The Neuroscience of Certainty: Some Philosophical Implications

By McKinney, Ronald H. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Neuroscience of Certainty: Some Philosophical Implications


McKinney, Ronald H., Philosophy Today


Within the past decade, the current research of neuroscientists has been summarized and made accessible to the non-specialist. I want to focus in this essay on the work of Timothy Wilson, Robert Burton, and Jonah Lehrer. Their scholarship has illuminated for many the relationship between the emotional unconscious brain and the rational conscious brain. Moreover, their elucidation of the role of dopamine in the brain's reward system has helped highlight the strange "paradox of pleasure" that exists regarding our complementary passions for both certainty and uncertainty. I want to argue that such empirical findings shed light on some of the more controversial issues in ethical philosophy today. First, I will summarize their conclusions, and then I will show how the principles of Neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics are supported by this current research.

The Role of the Adaptive Unconscious

Timothy Wilson argues that the new discoveries of neuroscience today require that we distinguish the Freudian notion of the unconscious from that of the newer concept of the adaptive unconscious. ' If Freud thought we repressed certain insights and memories because they were anxiety-provoking, contemporary empirical psychologists conclude that our lack of awareness of certain internal processes is rather due to their more "efficient" manner of "sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action." Because our conscious mind can only attend explicitly to roughly forty pieces of information per second, we need the unconscious part of our brain to handle implicitly the rest of the eleven million pieces of information per second we take in, if we are to be better able to survive in an ever changing environment. Wilson points out that this unconscious "gatekeeper" not only "filters" information but also serves as a "spin doctor" that "interprets" data and teaches us to "feel" in such a way that we are moved to make appropriate decisions. In other words, the adaptive unconscious is a "pattern detector" (24) that allows us to predict what to expect, make ongoing corrections of our expectations, and make more attractive certain courses of action over others.

Wilson acknowledges that this efficiency, i.e., speed, by which we are able to assess unconsciously our environment, has a price we must pay: our unconscious makes us liable to prejudices that we are not even aware that we have. Our past successes in pattern detection become habitual and can even become addictive. Instead of accurately identifying threats, our unconscious can sometimes deceive us by giving in to our need to feel good about ourselves. We discount evidence that may be threatening to our self-esteem. Nevertheless, our conscious brain, for its part, can all too often construct a coherent notion of ourselves that is out of touch with the real needs of our emotional brain. Its fictions and tendency to over-analysis can be as misleading as the dictates of our unconscious.

Still, Wilson considers that such dangers can be compensated for by means of the complementarity that exists between the adaptive unconscious and the rational conscious brain. The unconscious emotional brain is made up of "multiple systems," while the rational brain is a "single system." The emotional brain is an "on-line pattern detector," while the rational brain is an "after-the-fact check and balancer." The emotional brain is "concerned with the here-and-now," while the rational brain can take the longer view. The emotional brain is "automatic," while the rational brain is "controlled" and "intentional." The emotional brain is more "rigid," while the rational brain is more "flexible." Finally, the emotional brain is more "sensitive to negative information," while the rational brain is more "sensitive to positive information." Thus, while the emotional and rational brains may appear to be simply redundant and parallel ways of processing information, they each tend to make up for the weaknesses inherent in the other. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Neuroscience of Certainty: Some Philosophical Implications
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.