Soul on the slab: is there no limit to what neuroscience can do?

Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

Neuroscience provides previously unimagined access to the inner workings of the brain. For enthusiasts, it could be the scientific holy grail, unravelling the mechanics of consciousness and uncovering the biological basis of the human character. Certainly, astonishing claims are made for new techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Every new advance in brain scanning technology leads to greater claims for the power of science. Scanned subjects’ response to different stimuli, when regions of the brain ‘light up’, are said to correlate with emotions, intentions, and feelings. Might an ability to visualise the mind within the brain provide a window into our innermost thoughts, reveal the sources of our deepest desires?

Despite the tremendous potential of breakthroughs in neuroscience, there is now increasing disquiet at the alleged exaggerations made in its name. Critics such as Thomas Nagel, Sally Satel and Raymond Tallis argue the overzealous application of brain science undermines notions of free will and responsibility, reducing all human behaviour to crude determinism. Others fear the rise and rise of neuroscience is side-lining centuries of insights into the human condition provided by the humanities, philosophy, psychology, politics, even religion. But such concerns are often dismissed as outdated and ill-informed, and even heretical when voiced by scientists themselves. So neuroscience’s colonisation of all aspects of life looks unstoppable, spawning a range of new disciplines such as neurolinguistics, neurogenetics, neuroeconomics, as well as educational, behavioural, cognitive and evolutionary neuroscience. Meanwhile, the supposed unlocking of the secrets of the human mind has attracted fashionable enthusiasm far beyond the world of science: policy makers, marketeers, pollsters, artists, lawyers now see neuroscience as the key to unlocking everything from why consumers make certain choices to why people vote left or right, from why we listen to music to why some of us commit crimes.

Has the explanatory power of neuroscience been overestimated or is it the key to reading our minds? Are those calling for a radical neuro-transformation of criminal responsibility, education, public health, social policy too credulous about what some term ‘neurobollocks’? Or is scepticism about neuroscience driven by a stubborn refusal to accept that we are less autonomous than we think? Should we anyway be seeking to keep what goes on in our brains out of public policy?

Dr Julian Baggini
founding editor, the Philosophers' Magazine; author, Freedom Regained: the possibility of free will and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World

Professor Bill Durodié
head of department and chair of international relations, University of Bath

Professor Geraint Rees
director, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience; senior clinical fellow, Wellcome Trust

Dr Sally Satel
resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; psychiatrist; author, Brainwashed: the seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
Brain science turns to skepticism: As neuroscience’s funding and influence grows, so do doubts over its hype

U.S. President Barack Obama’s much-hyped BRAIN initiative to crack the mysteries of consciousness via a finely detailed map of the brain in action took its first big step this week, with the release of a strategy report that foresees “revolutionary advances” in the $100-million effort to “crack the brain’s code,” perhaps in as little as “a few years.”

National Post, 20 September 2013

Neuro-backlash? What backlash?

We don’t see any neuroscience backlash threatening to toss out the neuroscientific baby with the brain-water. And we’re glad about that. What we do see, however, is value in examining the language people use when talking about the relationship between the brain and the mind.

Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, Rationally Speaking, 16 September 2013


Ignore the neuro-determinists: man is more than a machine.

Stuart Derbyshire, spiked, 5 September 2013


Whether based on attachment theory or neurobabble, the claim that human beings are set in stone by the age of three is groundless.

Helene Guldberg, spiked, 16 July 2013

Standing up to the white-coated gods of fortune

Science has replaced Fortuna in fancying itself as the revealer of men's fates.

Brendan O’Neill, spiked, 8 July 2013

in association with