The Chicago Philosophy Meetup Message Board › Philosophy and Neuroscience

Philosophy and Neuroscience

user 14003769
La Grange, IL
Post #: 38
A nice take on neuroscience and its implications for philosophy would be Thomas Metzinger. He calls himself a neurophenomenologist. Here is a 1 hour talk from Metzinger on his book Being No One.­

His book The Ego Tunnel is an excellent and fun read (can't recommend it enough)...Being No One is more academic.­


BTW Subjective first person perspectives can be empirically "reliable". You would first need to establish reliable tools of introspection via meditation and corroborate what is found in a community of the capable like any other reproducible scientific endeavor.
Imran M.
user 51046332
Chicago, IL
Post #: 2
I'm enjoying the threads forming in the banter so far. I'll comment on one of the basic questions asked here:

Are some of the objects of philosophical problems and explanations categorically different than some of those of neuroscientific questions and explanations?

Peter suggests that at least at an explanatory level philosophy and neuroscience concern different objects. For example, if our problem is to define justice, neuroscience could only help in a backwards way. Maybe we could find patterns in brain activity which correlate with when subjects are in, or being asked about, situations that can be deemed just or unjust. Though we expect opinions to differ on whether a particular situation is just or unjust, if certain brain activity is especially involved in these judgments of justice, it would justify including a measurement for this activity when asking about a just or unjust situation. Ideally, we might find just situations determine definite brain activity, independently of the subjective judgment of justice offered. That would mean including some objective criteria for justice (i.e. situations which on average are deemed to be just determine definite brain activity even in those who say the situation is unjust). Alternatively, we might find the brain activity in fact changes according to subjective judgment (and vice versa), so that we might ask questions to isolate the brain activity (e.g. whether inducing the brain activity artificially affects subjective judgment, whether confounding factors about the subject are related to this activity and lead to confused judgment, and so on).

All of these findings would at least be related to justice in general. But it is not as clear whether this data would be of the sort which would support or invalidate the explanation of justice which books like the Republic attempt through introspection. I think instead that the one could only engage the other by critique: If neuroscience found certain brain activity or anatomy was necessary to justice-related experience, it would argue limits for what can be said about justice in general (namely, that in cases where the brain activity or anatomy is inhibited or modified, the subject's thinking about justice is inhibited or modified). We might imagine entirely different subjective relations to justice in brains wired differently, or no relation at all. [This resonates to me with an approach Kant takes to the problem of evil in Critique of Judgment: he says we can't speak of evil independently of the development of a faculty for discerning evil, so any judgment of whether nature is evil in itself must be contingent on our evolutionary faculties and the consideration that we are the telic outcome of that nature.] On the other hand, we might expect Plato to argue that by nature justice is defined independently of any examples of just situations or popular consensus on its definition. (I think its actually that insistence on the independence of justice which leads to nice paradoxes in the Republic where justice, fairness and equality actually trade off with each other).

I go through this contrived example of neuroscience studying justice to nudge Peter's argument into a less determinate problem. I think Peter argues that if we learn the mechanisms which determine learning about justice and having opinions about justice, we don't get any closer to knowing what justice is, since of course the basic ideas of justice we are dealing with could be valid or invalid; so the ability to control learning so that a person's opinions on justice faithfully reflect what they've been taught about justice doesn't relate to the validity of what they've been taught. The answer presumably is to treat justice in itself and see through introspection whether it's meaningful, consistent, and capable of being proven true in human understanding.

But I think in my neuroscience example we do in fact end up dealing with the definition of justice, and not just its learning and opining. If we actually find that some contingent brain activity is exclusively determinate of any thinking about "justice" in the specific way our study addressed it, then we have to make some decisions about the sense in which we want to treat "justice" in general. Suppose we have a poll measuring some level of consensus on particular situations that are just or unjust. Then we present subjects with the situation and find some definite brain activity corresponds with popularly unjust situations, even for subjects who fail to judge the situation as unjust. I agree we could say in principle that neither the consensus poll, the correlating brain activity, nor the determination of "unjust" situations deals with anything essential to a positive definition of justice. But then, I don't think we know in a predetermined way what actually is part of the positive definition either.

I think our opponent might ask from motives no less deep than Plato's: in what way do we begin to ponder justice? A common approach has said that in principle we at least know that the definition of justice we arrive at should not be contingent, or else we won't know justice in general to even be able to judge the validity of particular cases. That makes sense, but what if the general concept itself is contingent? If, in my imaginary example, definite brain activity determines any subjective judgment of injustice in comparison to other thinking, then we we have a necessary condition for the thought of injustice. It's a linguistic happenstance this happens to be the negation of the positive term, justice. The fact that injustice has the unique determinate condition might tell us that we can more meaningfully define injustice, and that it's justified to include the contingent brain correlation in the definition insofar as the brain activity is a necesarry condition for the thought.

Science seldom works as cleanly as that, but I think it does by nature do things like probe conditions for possibility and conditions of determination that appeal to the spirit of any philosopher wanting to get at the truth of things.
Imran M.
user 51046332
Chicago, IL
Post #: 3

This is why I'm very sympathetic to the spirit of Ivan's post. He seems to me to argue that neuroscience might reground philosophy in general. There are a few reactions that have come out to this:

1. At least some philosophical activity and goals are distinct from scientific data. Specifically, when deciding right action in philosophy we're concerned not simply with having information but in exercising skill in conducting ourselves. This skill doesn't have a determinate relation to information; the mere discovery of more information doesn't make a person better at conducting herself, though being wise may certainly involve the motivation to seek and use relevant information.

2. If we agree that science and philosophy both simply concern what is, human nature and the determinants of wisdom included, then neuroscience is not sufficiently broad to meaningfully ground this endeavor. At least, we should mean something like "cognitive science" which would include a certain attitude about how to ask our questions and deal with phenomenal experience.

3. There are many activities in philosophy whose precondition is not any assumption of neuroscience and which can't be addressed at their most enriching levels by neuroscience. Peter offers the example of appreciating a great musical composition, and we might add to this doing literary criticism, theology or theater. Neuroscientific data would not enrich these humanities in general except in the most rudimentary and remote ways. It's one thing to have a determinate theory for some particular emotion, for example, and quite another to engage the meaningful and emotional complexity of Shakespeare or Ovid. To do the latter we've not looked to neuroscience but proceeded quite differently.

I'm simplifying the reactions and I do think each makes a compelling point. But I'm drawn particularly to what I see is still justifiable in Ivan's claim that neuroscience could reground philosophy in general:

He says this is true particularly for studying consciousness and language. In what way could these two grapple the whole beast of philosophy? Well, I think that both engage the nature of contingency which gives philosophy its power. By nature of contingency, I mean the attitude that "it could be otherwise." In consciousness, we're dealing not just with what is but with an indeterminacy in the very nature of what is: objects in consciousness are not themselves real objects but still somehow in relation to what is real (the phenomenon/noumenon split), there are things in nature which we can measure and relate with physically which aren't represented in consciousness, and we experience things in consciousness which we simply regard as illusions or treat as mystical experiences that throw off the whole ordinacy of what is. It's a neat philosophy parlour trick, for example, to give a stranger some proofs that space and time are transcendental intuitions rather than properties of things. I think this draws a reaction of interest because it touches on the contingency of our world experience, which could be quite otherwise, and makes the world something to wonder and ask questions about. In language, we encounter contingency in meaning itself. One parlor trick here is to show that all words actually have meaning as opposites of other words (e.g. big means not small) with no self-contained words grounding the system. I think contingency of meaning is the most unsettling kind of contingency, and while we often credit philosophy and religion with dealing with what is meaningful about the world and not just observably true about it, we should recognize that in this gesture we're acknowledging that the things of the world don't have, merely in their apparent qualities, a determinate relation to meaning. (They have meaning in relation to us, but the more critical we are of ourselves the more we risk meaninglessness).

Suppose neuroscience shows consciousness and meaning are definitely determined by brain anatomy and funtion, to the extent that we can modify conscious experience and what makes sense through simple, controlled modifications of the brain. Consciousness and experience are still contingent, of course, but now conditions for possible experience are much more contingent than just conditioning by pure intuitions, and we also have something like conditions for possible reason, and by nature we're no longer dealing with pure concepts. It seems apparent to me that it's not as though, in this example, Kant and neuroscience are simply talking about different things. And I'm just not sure whether there any obvious answers to how philosophy would then ground metaphysics from an empirical standpoint, which kind of seems to me be the entire point of what Ivan is getting at. The closest formulation I can think of is Deleuze's reading of Hume, but I doubt Ivan would find that satisfactory.

Second, in a more poetic vein, I think it would be uprooting for neuroscience to really find the physically determinate conditions for our inner life. Freud is an interesting example where objects of introspection start being taken up as objects of scientific measurement themselves. Freud carefully tracked the words he and his patients uttered independently of their narrative embedding. Astonishingly, when the most intimate periods of thinking were observed at the surface by this virtual tape recorder, patterns of word usage emerged which told completely different stories that seemed to deceive the very person to whom they were occurring in introspection. Skinner is sometimes regarded as the next step in this trend, endeavoring to reduce all of psychological life to observable behavior. But ironically, I think Skinnerian psychology is much less unsettling than some of what Freud was doing, which was treating inner introspective life not as some irrelevant epiphenomenon to behavior, but as a kind of foreign, self-conflicting and deceptive interplay which produces the illusion of meaning and subjective unity which ground conscious life. Likewise, eliminative materialism predicts we will eventually dismiss concepts which are irreducible to empirical measurement as confusions and illusions. But it would be much more unsettling if the illusions were themselves determined by discrete processes which we could isolate and modify. In the former case, we might continue to do philosophy as usual insofar as it's meaningful to us and doesn't conflict with science. In the latter case, where "meaningfulness" is no longer self-relating but the product of contingent and modifiable anatomy,
I think we'd be at a level of contingency which goes beyond the seducing of us to ask "why?" to all aspects of existence; it might instead close our basic subjective relation in which being and meaning are indeterminate. Heidegger sometimes talks about the closing of the clearing of being as science moves forward... This last point isn't much of a developed thought. I just think what characterizes philosophy as "openness" in the way Erik describes is the sense in which we feel existence in its various determinations to be contingent. Insofar as we lose that feeling of contingency, I think we lose philosophy.
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