The recurrence of the word neurophilosophy in articles and appearing in my inbox made me think we should all know more about this fascinating field of study that allows us to peek inside the brain and answer some of history’s greatest theoretical ponderings.
After talking about the idea with Hank Pellissier, who shares my interest in the subject, I decided to get in touch with someone I’d met several years ago to learn more about it.
Dr. Garret Merriam is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Indiana. I met Dr. Merriam while I was finishing my Master’s degree. We both were located in the Midwest and found that we shared a common interest in transhumanism and the issues surrounding it.
I had the opportunity this past February to attend Dr. Merriam’s presentation, “How to Dissolve the Problem of Free Will and Determinism.” His talk got me thinking about what it is to ask the right and wrong questions to find the answers to our problems and what else is possible by looking inside the brain technologically with a philosophic lens.
Here is my conversation with him.
Kristi Scott: You have a background in philosophy, so what drew you to the neuro side of things?
Garret Merriam: It’s been said that all philosophy boils down to the question ‘what is human nature?’ (That’s certainly an oversimplification, but there is at least some truth to it.) It became clear to me early on in my career that the most interesting exploration of human nature was happening in the brain and behavioral sciences. There is more to humanity than just the brain, but that’s where the deepest mysteries and the most exciting promises lie.
KS: Define ‘neurophilosophy’.
GM: Neurophilosophy is both a methodology and a subject matter, and a general definition should capture both. So perhaps: ‘the application of neuroscientific findings to traditional philosophical questions, or the application of philosophical methods to issues in the neurosciences.’ The term ‘neurophilosophy’ was coined, I believe, by Patricia Churchland in her 1986 book of the same name.
KS: What areas of inquiries does this open up for the discipline?
GM: There are both old problems that can be illuminated and new problems that can be discovered. The classic ‘mind-body problem’ for example, has been plaguing philosophers at least since Rene Descartes. The idea that the mind is just a part or an aspect of the body/brain is at least as old, championed by Descartes’ contemporary Thomas Hobbes, but there was always a huge open question: exactly HOW does the brain give rise to consciousness? Neuroscience is making some real headway on that issue, and many serious people think we will crack ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ within a generation. There are still a lot of unknowns, of course, and it may turn out that those people are overly optimistic, but one way or another we are learning a lot more about how the brain works than either Descartes or Hobbes ever would have thought possible.
KS: What are some of the most amazing insights you have gained since you began looking at neurophilosophy?
GM: I’m still floored by a condition called anosognosia. Someone with anosognosia has some sort of disability—they may be paralyzed on their left side, for example—but in addition they are physiologically incapable of realizing they have the disability. If a doctor asks them to move their arm they’ll confabulate, just make up reasons not to move it (‘I just did’, or ‘that’s not my arm.’) But they’re not in denial, it’s actually physically impossible for their brains to understand that they can’t move. Realize what this means: it’s possible that you, right now, could be severely disabled but are simply incapable of realizing it. And you may never be able to realize it. This takes issues of skepticism and the embodied human condition to a whole new level. I’ve never been too troubled by the ‘what if we’re all just brains in a vat/plugged into the matrix?’ type issues because they seem like such obvious byproducts of pure imagination. But conditions like anosognosia are not flights of fantasy: they actually happen in the real world, and they force us to ask hard questions about how we know our own bodies.
KS: Is Neurophilosophy compatible with transhumanism? If so, how?
GM: I’d say it’s more than just compatible, I’d say that any one working in or thinking about transhumanism will almost invariably be doing work in neurophilosophy, too, at least in the broad sense. One of the key issues in transhumanism is figuring out how to extend consciousness beyond the natural lifespan of the human brain. That makes what David Chalmers calls “the hard problem of consciousness” a central issue for both philosophy and transhumanism. For now, at least some of the ethical issues raised by transhumanism can be addressed through traditional philosophical methods. I think that falls under the umbrella of neurophilosophy by subject matter, if not in terms of methodology. But if technology continues to progress as many transhumanist thinkers predict it will I anticipate that we’ll find those old methods less and less capable of making sense of the issues, much less giving us guidance on them. If that turns out to be the case it will be the provenience of neurophilosophy to develop new approaches to ethics that will be able to fill the void.
KS: Do you see neurophilosophy gaining many adherents in the future – is it the “philosophy of the future’?
GM: As much as I enjoy futurism I can’t claim to be very good at it, so I have to qualify any predictions I make accordingly. That having been said, I do think there will be more work done in neurophilosophy as we learn more about the brain, and as philosophers, and the public at large start to become more conversant with neuroscience. It’s hard to imagine that the practical impacts of neuroscience won’t be felt by people as time goes by, and that will impact how they do philosophy. I am more skeptical, though, that it will completely overshadow the old methods. Philosophers, like people in general, tend to be pretty stubborn.
KS: I hear that neurophilosophy does not believe in “the self”? Can you comment on this?
GM: I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that neurophilosophy, as such, doesn’t believe in the self. Antonio Damasio has just recently published a book called Self Comes To Mind in which he attempts to explain the idea of self in neuroscientific terms. But many neurophilosophers do reject the idea of a self, and at a minimum neuroscience does present a possible challenge to the idea. ‘Self’ is a staple of folk psychology. It seems to work for a lot of day-to-day purposes, but there are lots of folk ideas that work but are not actually grounded in empirical science. You can use Ptolemaic astronomy to navigate the oceans, for example, but that doesn’t mean that the earth is at the center of the universe. Likewise, just because it seems like there is a single, central locus of my identity that exists over time it doesn’t follow that there is. We use ideas like ‘the self’ to make sense of our experiences and our relationship to the world. Perhaps there are better ways of making sense of these things in terms of a mature neuroscientific picture of humanity.
KS: What are you working on at the moment in this field?
GM: I actually just got back from an experimental philosophy workshop at Yale dedicated to the problem of free will and determinism. They helped me put together an experiment that tests folk intuitions about the connection between moral responsibility and behavior. My general thesis is that a neuroscientifically informed picture of human nature can make sense of this connection much better than the ideas of ‘free will’ or ‘determinism.’ I describe my approach as broadly ‘eliminitivist.’
KS: What about factoring in the cultural aspect of what humans do when looking at us from the neurophilosophical perspective? Is the neurophilosophical perspective, do you or others in the field think, that it is too narrowly focused or reductionist in its perspective?
GM: I think these two go together, so I’m going to answer them at once. One of the big issues in the philosophy of science is trying to figure out how phenomena on different ‘levels’ relate to one another. No single H2O molecule is wet, but somehow you put a bunch of them together and you get wetness. Likewise, there are a whole host of social phenomena that are real and deserve study, but that don’t exist on the level of the individual person, much less the individual brain or the individual neuron or synapse.
One school of thought on this matter is ‘ontological reductionism’: the only real reality is at the ‘bottom’ level (the atomic, the neuronal, etc.) and all macro phenomena can only be truly accounted for on this level. Sure, we may need disciplines like sociology for now, since science is (currently) too limited to effectively use principles of physics or neuroscience to account for these phenomena, but this is just a practical short-cut. No real reality exists on the social level, it’s all fundamentally just atoms/neurons.
I think this reductionist approach has had an embarrassingly bad track record in the 20th century, and frankly I’m surprised anyone still is attracted to it. For one, it can’t really be a viable long-term strategy for neuroscience, since if we’re going to reduce sociology to psychology to biology to neuroscience, why should we stop there? Why not go on reducing and just reduce everything to particle physics?
Turns out, there’s a good reason why we don’t just reduce everything to physics: we can’t actually make sense of reality as we experience it that way. The stochastic nature of quantum physics really monkey-wrenches any kind of pure reductionist program; yes macro objects are made up of the subatomic, but you can’t actually explain, fully, the behavior of macro objects in terms of subatomic physics. Human behavior is also stochastic; our actions are the result of underlying causes, but a given set of conditions doesn’t yield a single, definite outcome. As a result of this, some issues need to be addressed on the level of the quantum, some on the atomic, some on the molecular, some on the biological, some on the neurological, some on the psychological, some on the social. If we can’t reduce chemistry to physics, despite well over 100 years of trying to do so, does it really make sense to think we’ll do away with psychology and sociology and leave only neuroscience behind?
All this talk of ‘real reality’ and these fantastic speculations about what science will eventually become seem to me like a combination of bad philosophy and bad science. As a matter of actual science, not the imagined science of the future, but the actual science as we know it today and can expect in the foreseeable future, we can’t pretend that these higher levels don’t matter. Nothing in the actual science should give us any optimism about an eventual reductionist program, quite the opposite, in fact. Yes, the social sciences will be transformed by neuroscience, and aspects of them may be reduced or eliminated, but we have no reason to think they will be completely obliterated.
KS: Do you think technology has lifted the veil enough on how we work? Or do you think at some point we are going to crave an even deeper look into who we are and how we function? I think I mentioned this to you briefly when we met last…once we find the spark of when something happens, doesn’t that make us curious as to what happened before the “spark” of activity? It seems like an endless, but insightfully productive loop of inquiry where we might never get all the answers we seek…and some in society might not want to hear what “your” selling when you do find it.
GM: I don’t know whether or not we will reach such a point, but I sure hope we never stop craving a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. I think Freeman Dyson put the point beautifully: “I would be disappointed if nature could be so easily tamed. I find the idea of a Final Theory repugnant because it diminishes both the richness of nature and the richness of human destiny. I prefer to live in a universe full of inexhaustible mysteries, and to belong to a species destined for inexhaustible intellectual growth.” He was talking about physics, but I think the point applies equally well to neuroscience. What a horribly unsatisfying human destiny that would be, to have everything figured out, to have nothing else to explore, nothing else to discover, no more mystery. Personally, I don’t want the answers to be in the back of the book.