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  • Cited by 4
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: May 2010

18 - The limits of neuro-talk


If he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.

E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (1925)

In this nascent age of “neurolaw”, “neuromarketing”, “neuropolicy”, “neuroethics”, “neurophilosophy”, “neuroeconomics”, and even “neurotheology”, it becomes necessary to disentangle the science from the scientism. There is a host of cultural entrepreneurs currently grasping at various forms of authority through appropriations of neuroscience, presented to us in the corresponding dialects of neurotalk. Such talk is often accompanied by a picture of a brain scan, that fast-acting solvent of critical faculties.

Elsewhere in this issue, O. Carter Snead offers a critique of the use of brain scans in the courtroom in which he alludes to, but ultimately brackets, questions about the scientific rigor of such use. For the sake of argument, he proceeds on the assumption that neuroimaging is competent to do what it is often claimed to do, namely, provide a picture of human cognition.

But there are some basic conceptual problems hovering about the interpretation of brain scans as pictures of mentation. In parsing these problems, it becomes apparent that the current “neuro” enthusiasm should be understood in the larger context of scientism, a pervasive cultural tendency with its own logic.

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