I’ve just caught up a bit belatedly with The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement, (pdf) the paper of Pete Mandik’s, written with Andrew Brook, which he featured on his blog at the beginning of the month. It’s an interesting read and seems to have garnered quite a bit of attention, including a discussion (rather foggy, I thought) on Metafilter.
The general question of relations between science and philosophy has of course been a vexed one ever since the distinction started to be made (I don’t think someone like Isaac Newton would have seen any particular gulf between the two). Some scientists speak of philosophers the way an aristocrat might talk about the gypsies encamped on the edge of his land: with patronising disapproval, but also with a slight secret fear that they might have obscure magic secrets which could ruin the scientific harvest: philosophers for their part have been largely scared away from the grand metaphysical uplands by the obvious dangers in ontologising without a firm grasp of modern physics.
When it comes to philosophy of mind and neuroscience the intertwining of the issues creates an especially great need for co-operation and interaction, and perhaps holds out some prospect of more of a meeting on equal terms. Some thinking along these lines must, at any rate, have lain behind the movement for working together which Brook and Mandik say began about twenty-five years ago; they rightly point out that the influence of scientific advances has transformed the way we think about language, memory and vision (in fact scientific understanding of the visual system has been influencing philosophical ideas for hundreds of years: the discovery of images on the retina must surely have predisposed philosophers towards thinking in terms of an homunculus, a ‘little man’ sitting and watching the pictures, and perhaps still adds some weight to the perceived importance of mental images as key intermediaries between us and reality.
But I think it’s still not uncommon for people on either side to assume that they can get on quite well on their own. Neuroscientists may be tempted to think they should just get on with the science, and let the philosophy take care of itself: maybe the philosophical answers will come along a s a kind of bonus with the scientific results – and if they don’t, well philosophers never answer anything anyway, do they? Philosophers, equally, may suppose the science is a matter of detail – oh, by the way, they tell me that the firing of c-fibres is not actually equivalent to pain, as it turns out, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s, you know, f-fibres or z-fibres: for the sake of brevity in this discussion let’s just pretend it is c-fibres…
Hence in part, I suppose, the paper, which discusses (necessarily in brief and summary form) a number of interesting areas of interaction which show how much there is to be gained by positive engagement.
An interesting one is the suggestion that neuroscience and philosophers of neuroscience have greatly strengthened the case against nomological (law-based) theories of scientific explanation. Physics tends to be taken as the paradigmatic science, but one of its leading characteristics is its amenability to nomological treatment. Physics produces clear universal laws which work with precise mathematical accuracy. In biology,things are very different, and we tend to have to work with explanations which are teleological (concerned with the purpose of things) or statistical in nature. This appears to be especially true in neuroscience, where the brain exhibits complex structure but does not seem to operate under simple laws.
Another area I found thought-provoking was the claim, which I found surprising at first, that new neuroscientific tools have led to a renaissance in introspective studies. Introspection, the direct inward examination of the contents of one’s own consciousness, was a no-go area for many years after the collapse of attempts to systematise introspectionist findings (indeed, we’ve been reading recently in the JCS about the disgust with introspectionism that led J.B. Watson to set up as a radical behaviourist, declaring that there actually were no damn contents of consciousness). The trouble with introspection has always been that the results are chaotic and unconfirmable: training designed to improve results raises the new danger of bias and getting out of your subjects only what you trained into them. How could this situation possibly be reclaimed?
Yet it’s true when you come to think of it that many of the numerous studies with fMRI and other scanners which have taken place in recent years have relied on introspective reports. The thing is, of course, the scanners provide an avenue of confirmation and corroboration which Wundt and Titchener never had and legitimise introspective reports. If it weren’t already so securely fastened, this would be another nail in the coffin of radical behaviourism.
A third point among many which particularly struck me was the issue of neural semantics. Consideration of the brain and nervous system as information processors takes us into the philosophically intractable area of intentionality. The real difficulties (and the most interesting issues) here are well-known to philosophers but easily overlooked or undervalued by scientists. However, neurobiology offers influential examples of feature-detection mechanisms which might (or might not) point the way to a proper analysis of meaning. My personal view is that this is a particularly promising area for future development, where ancient mysteries might really be dispelled in part by future research.
The paper concludes with a rather downbeat look at consciousness itself. Faced with claims that consciousness is in part not neural, or even physical, many neuroscientists (and their ‘philosophical fellow-travellers’) ignore them or ‘throw science at it’, the authors say. They rightly consider this a risky approach, liable to lead to the familiar syndrome in which the scientists explains a toy-town or simplified conception of consciousness, leaving the really tough problem breathing unacknowledged down their necks. This might be a slightly gloomy view, but it is impossible to disagree when the authors call for better rejoinders to such claims.