Speculations on Obama’s Brain Initiative

Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), introduces President Obama as the “scientist-in-chief.” Collins’ “BioLogos” theory is a brand of theistic evolution I have to admit I am not all that familiar with. But I do think he is a good choice to head the NIH since he believes in the compatibility of science and religion, as the majority of Americans seem to.

Obama, for his part, does not begin his speech by situating the latest public investment in brain research in the context of human spirituality. That, of course, is a private matter. Rather, he immediately places this government-funded research in its proper economic context (i.e., techno-capitalism). Investing in science is important, he tells us. Why? Because sometimes it leads to important inventions, some of which may eventually make their way to the marketplace in the form of profitable products and services. If we’re really lucky, science might just lead to the creation of more jobs! The goal of this, and any scientific initiative, is not “understanding.” No, it is economic growth!

Not that Obama is entirely blind to the mystery being approached:

“The most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with. There’s this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. The Brain Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think, and how we learn, and how we remember. That knowledge could be–will be–transformative.”

Not to worry, Obama is going to appoint a presidential bio-ethics committee to make sure all the mystery explaining remains “safe” and all the re-programming remains “legal.” No unnecessary risks will be taken. The only necessary risks will be those whose eventual pay-off as techno-scientific capital can be calculated to outweigh any present cost in human life, liberty, and/or happiness.

Am I being too harsh? Surely there are a few people on the ethics board with a conscience… But is a conscience enough? Isn’t some deeper understanding of the interweaving of cosmos, psyche, and spirit also necessary to guide such research? I guess I’m just disappointed that our scientist-in-chief is a materialist who has totally bought in to the techno-capitalist dream of a future artificial earth whose perfection is won through the progress of industry. Obama seems to joke that one day, after we’ve “cracked the code” in the brain, even politics will be made more perfect by techno-science.

“If we knew everything about how the brain worked, presumably my life here would be simpler. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington… we could prescribe something…”

I suspect that human consciousness is a supreme mystery different in kind and not just more difficult in degree than the mere problems routinely solvable by the scientific method. Method cannot approach mystery. I’m not saying that we might not make important and beneficial medical discoveries as a result of investing in brain research. I’m certainly not saying that the brain should not be studied from as many angles as possible. I’m all for scientific inquiry. I’m just trying to air out the ideology I see painted all over Obama’s announcement. In this case it would certainly seem that the pursuit of scientific understanding has been co-opted by techno-capitalism. I must stick this initiative in the “Capitalist Sorcery” file.

I leave you with the words of a man who understood the difference between philosophical mysteries and scientific problems. Here is Alfred North Whitehead on “speculative Reason,” by which he means the human faculty that desires knowledge for its own sake:

“The speculative Reason is in its essence untrammeled by method. Its function is to pierce into the general reasons beyond limited reasons, to understand all methods as coordinated in a nature of things only to be grasped by transcending all method. This infinite ideal is never to be attained by the bounded intelligence of mankind. But what distinguishes men from the animals, some humans from other humans, is the inclusion in their natures, waveringly and dimly, of a disturbing element, which is the flight after the unattainable. This element is that touch of infinity which has goaded races onward, sometimes to their destruction. It is a tropism to the beckoning light–to the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world. Reason which is methodic is content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method. It works in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity. It is the discipline of shrewdness. Reason which is speculative questions the methods, refusing to let them rest. The passionate demand for freedom of thought is a tribute to the deep connection of the speculative Reason with religious intuitions” -pgs. 65-66, The Function of Reason (1929)


  1. Hey Matt, great post. I think it’s a positive development that our government is putting money into this progressive project at all. I doubt a Republican president would do the same. It seems to me that one doesn’t become president unless one’s world view is pretty close to the culture’s center of gravity, and it probably wouldn’t be possible to get this funding approved without a strong economic argument and the assurance of careful oversight. But this initiative seems to me potentially as significant as Kennedy’s initiative at the beginning of the sixties to put a man on the moon. My sense of the president is that he is a spiritual and idealistic pragmatist, slowly and patiently attempting to move the world in the right direction. Do you think it’s possible that technology, capitalism, science, and mystery can coexist harmoniously? It’s certainly true that “man cannot live by bread alone,” but he still needs bread. Or vegetables and protein if you’re into the whole gluten-free thing.

    1. On the face of it I was somewhat disturbed by the announcement, especially because Obama seemed to joke about the Brave New World that such an alliance between state and techno-capital seems destined to bring about. I mean a world where we take pills to maintain “right-thought” (or “left-thought” as the case may be). I will have to take a look at the goals of the individual research projects that are getting funding before I can pass further judgment.

  2. Reblogged this on BillRoseThorn and commented:
    Thank you so much for this post Matt. The neutral objectivity that scientists and materialists often lay claim to hides much of the social pretensions from with which they are operating. In this instance, the President of the United States is digging deep into the minds of his subjects and carrying a ideological bias toward economic efficiency in plain site.
    Separating the religious from the scientific is not enough. Obama’s alleged “Pragmatism” does not account for Capitalist apologetics that turn the scientific pursuit of knowledge into normative political knowledge for an Imperial superpower. With a near-perfect understanding of the brain, the limits to keeping masses complacent would be extended farther than almost anyone could see. In the world of capitalism, research on consciousness via reductivist neuron tinkering has clear dangers for anyone who understands the power dimension of politics, but this is becoming less obvious to the lot of humanity.

  3. Re: the above comment about technology, capitalism, science, and mystery coexisting…

    Yes: capitalists use science to innovate new technologies that protect capitalism. The mystery is why we haven’t yet smashed their heads in with baseball bats for continuing to destroy everything of remote value.

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