected to determinism?
  • Are we subjected to some determinism?
  • If so, what determines what so-called choices and actions?
  • What does not determine choices and actions?

After decades of research into the brain, neuroscience cannot offer answers to the above questions. There is no definitive collective agreement in the science community. The belief in the determinism of our life through neurological impulses and stimulations would negate ethics since a deterministic view of human behaviour confines all actions to the past, recent and distant.

In the absence of choice, we cannot hold anyone responsible or accountable for their actions. If impulses born out of neurological activity caused everything to happen, one has no choice. We can end up thinking that life moves along in a purposeless and meaningless way.

The dilemma of free will versus determinism reflects the unresolvable duality in the Western mind. We do not have to resolve such dualities to know an undivided reality.

Freewill means we could let go of any problematic state of mind at any time we choose. If we cannot let go of the problematic and traumatic, then free will belongs to mythology or to the most superficial of choices.

The view of hardcore materialism denies the existence of consciousness because advocates cannot fit consciousness into their world view. We do not have to swing to the other extreme of free will. Clearly human beings cannot do everything they want to do, no matter how strong their will.

  • If there is free will, then perceptions, consciousness and actions do not depend upon the movements of the brain.
  • If there is no free will, then historical conditioning in the brain determines all actions of body, speech and mind.
  • If we had free will, we could choose to stop any problematic behaviour that brought about suffering for ourselves and suffering for others.
  • How can will be free when it requires various factors such as energy, intention, interest, ability and knowledge to act?
  • Even when the factors are present, why does their presence not guarantee a free will?
  • Do we know a location in the brain for freewill?
  • Do we know a location in the brain for determinism?

The stance of neither free will nor determinism offers a fresh area for inquiry.

What brings about activity of the mind? Big Bang, God, nature, life, spontaneous, chance, fate, destiny or the stars seems like more examples of inference or an informed guess in terms of making predictions about what influences what.

For science to become the resource of faith, scientists need to explain precisely what they have discovered to dissolve this dilemma.

  • Does the past determine our lives?
  • Do we have free will?
  • Does the past determine some of our lives and free will occurs in other areas?
  • Does neither of the above apply?

Consequences of Flaws in Science

Scientists have concentrated their minds on the quest for scientific answers to the fundamental questions of life. Yet, despite of all the efforts, science seems no closer to providing the answer to such questions.

At times, scientific enlightenment comes across as unenlightened. Many of us let go of the Church and religious leaders for the answers to the big questions. Perhaps the time has come to let go of science as the means to know reality.

Scientists fail to investigate the reality of intentions, actions and consequences. As a result, life of earth remains under threat of major extinction within generations.  Science ignored the reality of such consequences through obsession with materialism, reductionism, theoretical/applied science and laboratory experiments on animals and under the microscope. Far too many scientists let us and themselves down.

Science often appears like a foreign language only accessible to an elite. The language of science seems as abstract as Latin to householders in the Middle Ages. At that time, the priests of the Christianity kept Latin to themselves. Laypeople were left to believe the privileged elite. Have scientists replaced the priests?

The belief that physics, chemistry, biology, laws, principles and endless scientific research will resolve the crisis on Earth seem farfetched. We need science to address reality, not bits of it. The current ideology seems dangerously out of touch with the reality of dependent arising circumstances and its impact on the web of life.

We need to listen, share and learn from each other to make worthwhile changes supporting an integrated way of life. The best of neuroscience has a real contribution to make. Neuroscience must make up its mind about its priorities.

Neuroscience needs to examine its priority of interest. Is it:

  • Endless research?
  • Support for the Government?
  • Support for the Pharmaceutical Industry
  • Support for Corporations?
  • Support for the public?
  • Support for the global ecological crisis?

That requires meditation, reflection and a deep inquiry. Not more research.

May all beings explore intentions, actions and consequences

May all beings explore the dependent arising  circumstances

May all beings awaken to an expansive reality.

This is a chapter from  a book

due to be published later in the year

 titled The Power of Delusion

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