Reading on: Neuroscience and the End of Philosophy
How neuroscience is changing philosophical concepts like soul, self, and free will.
Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills. – Schopenhauer
Churchland, Patricia Smith Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2002 [excerpt – 830 words]
Patricia Churchland from her book, “Brain-Wise” – Introduction
Bit by experimental bit, neuroscience is morphing our conception of what we are. The weight of evidence now implies that it is the brain, rather than some nonphysical stuff, that feels, thinks, and decides. That means there is no soul to fall in love. We do still fall in love, certainly, and passion is as real as it ever was. The difference is that now we understand those important feelings to be events happening in the physical brain.
It means that there is no soul to spend its postmortem eternity blissful in Heaven or miserable in Hell. Stranger yet, it means that the introspective inside—one’s own subjectivity—is itself a brain-dependent way of making sense of neural events. In addition, it means that the brain’s knowledge that this is so is likewise brain-based business.
Given what is known about the brain, it also appears highly doubtful that there is a special nonphysical module, the will, operating in a causal vacuum to create voluntary choices—choices to be courageous in the face of danger, or to run away and fight another day. In all probability, one’s decisions and plans, one’s self-restraint and self-indulgences, as well as one’s unique individual character traits, moods, and temperaments, are all features of the brain’s general causal organization.
The self-control one thinks one has is anchored by neural pathways and neurochemicals. The mind that we are assured can dominate over matter is in fact certain brain patterns interacting with and interpreted by other brain patterns.
Moreover, one’s self, as apprehended introspectively and represented incessantly, is a brain-dependent construct, susceptible to change as the brain changes, and is gone when the brain is gone.
Consciousness, almost certainly, is not a semimagical glow emanating from the soul or permeating spooky stuff. It is, very probably, a coordinated pattern of neuronal activity serving various biological functions. This does not mean that consciousness is not real. Rather, it means that its reality is rooted in its neurobiology. That a brain can come to know such things as these, and in particular, that it can do the science of itself, is one of the truly stunning capacities of the human brain.
This list catalogues but a few of the scientific developments that are revolutionizing our understanding of ourselves, and one would have to be naive to suppose that things have “gone about as far as they can go.” In general terms, the mind-body problem has ceased to be the reliably tangled conundrum it once was. During the last three decades, the pace of discovery in neuroscience has been breathtaking. At every level, from neurochemicals to cells, and onwards to the circuit and systems levels, brain research has produced results bearing on the nature of the mind.
Coevolving with neuroscience, cognitive science has probed the scope of large-scale functions such as attention, memory, perception, and reasoning both in the adult and in the developing infant. Additionally, computational ideas for linking large-scale cognitive phenomena with small-scale neural phenomena have opened the door to an integration of neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy in a comprehensive theoretical framework.
There remain problems galore, and the solution to some of these problems will surely require conceptual and theoretical innovation of a magnitude that will surprise the pants off us. Most assuredly, having achieved significant progress does not imply that only mopping-up operations remain. But it does mean that the heyday of unfettered and heavy-handed philosophical speculation on the mind has gone the way of the divine right of kings, a passing that has stirred some grumbling among those wearing the mantle of philosopher-king. It does mean that know-nothing philosophy is losing ground to empirically constrained theorizing and inventive experimentation.
If the aforementioned changes have emerged from discoveries in the various neurosciences—including neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, and cognitive science—wherefore philosophy? What is neurophilosophy, and what is its role? Part of the answer is that the nature of the mind (including the nature of memory and learning, consciousness and free will) have traditionally been subjects within the purview of philosophy. Philosophers, by tradition, have wrestled with these topics, and the work continues. Neurophilosophy arises out of the recognition that at long last, the brain sciences and their adjunct technology are sufficiently advanced that real progress can be made in understanding the mind-brain. More brashly, it predicts that philosophy of mind conducted with no understanding of neurons and the brain is likely to be sterile. Neurophilosophy, as a result, focuses on problems at the intersection of a greening neuroscience and a graying philosophy.