Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind: The Relevance for Neuroethics
Rabbi Ira Bedzow is a 2013 recipient of the Emory Center for Ethics
Neuroethics Travel Award. He is the project director for Moral Education
research project for the TAG Institute, and is currently pursuing his
PhD in Religion at Emory University.
Philosophy of mind examines the nature of the mind, mental functions, and consciousness, and their relationship to the body, i.e. the brain. Most contemporary philosophers of mind adopt a physicalist position, meaning that the mind is not something separate from the body. Nevertheless, they disagree as to whether mental states could eventually be explained by physical descriptions (reductionism), or whether they will always have its own vocabulary (non-reductionism). With the sophistication of neuroscience and the predominance of the physicalist position, it may seem that the importance of philosophy of mind is losing relevance, not only for those who are reductionist in their opinion about the relationship between the mind and the brain but even to non-reductionists as well. For example, William Vallicella recently answered the question, “Is Philosophy of Mind Relevant to the Practice of Neuroscience?” in the following way:
Off the top of my ‘head,’ it seems to me that […] it should make no difference at all to the practicing neuroscientist what philosophy of mind he accepts.
Valicella’s answer betrays an inclination towards neurocentrism (the view that human behavior can be best explained by looking solely or primarily at the brain). According to Vallicella, neuroscience would not be affected by any philosophies of mind, since one can always find a way to make philosophical premises correspond to biological findings (with a little work). Relevance is equated with correspondence, and philosophy of mind must fit into the findings of neuroscience. If it doesn’t, there is no contradiction; rather, philosophy becomes irrelevant.
What Vallicella does not consider, and which should be a major concern for neuroethics, is that a person’s given philosophy of mind influences how he or she will interpret neuroscientific data. For this reason, which philosophy of mind we uphold has a major affect on the practice of neuroscience and how its findings shape the way we interact in social life. Moreover, if we ignore the relevance of philosophy of mind, or other non-neurocentrist methodologies for that matter, and allow neurocentric accounts to have an exclusive position in explaining all aspects of human behavior, both social and psychological, then we lose more than we realize in terms of our ability to properly explain and shape human behavior.
In this post, I do not want to show how different philosophies of mind affect neuroscience per se, though I will provide examples which compare different views of the mind. These examples are only meant to show, however, the practical ramifications of having different philosophical assumptions about the mind which cannot be resolved by neuroscience. Rather, I will attempt to show that philosophy of mind in general is still important even with the current advances in neuroscience.
The first example is a case where having a philosophy of mind will affect the conclusions drawn from neuroscientific data with respect to mental illness. Professor Seth Grant of the University of Edinburgh and his team claim that their research shows a direct link between the evolution of behavior and the origins of brain diseases. As Grant puts it, “Our work shows that the price of higher intelligence and more complex behaviours is more mental illness.” To claim a correlation between higher intelligence and mental illness is also to presuppose not only a theory of mental illness (in terms of its causes) but also a concept of mental illness (in terms of its bio-social definition). The latter is an ethical and philosophical claim as much as a biological or neuroscientific claim. In fact, it fits the “Disorder as Statistical Deviance” concept of mental illness, albeit on a grander scale so as to include animals as much as humans.
The premise that humans are simply smarter than other animals accepts a philosophy of mind that traces back to Aristotle, who thought that the uniqueness of human beings lies solely in their rational capacity; all other parts of the human soul are the same as those possessed by animals. Yet this is not the only view of the human psyche that can influence one’s perception of a possible correlation between intelligence and mental illness. Maimonides (a 12th century Jewish physician and rabbi), on the other hand, contended humans are wholly unique; the “animal” aspects of their soul, such as the nutritive, sentient, imaginative, and appetitive parts, are only analogous to those found in animals, they are not the same. (See Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 1.)
|Philosophy and science (via theguardian.com)
The importance of these divergent opinions for the sake of this discussion is not specifically a matter of how each one understands the human soul; rather, their disagreement is important in terms of whether one can interpret the results of damaging mice’s brains as being analogous to the effects of mental illness and brain diseases in humans, as Seth Green and his team has done. For Maimonides, the relationship between mental illness and human intelligence should not be judged according to that which is found in the animal kingdom, since the analogy does not make for an informative comparison. Aristotle’s philosophy, on the other hand, would allow for an analogy between mice and humans for the sake of reading the data in the way that Seth Green and his team has done. In this case, philosophy influences how to interpret the data, since it influences which data will be relevant.
A second example is a case where having a philosophy of mind can affect what we can expect neuroscience to be capable of explaining. For example, Sam Harris, has argued that neuroscience will eventually determine human values. No longer would legal culpability and moral responsibility be ethical issues; rather, they would be questions for science to explain. Yet – to take just one area of ethical controversy – while addiction may lead to neurological changes in a person, an addict may not become a wanton (to use Harry Frankfurt’s phrase). As Sally L. Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld note, “The key problem with neurocentrism is that it devalues the importance of psychological explanations and environmental factors, such as familial chaos, stress, and widespread access to drugs, in sustaining addiction.”
Though neuroscience can show that biological changes occur from addiction, using that scientific data-point without any consideration for psychological or environmental factors to call addiction a “brain-disease” also removes (or at least undermines) the idea of human agency in influencing how an addict behaves. From a philosophical perspective, the idea that habituation creates a loss of free will is an ancient assumption with traces to Aristotle, yet Aristotle’s view that habits ossify a person’s behavior is not the only one that has traction in moral thought. Maimonides adopts a more plastic view of human character, whereby a person is still able to change his or her behavior (even if only to a degree) when his or her habits have seemed to make the person a wanton, and the recovery of certain addicts help to support this assumption. The neuroscientist, however, is unable to tell the difference between a brain scan of a person who cannot act differently from one who did not act differently. Thus data collected from a brain scan could not resolve this philosophical disagreement. Whether agency plays a role in an addict’s potential recovery or not is still a matter for philosophy.
While Vallicella’s response to the question, “Is Philosophy of Mind Relevant to the Practice of Neuroscience?” allows us to feel comfortable holding onto our philosophies of mind by explaining that they do not contradict the advances of neuroscience, when understood in terms of reconciliation alone, the question is not interesting. Rather, the question that we all should consider, and which has great relevance both to philosophy of mind and to the practice of neuroscience, is – how does having a philosophy of mind influence the way neuroscientific data is interpreted, and how does our interpretation of such data affect our answers to the question of how the brain and the mind relate, and how we relate, to each other?
To those who may contend that philosophy (of mind) should have no influence on (neuro)science, I want to end with a quote from Hilary Putnam, who stated regarding the subsumption of values into the scientific method,
Apparently any fantasy – the fantasy of doing science using only deductive logic (Popper), the fantasy of vindicating induction deductively (Reichenbach), the fantasy of reducing science to a simple sampling algorithm (Carnap), the fantasy of selecting theories given mysteriously available set of “true observation conditionals,” or, alternatively, “settling for psychology” (both Quine) – is regarded as preferable to rethinking the whole dogma (the last dogma of empiricism?) that facts are objective and values are subjective and “never the twain shall meet.”1
Because science, as a method of inquiry, and philosophy, as a set of methodological assumptions used to interpret data, cannot in fact be separated, there is more relevance to philosophy than neurocentrists may like to admit.
1. Hilary Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) 145.
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Bedzow, I. (2013). Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind: The Relevance for Neuroethics. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2013/09/neuroscience-and-philosophy-of-mind.html