Peril of Ignoring the Ghost in the Machine

A rather chilling scenario of our future has been laid before us by Roger Scruton in a review of some books dealing with the nature/nurture issue in this month’s Prospect Magazine. One of the books is Professor Susan Greenfield’s YOU AND ME: The Neuroscience of Identity, in which she asks questions about the risks posed for the moral development of children by our careless approach to the new technology of communications. This technology is dominating society’s nurture of its young more and more and the implications of Greenfield’s and Scruton’s observations are that we allowing a kind of nurture of our future generations which borders on the irresponsible.

Roger Scruton

Echoing Greenfield concerns, Scruton reminds us that nurture can as easily destroy freedom as enhance it. We can bring up children on passive and addictive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends. The short-term pursuit of gratification can drive out the long-term sense of responsible agency. Moreover, if children learn to store their memory in computers and their social life in portable gadgets, then gradually both memory and friendship will wither, to linger on only as futile ghosts haunting the digital archives.

Greenfield is taking on a formidable high-tech establishment on this issue and they throw charges at her that there is no hard evidence out there to back up her fears. She recalls that the tobacco giants in the last century made exactly the same charges against those who warned of the dangers of smoking. By the time the evidence came along millions had died. As she reminds us, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

Baroness Greenfield is no Luddite. She is Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and knows all about the powers and effects of addiction – be it to whatever kind of good thing the boffins of this world can come up with. She acknowledges the great advantages which modern communications have left us with but clearly thinks that there is a dangerous laisszez faire element in our approach to the whole thing.

“Mind change” is what she thinks is going on. It is for her “an issue that’s as important and unprecedented as climate change”. Watch her explain what she means on this Guardian clip here .

Susan Greenfield

Scruton is a philosopher and sees another dimension to the plague we may be unleashing on ourselves and on future generations. He sympathises with all her worries and sees that her argument suggests that there is a kind of human development that prepares us, at the neurological level, for the exercise of responsible choice. If we bring up our children correctly, not spoiling them or rewiring their brains through roomfuls of digital gadgetry, the sense of responsibility will emerge. They will enter fully into the world of I and You, become free agents and moral beings, and learn to live as they should, not as animals, but as persons.

In her book, Greenfield asks: what is it that makes “you” distinct from “me”? Human identity is the term she grapples with. She says that it has long been a topic of fascination for philosophers but has been regarded with aversion by neuroscientists – like herself. Her study searches for a biological interpretation of what she sees as a most elusive of concept. In it she looks into all the social and psychiatric perspectives and ultimately into the heart of the physical brain. As the brain adapts exquisitely to environment she wonders if the cultural challenges of the 21st century are threatening to change human identity itself?

Scruton, the philosopher, takes her concerns on board and once more ends up calling us to our senses with regard to what our responsible behaviour should be towards our children in the face of the tsunami of high-tech gadgetry with which they are now being swamped. If we fail to recognise the need of the young for meaningful and real contact with other thinking, feeling and breathing human beings – as opposed to virtual ones – then we are effectively denying them the right to remain truly human. The evolutionist – of whatever type – who maintains that all these things will in time be positively adapted to by human beings is, he seems to be saying, a dangerous threat to civilization because she or he is ignoring something essential in our nature. Simply because they cannot understand the mysterious elements in the human condition, they choose to ignore it. In doing so they put us in peril.

He concludes, Allow children to interact with real people, therefore, and the grammar of first-person accountability will emerge of its own accord. Undeniably, once it is there, the I-to-you relation adds a reproductive advantage, just as do mathematical competence, scientific knowledge and (perhaps) musical talent. But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of “I” as it tells us about the validity of mathematics, the nature of scientific method or the value of music. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?

Read Nature, nurture and liberal values by Roger Scruton in Prospect Magaazine.

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