Wednesday, 10 December 2014


Simply put, neurofundamentalism is the belief that brains are creators. Where traditional theists believe in an all powerful God, neurofundamentalists believe in all powerful brains. But where traditional theists struggle against scientific materialism, neurofundamentalists fully embrace science in the certain conviction that it will eventually be confirmed that brains create images, models and symbols. Whilst neurofundamentalists await revelation from the gods of neuroscience, they draw attention to their sacred neurological equivalent of the Turin shroud ("grid cells" and "place cells") and declare these as solemn proof of the capacity of brains to generate their own tools. Yes tools. For what are models and images if not tools? But neurofundamentalists go much further than this. Not only do they claim that brains construct models and images, but according to neurofundamentalists, they also trade in some of the most sophisticated tools ever to have been devised by culture: symbols, signs and codes.

Like their traditional counterparts, neurofundamentalists come in various creeds, from idealists who are unshakeable in their conviction that everything we experience is a construct of the brain, to those of a more moderate persuasion who claim that brains only construct models if and when the need arises.

As preposterous as any of this may sound, it is a matter of demonstrable fact that neurofundamentalism is the current orthodoxy in the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind. The opponents of neurofundamentalism, on the other hand, are a small, fragmented and largely ignored minority. And like any reasonable people these thinkers also look to science and reason for evidence. Unlike neurofundamentalists though, they know that the search for what-was-never-there is a futile enterprise. In more than half a century of careful searching, not a single symbol has ever been found in any of the countless brains examined in this quest for the holy grail of neurofundamentalism.

It should be perfectly obvious that tool-use only evolves where intelligent agents are surrounded by raw materials and are fully embedded within fluctuating and often hostile environments populated by other intelligent competing organisms. Brains are not agents, their environment is relatively stable, they have no access to raw materials and they are in no direct competition with other intelligent organisms. There is no way in the world that brains are capable of constructing models, forming images or of generating and encoding symbols. These are the exclusive products and techniques of cultural evolution, not biological evolution. The necessary evolutionary antecedents of culture are completely different from those of biology. 

Whenever a theory assumes that biology can do what culture has become capable of doing under very different circumstances we should be on our guard because it is very likely that a vital distinction has been missed. Let's hope that neurofundamentalism is not as tenacious as its more traditional equivalents.


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