Materialism and neuroscience reductionism

Submitted by AWL on 22 June, 2021 - 6:06
In people's heads

John Cunningham’s review of The Idea of the Brain in Solidarity 597 asks “Is there a Marxist analysis of the Brain?” Although John answers “probably not”, we need to be much clearer.

Marxism is not a-theory-of-everything but a rigorous (scientific, if you like) understanding of human society, its history and progress, conjoined with the value-driven (non-scientific) wish for a complete human existence in an imminent fair and free society. As such Marxism has something to say about scientific method. Certainly, Marxists have much to say on the impact of class society, gender and racial inequality on the practice of science, but in the end they are arguing not for a different kind of science, just good science.

John’s main concern is for science to be “materialist” and that our understanding of the brain must proceed from the bottom up, from the atomistic level of neurobiology. He states “Everything in the head is material”, appearing to mean human behaviour has to be understood in terms of neurobiology. This is in contrast to those who study behaviour, ideas, motivations and so on (Freud, Pavlov) who, John implies, are not materialists.

This is a crude materialism, where anything other than deterministic and mechanical relations is ruled out of court. The psychodynamic approach of Freud is rejected along with the (quite separate) behaviouralist school (of which Pavlov was an early exponent). All psychology that starts with the study of observable behaviour (or worse, the ideas, feelings or mental structures on which it is based) is rejected.

One (and only one) problem with this is that it shackles the study of human behaviour. The human brain is the most complex entity human science has studied. We do not, and may never, understand how the physical operation of the brain becomes behaviour, let alone complex social interactions. More importantly, John attempts to reduce the social-psychological to only a biological level, which even in theory is wrong.

This is not to say we should be uncritical of current psychology. Freud has been rightly criticised for reflecting the gender and sexual mores of the society in which he worked. And while his work was based on observation, there is a strong case that the abstractions he made were non-scientific, subjective and untestable.

Much modern psychology tends towards the behavioural school, entirely the opposite of the psychodynamic. It contains no speculation about the inner workings of the mind, which is sometimes conceptualised as an unknowable black box. Its starting (and often end) point is the relationship between inputs (stimuli) and outputs (behaviours) without any theorising about the brain’s internal workings (feelings, ideas, motivations). The problem with such an approach is that it reduces the science of the mind to statistical correlations between stimuli and behaviours in an attempt to be science, too positivist an approach. Broader theorising tends to be squeezed out.

The answer to this is for psychology to be integrated into the broader more inclusive study of society, not the reductionism based on neurobiology that John expounds.

Matt Cooper, London

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