Brains changing themselves

The belief that the brain never changed and was hard-wired early in life was universal dogma until pretty recently. Some part of this was probably a coarse-grained analysis that saw the brains of adolescent rats as observably the same as adult rats, but there was also a strong a priori reason: if brain structure controlled activity then it could not control its structure. Mad scientists might manipulate the brains of others but this was the only sort of “overbrain” that could manipulate brain structure.

For all that, brain structure can be changed by choices and so we were left either having to posit overbrains or speak of “brains changing themselves”. Obviously, the last option won out. The claim was unobjectionable when we understood it as the brain adapting to changing event, like re-allocating resources when we lost a sense power or a limb, but it was more puzzling as a rewiring that overcame ataraxia, like quitting addiction, moral improvement, or following through on a long-term plan to achieve something good. We could speak of one part of the brain forcing another to rewire, but the word “force” is ambiguous since the moral component of the change requires the force to be other-than-natural. That part A modified part B, even if it led to a morally beneficial result and even if A were conscious of what it was doing, would not give the change a moral character. Natural changes that the consciousness of A just went along with and neither initiated nor prohibited would not occasion praise.

Now there is a venerable tradition of believing that the person actually cannot change themselves morally. The first step of any 12-step program is to admit one’s powerlessness in the face of moral demands, which is part of a larger belief system that reframes quondam moral disorders as physical disorders, i.e. diseases. If change occurs it is, so far as it is in us, a natural change lacking any component for which we should be praised. The critique of such a position is familiar, though it’s curious that the believer in “a higher power” is defending the position that is closer to Naturalism about human beings while his (perhaps Naturalist) opponent argues for a force that is nowhere in the catalogue of natural forces. Both determinists and some sorts of Christians agree that only a god could save us; both Christians and Nietzcheans agree that there is some willing component of the self that is not powerless in the face of some the infinite chain of natural causes being pushed a tergo. 

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