It’s all in your Brains and Genes

It’s all in your Brains and Genes or
the postmodern, vengeful return of positivism.

[Read as Digital Publication]

Michel Valentin

This essay first started as an answer to the disputation in bad faith (or “un-authentic” to use a philosophical and existentialist term), of the dashing, mediatic, Harvard cognitivist/linguist, Steven Pinker, in his article “Neglected novelists, embattled English professors, tenure-less historians, and other struggling denizens of the Humanities, Science is not your Enemy—a plea for an intellectual truce,” [i]Then the series of counter-arguments critiquing Steven Pinker’s conception of the “human animal” further developed into an article arguing that the “new positivism,” and not science, or technology per say, is the enemy of humanism and its avatars.

The point is not to become a postmodern, anti-scientific Luddite or an anti-Darwinist, although Darwin’s theories are in dire need of being re-thought.[ii] Genomics are changing the world in ways we barely yet imagine, and will re-define what it means to be human–a becoming already imagined by science fiction writers, social critics, and radical thinkers such as the feminist Donna Haraway, ([iii]), by dissociating the body from its organs or by establishing a continuum between animals and humans, natural life and man-made machines, human intelligence and artificial intelligence.[iv] Without admitting it, or maybe unconsciously, the acme of this logic aims at creating a body without organs (i.e. without its perishable organic, fallible dimension—cyborg/android/replicants…) or organs without bodies à la Slavoj Zizek, (i.e. the prosthetic, cybernetic prolongation of the neural dimensions of the body), or a hyper-virtual/hyper-real body à la Jean Baudrillard.

The point is also not to turn “anti-brainiac.” Without a brain we would become vegetative, vegetal…, i.e. a purely “natural body,” a “zombie” to borrow the contemporary popular cultural icon which seems to have contaminated all strata of popular culture, i.e. someone (a “Thing”—Freudian das Ding) between “two deaths,” to borrow again from Slavoj Zizek. If we make use of the prevalent “computer metaphor” which, it should be remembered, functions as an analog and not a homologue, and which is used ad nauseam by psycho-biologists; without a hard-drive there is no software possible. But is this a reason to say that the software is but the direct emanation/product/reproduction or even representation, at a higher level, of the hard-drive? Technology and the sciences have extended, and are extending, human potential; but they are also re-defining what it is to be human…and there’s the rub.

The point is to re-affirm the value and importance of the humanities (its anti-humanist or post-structuralist component included), since it is only through the constant interfacing of the humanities and the sciences that positive (and not positivist), true, enlightened progress will occur. As Steven Rose writes in Dialectical and Reductionist Biology, to avoid the reductionism brought about by the unrelenting, postmodern phasing out of the social sciences and the humanities discourses, it is necessary for the different discourses of the humanities and the sciences to engage each other in a process of constant translation (but not in parody, à la Steven Pinker), and not to collapse the discourse of the social sciences or what is left of psychology into the discourse of the physicist, mathematician or biologist. The otherwise so-called “mathematics of natural selection,” which would basically reduce their field of study to empirical data and try to make reality fit into mathematical thinking and modeling, cannot solve the problems of man’s origins. To make things more problematic, the use of neo-Darwinism, of animal socio-biology and gene therapy, to reductively and deterministically predict/direct/cure/inform/reform human behavior is fraught with dangers, as a recent past has shown. What is needed is a new dialectics between organisms, the environment, and language. Organisms and environment interpenetrate each other and are the results of complex processes, relationships, and transformations, which means that a supreme importance must be given to historical contexts and social processes, that is to say, the human dimension.

The claims that the scientific investigations of nature (and their technological applications) authorize are becoming more and more impressive every day. Skepticism about the external world and the inner life is becoming harder to sustain (except perhaps at the sub-atomic and the cosmologic level).[v] As the French mathematician, philosopher, and mystic Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “nature confounds the skeptics and reason confounds the dogmatists.” But since there is a misfit (a rupture/rift) between the profound order (or now “regulated chaos”) revealed by mathematics and the fact that the human mind has a propensity to believe, Pascal also wrote that, “Man is beyond the powers of man.” Pascal was a baroque philosopher and mathematician, like Leibniz, and although informed by the great wave of rationalism (neo-classicism) which nurtured the development of what was to become the Lumières (or Enlightenment era), he does not fit into the mold of what later came to characterize Western science and societies, as well as capitalism, which gave these societies their momentum and energy (and also fueled their imperialism). This mold is characterized by reductionism, i.e., a mode of explanation, an episteme or a discourse (as Michel Foucault would say) that understands social phenomena in terms of reduced, disaggregated components. This reductive mode of knowledge, which soared during the 19th and 20th centuries, claims to be the only, actual, worthy knowledge, and the science it produced, the only way of doing science. Aside from giving to mankind a quasi-Promethean ability to manipulate the natural world and its “surface-reality,” one of the results of this exclusive (and exclusionary) mode of knowledge was to give birth to unprecedentedly oppressive technologies and ideologies.

The new sciences of “human nature,” evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, sociobiology and genomics, claim to be on track to reduce, in a first move, and then suspend, in a second move, this hiatus, this misfit between science and belief (a Lacanian would say between the Imaginary and the Symbolic). This modernist and postmodernist claim represents the return of a 19th century type of positivism, but with a vengeance, since propped up by the whole array of mathematics and sciences (chemistry, biology, physics, genomics…). Roger Penrose, in his Shadows of the Mind. A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, maps the scientific triumphs in cognitive science. Although he wisely concludes that consciousness still eludes, for the time being, brain researchers, he still thinks that there is a fundamental organic connection: “If the mind is something quite external to the physical body, it is hard to see why so many of its attributes can be very closely associated with properties of a physical brain.” He also hints in Quantum Theory and the Brain that quantum theory will one day deliver the clue to consciousness: “whatever brain activity is responsible for consciousness it must depend upon physics that lies beyond computational simulation.”[vi]

But there is opposition within the scientific world to this one-way circulation of ideas. The biologist Steven Rose who researches the connections between memory and cellular activity, writes in Dialectical and Reductionist Biology that this reductionist model has logical and theoretical flaws.

What are they? What are they due to?

What the economist Thomas Piketty writes in his seminal and now famous analysis (Capital in the 21st Century ) critiquing the type of thinking which causes or exacerbates radical socio-economic inequalities, can also be used to critique the new cognitive and biological science of mind and consciousness, because it is a type of thinking which biologist and cognitivist share, Rose included. For Piketty, economics, in its desire to be taken seriously (i.e. scientifically) came, over the last 20 years, to cling unequivocally (again effect of “the one-way-type-of-thinking” or reductionism) to a mathematical model (i.e. the sacrosanct algorithms). By abandoning all interdisciplinarity and all pretenses other than its own superfluous, self-assured righteousness, this new scientific economy allowed for the phenomenal growth of an unfettered financial capitalism. One of the many side effects of this new economy is its paradoxical disconnection not only with the socio-political human reality, but also with “economics.” It started to lose grip on the economic reality that economy is supposed to describe, explain, and control. All that which did not fit the tight parameters and premises established by the economical mathematical model upon which this new scientific economy based itself, was ignored or transformed by reductionism, fulfilling the prediction of the Situationist Guy Debord’s prescient aphorism, “The economy transforms the world but transforms it only into a world of economy.”[vii] The same can be said of the new scientific approach to the life of the mind, which is following a strict scientific model to the exclusion of any interdisciplinary dimensions. Science (i.e. psychobiology, evolutionary psychology, genomics…) transforms the human individual but transforms it only into an individual of science, an individuation of science, i.e. an object of science—which is the result of what, in Marxian lingo, is called re-ification. Alexander Koyré (philosopher of sciences), who taught Hegel (replaced later by Kojève) to the French intelligentsia of the 1930s, and was responsible for the post WWII birth of what the Anglo-Saxons call “continental theory,” claimed that modern science had succeeded in overcoming the split of traditional Aristotelian science, but that another split had been created between the human/phenomenal world (the personal and historical world) and the purely abstract mathematical world of science governed by naturalistic research. Naturalistic research seems to flagrantly ignore that scientific truth is always dependent on its historical (socio-political), individual, and circumstancial frame/background. The human phenomenal world is the basis of the scientist phenomenal world. Already in the 60s, Skinner’s Verbal Behavior was criticized by O.K. Tikhomirov for its humanist materialism and overall reductionist dimension.

Reductionism bases its approach and result accruing/acquiring techniques on empiricism, numerology (numbers, measurements, axiometrics…), logic (analytical philosophy), and mathematics. In their contemporary mapping of all human activities/behavior/emotions/flaws…, socio-biology, genomics, psychobiology, evolutionary psychology…, exemplify this reductionist tendency by disaggregating/reducing complex social and emotional behavior into a sort of monad [viii] which they posit as their premises, in an inductive sort of way, and which “surprisingly” they will also find intact at the end of the “demonstrative” process.

For instance, violence becomes a “monad” which stands for all kinds of different violence or aggressive behavior and attitudes, social or individual (war, men’s violence against women, violence against children, or animals, war violence, crimes, genocides, massacres, picket-line violence, soccer fans or hooligans’ violence, political counter-violence, societal violence, class-struggle violence, aggression of all sorts…). All forms lose all specificity, context , etc., to become a reduced “monad”: “violence” or “aggressive behavior” which is then pre-supposed as natural in the human individual/animal because it is a Darwinian law of nature, the survival of the species (survival of the fittest). This “monadic behavior” is then logically traced back to nature itself, via an “individualized lab animal behavior” (which, by the way, is not “nature” –the effects of captivity and being around people modify behavior) or “societal animal behavior.” Rats, mice, the bonobo apes (whose treatment epitomizes “human animalism”), chimps, bees and ants bear the brunt of empiricist violence and epistemic reductionism.[ix] The aggressor is then reduced to a single entity: the “animal man” as single individual standing for all humans in all times, epochs, and societies, as an aggressor or aggregate of all possible aggressions. The point then is to look for the sources of aggression in animals, then in the brain, then the genes, to come back to the foundational premise: man is an aggressor because animals are predators and this is inscribed in their genes via evolution (violence being necessary for the “survival of the fittest”). All behaviorists, psychobiologists, etc., speak of the “animal man,” treating men like animals, and treating animals worse than men. For them, this is not a metaphor, it is a metonym. This reductionism is much worse than the forecasting, ironic, dystopian allegories contained in Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and 1984. A study is then done through laboratory experiences via lab-animals (a controlled environment is more empirically satisfying and predictable) or in site with wild groups of chimps in an exotic equatorial forest (primeval Ur-place of origins), or in a zoo (simulation of natural wilderness).

Let us take the example used by Steven Rose: a rat is put in a cage with a mouse. Guess what happens in this cramped environment (with bright light and so on)? It does not take a rocket scientist to discover the outcome. What is more interesting is that the lab technician or psychologist will measure how long it will take the rat to kill the mouse. The “white coat” will then repeat the operation ad nauseam, adding a little stress (varying the space, light, heating up the floor of the cage, withholding food or water, sending electro-shocks, having all kinds of fun, etc.) It seems that ethics has a name for this type of manipulation, “torture” (no example of “water-boarding” yet, but who knows…). It is interesting to notice that in the mazes where scientists “manipulate/manhandle” and observe rats to collect data in order to deduct a model explaining “inherent” human aggressivity, the results gathered are similar to the results one would obtain from observing the behavior of human prisoners in penitentiaries or restricted space (like solitary confinement). The only “sane” conclusion one can reach is that if a man is confined like an animal, both behaviors tend to converge (animal or not, human or not…): the animal acts out like a prisoner and the prisoner like a trapped animal. This has nothing to do with genes but with stress, anxiety-induced confinement, and agony.

Then results are then extrapolated by projection and applied to individual humans via biometrics and the forced similitude which then creates an isomorphy, and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. From the starting point with its reductive monadism, to lab experiments with their controlled (and individualized) animal-behavior, to the projection onto individualized human behavior, which then takes on the imperative category of a rule of law for the whole human species (as if society was a serialization of individuals and social laws reducible to the laws governing individualized animals), we have come full circle: “c. q. f. d.” (ce qu’il fallait démontrer), as we say in French. The tautological circle is closed (in a self-evident way). Caged animals are violent, therefore humans animals are also violent. As Molière wrote mockingly about the tautological process, in Le Médecin Malgré Lui, “and this is why your daughter is mute.” Each successive move implies the next in a concatenation of internalization of violence within the movement of a downward spiral from the macro-level to the micro-level and further into the most elemental level (the example here is violence; but it could be altruism, or even goodness–geneticists speak of the “goodness in genes” or “gene of goodness,” or any other form of emotive behavior). The New York University Professor of Philosophy and Law, Thomas Nagel, flabbergasted by this reductionist onslaught, criticized in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, the general trend prevalent in genetics and psychobiology as far as the “human animal” is concerned. He decries, among other things, how biology itself is reduced to chemistry, itself reduced to physics; while consciousness is forced to become the exclusive product of the brain, (i.e. neurons, since “grey matter” is made of matter), and conscious experiences are reduced to the conceptual tools of physical science. Our existence (like nature) is explained by interactions of little bits of matter. Of course, this new empirical, physical materialism excludes all other forms of materialism, such as social materialism or historical materialism (Marxism) or linguistic materialism, of which structuralism and post-structuralism are a branch, or, paradoxically, the materialism of the environment–although some geneticists and biologists give the environment some credence. We have gone from the behavioral to the neural, and the genetic level, to finally return, at the end, to the surface and the behavioral. No stone is left unturned by this grand reductionism: intelligence, voting patterns, aggression, emotions such as jealousy, rape (hence the prevalent use of the words “perpetrator” or “predator,” or “gene accruing sexual behavior”), seduction, empathy, etc. When denied or unacknowledged, ideology and the sway of the Imaginary return “au grand galop”—at galloping speed (chassez le naturel il revient au galop…). This is why, if closely examined, socio-biology and evolutionary biology’ claims easily betray their ideology. By coming up with a simple 19th century-based, novelistic Victorian fantasy (ultimately colonialist and racist), and make it pass as a scientifically based scenario; an evolutionary fantasy where blond (even Nietzsche fell prey to it), or dark, primitive brutes, vie for game and females, compete for food and territory, and emit rumblings and grunts (borborygmes), that, little by little, from generation to generation, according to dubiously putative conclusions derived from proxemics, “mutate” into morphemes and semes (language). In his desire to establish a continuum between natural selection, biological evolution and cultural evolution the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dworkin (The Selfish Gene–1976) even invented “memes” (modeled on genes) to explain how cultural patterns came to be. He even gave them a physical presence in the brain. The meme is but the return of the même (same), or a reductionist individuation. Under the complex, but strict, natural selection laws and principles of survival of the fittest, advantages accrue the way a trader accrues his portfolio. In fact, in this modeling, competition is linked to inheritance, and the social is made to collapse into the individual. As Gerald Edelman and J.P. Changeux explain in their theory of “neural Darwinism,” electronic brain activity acts as a Darwinian-style generator of neuronal diversity, (a Darwinian selection of neural circuits occurs in the brain), akin to the body’s reactions who, when invaded by a virus, select the most potent anti-bodies from the enormous repertoire stored in the body’s immune system. To put it in a nutshell, with modern socio-biology and evolutionary anthropology, “Nature has won over nurture.” As one brain researcher put it “the boy-scouts who escorts the elderly lady across the street obey the same determinism as the worker bees that surrender their fertility at the command of genes.”One could not be clearer or simpler. Does this mean that science has won the debate?

Sometimes, triggering sudden quantum leaps or violent evolutionary changes, catastrophes (sudden environmental changes) happen and “everything is lost” to be painfully regained step after step… The genes here are the workers producing, in this scenario, a surplus-value (Marxist acceptation of the term) of intentions and advantages, which in the long run advantage its bearers, the way long legs, large lungs and a slow heart beat advantage the long-distance runner—because life is a race and some races (no pun intended) are better equipped for it. Some evolutionary biologists think that Neanderthals became extinct because their gene-pools did not favor them. Ian Tattersall wrote that Neanderthals only used intuition whereas Cro-Magnons used symbolic systems. Of course, Tattersall was a key-witness of prehistoric men’s behavior; or perhaps a traveler straight out of the marvelous Victorian Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895). For the whole picture of evolutionary psychology to stand, it is necessary to firmly believe that adaptive significance is linked to being aggressive. This is where neo-Darwinism betrays the ideology of its frame of reference.

To the exclusion of Penrose, who does not believe in the computational model (that he calls a “computational straight-jacket”), most brain biologists think that there is a possibility of intelligence within individual cells, because synaptic changes are similar to computational rules (research started by Albrecht-Buehler in 1985). The complex dendritic processing in neurons functions in ways similar to the way the immune system recognition works. Gerald Edelman thinks, in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992), that Darwinian principles operate within the brain allowing it to continuously improve its performance.[x] If it is true, where are the improvements? Are we smarter than Ancient Babylonians, Mayans or Australian Aborigines? Of course, this empiricism is well armed. It justifies itself with all the paraphernalia of a pragmatics based on statistics and partitioning, which then (via a Gaussian curve) furnishes a curve of normality with an inside and outside defining the normal and abnormal, the desirable and non-desirable… This allows for the mapping of the least deviancy which is then translated into abnormality, and very logically, into behavior deviancy and, of course, repression, redress, cure, intervention. The ultimate goal of this empirical, socio-biological dimension, individually internalized by the organism (since inherent to it), is to produce a super type of Foucauldian Discipline and Punish, by becoming totally internalized by the individual. This leads to drastic conclusions, especially in the field of criminology and social control. The lethal animal behavior such as that displayed by the “muricidal caged behavior” of the rat attacking the mouse, serves as a model to map aggressive behavior in humans and look for solutions.


The Brain as Computer

For many brain scientists, the source of awareness (and therefore consciousness) is located in three brain regions: the insular cortex, the medial anterior cingulated, and the medial prefrontal cortex, until the observation of some patients put the whole model in jeopardy. Of course, the ready-made object very logically jumps up and the new brain-research trend believes that the best model for human consciousness is to be compared to the result of the work of a network of computers, and that awareness is not localized in the brain, but is the result of a virtuality of sorts, produced by an information-type of processing similar to the ones produced by a series of processing machines. Meaning, if you could arrange thousands of computers on line, you could mimic the type of information processing going on in the brain. In this type of thinking, virtual similarity and similitude pass for the exact description of the reality: this is what Baudrillard says, tongue-in-cheek, when analyzing and critiquing postmodern society; its new reality is the hyper-reality or hyper-virtuality, i.e. the virtuality of its apparatuses. The simulation passes for the reality it has subverted, displaced, and replaced: simulation and subsuming… In Time magazine (April 23 2012), Jeffrey Kluger is quoted as saying “the sleeping brain runs its absurdist movie loop all night long, always taking care to conceal what’s behind it.” (Jeffrey Kluger in SHHH! Genius at Work). Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett (The Committee of Sleep) says, “dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state,” and that, “in the sleep state, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively.” Although the same article unwittingly re-introduces the notion of (Freudian) repression (or its diminution in sleep) as the “traffic-cop role of the prefrontal cortex,” or “the brake on your imagination,” screening things which should not be thought or are not rationally appropriate. Psychologist William Killgore of Harvard Medical School, compares the brain activity occurring during sleep to running a repair-and cleaning program defragging the hard-drive. The brain then is a biological hard-drive which needs to be cleared of its synaptic underbrush from time to time; like foresters are supposed to do in Montana forests to minimize forest fires. The brain is supposed to dislike fragmentation and this why it weaves narratives during sleep time. Here we have an example of the body without organs, a self-contained computer that thinks, speaks, gives orders, feels, is cranky, and has likes and dislikes. The psyche, consciousness, the soul, emotions, and the mind, have all reunited together and live a happy life in the brain, which stands behind them, away and out of language. This explains why, periodically, some scientists bemoan the fact that we speak, or to put it more precisely that the language of humans is too imprecise, emotional, flowery, poetic.., i.e. verbal, and that it should be replaced by a mathematically based new type of language: no signifiers, only signifieds. Even Plato did not dare to go as far when he only excluded the poet from the city.


Discipline and Punish: slicing/zapping/removing/altering

What is interesting is that the conclusions of the researches of neuro-psychology and evolutionary biology seem to always revolve around, or at least imply a certain direction towards questions of order/disorder, asocial behavior/social control, violence, deviant behavior and so forth. That is to say that the reductionist tendency in socio-biology and psycho-biology shows the true colors  of its ideological nature when dealing with societal violence, which it collapses on individual violence. The question amounts to the following: What is to be done with the statistically apportioned area of individuals showing deviancy? The dilemma and logic are the most obvious in the application of neuro-biology to criminality. The solutions are not new. Everybody knows where the instrumental reason behind this logic led the world from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Biotechnology now shows the modern way. Gene therapy (though removal and changes) will soon target the delinquent or undesirable gene and deal with it radically and drastically. Of course, nobody knows who is going to decide which genes are bad—and that’s without addressing the larger question of the (teleological), biological usefulness of “bad genes.” The electro-chemical mapping of the brain has opened the door to the cure of many neurological diseases but also to the modification of psychic behavior. For instance, psychic troubles created by personal history are now reduced to a surgical intervention on 1 or 2 square millimeters of brain matter areas or a chemical treatment, suppressing the symptoms but not the disease (or reducing the disease to its symptoms, meaning that symptoms and causes have collapsed into the same space). Will it mean a return of the psychosurgery of the 1930s to the 1950s? Pedophilia and rape treated by neuro-surgery? The Portuguese neurosurgeon Egas Moniz (who received the Nobel prize in 1949 for inventing frontal leucotomy in 1937) influenced the American psychiatrist Walter J Freeman, who treated patients with pre-frontal lobotomy, and who treated, with seriously negative results, Rosemary Kennedy, J.F.K. ‘s sister, for promiscuity. As if mental diseases were the simple and direct result of “bad” neuronal connections since the brain is a package of circuitry interconnecting at several levels. Neuro-surgery of mental afflictions is on the rise everywhere in the world. The immediate future promises a hyper-development of electric stimulations of certain brain areas, with the possibility of creating cyber-humans with constant electric stimulation (with optogenetics on the way—i.e. stimulation through light) to inhibit or develop certain symptoms or behavior. For instance, Mark and Ervin’s proposals to remedy to ghetto violence in the 1970s was the re-introduction of electrical treatment or surgical intervention to deal with lumps or lesions in the brain tissue (the royal way to eugenics) reminiscent of 19th century phrenology (showing again the internalization of the whole investigative process). For Jim Robbins, who listens to what he calls A Symphony in the Brain (the title of his book–2009/2010), love is a “somatosensory bath.” He writes that the lack of maternal love creates attachment disorders located in the brain, because it loosens connections between brain-cells. Consequently, the goal of “brain therapy” is to “treat” these “physical disconnections” (not clear yet how) in order to allow the inflicted individual to manage his/her pain; or, simply, to get rid of the trauma. This is the “philosophy’ behind (the now infamous) University of Wisconsin’s “monkey-maternal-attachment-deprivation” experiments. The goal is also to allow citizens to attain a management of arousal, and a stability which is non-threatening to social peace, a new, postmodern version of Althusser’s famous repressive state apparatuses. For instance, Robbins writes that, “in many cases neurological damage is at least partially responsible for criminal behavior, perhaps far more than we realize.” He continues, “if electrical stimulation of the drive center were to be achieved in ambulatory human subjects, it seems possible that the results might include dangerous or uncontrollable behavior; that is acts unregulated by the usual organizing effects of conscious cortical processing.”[xi] According to Robbins, a judge in Montana was the first to acquire such an electrical machine supposed to stimulate certain parts of the brain. Robbins also cites Douglas Quirk, a psychologist at Ontario Correctional Institute of Toronto in the 1990s, who pioneered the electric treatment of the grey matter of problematic prisoners, i.e. epileptic-type bursts in the drive centers (deep parts) of the brain;” “if separate parts of the area are stimulated electrically, the animal subject responds as though it was experiencing rage, sexual arousal, hunger, satiety, or pleasure reinforcement.” The brain effects can be malevolent or benevolent. Dr Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a Psychiatrist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, believes that brain and crime, or violent behavior and brain damage are linked (as in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men), the assumption being that a normal brain brings about a normal behavior–and a “superior or bigger brain” superior behavior (reminiscent of the fantasy about Einstein’s brain in the seventies, something which re-emerged in different research institutes in the last decade). This is based on the assumption that the regulation of life (homeostasis) is the function of the brain and the mind (perhaps akin here to Freud’s pleasure principle). Pathologies in which brain chemistry is seriously disturbed can be approached according to two main ways: via the interior (brain chemistry) or via the exterior: psychoanalysis. But let’s not confuse brains with minds and politics with nature. Money and education will always fare better than a lack of education and poverty, whatever the nature and quality of brain connections or genes.

It was believed and established that language creates consciousness as well representing/standing for it, revolving around the “black hole” of our original, maternal lack and generating desire. Man is, according to Hegel, “an animal sick unto death…,” an animal extorted by an insatiable parasite (reason, logos, language).One of the most sophisticated versions of the language/consciousness/libido models is the Lacanian, based on the notion that the unconscious is structured like a language. Many neuro-scientists reject this model because they want to evacuate the importance of meaning located in language (positivist reductionism) and replace it with a linear-type of cause-effect relation, i.e. a “scientific causality.” But the problem endures and only shifts to a higher speculative ground. Who put the structure in the brain? For socio-biologists, neo-Darwinian evolutionists (evolutionary biology) and the logic of physical materialism made the brain what it is. We contend that the scientific postmodern approach to human consciousness, its erasure as a phenomenological phenomenon, is positivist and reductionist.


Cognitivism, Socio- and Evolutionary Biology, Politics and the Unconscious.        

It is interesting to notice that at a time when postmodern societies are undergoing extreme globalization and competition, and are besieged by all-encompassing economic determinism, a “pensée unique” or (one-way) type of thinking society has turned existence into a battlefield upon which neurosis, phobia, psychosis, psycho-somatization, depression, anxiety, violence of all sorts play havoc; at a time when new empires use intricate methods of control, preventive and palliative measures to control the multitudes, and infuse constraints into the everyday life via molar and molecular diffusion (Deleuze and Guattari’s meaning.) Where internal policing takes over external policing, individual self-control over social control, a new positivism has emerged, more powerful and dangerous than the previous one; a neo-positivism allied to a bio-political monopoly of medical power-knowledge, which threatens to restrain, displace and suppress all deviances, detailing any surveillance of behavior, i.e. pushing for a biological determination under the guise of liberating us from the nefarious effects of our deficient biology/genetics. It is interesting to witness that this new positivism appeals to a new physically centripetal, inner explanation of mental life to the exclusion of any outer explanation (language, society, the economy, etc.)–i.e. a new reification on a grand scale.

Our entire physical and sensory world is emigrating as data, bit after bit, baud after baud, pixel after pixel out of physical reality and into the software-lined innards of computers, while our entire mental world is emigrating molecule after molecule into the deep recesses of the brain, or gene after gene (genetic mapping), into the DNA—this new arch-writing which is made to displace all other writings. That is to say that the entire socio-linguistic dimension of our physical reality and our mental reality is transformed into codes (as explanations and as determination). This, uncannily enough, comes right on time for the globalization of capital. In political economy, positivism holds that laws are to be understood as social rules, valid because they are enacted by authority or derive logically from existing decisions, and that ideal or moral considerations (e.g., that a rule is unjust) should not limit the scope or operation of the law. Positive law has opposed natural law since the time of Chaucer. What is interesting is that socio-biology and the new cognitivist neuro-sciences have fused the two opposites into one by giving positivism a naturalist dimension and nature a positivist bent.

What is at stake in the cognitivist/biologist take-over is the status of meaning and sense. Today’s cognition evacuates sense in the name of a “lack of sense” because, for cognitivists, today the enemy is hermeneutics (the complex “humanist dimension” Pinker refuses to acknowledge).

For brain researchers, thinking (i.e. what they consider the natural language) is produced by the mechanisms of psychological determinism themselves produced by the mechanisms of genetic and neurologic determinism, while the private or public language corresponds to “expressing” the by-products of thinking. The neurons think while the mouth babbles. But, it’s not because molecules and brain underlie various aspects of consciousness and behavior that everything else is irrelevant: the social, the political, the unconscious, etc. “Social conflicts are deprived of the dialectics of political struggle and become as anonymous as natural catastrophes.” (Catherine Malibou. Les Nouveaux Blessés.[xii] In this scenario, the concentration camp’s terrors and an organic brain lesion can produce the same form of autism. For cognitivists, the brain is able to enact self-affliction, and engage in self-regulatory self-modeling. For brain-scientists, the brain is emotional, can generate self-representations and regulate its life through affects: “emotion is a reflexive structure by means of which the vital regulations affect itself.” [xiii]For them the cerebral unconscious is the self-representative activity of the brain which constantly monitors and constructs the cartography of its own state and therefore constantly affects itself. The brain here is self-representative and self-reflexive, self-relational and self-affective, a self-regulating autonomous machine. But Malibu writes, “Cerebral self-affection is the unconscious of subjectivity.”[xiv] Is it the equivalent of a true, material unconscious? If so… Lo and behold—the unconscious has been located. It’s in the brain! As Jacques Derrida writes, nobody can be aware of the workings of his or her own brain: there is no subjectivization possible of the neuronal process of self-affection; as Joan Copjec writes: “the evidence itself cannot account for the way it gives evidence.” There is a fundamental disconnect between brain and mind and between consciousness and the unconscious. The micro cannot justify or explain the macro. Or, to use the computational metaphor, it’s not because a line of code is executed in a computer program that something important happens. This is not the level which ultimately counts. First, because the reverse is truer… Circumstances, will-power, emotions can “order” the brain to produce chemicals and not only the other way around. As the Marxian (post-Marxist) and Lacanian Slavo Zizek writes in Living in the End Times, the autonomy of psychic life or reality is different from neuronal activity (brain energy) and is not a rhetorical detour of neuronal energy, as some brain scientists claim. The unconscious is structured like a language because the brain does not speak. Psychoanalysis cannot be assimilated to a philosophy of the mind while phenomenology is the systematic characterization of the conscious state of an organism.


Sexuality and Psycho-Neuro-Biology

Molecules’ “philosophy” claims more knowledge of our make-up than a scientific/humanist understanding of human nature. It has now become the standard explanation that matters: sex =bio-chemistry of sex=pheromones=drop of cortisol level; or this beautiful litote: French kissing=collecting genetic information via saliva; or the flow of oxytocin in the brain=attunement. The caudate nucleus and the VTA (ventral tegmental area) form the reward system of the mind by producing powerful chemicals like dopamine, which in turn induces longing, desire, focused attention, or norepinephrine which stimulates exhilaration and energy, or the natural amphetamine phenylethylamine that produces feelings of sexual excitement and emotional uplift; epinephrine surges in time of stress…, and so on.

In contrast, psychoanalysis lies at the juncture between the universality of the symptom and its peculiar incarnation in individuals. The neuro-scientist Mario Beauregard says that what we believe and expect can significantly influence the outcome of a disease. The sexual unconscious of Freud is juxtaposed to the self-affecting, self-aware conscious subject. As Freud theorized with his Three Essays on Sexuality, there is no natural, genital normality corresponding to a proper biological object, but libidinal sites linked (i.e. cathected) to bodily orifices, shaped by primary and secondary affective relations within the family and with others, and re-enforced by cultural practices. That is to say that human sexuality is different from animal sexuality (as opposed to what all psycho-biologists and evolutionary psychologists vehemently claim); it is not governed by natural laws and does not primarily aim at reproduction. There is no primordial, normal genital human sexuality, although there may be a cultural normativity enforced by taboos, regulations and rules. Human sexuality is not governed by the laws of nature but by the law of the signifier and the Symbolic order. Lacanian theory (post-Freudian via a return to Freud through structuralism) also postulates the existence of the Real where the dangerous, excessive and potentially lethal game of jouissance is located (from which it emanates). Human sexuality is not primarily the “natural” result of an adaptive/genetic evolution, as the psycho-geneticists would like us to believe, but the result of a complex interaction between diachrony and synchrony, between its original, foundational moment (the incest taboo) and history (myth). Contrary to what the Harvard linguist and cognitivist Steven Pinker asserts, human sexuality is not automatically and blindly bound to nature (biology and the mechanistic developments so much praised by evolutionary biologists and psychologists). It is more the result and creation of known and unknown (conscious and unconscious) representations elaborated by speaking subjects which derail sexuality from its “natural track.” It cannot be assimilated to animal sexuality grounded in biological determinism and obeying strict and powerful instinctual behavior and rules. The instinctual is left behind. Even when dealing with the “instinctual leftovers,” so to speak, Freud made sure to replace the word “instinct” by the word drive (Trieb), meaning that if nature plays a role, this role is immediately caught in the game and logic of the signifier, of the Other (the unconscious), and repression (incest taboo), and is transformed beyond recognition, something the cognitivists refuse to recognize. Moreover, the serious problematic offered by cognitivism and evolutionary biology is that, for psychoanalysis, each subject’s sexuality possesses a unique dimension fashioned by his/her own peculiarity with specific modes of satisfaction (jouissance). In fact, the talking cure offered by psychoanalysis allows each subject to explore the singular discourse that defines (and/or make problems for) each of us. As Noam Chomsky once said, in matters of emotions and psychology, a scientific psychology will never outperform the novel.

If the mind-brain-consciousness continuum is more than a self-regulatory principle, then one cannot help regressing to a pre-modern organicist-idealist figure of a spiritual form inherent in the brain, and beyond to matter as such (Aristotelian concept of the soul as the inherent form of the body). It is not a radical type of materialism (the brain itself reflecting itself) in which the cerebral otherness of a meaningless neuronal system (from molecules, to terminal buttons, and receptor sites, and then to axons, to dendrites, to neurons, to networks of neurons, to maps, and neural subsystems or modules, to the hippocampus, and the cortex or visual cortex) produces forms that give meaning. In this scenario, the brain is the self-turned chief-executive of all the subsystems. It is a de-corporalized holistic Mind, or “unconscious mental process” or “externalized behaviorism,” as fantasized by bioeconomists and cyberspace ideologists (Michael Rothschild” Bioeconomics: the Inevitability of Capitalism) which “lives” and acts through the individual. Biological behaviorists and psycho-cognitivist-evolutionists (from Pinker to McGinn, and Daniel Dennett—Consciousness Explained), reduce the phenomena (phenomenology) to an observable positive process empirically determined. McGinn claims that there is nothing mysterious in the way the brain generates consciousness (humans are cognitively closed to this type of understanding). In Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (chapter The Meaning of Life), Pinker ignores art, humor, and philosophy/metaphysics and concludes that our minds are incapable of solving many philosophical problems, such as mental concepts that are holistic: i.e. present everywhere at once and nowhere at all, all the time (cognitive closure). He adds that there is nothing metaphysical in this cognitive closure which should be accounted for in purely evolutionary terms. The power of the mind for Pinker is its syntactic, compositional, combinatorial abilities (which open up the world of words and sentences). Pinker speaks of “I” (unity of selfness or singleness of locus over time and which is nowhere in particular), sentience (immediate experience) and referring (core of meaning). For the brain researchers and cognitivists, brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and continually pop in and out of existence, and fight for existence, with different desires, plotting against one another…

The new positivists forget a main contradiction. There exists a mismatch between what the mind does (the problem it tackles within the cognitivist closure) and the computational apparatus that natural selection has equipped us with. Why does the mind apply itself (religion, metaphysics, philosophy, arts,…) to what it was by design incapable to solving? Hence the necessity to re-introduce freedom, or another type of causation, spirituality, such as the Freudian unconscious, etc. This problem has already been brought about by Kant and the early Christian Fathers. The solution is to read these Kantian antinomies through Hegelian lenses. This is what Slavoj Zizek does in Organs without Bodies. As he masterly argues, the specificity of the human dimension emerges when precisely what was originally a mere by-product (accident?) is elevated into an autonomous aim. When for instance, the pleasure experience which was a mere by-product of the goal-oriented activity aiming at our survival turns into an aim in itself. Humanization is not a “superior mediation” of animal activity—on the contrary, it is the result of a radical narrowing of focus and the elevation of a minor activity into an end-in-itself (means to end), into a closed, self-propelled loop of repetition and satisfaction that suspends and disrupts the linear and temporal causal chain—elevation of a moment/instance (fetishization) into jouissance (partial moment into autonomous entity or goal).

Some cognitivists think that there is a “me” (as psychic substance) in the consciously reflective “I” which gives it its plenitude. It reveals itself, for instance, when we act spontaneously and intuitively, without consciously thinking, when we let ourselves go and be driven by this intuitive, inner “me”: a football player playing blindfolded/ a zen archer reaching its target… All this contradicts the cognitivist stance which presupposes that our conscious decisions are predetermined by neurophysiological subjective/objective processes.



The English noun positivism was re-imported in the 19th century from the French word positivisme, derived from positif meaning “imposed on the mind by experience.” The corresponding adjective (lat. posit?vus “arbitrarily imposed,’” from pono “put in place”) has been used in similar sense to discuss law, as mentioned above. Positivism, or logical positivism, is a philosophy holding that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism. In its scientific extension, it is a scientific philosophy claiming that any information derived from logical and mathematical treatments and reports of sensory experience is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge, and that there is valid knowledge (truth) only in this derived knowledge. Verified data received from the senses are known as empirical evidence. Positivism holds that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws. Introspective and intuitive knowledge is rejected. Although the positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of Western thought, the approach in the modern sense was developed by the philosopher and founding sociologist Auguste Comte in the early 19th century. Comte argued that, much as the physical world operates according to gravity and other absolute laws, so also does society. The “new positivism” makes ontological points by using epistemological arguments (reductionism). It wants to find the internal code (genetic and chemical-electric) to blend first order theories and higher-order theories. The goal is to reach the conclusion that an information-processing approach (mental processes) is equivalent to computational processes, and, that “higher cognitive behavior” is rule governed by the inside of the body/mind/genes continuum.

What is the new (or neo-positivist) reductionism?

  • 1) Reductionism is the understanding of the whole by studying its parts (emergentism). notwithstanding the fact that an organism is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • 2) It is an analogue which wants to pass for an homologue.
  • 3) It reduces consciousness to a representation of the world at large and assumes that it is totally transparent to its object.
  • 4) It reduces human consciousness to “life forms and movements”: “forerunners of consciousness can be found in very simple life-form even bacteria” (neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio) and reduces everything (all worlds) to DNA or RNA and behavior to sub-atomic activity.
  • 5) It does away with ontological unity and epistemological diversity (Foucault has a lot to say about this).
  • 6) It reduces social interpretation of societies or groups of individuals to individual properties.
  • 7) It operates an illegitimate reduction of the social to the individual and of the behavioral to the molecular.
  • 8) It reduces the complex dimension of language to a purely communicative function.
  • 9) It reduces language to being the direct product of a pure brain activity of cause-effect: it reduces language to a code (signal transmission).
  • 10) It firmly believes that neuro-surgery interventions in the brain and genes are the true key to curing mental problems and disorders, while dismissing any other approaches (such as psychoanalysis) as anti-scientific—henceforth irrelevant.
  • 11) The results of neo-positivism and post-modern reductionism corresponds to what is called reification, which is the result of an ideological operation of transfer.
  • 12) It facilitates a form of human engineering which easily leads to stricter socio-political control.
  • 13) It refuses any inter-action with the liberal arts, humanism and hermeneutics.

The key to positivism is language. There is a difference that positivists refuse to properly acknowledge between language (what the cognitivists call public or private language) and a code (natural language which communicates information)… The conscious and unconscious states of mind of humans form a theoretical domain which cannot be reduced to a mere cognitivist/informational/mechanistic/genetic reductionist approach/explanation.

Dr. Michel Valentin (University of Montana/ EPIS researcher)

[i] (The New Republic–August 19).

[ii]As for instance the work proposed by the biologist and naturalist J.S. Gould who, among other aspects focused his criticism on “the dilemma of incipient stages.”

[iii] A Cyborg Manifest which became a chapter in her book “Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991).

[iv] The “Manifesto” became a chapter in her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women. (1991)

[v] Such as the research done by quantum theory and the multiverse hypothesis (documentary on the Higgs boson).

[vi] Pages 350 and 411.

[vii]The economic system founded on isolation is a circular production of isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn.” Guy Debord—The Society of the Spectacle. Black and White Press. Detroit. 28,

[viii] For convenience’s sake let’s hijack Leibniz’s term although Leibniz has nothing to do with this trend since he was a Baroque philosopher and scientist.

[ix] Bonobos’ DNA is 98% identical to that of humans and some researchers think they should be classified with the human species, i.e., Homo paniscus may be the most genetically related to humans, sharing about 98 % of the human genome. We are more closely related to them and chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. Behaviorally bonobos share similarities with people’s behavior, more so than chimps. They look like people with neatly parted hair and red lips. The Bonobo, also called the Pygmy or Gracile Chimpanzee (Pan paniscus) belongs to the species (with the common chimpanzee). Bonobos have relatively long legs, a matriarchal cultural, and are generally considered frugivorous. They often walk upright and have a human-like appearance. Frans de Waal, one of the leading primate researchers, has stated that bonobos are capable of empathy, kindness, altruism, and compassion, which makes them the ideal laboratory animals. E. Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin have extensively studied the ability of the bonobos to learn human language, although this is a question of interpretation (what constitutes a language?). Kanzi has learned over 3000 spoken English words and around 400 lexigrams. He can understand simple grammatical sentences and possibly invent new vocal sounds. The bonobo is also an accomplished tool user. The Chimpanzee -Chimp or Common Chimpanzee- (Pan troglodytes) is the species considered the most closely related to humans. For instance, Cheeta, the star of the movie, Tarzan, is 75 years old. They are native to Africa and four subspecies exist. They are highly intelligent, make elaborate use of tools.. A chimpanzee named Washoe learned up to 800 signs in American Sign Language. Researchers into chimpanzee language include Sally Boysen, Ohio State University, (who has taught chimpanzees to communicate using a computer), Noam Chomsky, and David Premack. Although chimpanzees are shorter than most people, they are much stronger. The average Chimpanzee has over 5 times the upper-body strength of a human male. A chimp, even a young one, can easily overpower a grown man.  The gorilla (gorilla gorilla) is the largest of all living primates. These African apes are divided into two species and 4 or 5 subspecies. Their DNA is 97-98% identical to that of humans and they are considered the next closest relative after the chimpanzee. Gorillas can be over 6 feet tall and weight over 500 lbs. They are highly intelligent. Some such as Koko have been taught a subset of sign language. They use tools for a number of purposes.

[x] (Penrose,334.

[xi] Pages 208, 209, 210.

[xii] Paris, Bayard: 2007. 258-9

[xiii] Malibou, idem, 74.

[xiv] Malibou, 85.