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Neuroscience is expanding massively. There is much fear that this will somehow herald a new social determinism, an anti-progressive agenda where people are marked out as winners and losers by the kind of brains they possess. The comparison case is genetics (although obviously neuroscience is not separate from genetics). After the genome was mapped, all sorts of anti-progressive implications floated around for a while – refusing life insurance to people with ‘bad’ genetic profiles and so on.

Does neuroscience have anti-progressive implications? I’m going to argue in as far as the facts are so far in, no, not at all – quite the opposite.

First, let’s define progressives along with my Chief Executive as: ‘enthusiastic believers in the capacity of human beings to collaborate to achieve qualitative advances in individual and social welfare.’ I would argue that the three major paradigm-busting discoveries of neuroscience are consonant with progressivism thus defined.

1) That many of our decisions are not made self-consciously (within our conscious control) but are made by our brains for us. There is a wealth of research on this now, but the seminal studies were carried out by Benjamin Libet. The basic idea is that we think we decide on an action but in fact our brains have already embarked on executing it before we become aware of the action taking place.

2) That the production of neural pathways (neurogenesis) is possible in adult humans and that neurogenesis is developmentally retarded by the wrong kind of environments. These two discoveries were made by Elizabeth Gould in the course of her work on the relation between neurogenesis and environment/experience. To be fair, these findings are not rock solid yet. The experiments have only been carried out on higher mammalian brains rather than human ones, but nevertheless, the findings look liklely to be true.

3) That decision-making cannot be funded by reason alone. Rather, the emotions are central to the making of decisions, as well as to following social conventions, possessing a sense of personal future and acting on moral principles. The work here that is important is by Antonio Damasio who studied the way brain lesions that knocked out emotional responses also impaired the ability of subjects to make plain old rational decisions (like where to go on holiday, or where to go shopping).

1) Might be thought to imply anti-progressive characteristics. Why? Well if our unconscious/semi-conscious decision-making processes are fixed then we are in trouble. This is because useful as these processes are, they are often simplistic and crude. But in fact, these processes are not fixed but are responsive to training. We can reflect on our unconsicous prejudices and reconfigure the processes involved.

2) Gives the lie to the idea that our brains fix our abilities completely from an early age (they do to a certain extent, but only a certain extent). It also reinforces the progressive point that material and social well-being when missing really do disadvantage children and young people.

3) Corrects the somewhat fuzzy but popular idea that if our minds are our brains then emotions and feelings somehow drop out of the picture (that we – that is, the agents who make decisions – are somehow purely self-interested rational creatures only concerned to maximize our own utility, possessed of nothing more than mechanical and cold reasoning powers).

So there’s my pitch for the idea that the three major discoveries of neuroscience can go hand in hand with progressivism. The century of the brain can very well be the century of real social progress also.