Nemati on Brigard and Sinnott-Armstrong, 'Neuroscience and Philosophy'

Felipe De Brigard, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, eds.
Nedah N. Nemati

Felipe De Brigard, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, eds. Neuroscience and Philosophy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022. 506 pp. $65.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-262-04543-8.

Reviewed by Nedah N. Nemati (Columbia University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (December, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

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Current disciplinary divisions between "philosophy" and "cognitive neuroscience" would have made little sense to early nineteenth-century thinkers debating the conceptual foundations that evolved into today’s mind and brain sciences. Yet a quick examination of contemporary neuroscientific methodologies, guided by such techniques as optogenetics and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), shows a discipline that sits far from philosophy. One might wonder: What assumptions guide present scientific endeavors to probe behavior and cognition? How do today’s neuroscientific findings relate to metaphysical quandaries about agency, self, and consciousness?

Several philosophers have tried to bring the practices of the neurosciences and cognitive sciences back into conversation with philosophy, such as Patricia Churchland in Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (1986), M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker in Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003), and John Bickle in his edited volume The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience (2009). In Neuroscience and Philosophy, editors Felipe De Brigard and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong add to this longstanding task and aim at providing a model for interdisciplinary collaborations. Using 2013 grant funding from the John Templeton Foundation, De Brigard and Sinnott-Armstrong created the Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy (SSNAP) to foster teamwork between neuroscientists and philosophers. Neuroscience and Philosophy amalgamates the contributions of these participants by focusing on neuroscientific contributions to philosophical topics. The authors of the volume ask what philosophy can learn from the mind and brain sciences while exploring the potential and limits of empirical practices.

The anthology’s early chapters examine how recent empirical work in cognitive science can weigh in on philosophically rich topics, such as free will, morality, emotion, sensation, and mental health. In “The Neuroscience of Moral Judgment: Empirical and Philosophical Developments,” authors Joshua May, Clifford L. Workman, Julia Haas, and Hyemin Han integrate findings across various studies concerning moral judgment, using these study results as a vehicle to better understand psychopathy, reasoning, and even personal identity. In “The Nature of Empathy,” Shannon Spaulding, Rita Svetlova, and Hannah Read similarly collect years of research on empathy, discussing the distinctions among empathy, sympathy, and mentalizing and considering how empathy relates to motivation.

In fact, many chapters in the volume survey developments in various areas of cognitive science and relate these research outcomes to other areas. Examples include using sleep deprivation studies to better understand a person’s sense of agency, as Robyn Repko Waller and Allison Brager do in chapter 3; comparing the clinical efficacy of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia treatments to rethink reductionistic approaches in neuroscience (Natalia Washington, Cristina Leone, and Laura Niemi in chapter 5); relating the psychology and neuroscience of touch and perception (Tony Cheng and Antonio Cataldo in chapter 8); and documenting the various uses and ways of extending the notion of a "cognitive map" (Sarah Robins, Sara Aronowitz, and Arjen Stolk in chapter 11).

Those interested in how reflections on neuroscience may guide policy changes may turn to chapters 6 and 7. In chapter 6, Eyal Aharoni, Sara Abdulla, Corey H. Allen, and Thomas Nadelhoffer argue that the inevitable use of neuroprediction tools, such as appealing to neuroscience for criminal risk assessment, merits considering how to minimize the damage when it comes to classification errors. In chapter 7, Gidon Felsen and Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby use clinical frameworks—including fair subject selection, appropriate risk-benefit ratios, and informed consent—to evaluate the ethical use of optogenetics.

The second part of the anthology allots greater attention to topics that have traditionally been of greater interest to philosophers and neuroscientists thinking about the mind. Specifically, chapters note the challenges that the cognitive sciences face with respect to testing the phenomenology of visual perception (chapter 9), consciousness (chapter 10), memory (chapter 11), concepts (chapter 12), and mind-wandering (chapter 13). By highlighting the scientific approaches to these topics, this part of the anthology draws focus to methodological and technical challenges in neuroscience. Here, the authors demonstrate greater sensitivity to the philosophical assumptions tied to empirical methodologies. For example, in their discussion of mapping models of visual perception to conscious perception in chapter 9, Rachel N. Denison, Ned Block, and Jason Samaha note their commitments with respect to realism about models. Later chapters similarly examine tenets of task design, such as Samuel Murray, Zachary C. Irving, and Kristina Krasich’s discussion in chapter 13 of the complications surrounding both the unreliability and necessity of self-reporting and how to navigate these reports in mind-wandering research.

Many of the chapters are structured as reviews of the scientific literature. Through this approach, the authors ask the reader to bring together perspectives and findings that might otherwise escape comparison. This is both theoretically insightful and useful to the specialized scientist who engages with little outside of their personal area of research. Another helpful feature of the anthology is a glossary at the end, compiled by Ari Khoudary, that ranges from terms as basic as “ipsilateral” to those as specialized as “unitracker” and “commissurotomy.” The definitions make no assumptions about the audience’s level of philosophical and neuroscientific knowledge and serve as a great resource for those wishing to get an introductory handle on the concepts covered.

“Philosophical Topics in Cognitive Science,” as opposed to Neuroscience and Philosophy, might have been a more appropriate title for this anthology, since the collection of essays excludes philosophy’s intersections with neurobiology, computational neuroscience, and neuroengineering. Furthermore, since SSNAP is an ongoing endeavor, it is worth noting limitations in the breadth of its interdisciplinarity. Most of the anthology relies on examining scientific contributions to philosophical topics and asking what philosophy can learn from science rather than the other way around.

In chapter 14, “Neuroscience and Cognitive Ontology: A Case for Pluralism,” the authors discuss how the practice of science works to define concepts and categories that are used in the mind sciences, addressing whether and how neuroscientific practices give us the right mapping between brain structure and function. With the exception of this final chapter, the volume includes worryingly little discussion of the conceptual assumptions underlying scientific practice. Moving forward, one way SSNAP organizers may address this serious drawback is by involving more historians and philosophers of science who interrogate the methodological and conceptual assumptions in neuroscientific practice.

Early in the volume, the editors mention the difficulty of bringing together the cultures and languages of philosophy and neuroscience. By interrogating the explanatory aims of neuroscientific practices—including the goals of researchers, researchers’ target audiences, and the materiality of neuroscientific practice—historians and philosophers of science can help bridge these fields and enable conceptual translation. These approaches would also open up new questions, such as: Can tracing the history of mind-brain mapping guide conceptual engineering for researchers studying visual phenomenology? What is the source of causal brain-mind explanations, and could this give insight into normative causal accounts? Which metaphors of the brain provide better or worse insight for experimental practice?

Importantly, my point is not to give history and philosophy a heavier hand in guiding neuroscience but to note that it is precisely by interrogating the source of one’s methodology that the boundaries between empirical and conceptual practices become harder to identify. Interdisciplinarity is difficult, and it is easy to be critical of an anthology that cannot address all subjects or approaches. Neuroscience and Philosophy is not unique in enacting a problem that has long plagued interdisciplinarity; simply having members of each discipline (here, scientists and philosophers) on one team is insufficient to bring about equal contributions.

Nonetheless, SSNAP remains an ongoing endeavor with much room to expand in terms of neuroscientific scope and contributions made from philosophy. By addressing the different methodologies of empirical and philosophical practices, we may not only return to the days when these disciplinary distinctions were themselves questioned but also develop a better compass for investigating the links between the brain and the mind.

Citation: Nedah N. Nemati. Review of Brigard, Felipe De; Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, eds., Neuroscience and Philosophy. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL:

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