Not so fast. On some bold neuroscientific claims concerning human agency

Neuroethics 3 (1):23-41 (2010)
Abstract
According to a widespread view, a complete explanatory reduction of all aspects of the human mind to the electro-chemical functioning of the brain is at hand and will certainly produce vast and positive cultural, political and social consequences. However, notwithstanding the astonishing advances generated by the neurosciences in recent years for our understanding of the mechanisms and functions of the brain, the application of these findings to the specific but crucial issue of human agency can be considered a “pre-paradigmatic science” (in Thomas Kuhn’s sense). This implies that the situation is, at the same time, intellectually stimulating and methodologically confused. More specifically—because of the lack of a solid, unitary and coherent methodological framework as to how to connect neurophysiology and agency—it frequently happens that tentative approaches, bold but very preliminary claims and even clearly flawed interpretations of experimental data are taken for granted. In this article some examples of such conceptual confusions and intellectual hubris will be presented, which derive from the most recent literature at the intersection between neurosciences, on the one hand, and philosophy, politics and social sciences, on the other hand. It will also be argued that, in some of these cases, hasty and over-ambitious conclusions may produce negative social and political consequences. The general upshot will be that very much has still to be clarified as to what and how neurosciences can tell us about human agency and that, in the meantime, intellectual and methodological caution is to be recommended.
Keywords Human agency  Free will  Neuropolitics  Neuroethics  Social neuroscience
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