Soul on the slab: is there no limit to what neuroscience can do?

Sunday 20th October


Neuroscience provides previously unimagined access to the inner workings of the brain. For enthusiasts, it could be the scientific holy grail, unravelling the mechanics of consciousness and uncovering the biological basis of the human character. Certainly, astonishing claims are made for new techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Every new advance in brain scanning technology leads to greater claims for the power of science. Scanned subjects’ response to different stimuli, when regions of the brain ‘light up’, are said to correlate with emotions, intentions, and feelings. Might an ability to visualise the mind within the brain provide a window into our innermost thoughts, reveal the sources of our deepest desires?

Despite the tremendous potential of breakthroughs in neuroscience, there is now increasing disquiet at the alleged exaggerations made in its name. Critics such as Thomas Nagel, Sally Satel and Raymond Tallis argue the overzealous application of brain science undermines notions of free will and responsibility, reducing all human behaviour to crude determinism. Others fear the rise and rise of neuroscience is side-lining centuries of insights into the human condition provided by the humanities, philosophy, psychology, politics, even religion. But such concerns are often dismissed as outdated and ill-informed, and even heretical when voiced by scientists themselves. So neuroscience’s colonisation of all aspects of life looks unstoppable, spawning a range of new disciplines such as neurolinguistics, neurogenetics, neuroeconomics, as well as educational, behavioural, cognitive and evolutionary neuroscience. Meanwhile, the supposed unlocking of the secrets of the human mind has attracted fashionable enthusiasm far beyond the world of science: policy makers, marketeers, pollsters, artists, lawyers now see neuroscience as the key to unlocking everything from why consumers make certain choices to why people vote left or right, from why we listen to music to why some of us commit crimes.

Has the explanatory power of neuroscience been overestimated or is it the key to reading our minds? Are those calling for a radical neuro-transformation of criminal responsibility, education, public health, social policy too credulous about what some term ‘neurobollocks’? Or is scepticism about neuroscience driven by a stubborn refusal to accept that we are less autonomous than we think? Should we anyway be seeking to keep what goes on in our brains out of public policy?

Detailed info about speakers details, date and time can be accessed here:

And the full festival programme here:


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