Philosophy and Neuroscience

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What is it

Philosophers have always been concerned with the mind.  What is consciousness? Representation?  Emotion?  Now that neuroscience is making headway on these same questions, we should ask: how should philosophy and neuroscience relate?  John and Ken discuss this question and more as they delve into neuroscientifically-minded philosophy with Patricia Churchland from UC San Diego.

Listening Notes

What is the relationship between our minds and our brains?   This familiar question raises a further one: what is the relationship beteween knoweldge of our minds, the kind we access through introspection, and knowledge of our brains, the territory of neuroscience.  We seem to know a lot about our own minds, and most of us know next to nothing about our own brains.  How can they be one in the same?  And how can neuroscience reveal anything about philosophy of mind?

Patricia Churchland steps up in defense of materialism, and advocates for neuroscience's place in philosophy.  She cites evidence to show that our intuitions about our own minds aren't as robust as we think they are, and suggests that they're probably closer to evolutionarily adapted coping-mechanisms than they are to actual knowledge.  "The mind," she says, "is something that the brain does," and all phenomena of the mind can be reduced to activity in the brain.  Ken asks, if this is true, then as we continue to discover neuorological explanations for mental phenomena, our concepts, both of these phenomena and of the mind itself, might adapt to accomodate them.  Patricia thinks this is plausible, and points to monogamy as an example of a concept that recent research could throw into flux.
But before someone reforms his concepts to fit neurological explanations, he must first accept the explanations, and Patricia's theory is far from uncontroversial. 

After presenting her view, Patricia goes on to respond to many challenges and objections from the hosts and from many callers.  John points out that our faulty intuitions about our minds are among the mental phenomena neuroscience has to explain.  Ken and callers give voice to the objection from subjectivity: mental facts are only knowable subjectively, through introspection, and the objective facts of a science cannot hope to capture them. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:03): Novella Carpenter investigates neuroscience's place in the courtroom.  Brain scans are often brought in as a means of avoiding the death penalty.  Is the mind in danger of losing agency?  Can your brain make you do something?  What does this do to our idea of punishment?
  • Conundrum (seek to 47:20): Holly from Queenscliff, Australia wonders whether she should attempt to report infractions against a law that serves her own interests, if she also thinks the law is unjust.
 
 

Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, University of California San Diego

 
 

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