How Neuroscience Is Shrinking Our Concept of Consciousness

The vast empire over which human reason once ruled has been made a fiefdom by current neurological research. The brain is as vulnerable to outside influence as any other organ.  

What's the Latest Development?

According to a recent wave of books on developments in neuroscience, just about everything we thought we knew about ourselves is wrong. From the actions and reactions of chemicals in our brains to the decisions we tell ourselves are made rationally, the influence of "cognitive bias" goes deep. "A study of judges in Israel, for example, revealed that 65 percent of requests for parole were granted after meals, dropping steadily to zero until the judges’ 'next feeding.'" Willpower, too, has fallen by the wayside. Stopping bad habits means surrendering to the power of our impulses and satisfying them with healthier behaviors. 

What's the Big Idea?

Self-reflection, introspection and conscious thinking have been at the center of how we understand ourselves because they are the most immediate tools we have to do so. But modern scientific equipment makes the scalpel of the philosopher appear rather blunt. For this reason, the linguistic philosopher John Searle says he is becoming less and less satisfied with philosophy. "People have always been interested in how the brain works, but we’ve got to see it as a more natural process, like digestion and photosynthesis," Searle said. But when it comes to moral agency, that is something we will continue believing in for some time.

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