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Neuroscience & Philosophy: An Exchange

In response to:

What Can Your Neurons Tell You? from the July 11, 2013 issue

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To the Editors:

In my response to Colin McGinn [“What Can Your Neurons Tell You?,” NYR, July 11] I don’t wish to enter into the philosophical debate between philosophers and neuroscientists. Even if it is much needed, it requires extensive developments that are being carried out in different circles. I shall be concerned here by facts as they are reported in his NYR review.

First of all I am shocked by the overall arrogant style of his review. The use of the attributes “fallacy” or “confusion,” if still employed by some philosophers, does not belong to a dialogue between a scientist and a philosopher. Differences of opinion or of interpretation are more acceptable terms. Time has passed since Auguste Comte’s suggested hierarchy of disciplines. There is no reason today for philosophers to give “lessons” to anybody, scientists in particular. McGinn might read Bourdieu’s book on “distinction” to question his attitude. I see the relation between neuroscientists and philosophers in a much more positive and constructive manner, as a fruitful cooperation to understand, jointly, the “mind-brain” and to evaluate the consequences of the constantly progressing field of neuroscience—from the molecular to the cognitive level—on both theoretical and practical aspects of human productions. There are at present quite a number of philosophers like John Searle, Daniel Dennett, or Ned Block who play this role.

One has to be aware that the categories that McGinn utilizes in his judgments might no longer be up to date in the present context of developing neuroscience. On the contrary, they need to be deconstructed and reformulated to avoid the solipsism of judging with a given set of values another set of values from a different discipline. Notwithstanding his opinion, there are no more “essential” values coming from his own philosophy. I consider it to be a challenge of the twenty-first century to rebuild the glorious encyclopedic multidisciplinarity of the Siècle des Lumières.

Second, the issues raised by The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: A Neuronal Approach to tentatively envision a multidisciplinary research program between neuroscience and the humanities go far beyond the book itself and shall be presented elsewhere. In this context, the first goal of the critic is to understand what the other means, rather than playing games by isolating sentences from their context and making erroneous conclusions about the author. Four examples among many others illustrate these views.

(a) There is a misunderstanding about the title and contents of the book. The title specifies “a neuronal approach,” not a “neuronal explanation.” The aim of the book is to provide neuroscientific data to launch a research program on “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” as was initially debated within the walls of the Collège de France during the past decade but still requires extensive future efforts to approach completion.

(b) I never meant to reduce art to a symbolic intersubjective communication…. If McGinn had carefully read the book and other writings on this question, I do not at all reduce art to this definition: I have devoted chapters in the book and elsewhere to define and document the “rules of art,” which precisely attempt to specify artistic activity compared to other social activities.

(c) I never said that lower animal species don’t show signs of consciousness. If interested McGinn could read my Ferrier Lecture, “The Molecular Biology of Consciousness Investigated with Genetically Modified Mice,” from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society…and also meditate on what I have called repeatedly the “levels of consciousness.” While a worm, a fly, or even a mouse may show some attributes of conscious processing, certainly they do not reach the level that characterizes human beings.

(d) I always intentionally tried to avoid the word “correlates” in the relationship between “brain and mind,” in my opinion based upon a preconceived dualist position. My goal, as a molecular neuroscientist, has always been to find ways, with considerable difficulties, to establish causal relationships between states of activity of neural networks and mental or behavioral activities, taking into account the multiple nested levels of brain organization. Other scientists or philosophers may not adopt this view. But it is a central theme for a productive debate between science and epistemology. However it needs an emendatio intellectu, that is far from the “mysterianism” position adopted by our philosopher that human minds are unable to understand consciousness. The remarkable progress in the neurosciences in recent years cannot be dismissed as mere “neuromania,” except perhaps by an observer suffering from acute “neurophobia.”

Jean-Pierre Changeux
Collège de France Paris, France

Colin McGinn replies:

I have no objection to neuroscience as such: it is a fascinating and reputable scientific subject. My objection concerns the intellectual overreaching in which many of its practitioners engage—the tendency to assume that it can tell us much more than it really can. There is a general movement out there to subsume both psychology and philosophy under the neuroscience umbrella. Changeux’s book is unmistakably part of this effort of subsumption. He suggests that Plato’s interest in the good, the beautiful, and the true can be replaced by an approach based on neuroscience, so that traditional modes of philosophical inquiry can be superseded. This attitude is clear in his letter when he writes: “One has to be aware that the categories that McGinn utilizes in his judgments might no longer be up to date in the present context of developing neuroscience.” In my review I was disagreeing with this general point of view, defending traditional philosophical inquiry against the putative hegemony of neuroscience. This is not a criticism of neuroscience; it is a criticism of the attempt to replace philosophy with neuroscience (what Patricia Churchland calls “neurophilosophy”).

Changeux objects to my use of the words “fallacy” and “confusion.” These are harsh words, I know, but it seems to me, for the reasons I gave in the review, that the words are apt. It is a simple fallacy to confuse the subject matter of a psychological state, such as a belief or a perception, with the psychological state itself (the fallacy of “psychologism”). Changeux writes: “There is no reason today for philosophers to give ‘lessons’ to anybody, scientists in particular.” Indeed, there is no reason for philosophers to try to instruct scientists in science, but there is plenty of reason for philosophers to try to instruct scientists in philosophical concepts and theories. Many scientists stray from their area of expertise into philosophical territory—often hoping to sort out those poor antiquated philosophers who know no science—and the result is often sheer philosophical naiveté. This has been very conspicuous recently in the area of the mind-body problem, where philosophy has developed a very sophisticated understanding of the issues; and where the intrepid neuroscientist could use a bit of philosophical instruction before rashly wading in. There is no reason why there should not be fruitful cooperation here, but a dismissive attitude toward philosophy is not helpful.

Changeux’s suggestion that philosophical categories need to be “deconstructed and reformulated” to keep up with neuroscience is an example of the mistaken view I am opposing. The idea that, say, the is-ought distinction has been rendered obsolete by neuroscience is quite absurd to anyone who understands the issues. This is like supposing that classical logic has been undermined by botany.

I do not accept that I was “playing games by isolating sentences from their context.” Changeux tells us that his aim was to “launch a research program,” based on neuroscience, of the good, the true, and the beautiful. As I argued in my review, I think this “program” is misconceived, being based on a dubious reductionism and the act-object fallacy. All that can be said is that there is a neural basis, possibly quite specific, for our psychological states in relation to these three categories. I will not repeat here what I said there.

Changeux next assures us that he did not mean to “reduce art to a symbolic intersubjective communication.” But in the passage I quoted he explicitly uses the word “define”: he is defining art as… I objected to the definitional adequacy of what he himself proposes as a definition. I am glad to hear that elsewhere he rejects any such “definition,” but my objection was against what he wrote in the book under review.

I am also glad to hear that Changeux does not deny that mice have consciousness, but then why does he write in his book that “consciousness emerges at the highest and most complex organizational level of the nervous system”? These two statements are inconsistent. All I had to go on were the words used in the book I was reviewing—which evidently he contradicts elsewhere. And it is of course quite common for people to limit consciousness to human beings, usually because of a conflation of consciousness with self-consciousness.

Use of the word “correlate” does not commit one to a dualist position, as any philosopher worth his or her salt will point out. Water is “correlated” with H2O, in the technical sense of “correlated,” even though water is H2O. If you like, we can speak of the words or concepts being correlated, with the thing itself one and the same (see Frege on sense and reference). The idea of causal relations between mental and physical entities is itself consistent with both dualism and monism, contrary to what Changeux seems to assume.

It is not my view that “human minds are unable to understand consciousness.” I think we know quite well what consciousness is; what I maintain is that we don’t understand how consciousness can arise from merely electrical and chemical properties of the brain—a very traditional position.

Of course, my point was never that the progress of neuroscience can be dismissed as “neuromania.” It was that insisting that neuroscience is the key to philosophical problems is a form of neuromania. I like neurons well enough—I just think they are not the way to understand beauty, goodness, and truth. Hardly a radical position, I would have thought.

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