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. …