Regulars of this blog (Here I always insert the by now somewhat tired cliché “all two or three of them”) know I have a thing for reading books I thoroughly, consistently, deeply, unambiguously and exhaustively do not enjoy. I do it frequently enough as to consider it is not just lack of attention when choosing what to read, or bad luck (the “I thought it would be good but more than halfway through it I realized it was not just mediocre, but downright atrocious… having already devoted so much time to it I just trundled along thinking it would be better to see it through” excuse), but an active courting of works that I won’t a) like, b) agree with and c) have any use for.
As I brief aside, I know there are people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book they don’t like, exemplified by Tyler Cowen (whom I quote frequently and approvingly on so many other issues): Tyler reads a bunch of books, but not many pages of each. All I can say is a feel sorry for them, as they are missing in one of the most important teaching and character formation tools of this time and age. The ability to read unpleasant writings, to soldier through them no matter how unsatisfying, is highly trainable, and not only does it spill over other, more practical areas of life (like the uber-lauded feature of grit, with much media exposure of late), but helps immeasurably in some more mundane applications, like making it much easier to learn foreign languages (something I already recounted in this post recent post: Unexpected uses of Philosophy). So, regardless of what Tyler says, I strongly encourage my readers to persevere when caught in the midst of a dreadful, dreary book, as it is more conductive to a life well lived than the perpetual surrender to the thrill of novelty seeking, with its concomitant rejection of effort and toughness and indulging in instant gratification that are so damaging to the formation of a resilient, well-rounded character.
Back to my quirky habit of reading books that bore me or anger me or somehow disappoint me, I recently finished a doorstopper (well over 700 pages) from Robert Sapolsky aptly titled Behave. The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, and extravagantly praised by a number of figures of the scientific establishment, and by the New York Times’ Richard Wrangham, who on his July, 6th review describes the book as a “quirky, opinionated and magisterial synthesis of psychology and neurobiology that integrates this complex subject more accessibly and completely than ever”. That I bought the book after reading such description already denotes a masochistic streak on my part, as the integration of psychology and neurobiology sounds as appealing to me as the integration of astrology and XIIth century Chinese ceramics (I have only the slightest interest in the latter, and utterly despise the former and for the same reasons I despise psychology: both disciplines’ unsubstantiated claims to some sort of “scientific validity”). I’ll devote this post to comment on it, not specifically on the more scientific claims (which, not being an expert on the field, I found well informed and crisply stated, if a bit discombobulated and lacking a logical structure at times; just too many things seemed to be written in the spirit of “this is really cool and fascinates me to no end, so whether it really belongs here or not, whether it really helps drive home whatever point I’m trying to make or not, I’m going to describe it in some detail no matter what”), but on the metaphysical ones.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” - I can hear my readers saying. “Hold your horses here for a minute! Metaphysical claims? On a book about the brain, and hormones, and the genetic origins of behavior? Are you sure?” – Well, I very much am, and as scientifically inclined, and surely devoted of empiricism and all that as the author professes to be, he argues from a very strongly felt metaphysical position about what the ultimate components of reality are, and what the realness of such components tell us about how we should think about our behavior, what we should praise and condemn, and how we should punish deviations (with the unavoidable foray in trolleyology… man, I endlessly wonder what kind of fixation Anglo-Saxon casual readers of philosophy have with electric cars on rails that they simply can not stop drawing them to any discussion of ethics, cursory and circumstantial as it may be).
However, before we dive into the arguments of the book, I’d like to share something I find quite puzzling about the whole “neuromania” (I term I borrow from Raymond Tallis, if you haven’t already read him, specially the excellent Aping Mankind, go and do it ASAP). Let’s consider the following two descriptions of the same behavior (Young Rick knows he should study for next day’s biology exam, but he just can’t gather enough willpower, so he spends the evening watching TV instead):
· Description 1: when Rick starts considering what to do (while conveniently having his head inside a fMRI) his frontal lobe lights up, which tells us the parts of his brain in charge of executive control and long term planning are being activated. Unfortunately for him, his orbitofrontal complex is not fully developed, and due to neglect and inadequate parental supervision during his early childhood (or maybe because when walking down the university hall to the fMRI he crossed paths with an attractive research assistant who reminded him of a day care nurse that had been mean to him that many years ago, or because he had been primed to be more attuned to earthly pleasures by being made to unconsciously smell of freshly baked bread when entering the room) the metabolic capacity for sustaining the heightened glucosamine demand of that sensitive part of his neural tissue is not up to par, and can not counteract the activity of the medial PFC (somehow the PFC -Pre Frontal Cortex- is always involved in anything having to do either with emotion and expectations of pleasure or with rationality and delayed gratification), or of the limbic system (don’t even ask: lots of neurotransmitters, more Latin-themed brain topology and a bunch of enzymes produced in exotic and distant parts of the body), or the surge in dopamine caused by the prospect of some good ol’ procrastination. To make things worse, we can appreciate that both Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in his parietotemporal lobe are also lighting up, and them being neural correlates (we don’t know exactly what a neural correlate is yet, at least regarding to the subjective feeling of consciousness, but bear with me) of language processing we can only conclude that he is rationalizing his rascally behavior, and talking himself into it. Indeed, his nucleus accumbens (just above his septum pellucidum, if we are going to use funny Latin names let’s use them to the end!) is also showing signs of enhanced activity, surely as he contemplates the pleasures of just doing nothing, while the insula (which in theory evolved to warn us of the dangers of rotting fruit) remains muted, meaning that our moral sense (a form of disgust, typically geared towards outgroups, but potentially useful to direct that disgust towards non-adaptive behaviors of our own) is similarly muted and has nothing to contribute to the final decision on what to do.
· Description 2: the guy is lazy. Probably not entirely his fault (but more on that in a moment).
Any self-respecting neuro maniac (or neuro babbler) will tell you that only the first description is “informative”, “scientific”, “information-rich” and constitutes true understanding of the human nature and the aspects of personality involved in the observed behavior. On the contrary, what I contend is that both descriptions have exactly the same informative content. Whilst the former is doubtlessly more florid, and definitely longer, it doesn’t provide any additional understanding of what is going on, and it is not really giving us any additional insight. Specifically (and we’ll come back to that in a moment) it doesn’t provide us with a iota of additional, “useful” information about what the subject exhibiting the behavior may do or may not do in the future (the ability to predict the future being one of the defining features of scientific knowledge).
On a side note, such unkind critique reminds me what R. Wright Mills did, in the Sociological Imagination, with Talcott Parson’s The Social System: he transcribed super long paragraphs of the latter and then “translated” them into much shorter, simpler, more elegant and concise ones, contending that they really meant the same thing, and thus exposing Parson’s magnum opus as a lot of unnecessary, inflated and somewhat pompous babble. I think I was lucky of reading both books in the “right” order (first Wright Mills’ with his scathing critique, and afterwards the one by Parsons), which allowed me to better appreciate the aspects properly deserving criticism, and to separate them from those where the long-winded sentences and the convoluted reasoning were called for (at this point, no reader of mine will be surprised to find me sympathizing with other writers prone to the use and abuse of long-winded sentences and convoluted arguments). And I find it amusing that I may now level such criticism against a work that on many levels is quite well-written, engaging and even witty and downright funny… such are the foibles of the world.
But back to Sapolsky now, the whole book is really not much more than a masterly, exhaustive enumeration of all the aspects of mental life we have found to correspond with the illumination of different parts of the brain when seen inside an fMRI, or different concentrations of neurotransmitters and enzymes in the subjects’ blood (measured in different moments of experiencing some contrived experimental situation or other), or different waves as picked up by and EEG, along with the minutiae of the experiments that purportedly settled such correspondence. And, man, is there a lot to enumerate! Abstract thinking, volition, desire (of different types and kinds), moral evaluation, affects, emotion, reasoning, memory, feelings, broad categorization, narrow categorization, adscription of agency, prediction, anticipation, delayed gratification, succumbing to impulses, visual perception, purposeful meditation… you may think that whatever may happen in your mind Mr. Sapolsky has it covered and pithily conveys the biological basis of it, which means identifying it with the firing of some neurons (or at least the distinct oxygen consumption of some broad areas of the brain) and the variation in the concentration in the blood of some chemicals.
There is the mandatory (for a book that aspires to fairly represent the “state of the art” of neuroscientific investigation) mountain of notes and copious bibliography pointing to the apparently insurmountable mountain of (impeccably “scientific”, of course) evidence supporting its claims, but it is a pity no mention is made to the dubious replicability recently noted of many of those experiments. Which is surprising, given that the book has been published this very same year (2017) and Brian Nosek important paper “Estimating the reproducibility of Psychological science”, which kicked off what has been termed the “crisis of replication” in most social fields was published in Aug 2015. So Sapolky’s still using experiments from John Bargh and the like (when I read Social Psychology and the Unconscious I was left with the clear and distinct feeling that the whole field was completely, utterly bunk, and I didn’t need sophisticated resources and a failed attempt at replication to conclude that they were either trivial or false; non surprisingly the field of “social psychology” has been one of the worst hit by the replication crisis…) as evidence without mentioning their dubious epistemic status is at best a bit careless, and at worst disingenuous.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your previous metaphysical commitments) I came out with the idea that the book fails spectacularly in its declared intent of “explaining” in any meaningful way why we humans act as we do. Maybe it has to resort to too many causal chains (in very different timescales, which make them mightily difficult to integrate with one another). Maybe I read these things to gauge to what extent the advances in medicine and biology should make me question my belief in (or commitment to) free will, and given my prejudices and biases it is not surprising that I come out of such exercises reassured, rather than shaken or converted. There are many intelligent, considered and thoughtful arguments against the existence of such mythical beast (freedom of the will), made since the time of the Classical Greeks, but I’m afraid you won’t find any of them in Behave.
Let’s start with how the author proposes to tackle it head-on, appealing to the somewhat worn out and belittling homunculus argument (after that, don’t ever accuse me again of strawmanning!). I’ll need to quote in some length to capture the rhetoric in all its gloriousness. This is how Mr. Sapolsky presents his understanding of what he calls “mitigated free will”:
There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes and hormones, whether their parents were authoritative or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.
And, then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus, at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.
And the homunculus sits there controlling behavior. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycemic shock.
There are domains where the homunculus and that brain biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.
But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.
At this point the author may think he has gone a bit overboard, after all polls suggest (although it’s a slippery concept that may arguably not be all that well understood by people answering that kind of question) that consistent majorities in all countries do believe people is endowed with free will, mitigated or not, in our very scientific and deterministic age, when the dominant reason has been hammering them at least since the mid-eighteenth century that this “voluntariness” thing is but a fiction, the sooner to be discarded the better (to work more towards accumulating more material goods, mindless as such accumulation may look like to a dispassionate observer). So Mr. Sapolsky digs deeper, trying to excuse ourselves for our unenlightened foolishness (but not much):
That’s what mitigated free will is about. I see incredibly smart people recoil from this and attempt to argue against the extremity of this picture rather than accept its basic validity: “You are setting up a straw homunculus, suggesting that I think that other than the likes of seizures or brain injuries, we are making all our decisions freely. No, no, my free will is much softer and lurks around the edges of biology, like when I freely decide which socks to wear.” But the frequency or significance with which free will exerts itself doesn’t matter. Even if 99.99 percent of your actions are biologically determined (in the broadest sense of this book) and it is only once in a decade that you claim to have chosen out of “free will” to floss your teeth from left to right instead of the reverse, you’ve tacitly invoked a homunculus operating outside the rules of science.
Well, I´m not sure Mr. Sapolsky would consider me “incredibly smart” (I’m a theist, maybe even a Deist, after all, which in his book is surely a giant letdown), so it is just par for the course that I do not recoil from “this” at all, and wouldn’t even attempt to argue against the “extremity” of such picture, a picture the belief on which is shared by obvious morons like Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Kant and arguably even Hume, but hey!, who were they to know? They didn’t have fMRI’s, microscopes, EEG’s and the like… bunch of intellectual midgets, that’s who). I’ll apply Sapolsky’s rhetoric to his own position (“no homunculus at all, just the neurons, hormones, genes and that’s it”) towards the end of this post and we’ll see what seems more ridiculous, or looks like being more “extreme” if we dwell for a moment on where that dispassionate, seemingly objective and scientific alternative that he champions leads us.
But before we get there I think it’s worthy to consider the super duper, bold, brave and at the end quite empty calls for radical overhaul of the penal system (if all the world is indistinguishable from a prison, where nobody has any freedom at all, but just the blind obedience to material forces that were put in play in the big bang and have been playing out necessarily ever since, what does jailing criminals even mean?) in light of the non-existence of that vaunted free-will. At various points the author admonishes us that given what we know of what makes people tick we absolutely must reconsider all our laws and, most markedly, punishments. But when it comes to actually define how such reconsideration should look like, he is maddeningly vague. All he does is point that concepts like “guilt”, “intent” and even “recidivism” lack any real meaning, as all and every action that any of us performs is preordained, is overdetermined by an overlap of evolution (that shaped our species), individual genetics (that shaped our capabilities and dispositions) and the individual circumstances in which we find ourselves (which trigger the evolved responses finely tuned by our genetic endowment and previous history) and so does not merit to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished any more than the actions performed by animals (donkeys, pigs, cows) that, in past and unenlightened centuries were similarly judged and on which silly verdicts were given. Very bold and brave, indeed, until we try to apply it to the real world.
Let’s remember than in penal theory punishments pursue at least three objectives: we deem it acceptable to harm the perpetrator of a crime because a) it has a deterrent effect on other people (who see that committing crimes is punished and would thus become less likely to do it themselves) b) it makes it more difficult or impossible for the criminal to repeat his bad deeds (from killing him to imprisoning him to depriving him of the material means necessary for recidivism) and d) it compensates the victim (either materially, giving her the proceeds of the fine imposed on the evildoer, or morally, signaling the rejection of society towards what her tormentor had done). You may notice that all three objectives are quite independent of the assumption of free agency on either the criminal or the rest of society. Even if we accept we are all mindless robots, we would still need to levy fines, temporarily imprison wrongdoers and, for some extreme cases, either imprison for life or kill those individuals dangerous and prone to violence that we can not afford to let loose between their fellow beings. We may use a bit of less shaming, and more consequentialist reasoning, but I don’t see the actual penalties of any modern, progressive penal system (like the one you can find in most advanced parts of the world, the USA not included) changing much, or at all. Which doesn’t mean our current system is maximally humane or maximally just, as it already considers to a great extent the criminals as somehow mentally defective, and such condescension may be a harder punishment than granting them independence and recognizing their moral agency, even if that means a harsher punishment (finely illustrated in Henrik Stangerup’s The Man Who Wanted to be Guilty).
Regardless of the consequences of admitting the fictitious nature of free will, that at the same time are presented as unimaginably bold, revolutionary and requiring we let current norms, laws and institutions essentially unchanged, I’m afraid the animosity of Mr. Sapolsky towards the possibility of such fiction not being a fiction at all lies in a misunderstanding, the misunderstanding of how the freedom worth having in an (in)determinist universe would look like. His confusion reproduces almost verbatim an argument from Daniel Dennett (which I’ve read both in Consciousness Explained and in Freedom evolves): even if the universe were at heart strictly indeterministic, that wouldn’t threaten his understanding of all behavior following necessarily, within a causal chain with no slack, from material causes that were essentially set in stone at the moment of the Big Bang, because A) the indeterministic nature of reality applies only at very small scales (the quantum realm, for particles smaller than a proton or a neutron) and when it comes to “big” stuff, noticeable by our senses such indeterminism vanishes, so we can entirely ignore it; and B) even if there were truly “uncaused” macroscopic events, events for which we could really and ultimately never find a material “cause”, such events would never constitute the basis of a “freedom worth having”, as we traditionally consider a “free” action (free in the sense of being valuable, morally worthy, deserving praise or blame, etc.) one that is consistent with the “personality”, the “character”, the “true self” of the agent, and such action could never come out of the blue, or be entirely random, it could never be supported (or be made to appear more likely) by the fact that the universe is finally not ”causally closed” if we understand such lack of causal closure only to entail the possibility of entirely stochastic, uncaused events.
That is indeed hefty metaphysical stuff, and reading Behave has just reinforced my original hunch that such stuff is but very lightly illuminated by what we learn from neurology and biology. Without needing to resort to so much neurobabble Ted Honderich expressed it better and more nuancedly in his (alas! Quite difficult to find) Theory of Determinism (1990), which was wrong for the same reasons Dennett’s and Sapolsky’s are wrong, namely: A) their understanding of physics is between 50 and 80 years out of whack, the old debate between Heisenberg and Laplace was decisively won by the former, and appeals to hidden variables to causally explain quantum effects have so far been shown to be not only unsubstantiated, but probably incongruous (the best explanations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle I’ve seen are entirely apodictic, relaying not on any particular experimental result but on the nature of reality and mathematics themselves); the consensus position between physicists is that nature is fundamentally non-deterministic, that there are really, deeply, entirely uncaused events, and that those events, microscopic as they may be individually, may aggregate to have macroscopic, entirely observable effects (from the disintegration of a radioactive particle to certain phase changes), due to the non-linearity of the equations governing complex systems (that would demand a potentially infinite precision in the measurement of the initial conditions to get even to an estimation of the order of magnitude of the end state of a given system… but HUP puts a hard limit on the precision with which we can measure such initial state, seriously limiting what we can know of such end state, regardless of how macroscopic we find it to be). But wait, it gets worse, because B) you don’t even need to appeal to quantum indeterminism to accept the possibility of a freedom worth having, once you recognize that classical mechanics provides a fairly limited description of a fairly limited percentage of reality (the behavior of “reduced” number of “big” solid bodies moving “slow” -no need to get too technical about the precise meaning of each term between quotes), and that sadly classical mechanics is the only realm where the determinism our authors propound holds sway. What Honderich, and Dennett, and finally Sapolsky are doing is taking the neatly defined (albeit, as I just mentioned, woefully incomplete) concept of causality taken from classical mechanics and applying it to the field of chemistry (mostly a valid extension, for big enough compounds), then extending it again to the field of biology (sneaky, and attending to the results, a not entirely legitimate extension) and finally extending it again to the field of human behavior, forgetting the entirely different meaning a “cause” may have for creatures possessing a symbolic language, culture and a complex neural system that translates into sophisticated motivational structures. Then, they look back as if such chain of extensions of the original concept were entirely uncomplicated and immediate and claim -“see, as the only valid causes are big bodies gravitationally attracted to one another, or imparting momentum to one another through physical contact, or heating one another or exchanging atoms and molecules with one another… there can be no free will, as it would require a weird stuff -a homunculus, that has no way to gravitationally attract, impart momentum, heat or exchange atoms or molecules with normal, everyday, honest-to-God, measurable matter” (that’s the “Casper argument” from Dennett, that I’ve criticized elsewhere, in a nutshell). But it’s them who have beforehand (and somewhat arbitrarily, as we are about to see) limited what can be validly considered a cause, so their whole argument is circular and lacks validity!
Indeed, someone with impeccable empiricist credentials as John Stuart Mill, in his A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (first published in 1843), already noted (although he hid it in a footnote) that the very same concept of what a “cause” is had significantly evolved from the times of classical Greece, when its paradigmatic model was precisely… mental intention! (their main example of a cause was me thinking on moving my arm and my arm dutifully moving as intended) to his own time, when the paradigmatic model had become the billiard ball being moved mechanically by the clash of another billiard ball. That’s why in Aristotle canonical model we find listed as causes not just material causes, but formal causes and end causes, that are entirely lacking of our modern concept of what a cause consists in. Add Descartes and his distinction between res cogitans and res extensa and you may start to understand why the idea of mind as something outright distinct (metaphysically distinct, I dare to say) from matter has become more and more alien to our sensibilities (a somewhat more garrulous and blockheaded example of such strangeness would be the abominable Descartes Error, by Antonio Damasio, but I refuse to devote much attention to such claptrap).
Okay, let’s take stock then of where we stand: We’ve found that Bob Sapolsky’s idea of what constitutes a cause may be not all there is to it when it comes to explaining human (or, for what it’s worth, animal) behavior. We’ve based such finding in the previous (probably unknown to him, that’s the problem of doing metaphysics without enough training in basic philosophy, only partially excusable if you think what you are doing is biology, or neurology, or psychology) and unjustified commitment of what constitutes a valid explanation, that leaves out enormous tracts of reality that are as able to have an empirically verifiable effect on the material evolution of the universe as any legit neutron star or black hole or lump of atoms you may think of. And before anybody accuses me of magical thinking and just attempting to open the causal closure of the material world to sneak in it fairies and old bearded guys in robes inhabiting the skies (not that I would care, really), I will clarify that identifying the insufficiency of matter as universal explanation does not require any kind of previous commitment to revealed religion, the existence of immortal souls or anything like it. I’ve already pointed to one of the fiercest critics of what he terms “neuromania”, Raymond Tallis, an avowed and proud atheist. Another recent critic of the view that there is only and can only be matter, interacting according to the laws revealed by the scientific method so far: Thomas Nagel (similarly open about his atheism). Want a recent criticism of Dennett that doesn’t rely at all in any supernaturalism? Look no further: The Illusionist
The way I see it, there could only be one redeeming feature of Behave’s underlying thesis: that it worked, and all the hullabaloo about Latin-named regions of the brain and chemical compounds and genes and evolutionary just-so stories (being a bit harsh here, I know) served the purpose of actually being able to predict how people… well, behaved. But alas! Per the author’s own admission, it’s not yet to be:
…my stance has a major problem, one that causes Morse to conclude that the contributions of neuroscience to the legal system “are modest at best, and neuroscience poses no genuine, radical challenge to concepts of personhood, responsibility and competence.” The problem can be summarized in a hypothetical exchange:
Prosecutor: So, professor, you’ve told us about the extensive damage that the defendant sustained to his frontal cortex when he was a child, Has every person who has sustained such damage become a multiple murderer, like the defendant?
Prosecutor: Has every such person at least engaged in some sort of serious criminal behavior?
Prosecutor: Can brain science explain why the same amount of damage produced murderous behavior in the defendant?
The problem is that, even amid all these biological insights that allow us to be snitty about those silly homunculi, we still can’t predict much about behavior. Perhaps at the statistical level of groups, but not when it comes to individuals.
Indeed. As he titles the following subchapter, the whole discipline “explains a lot, but predicts little”. IF you restrict explanation to certain very limited terms, I would add (because if not, it doesn’t even explain that much to begin with). Which is mighty honest from the author, and deserves great kudos for its humility and realism. Humility and realism somewhat sullied when he explains that such lack of predictive power is caused by the relative youth of the discipline (supported by very tricky and fishy graphs showing how many articles containing a number of trendy terms have been published in the last years, compared with how many were published a century ago, when there were all of five medical journals in the whole planet Earth), and if we wait a bit they will tease out all the contributing causes and finally start making brilliant, honest to God predictions that will hold up to scrutiny and allow for the vaunted overhaul of the legal system (predictably in the direction foreshadowed in Minority Report, when we will detain and even execute potential criminals before they can commit their evil deeds).Sorry, but that reminds me of the baseless hope in some mysterious hidden variables that will end up allowing to predict everything. Didn’t work in physics, won’t work in psychology.
But if you are not all that demanding about what you consider scientific (remembering Feynman, most of the curios within Behave are more akin to stamp classification and collection than to physics, or whatever your model of hard science is), or are happy to roll with good ol’ Collingwood and accept as scientific any discipline that searches systematically for the answers to certain questions, and is willing to share the data and methods used to arrive to such answers (even if those data and methods end up demonstrating the opposite of what they were marshaled to prove), then I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is comprehensive, witty, not very well structured but full of silly experiments that will amuse and entertain you, and give you an edge in otherwise dreary conversations (you can follow “the latest science conclusively proves that humans…” with whatever folly conceit you wish and you probably can find some supporting “evidence” within its pages). Best of all (or not, depending on what makes you tick), don’t expect it to question your previous assumptions about what moves us to act or how the mind works (as opposed to the brain), as it is woefully short in those departments…