Check out the following article on neuroscience’s latest challenge to the philosophy of art (aesthetics): http://bit.ly/pclslo.

It’s true that the brain systems for aesthetic and non-aesthetic appreciation aren’t distinct. But nothing in the brain is “distinct.” That’s a commonplace.

There’s a lot more to our appreciation of art than the correlation of brain structures. It’s terrible how journalists oversimplify philosophy and neuroscience, colluding the two as if they were actually comparable, as if they were talking about the same things. Evolution can’t do interpretation and analysis for us.

“As much as philosophers like to believe that our brains contain a specialized system for the appreciation of artworks, research suggests that our brain’s responses to a piece of cake and a piece of music are in fact quite similar.”

The “wit” of the writer’s last sentence is a cliche joke. Quips using reductionistic appraisals of basic facts like these are supposed to deal a cold blow to the cheesy caricature of a philosopher. But philosophers today don’t think that the brain areas are distinct. That’s a straw-man if I’ve ever seen one. In truth, these statements belie a total misunderstanding of the philosophical enterprise, and of any philosophical position in particular.

For however “cutting edge” this latest experiment is, it’s reading philosophy from the Dark Ages.

Really, though, what are they trying to prove?

I’ve studied neuroscience in great depth. I’ve done my own experiments in the cognitive science department at UC – San Diego. It’s a joke the conclusions people try to draw from experiments like these. Almost everything you’ll read in the neuroscience literature takes advantage of the common obsession with neuroimaging. This has taken on the derogatory monicker of “spotology” in philosophy circles. But think about it: what does it matter that we can show which areas of the brain light up (producing “spots” on the fMRI scanner’s monitor) when we do certain things? How is that at all astounding? Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of very useful, insightful knowledge coming out of experiments like these. But the implications of the results are drastically altered in the media. It’s bad enough that the average person can’t understand basic scientific and statistical principles — like the difference between correlation and causation — but it’s worse that the media plays on this and exaggerates and overdramatizes the results of the most basic experiments, making it easer for readers to draw mistaken conclusions. It’s scary how easy it is to derail educators’ attempts to get people to think intelligently, and tragic that the media so successfully convinces the public of the truth of reductionistic accounts of life.