Friday, 20 April 2007

neuroscience and experience

From Will Wilkinson (a month ago):
One afternoon recently, Paul [Churchland] says, he was home making dinner when [spouse] Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven my car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.’”
Wilkinson looks upon Pat's statement as a victory of some sort; her capacity to diagnose the chemical cause of her emotional symptoms, and moreover her ability to prescribe a treatment, is rather a trick (apparently, the Churchlands talk like this all the time), but not of the sort Wilkinson wants. He thinks that the alternative to Pat's highly attuned scientific sense of herself--her scientific objectivity, let's say--is what keeps her from walking in and shouting at Paul for making a mess in the kitchen. Sorry, but one has little to do with the other. Naming chemicals doesn't prevent transference. Moreover, any self-observant person is capable of saying, "Paul, don't speak to me, I'm in a bad mood. I need to relax. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I'll be down in a minute." Leave out the neuroscience, and we still get the same result.

None of which is to say I disagree with the self-diagnosis Pat gives--surely she's right. Nor am I insisting there's "more to the experience" (however phenomenologically unsatisfying 'glucocorticoid' may be). Despite my stubborn deterministic materialism, I am simply not convinced science is always helpful. There's a reason we have everyday language, and it's to describe everyday experience. Only for people like Paul and Pat, who know the phenomenological content of 'seratonin', is such a descriptor appropriate. The rest of us already have a word for that: tired.

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