Tuesday, April 7, 2009

No More Brain Research!

I'm not sure why I keep bothering with this, but there's another neuroscience article going around on how poverty causes stress which causes inter-generational poverty; a fact that scientists discover by peering into stress levels in the brain.  

I don't even care for the moment whether the causal link is true or not; for all I know, it may be.  The broader point is that things can be real without you finding where they are in the brain.  Moreover, you finding a correlation between something in the brain and something in the real world does not let you ascribe full causal force to the thing in the brain.  And if you want to link the thing in the brain to future poverty, you might as well actually test that link, instead of saying "it hurts working memory by a little!  Our work is done."  Plus, how many interesting dynamic things are the in the world, where, say, poverty changes or income changes or something happens.  This kind of stuff happens all of the time.  Notice how you can explain exactly none of those changes using something that is a fixed human constant.  

This stress thing is really popular among people who study healthcare too.  But there's really nothing you can do about stress without radical social engineering.  On the other hand, there are a million and one interventions you can think of on education and healthcare that can radically improve both.  DC's voucher program, for instance, improves kids reading scores by a half grade. Except that program just got killed by Congress.  Awesome.  


Anonymous said...

The article argues that poverty causes stress in children; stress in children causes brain maladaptation; brain maladaptation causes bad things, like poverty. I wonder about other factors which could cause stress in children -- having an alcoholic, abusive, or otherwise bad parent; being homosexual or part of some otherwise ostracized social group; etc, etc. The stress involved in being the child of an abusive parent makes one stupider -- is that supposed to make it more likely that the child will become an abusive parent, or more likely that the child will end up in poverty? If the former, then we seem to have an uninsightful and useless explanation of a familiar phenomena: abused kids make for abusive parents. If the latter, then it seems that being homosexual should cause stupidity and poverty too; but that seems not to be the case.

Even more objectionable than the shoddy argument is the rhetoric at the end: "The Bible says, “the poor you will always have with you.” Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg may have provided an important part of the explanation why." So we have the classic trope that science can explain religious stuff better than religion itself, so what are we doing believing in god anymore anyway? Of course, the writer takes care to say that the study only "may have" explained some part of the Bible. The "may have" is disingenuous. It is intended to make the author (and the study) look like good followers of the scientific ethic -- it makes the claim just a hypothesis (like any empirical claim must be), still open to testing, revision, etc, etc; but it is still a claim grounded by empirical evidence and the scientific method, giving it a legitimacy well beyond that of religion. But really he has to say "may have" because the explanation doesn't explain shit about why poverty happens or how to fix it, just like it wouldn't explain shit about why abuse perpetuates itself and how to fix that.

I would like to do fMRI scans on people who write articles like this, and people who think they're stupid crap, and see if we can find anything to differentiate them.

Thorfinn said...

I also don't think you're going to like David Brooks column.


"The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning."

I think this really gets to your other complains about brain stuff and morality. This idea that new scientific research is destroying our view of morality by laying bare its essentially emotional base.

Am I supposed to throw away reason now that I recognize moral intuitions? But he had to use reason to discover all of this crap. This affirms the basic point of the scientific method, while in no way diminishing the value of morality.

And if people do make moral intuitive leaps, what that does do for me as a new atheist? Logically, I should push my views even more, because people sure aren't going to buy them logically, but they may emotively.

I think the biggest problem I have with all of this is how people cynically misuse science to support their beliefs, but then keep things clouded enough so they can't actually be challenged on scientific grounds.

Anonymous said...

The Brooks article is mostly just silly. It seems a given that our moral judgments (as well as our aesthetic judgments, like judgments about the taste of food), are "snap" judgments, most of the time. If, in order to decide whether or not a given dish is a good one, I need to consult a rule and deliberate as to whether or not the dish accords with that rule, I do not have the taste of a seasoned critic. The seasoned critic should know, straight off, whether or not the dish is a good one. Similarly, a virtuous person should be able to know, straight off, whether or not a deed or a person is a good one. If I think anything else, then I have an empirically terrible understanding of how aesthetic and moral judgment actually works. Surely the philosopher who argues that moral judgments are somehow grounded in "reason" is saying something less silly than that every moral judgment comes down to a person consulting a rule and deliberating as to whether the situation fits it.

There are, of course, reasons we might think we need to say that moral or aesthetic judgments do work like this. There may be situations in which such an evaluation is genuinely difficult for anyone, given the complex nature of the case. In the course of figuring out what to judge, even the seasoned critic or the virtuous person may consult some familiar rules. From this we may get to the thought that somehow or another this gives us a picture of _all_ moral judgments: one consults a rule and decides if the way things seem to be accords with it.

But even in those difficult situations, the rules one might consult don't and can't provide the final word on what the judgment should be. Only the person's trained, seasoned "sense of judgment" can provide the final word. I will ultimately judge an act as good because my moral sense sees it so, not because it happens to accord with one rule or another, even if its according with one rule or another was, in this case, a significant part of my moral sense coming to see the act as good. In most cases, I do not need to reflect or consult a rule. Since it is wrong to claim that the rule is what somehow decides my judgment even in the difficult cases in which I must consult a rule, it is completely wrong to claim that the rule has much of anything, empirically, to do with my judgment in the easy cases in which I judge "straight off".

It is because this way of portraying moral judgment as grounded in reason is so obviously wrong and unappealing that so many think that moral judgment must come down to "emotion". That's what this "moral sense" which enables me to judge "straight off" must be -- a mere emotion, wired by evolution! The emotional wiring that makes me react with disgust at a morally objectionable act is just like the emotional wiring that makes me react with fear when a big monster or whatever approaches.

This leap to the insistence that morality is all about emotion relies on a misleading dichotomy between reason (as conscious deliberation) and emotion (as everything else). A good judge of something (like food, or music) does not (usually) need to consciously deliberate about the quality of what he is judging. He has so internalized an understanding of what makes for good food or good music that he can just taste or hear, straight off, whether or not something is good.

It seems misleading and dissatisfying to say that, because the critic is not consciously deliberating, he must be drawing on his _emotions_, and that a good critic just has well-trained emotions. Being a good critic requires having a grasp of concepts about what goes into an ideal dish or an ideal work of music. Having a grasp of such concepts involves thinking as much as it does emotion, if not significantly more so.

Think about language. We need a grasp of the notion of language and a given language's lexicon and grammar just to be able to hear someone speaking _as_ someone speaking, as opposed to a bunch of sound. It is from this very mastery of a language that we can also often instantaneously recognize a sentence as a bad or malformed one without even consciously thinking. We do not think of this grasp we have on language as some merely emotional predisposition. Similarly, we shouldn't portray the grasp a critic has on certain concepts as merely emotional predispositions.

A moral person is much like a trained critic. Just as the critic has the conceptual training necessary to straight-off recognize and evaluate certain qualities of food that the untrained person would overlook, a moral person has the conceptual training necessary to straight-off recognize and evaluate moral considerations. Concepts aren’t something you consult consciously every time you deliberate. But every time you pass a judgment, you are in a sense drawing on them. A grasp of various concepts are logically necessary to many of our unreflective judgments (a grasp of various concepts about space is necessary to my unreflective judgment that the ball hurtling toward me is going to hit me in the face – to make that judgment, I must have a grasp of those concepts, but it’s not like I consult those concepts when I make that judgment).

Moral judgments are logically depend on concepts, and concepts are an exercise of our rational capacities. This has nothing to do with a separate psychological claim, that every time I make a moral judgment I have to consciously deliberate about a rule. Unfortunately, a great deal of moral philosophy thinks that the latter is what goes into the claim that morality is linked with rationality. Even more unfortunately, a great deal of moral philosophy thinks the psychological claim is right – indeed, must be right, if morality is not to devolve into groundless emotional reaction. For that reason, I can’t really blame the evolutionary response Brooks details. They need to read some Kant and move past their misleading and unhelpful dichotomy between reason and emotion, but that’s nothing new.