Blinded by Science

Science and Moral Priority: Merging Mind, Brain and Human Values By Roger W. Sperry Columbia University Press; 126 pp. $16.95

IS LOVE NOTHING but "brain chemistry"? Would "a relatively painless adjustment in mankind's sense of right and wrong" towards a more scientific morality prevent an impending nuclear holocaust?

While these ideas might be perfect for late-night bull sessions, they have no grounding in reality. But they are just a sampling of the brazen assertions offered in two new books, The Chemistry of Love by Michael Liebowitz, a psychiatrist at Columbia, and Science and Moral Priority, by Roger W. Sperry, a psychobiologist from Cal Tech. In fact, it seems that these two scientists, who have had much success in the labs, have a rather inflated idea of what science can do. Both men have been blinded by their own successes into thinking that they can begin to solve society's most intractable problems. Liebowtiz's most noted work is his treatment of depressed patients who could not be helped by years of psychotherapy. He instead gave them antidepressant drugs which soon corrected their behavior. Thanks in large part to his work, drug therapy could replace psychotherapy. Sperry, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with two Harvard professors in 1981, has achieved far more. He performed brilliant and often misconstrued experiments which showed that the two halves of the brain perform different functions: the left half predominating in verbal tasks, the right in spatial tasks.

In a long career, his experiments have also led to a remarkably persuasive solution to an old philosophical problem: the relation between the mind and the brain. His model is so sensible that it appears self-evident: mind can rule matter because ideas determine the behavior of the nerve cells which express the idea, much as a rolling wheel determines the motion of the atoms that form it.

However, both men go wrong in extending scientific speculation far beyond the bounds of scientific evidence. Liebowitz parlays his limited success in drug therapy into an apparent belief that the pleasures of romantic love are little different from those of recreational drugs. Sperry praises "science as the proven Number I method available for answering problems," and suggests that science and religion will join in "a new theology, one that would promote the values of conservation, renewable energy sources, and the like..." Both books are laughable--in their own dangerous way.

The Chemistry of Love is often laughable in both its language and its ideas. Liebowitz writes badly and thinks sloppily. His work is filled with meaningless sentences such as "Along comes a somewhat attractive and friendly soul and whammo, our brains are hit with megadoses of 'attachment juice." His logic is no better. "Biologically," he writes, "it appears that we have evolved two distinct chemical systems for romance; one basically serves to bring people together and the other to keep them together." The only evidence that he offers for all this elaborate chemical apparatus is that we fall in love and stay with our lovers.

It is astonishing that anyone could write a 200-page book on love and sex without ever mentioning kindness or morality and without considering the possibility that some actions are right and others wrong. But Liebowitz has done so keeping his discussion to "feeling good and feeling bad," "pleasure centers," "romantic wiring," and "the brain's data banks." Liebowitz' materialist amorality is to be expected if one is familiar with his supposedly successful therapies, for instance, giving drugs to a woman which allowed her to abandon a husband she no longer found attractive. Once we begin altering people's minds with drugs, we invite Aldous Huxley's Brave New World scenario where all are happy and none are good.

ROGER SPERRY'S Science and Moral Priority seems to promise a way out. He rejects the materialist fallacy--still dominant in psychobiology--which downplays the power of ideas and emotions. Sperry believes that materialism is the only obstacle which prevents a fusion of science and religion, and that his solution to the mind-brain problem has broken down the barrier between the two. And if anyone could link science and ethics, Sperry, an excellent researcher who cares deeply about ethical questions, would be the man. Sperry is also the only Nobel prize-winning scientist to have majored in English at college.

Unfortunately, Sperry looks at ethical questions from a misguided perspective, and he overestimates the ability of science to solve even technical problems. "History and common observation," he writes, "confirm that nothing is more proficient than science at prescribing what ought to prevail in order to achieve almost any defined aim...The same applies in regard to ultimate aims..."

But science is not always the best way to achieve a defined aim. When we need to wire new lighting for our house, we never hire a physicist to perform a complicated array of calculations; he could easily make a mistake and the house would burn down. Instead we call on an electrician who might know nothing about the scientific theory of electricity, but who has learned by custom and experience what sort of wiring works best.

If custom and experience work better than science to solve such a simple technical problem as electrical wiring, there seems little hope in using science to solve moral crises on the planetary level, such as the threat of nuclear holocaust to which Sperry returns again and again. Yet Sperry asks it to do so: "Ideologies, philosophies, religious doctrines, world models, values systems, and more will stand or fall depending on the kinds of answers that brain research eventually reveals."

Like Liebowitz, Sperry asks too much of science and the scientific method for solving problems. The successes of science have so blinded him to the importance of irrational ethics and traditional practice that he finds them useless. Instead, he asks science to take over their proper roles:

In view of the enormous timely importance and control power of human values and their critical role in shaping world events, it follows that if science is inherently inadequate by its basic nature to deal with values and value issues, then we are confronted... with what is surely a profound shortcoming in science and all it stands for.

Science is inherently inadequate for determining values; this is no shortcoming. The scientific method has proved valuable for solving simple problems and answering simple questions. But when we try to use it as a guide for our personal lives or global politics, we will arrive--incorrectly--in Liebowitz' brave new world or Sperry's confused world order.