The Neurological Turn: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? (April 2023)

This essay first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Choice (volume 60 | issue 8).


The insatiable desire to know ourselves, to better understand human nature, endures, and is undoubtedly heightened by the powerful implications that neuroscience holds for self-understanding and perhaps enhancing daily life. In an often unrecognized manner, many modern conveniences rely on the findings that neuroscientific studies have uncovered. Consider two pervasive examples, the  neuroscience-informed algorithms that underlie many smart phone applications and the marvels of modern neuropharmaceuticals that address many issues of aging and behavioral health. Despite the incredible pull of these modern conveniences and the underlying theories they presuppose, three reasons for pause remain: first, the various forms of physicalism that serve as the foundation of neuroscience, which are still subject to challenges raised by the proponents of some form of dualism; second, the immense amount of data generated by neuroscience and related areas of inquiry, data that continues to outpace the development of a reigning paradigm in which to consistently frame the data; and third, the moral and ethical implications that result from the technological imperative that drives neuroscience. 

In what follows, each of the above reasons for pause will be considered. This author’s first Choice bibliographic essay on this subject—“Neuroscience: Matter and More” (September 2012 issue)—offered broad insight into the naturalization of the mind and its ramifications; the scope of this updated essay will extend to renewed defenses of dualism, the emergence of two frameworks for understanding neuroscientific data, and normative responses to those situations in which former fictions may have become reality.

About the Author:

Heidi Storl is the William F. Freistat Endowed Chair for Studies in World Peace at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. She is also a certified healthcare ethics consultant. Her areas of expertise include neurophilosophy, neurophenomenology, and neuroethics. She serves as director of Augustana College’s summer research internship program at the Texas Medical Center and as a clinical ethicist at UnityPoint Health.