If Brain Determines Politics, It Also Determines Science
Recognizing a self-refuting position is a shortcut through the paralysis of scientific analysis.
“Does brain structure determine your political views?” asks Timandra Harkness in a BBC News article. She reports on the work of Darren Schreiber, of Exeter University, who used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look for differences between conservatives and liberals when they were asked to make decisions.
While their decisions weren’t all that different, Dr Schreiber saw variation in the parts of the brain that were most active in self-described conservatives and those who called themselves liberal.
He won’t generalise about exactly how conservatives and liberals think, but he does think his work suggests that differing political outlooks reflect deep-seated divergence in how we understand the world.
So far, this information should not be surprising. Variations in brain scans could be due to many things other than political views. It’s only when Schreiber, along with Read Montague (University College London) and John Hibbing (U of Nebraska), approach the subject of biological determinism that philosophers might take notice. Harkness is quick to point out that they recognize the logical problem.
“Biological determinism is a little tricky with these situations, because there’s just too much variation across different political systems.
“So I think you’d risk simplifying things by saying that there is a hard-wire that’s determining the outcome.”
Darren Schreiber agrees: “Human politics is extraordinarily complex. It’s not just reduced to brain, and I want to be very clear that I’m not a biological determinist. We’re hardwired not to be hardwired.“
“If people were simplistic we wouldn’t need these very big, complex brains.”
None of the scientists doing this research claims that our political views are completely innate.
That’s good, Harkness later sighs with relief. Harkness recognizes that if our political views are biologically determined, politics would be pointless. But is simply denying biological determinism an escape? Hibbing comes close to touching the wires together that create a logical short circuit:
Human brains change throughout our lives, so neuroscientists are careful to say that our experiences, as well as our genes, have shaped the brain they’re putting in the scanner.
But John Hibbing believes our subconscious drives, which evolved long ago in response to urgent physical dangers, direct our political minds more than we like to think.
“People like to believe that their own political beliefs are rational, that they’re a sensible response to the world around them, so when we come along and say, ‘Maybe there are these predispositions, influential but perhaps not fully in your conscious awareness,’ that’s not the way we like to view our own political beliefs.”
He compares our innate ideological tendencies to which hand we prefer to use. We used to think of this as a habit that could be changed, yet now know it to be “deeply embedded in biology“.
Taking that view to its logical conclusion, Hibbing would be forced to consider his own scientific reasoning as deeply embedded in biology, too. Unless he could provide an explanation for how anyone could lay hold of the realm of rationality in a reliable way, how could he avoid the trap of not being able to discern that his own scientific views were determined by “subconscious drives, which evolved long ago”?
Simply asserting that he doesn’t believe in determinism is not enough. Harkness allows Hibbing to plead not guilty:
I was relieved to find that even John Hibbing doesn’t draw that conclusion. “It’s not so much that I think people should just shut up and accept that some people are different. But I do think they should accept that some people are either not going to change or they’re going to be extremely difficult to change, and that simply by continuing to shout at them, we’re not contributing to anything.”
Hibbing is thinking. That’s the crux of the problem: is his thinking valid, or is it determined? Even if the human mind is only “influenced” by a “predisposition” to see the world in a certain way, how can he trust his thoughts to have any reliability, as long as he claims that person’s thoughts are “deeply embedded in biology” such that they are “extremely difficult to change”? And what is “change,” but a switch from one biological predisposition to another, if the brain evolved? Unless “ideas” have validity in a reasoned way, Harkness’s fear is real: politics is pointless.
Harkness chooses to believe her ideas have validity. “…I still think politics should be about taking our ideas out into the world beyond our skulls, the real world of challenging beliefs and clashing opinions,” she ends, with this joke tacked on at the end: “Perhaps I’m just hard-wired to think that way.”
You can save yourself a lot of needless work when wading through evolutionary claims by finding the self-refuting proposition. If our thoughts evolved, they are not thoughts. If our beliefs are determined by the physical brain, they are not grounded in reality. If our thoughts are hard-wired in the brain by blind, evolutionary forces, then we can’t even be sure they are thoughts, or that they are hard-wired in the brain. Short circuit! Nothing is real, nothing matters, and science is a waste of time. Biological determinism is the death of science.
Conversely, the Biblical world view, grounded in God’s rationality and (in part) designed into creatures He made in His image, is the only self-consistent foundation for science. Reason, logic, and thought need an unwavering pole star that transcends the physical universe. That pole star is God Himself. We don’t always align with it, but to the extent we do, we can have confidence in our attempts.