Siri Hustvedt discusses material reductionism in the Times. Nothing new, but a nice little piece on the subject:
As Freud argued over a century ago, most of what our brains do is unconscious, beneath or beyond our understanding. No one disputes this anymore. The human infant is born immature, and in the first six years of its life, the front part of its brain (the prefrontal cortex) develops enormously. It develops through experience and continues to do so, although not as dramatically. Our early life, much of which never becomes part of our conscious memory because it’s lost to infantile amnesia (our brains cannot consolidate conscious memories until later), is nevertheless vital to who we become.
A child who has good parental care — is stimulated, talked to, held, whose needs are answered — is materially affected by that contact, as is, conversely, the child who suffers shocks and deprivations. What happens to you is decisive in determining which neural networks are activated and kept. Since we are born with far too many neurons, the ones that aren’t used are “pruned”; they wither away. This explains why so-called “wild children” are unable to acquire anything but the most primitive form of language. It’s too late. It also demonstrates how nurture becomes nature and to make simple distinctions between them is absurd. A baby with a hypersensitive genetic makeup that predisposes him to anxiety can end up as a reasonably calm adult if he grows up in a soothing environment.
So Crick was technically right. What seem to be the ineffable riches of human mental life do depend on “an assembly of nerve cells.” And yet, Crick’s reductionism does not provide an adequate answer to Alice’s question. It’s rather like saying that Vermeer’s “Girl (or Woman or Maidservant) Pouring Milk” is a canvas with paint on it or that Alice herself is words on a page. Read More...