Stephan Chorover, Professor of Psychology; Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; ; Mriganka Sur, Newton Professor in Neuroscience; Head, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Description: Philosophers have long sought to answer questions about who we are, where we come from and where we're going. Stephan Chorover frets that a widening circle of contemporary scientists embrace Sigmund Freud's approach to these questions, which is to say, "Biology is destiny." Neuroscientists are promoting an even narrower dogma, says Chorover, where "everything we are trying to understand can be understood in terms of underlying brain mechanisms, neurons and molecules." How can we cultivate individual ethical acts, and how can society hope to respond to such challenges as violent conflict, or social and economic inequity, if all human behavior reduces to a set of neurological inevitabilities? Chorover describes and discredits the long history of biological reductionism, from phrenology (inferring faculties or traits from the shape of the skull), to Freud. He says that "chaotic interactions" derail determined behaviors. Says Chorover, "Complexity, contingency and context dependency argue against reductionism." Mriganka Sur asks Chorover to go easy on neuroscience, pointing out that the discipline does take into account contingency and uncertainty, studying the impact of internal and external states on the complex system of the brain. He says, "we may never know everything about how our brains work but that does not mean we should not try to find out something." He adds, "every scientific measurement involves reduction and possibility. You measure what you can with the tools you have '.We measure to dig deeper to seek explanations that may well be part of the cognitive architecture." Sur acknowledges that science "is hugely influenced by the values of the age" and can be used "to justify prevailing beliefs." Yet he wonders if there are "universals in human behavior that might drive the quest for justice."
About the Speaker(s): Stephan Chorover has served in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences since 1961. He received his S.B. (biology) from City College in New York and his Ph.D. in neuropsychology from New York University. Chorover has held visiting appointments at the French Comite National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.,) at the University of California (Berkeley - Psychology) and at Harvard University's Psychology Department and Graduate School of Education. Over the course of his career at MIT his research has focused upon problems of learning, memory, and "action research," and he has become interested in forms of pedagogy that both promote learning and stimulate retention of information. In addition he has developed a particular interest in promoting "environmental literacy" on the part of students, and he has devised new and innovative teaching techniques to develop this environmental awareness in his students. Mriganka Sur graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur in 1974 with a Bachelor of Technology degree. He received an M.S. (1975) and Ph.D. (1978) from Vanderbilt University. After doing postdoctoral research at SUNY Stony Brook and a faculty appointment at Yale University School of Medicine, Sur joined the faculty of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT in 1986. He was named full Professor in 1993, associate department head in 1994, and head in 1997. Sur has received numerous awards and honors, including the Charles Judson Herrick Award from the American Association of Anatomists (1983), the A.P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship (1985), the McKnight Neuroscience Development Award (1988), the MIT Graduate Student Council Teaching Award (1989), and the School of Science Prize for Excellence in Graduate Teaching (2000).
Host(s): Office of the Provost, Program on Human Rights and Justice
Tape #: T19296.
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