Can philosophers contribute to neuroscience?


Neuroscience is a discipline that is grounded in very complicated, costly and highly intelligent empirical research in labs. You cannot be a neuroscientist without being socialized in the world of the lab, and without taking part in the stream of collaborative experimental work. This is rightly emphasized in textbooks of neuroscience, such as the widely used ‘Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain’ by Bear, Connors and Paradiso where you find many boxes in which leading neuroscientists tell their personal stories, of course, centred on work in labs. So, what can philosophy contribute? Can economics contribute?

Regarding economics, the answer seems positive, because neuroeconomics comes along in two versions. Most economists perceive only the version in which economists employ neuroscientific insights and methods, but in fact neuroeconomics started out from the idea that economics may be of relevance for neuroscience, as stated in Paul Glimcher’s book of 2003. In teams of neuroeconomic research, economists can contribute diverse skills and competences, such as econometrics, but also theory, as Glimcher points out. This is because economics is a theory about rewards, incentives, choice and actions.

When driving back from Louvain-La-Neuve last week, where I presented a talk at the institute of philosophy, our partner in INSOSCI, I thought about these issues. Philosophy of Mind entertains an intensive communication with the neurosciences, for sure. But what can it contribute to progress in the neurosciences? Clearly, there is the important issue of reflecting upon the use of neuroscience in society, where philosophy is indispensable. But this is not really about neuroscientific research in the precise meaning.

I think that the mechanistic approach is a good example for philosophy becoming productive also for neuroscience research. This is because there can be a feedback from philosophy of science to the discipline. On first sight, the mechanistic approach analyses and systematizes the research methodology and underlying implicit philosophical premises in neuroscientific research, thus lending a more precise meaning to notion such as ‘reductionism’ which are indeed used by neuroscientists (for an example, see the personal story by Julie Kauer in the aforementioned textbook, page 572). But again, this does not directly contribute to research but remains on a meta-level.

I think that an important possible contribution of the mechanistic approach to neuroscience can be guiding research to asking the right questions. One example is the important question how to define and identify the boundaries of a mechanism. I guess that most neuroscientists would tend towards considering only mechanisms with boundaries that would maximally coincide with the boundaries of the human body. If you consider this from the mechanistic approach, there is no necessary reason for this assumption. And indeed, there is neuroscience research that rejects this idea. My colleague Jens Harbecke recommended a philosophical paper to me by Carlos Zednik who discusses Scott Kelso’s work on behavioural coordination between subjects with which I was familiar from my earlier work partly inspired by one of Kelso’s team partners, the French neuroscientist Olivier Oullier. This work builds on complex mathematical models of behavioural coordination, which, as Zednik argues, represent underlying mechanisms which are ‘extended’, that is, extend beyond the boundaries of the body. Sometimes these models are presented as challenging neuroscientific reductionism, but it seems that we need to distinguish between reductionism in the sense of ‘neuro-atomism’ and reductionism in the shape of mechanistic causal explanations. The models by Kelso and colleagues are not reductionist in the former sense, but are mechanistic in the latter sense.

Interestingly, there are similar concerns in those contributions to neuroscience which are inspired by phenomenology and discuss notions such as ‘intercorporeality’ (as an example, see the paper by Gallese 2016). Thus, I argue that the boundary issue is one where philosophy can contribute to neuroscience. If we can present compelling philosophical reasons why boundaries of mechanisms necessarily transcend the boundaries of the body, a neuroscience textbook would need to be rewritten entirely. The standard approach is starting with the elements of mechanisms: the cells and their constituent units. But what are elements beyond the boundaries of the organism that would need to be included next to these elements? For example, as is argued in the ‘extended mind’ literature in cognitive sciences, should we include a computer with which a brain interacts in the list of elements? I think most neuroscientists would shrug off this question as mere science fiction. But as we saw, there is neuroscientific experimental research in which this kind of questions really come up. For example, one serious question is whether ‘signs’, ‘symbols’ or language should be included on the same level as cells as being elements in neuroscientific mechanistic explanations, as I argue in my own work based on Peirce and Mead. Philosophy can help finding the answer, by means of raising the right questions.


Cited literature

Bear, Mark F., Barry W. Connors, und Michael A. Paradiso (2016), Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. 4th edition, International edition. Philadelphia Baltimore New York London: Wolters Kluwer.

Gallese, V. (2014) „Bodily Selves in Relation: Embodied Simulation as Second-Person Perspective on Intersubjectivity“. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 369, 1644: 20130177–20130177.

Glimcher, Paul W. (2003), Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain. The Science of Neuroeconomics, Cambridge, London: MIT Press.

Zednik, Carlos (2011), „The Nature of Dynamical Explanation*“. Philosophy of Science 78, 2: 238–63.

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