In the Spectator Dalrymple reviews The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky by Bryan Appleyard, which addresses one of his favorite topics, the claims by neuroscientists to be on the verge of understanding human behavior by reducing it to predictable chemical processes in the brain. The book’s title is taken from this poem by Emily Dickinson.
No book or blog—that you may read—
That causes you to see—
An Emily Dickinson piece—
A failure—could yet be—
[Appleyard] comes to the conclusion that was his starting point, namely that we are no nearer self-comprehension than ever we were, and that we shall never be any nearer to it. The nature, quality and wealth of our inner life will never be fully explicable by or translatable into physical terms, and — furthermore — it would be horrific if it could.I share his opinion…Yet I am also aware of the dangers of proclaiming in advance of all experience that science can get no further, that there are questions that it cannot answer. Lord Kelvin said this of physics immediately before the greatest advances for a century; Sir John Erichsen said it of surgery immediately before the development of antisepsis expanded the field almost exponentially, and another famous surgeon, Lord Moynihan, repeated this bêtise half a century later. A certain modesty is therefore in order.
H/t Michael P.