Saturday, March 23, 2013
The Fear of Neuroesthetics IV
There are some who fear neuroesthetics because they fear that it may ‘de-mystify’ what they prefer to remain mysterious. Knowledge about brain mechanisms that may be involved in the experience of beauty or of love and desire would deprive them, so they believe, of the full enjoyment of those experiences. I gather that a prominent professor has said that he regards it as ‘unwelcome’ to learn what happens in his brain when he is experiencing beauty. Presumably, if he were sitting on some research council, he would use his influence to suspend research in these areas. So, it is a relief that those who hate neuroesthetics and fear it are not in a position to halt research in the subject, at least not at present. There was a time when they could have and, in some areas of research, came close to doing so. Galileo was investigated by the Inquisition and ordered to stay silent, which he did, sort of, for a while. In the Soviet Union, a law was passed forbidding dissent from Lysenko’s anti-Mendelian views, which resulted in many losing their jobs and even being imprisoned. The law was rescinded in the 1960s.
I have no complaints against those who do not want, through knowledge, to de-mystify things which they hope will remain mysterious. That is their view, and I respect it, sort of. But it has to be noted that these are not people who are avid to learn more. It is not that they are simply dis-interested in certain things but that they are vocal in trying to discourage the rest of us from trying to learn more about important subjects – for I take it that the experience of love, beauty and desire are important and interesting subjects. In this sense, then, their intellect is somewhat limited. Though perfectly entitled to their views, these are not the sort of people whom I would like to have sitting on research councils.
In other ways, their attitude seems strange. Science has been de-mystifying things for millennia but I am not at all sure that the world has been rendered any less marvelous because of it. One could say that landing humans on the moon and bringing them back safely to earth was a step in de-mystifying the heavenly bodies, but it has not rendered the moon any less glorious; one could say that compressing all the secrets of life into two strands of DNA de-mystifies life, but it has made it all the more wondrous to me; one could also say that the role of neurotransmitters in regulating sexual behaviour (and hence determining, at least in the world of rodents, the extent of promiscuity) de-mystifies morality or immorality, at least in the world of rodents, but to me it raises a host of interesting questions about how behaviour is regulated, even when it threatens to invade the world of morality.
Perhaps much the more interesting question is a neurobiological one: why do some people (and there are many of them) prefer mystery to knowledge? What advantage does it bring them and what does it satisfy in them? If one of the functions of the brain is to acquire knowledge, what mechanism is it that suppresses the desire to acquire knowledge in such interesting spheres, when the knowledge does not harm anyone? What dis-advantage would such knowledge bring to them?
The answers to such questions, too, might de-mystify things and those hostile to learning more might want to discourage research councils from funding research in these areas as well. But they remain, nevertheless, interesting questions and so I hope that those who want to dictate what kind of knowledge should be pursued and what avoided are never given a seat in the councils that make decisions about funding research.