When you think of something that makes you go back to your memories of the past, is it you who reflects, or does your brain? Turning your attention to mental phenomena as internalized as memories may indicate that everything you do in that moment is limited to internal activity, something carried out by the nervous system.

But, on the other hand, couldn’t we say that it is always the brain that thinks and feels, given that our entire mental life is linked to it? There is no need to stick to what happens when we remember: when we talk to someone, the brain transforms concepts into words, right? In fact, we could even say that it is not the whole brain, but a part of it, that thinks and plans: what the prefrontal cortex does is not the same as what the spinal cord does.

If these questions have led you to think that your real “I” is really your brain enclosed in a set of muscles and bones, just as a train driver operates a train in the cab, many philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists would tell you that you have fallen into what is known as the meritocratic fallacy . Let’s move on to the corresponding question.

What is the merit-based fallacy?

Although the study of mental processes and the brain is very complicated, that does not mean it is impossible. We currently have a level of technology that allows us to keep systematic records on nerve activity and behavior, so lines of research that a few decades ago seemed like science fiction stories are now a reality.

However, many philosophers would say that the revolution of technological advances that we have experienced in the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century has not been accompanied by a revolution of ideas comparable to the previous one; at least, with regard to our way of thinking about how the human brain and behavior work. Many times we fall into something that some philosophers have called a merit-based fallacy.

This concept was promoted by the philosopher Peter Hacker and the neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett who, in his work Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience , pointed out a mistake that, according to them, most researchers in the field of brain and psychology had been making: confusing the part for the whole. For example, affirming that the brain reflects, chooses, values, etc.

From the point of view of these two authors, the way in which mental processes are conceived both by most people at the grassroots level and by many researchers in the scientific field is not very different from those who believe in a soul that, from somewhere in the brain, governs the body. Thus, the merit-based fallacy is not technically a fallacy because it does not arise from an erroneous argument (although it does in the broadest sense of the term), but a failure to attribute a subject to a predicate.

Thus, to fall into the merit-based fallacy is to attribute to the brain, or some of its parts, properties and actions that are actually performed by people. In the same way that it would be absurd to say that it is not the falcon but its wings that fly, it would be fallacious to say that the brain thinks, reflects or decides. We often let ourselves be carried away by these assumptions simply because it is simpler for us to understand how the mind works if we let ourselves be carried away by reductionism , and not because scientific research has shown that this set of organs reason or think apart from the rest of the body.

In other words, the merit-based fallacy consists in understanding the human mind in a way very similar to what philosophers such as Rene Descartes did to explain what the psyche is by appealing to the spiritual and the divine. This is an error with deep roots.

From Cartesian dualism to metaphysical monism

The study of the brain has been marked for centuries by dualism, that is, the belief that reality is composed of two radically different substances, matter and spirit. This is an intuitive belief, since it is easy to consider that there is a clear division between one’s state of consciousness and almost everything else, the “external”, is very simple.

In the 17th century, Rene Descartes created a philosophical system that formalized the relationship between body and mind; as he understood this relationship. Thus, the mind, the spiritual, would be seated in the pineal gland of the brain, and from there it would govern the acts performed by the body. The precedent of the merit-based fallacy was thus present from the beginning of the formalization of the scientific study of the brain, and of course this affected psychology and philosophy .

However, the openly declared dualism did not last forever: already in the 20th century the monistic approaches, according to which everything is matter in motion, gained a hegemonic status. Philosophers and researchers who point to the existence of the merit-based fallacy as a recurring problem suggest that this generation of researchers continued to treat the brain as if it were a synonym for the soul or, rather, as if it were a miniature person that controls the rest of the organism. That’s why the merit-based fallacy is also called the homunculus fallacy: it reduces human properties to small, mysterious entities that supposedly inhabit some corner of our heads.

Thus, even if dualism was apparently rejected, in practice the brain or its parts could still be understood as an essence to which to attribute our identity. The monists used ideas based on metaphysics to change the name of the soul to “brain”, “frontal lobe”, etc.

Introspection can lead to identification with the brain. | Giovanni Bellini

The consequences of the merit-based fallacy

The merit-based fallacy can be understood as a poor use of language when talking about how mental processes really are and what the human condition is. It is not by chance that Peter Hacker is a follower of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher known for having argued that the failures of philosophy are in fact inappropriate uses of language. However, falling into this fallacy means much more than not speaking properly.

A linguistic error that can have consequences beyond the simple confusion of terms is, for example, looking for parts of the brain responsible for thinking or decision making , something that usually leads to the analysis of increasingly reduced areas of the brain. Let us remember that this, considering the existence of the merit fallacy, would be like attributing to the axis of the wind mills the property of moving the blades.

Moreover, this tendency is a way of continuing to believe in something very similar to the soul without calling it by that name. As a consequence, the belief that there is an essence from which our actions and decisions are born remains intact, and the body/mind dualism, or rejection of the idea that we are not fundamentally different from any other animal, is still there, in disguise.

  • You might be interested: “How are psychology and philosophy alike?”

A frequent, automatic, unconscious error

The concept of the merit-based fallacy has not been unanimously accepted by neuroscientists or philosophers of the mind. John Searle and Daniel Dennett, for example, have been critical of this . The second one, for example, states that it is possible to talk about “partial” actions and intentions and attribute them to the brain and its sub-systems, and that dilating in this way the meaning of the terms “thinking” or “feeling” is not harmful. It is a view that relies on pragmatism, downplaying the negative consequences of the merit-based fallacy.

Furthermore, it may be thought that when talking about the brain outside of scientific fields, whether in day-to-day life or in popularization, it is very difficult to talk about the functioning of the brain without doing so as we would do about people. This has made it a relatively unknown idea: it describes something that we have been doing for centuries and that we normally do not see as a problem that affects us. Essentialism is something that is very attractive when it comes to explaining all kinds of phenomena, and if we can reduce the causes of something to a clearly identifiable element isolated from the rest, we tend to do so unless we are attentive.

For the moment, then, it is difficult to find a way to talk about the mechanisms of the nervous system without automatically falling into the merit-based fallacy. Doing so requires entering into preambles that few informative initiatives can resist, and having experience and training in philosophy and neurosciences that few people can afford. However, this does not mean that it is better to forget the fact that this problem is still there, that it is important to take it into account both in research and in the faculties related to Psychology and Philosophy, and that metaphors about how the brain works have to be taken as such.