Of Mice and fMRI’s

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Nenad Druzic, 500 Pix

Before returning to the density matrix, I want to cover one more base. This is not a polemic, it is a parody of a polemic. I’ve heard that humor is serious business.

On a lecture, TVOntario, regarding the ethical basis for social reform, discussing experimental results in mice, from December, 2006:

I wonder, does she mean that compassion is a biological response, apparently observed in the brains of mice, albeit without explaining how, on earth, an observer would know whether the brain activity of a mouse could certainly be interpreted as something more complex than a mouse could possibly articulate? I mean, how can a mouse understand compassion, first of all, and second, even if it actually felt something close to compassion, a mouse could neither deny nor affirm this conclusively. Third, how does the observer decide what event in the life of a mouse would most probably elicit compassion, as opposed to any other, specific mouse emotion? Finally, how does a scientist prove that a mouse experiences such distinct, linguistically abstruse, equivocal, airy-fairy, unseeable, “unreal”, completely invisible things as what we call, broadly, “emotions”?

Her argument from science, as I understand it, is that observers assert that certain “brain activity” equals the presence, in the consciousness of the mouse, of some form of compassion. Is this assertion also bolstered by some kind of behavioral, active interaction, a compassionate response, an act of compassion on the part of the mouse? The brain activity alone is an argument from silence, literally, as the mouse cannot speak.

Also, what is this researcher trying to say about compassion? It appears that she is boldly and recklessly trying to argue that compassion is a priori biological. She presents an argument from science that is, at best, ridiculously unclear and, at worst, an embarrassment to clear thinkers everywhere. She argues that an altruistic concept like compassion is the result of an evolution of species, that compassion is somehow necessary for the success of species. Further, she argues in a circular manner that the presence of the alleged compassion is evidence for its evolutionary contribution.

My feeling on this, with respect to this earnest person, is that she is entitled to her opinion, but if she is going to advocate the “religious” beliefs of her mentors and colleagues, if she is going to participate in the proselytization of disciples of a “new magic”, a trojan horse in the form of a hollow, positivistic science that can, with its magic machines, actually see the unseeable, if you are going to pretend to see the Emperor’s new MRI picture of compassion, then you will be surprised when the horse opens up and you are conquered and taken prisoner by the hidden army of uncompassionate, intellectually imperialistic propositions that you have invited into your trusting and reasonable soul.

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Painting by René Magritte

Whereas you are, by this argument, being led to believe that we can have an ethics and a moral code independent of, and in fact, in the absence of God, in the name of tolerance and an inoffensive, nonpartisan, “common” reason why we should all try to behave, and that no one group can lay claim to a “right” (as opposed to everyone else’s “wrong”) ethical code, that no nation or institution or individual can “lord it over” any other, it is, in fact, being argued that science, an institutional authority, will lay claim to the “right” kind of inoffensive moral code and science will lord it over everyone, because it says that it can see, it can reveal the unseen, intangible qualia of emotions that the rest of naive humanity has primitively attributed to the silly, immature, unscientific notion of spirit, or soul, or some other such invisible, unparsimonious entities that now only children are dull enough to believe in, like Santa.

Out of the horse comes the aggressively coercive dogma, the arguments that rely more upon distraction (or, if you like, outright deception) in the form of science’s bells and whistles, technological gadgets which really do little more than make pretty pictures and wavy lines, to confirm what a talented student of biology would see without such aids. This argument is, as I said, boldly and recklessly advocating a belief system, with the good-hearted qualification that she believes her argument from science will compel anyone to accept it because, it is assumed, science is the only source of truth. She believes that, by definition, science is unbiased because it is ideologically positivistic in that its propositions spring entirely from observation and not from abstract, conceptual or “airy-fairy”, unsubstantiated claims. She “believes in” science.

She does the scientific, or “right” thing, she thinks, by referring to experimental “evidence” to support her observation that compassion is clearly better than the lack of it, and that the value assigned by religion in the past to this disposition, this emotion, this puzzling, clearly problematic tendency of people to empathize with weaker, obviously unsuitable evolutionary candidates, flys in the face of evolutionary theory in that what is ethically and morally best is survival. If one is weak, according to evolution, it is good that one does not outperform a strong member of a species. The ethics of evolution would imply, even select for and favor a feeling much different in the strong. Evolution, one would think, should result in a strong organism which reveled in its strength; a strong, or better adapted, or some such competition-oriented individual with a biological engineering which generated drives or tendencies that also were dedicated to eliminate weakness; a species that recognized weak individuals to be avoided or destroyed, and that would be chemically, or morally, stimulated by this purely biological necessity. To push the extreme of hyperbole, evolution would result in an organism which would actively seek to secure its evolutionary success by aggressively pursuing a moral code and an ethical agenda which held that the destruction of the weak was good, fine, the highest and best of intentions and the most rewarded of accomplishments.

Thus is revealed her dilemma, that compassion is not something one would expect to find in an evolved species. She reveals her unstated assumption in her identification of the need to place compassion at the center of an evolutionary ethics, thereby making her greatest weakness, her achilles heel, the illusory but clever and somewhat mystical champion of biology. She turns a weakness into a strength, not with scientific evidence but with rhetoric and the very, I believe, deceptive claim that science can take a picture of compassion. One is not convinced of this by demonstration of any kind; one is simply told an astounding, smoke and mirrors story about mice.

It is the epitome of irony that one would be so invested in one’s belief system that she does not realize that simple reliance on a sketchy reference to the scientific process does not constitute an argument but is nothing more convincing than a Christian’s reference to the biblical “history”, or a physicist’s reference to “existence”, or a child’s assertion that “my mommy said so.” She does not see that the claim her experts are making, with the interpretation of the evidence as part of the evidence, concerns a problem that intelligent, coherent thinkers have wrestled with since God knows when, a huge problem, the problem of consciousness and its relation to the physical body, the mystery of different states of consciousness – this problem, it is claimed, is easily solved by scientific technological gadgets, in fact, abracadabra, alacazam, we have a picture of consciousness!

She believes this without question, especially since the specific compassion of a lab mouse has been recorded, since lab mice are the clichéd, unquestioned standard of evidence and it is understood that anyone who carefully observes lab mice must know what they’re talking about. The claim her experts make is so astounding, so truly outrageous, that one must wonder why the amazingness of this scientific power, the power to read the mind of a mouse, a power formerly claimed only by charlatans and swindlers, psychics and mediums, a mystical, godlike power, why the claim to this mystic authority, this disdainful technique used by those whom science shuns and excommunicates as opportunistic, predatory, egocentrics who get all the attention and who, from the point of view of science, have way too much influence over people and need to be put in their place, why this claim to mystic authority, to be a seer like the prophets of old, why this totally unscientific claim is quietly slipped past you, so you don’t get too excited like those religious fanatics. She claims a human power so immense it staggers the mind and she is not the least impressed by the ease with which she tosses out the answer to a question she clearly does not understand.

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