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Owen Flannagan is
quoted on the back cover of this book as saying that it is "A wonderful
treat for the novice and the expert!" and I should say that I share that
opinion. Meant to serve as a textbook for what Churchland calls the new
emerging field of neurophilosophy (i.e., the bringing to bear of
neuroscientific data on traditional philosophical questions about the mind), Brain-Wise
is a remarkable achievement both in pedagogic and in systematic research terms.
Churchland is impeccably competent in introducing those with a background in
either science or philosophy to the worries and methods of the other's
discipline, and she does it in terms that are remarkably clear and accessible.
The advantages for the 'novice' are clear: simultaneously educated in basic
neuroscience and philosophically trained, the neurophilosophy student will be
thoroughly equipped to understand the results of a reported experiment and discuss
possible flaws of interpretation. The 'expert', on the other hand, lacking the
scientific or philosophical background to answer the 'bigger' questions about
the mind, is treated to a stimulating crash-course in
enough-metaphysics,-epistemology-and-neuroscience that will help him spot the logical pitfalls of particular
theoretical positions. Also, the book makes enough assumedly controversial
claims (both philosophically and scientifically) to stir discussion among
students and those-who-know-better in their field of specialization (be that
one of the brain sciences, a branch of psychology, or a particular problem in
philosophy of mind). I am in no doubt that this is one of the most important
books to have been published recently on the mind/brain, and one that gives
definite shape to how discussion on these issues should be conducted: on the
basis of sound empirical evidence.
enthusiasm for the publication of Brain-Wise, however, is tempered by
the sad conviction that it will be a long time still before we see a new breed
of neurophilosophers roaming our universities. My reasons are twofold. First,
the institutional divide between philosophy and the sciences is still wide
enough that most philosophers (I suspect, novices and experts alike)
will struggle to grasp the neurobiological details discussed in the book (I
know I did). Put simply, philosophers with any knowledge of the fundamentals of
neuroscience are still rare and mostly self-taught. This, as we may well
expect, undermines the chances that Churchland's claims – inasmuch as she
supports them on neurological data - will be properly discussed, let alone
warmly embraced, in philosophy departments. As for scientists, many of them are
now convinced that science has reclaimed 'the mind' as its legitimate domain of
research and, consequently, tend to ignore debates in philosophy that could
save us all a lot of time. Of course, one could answer that it is precisely
more books like Churchland's that we need to rectify this sorry state of
affairs, and I agree that her work should be praised for pushing the discussion
so decidedly into the empirical domain. But it would be a mistake, I think, to
discount the still powerful institutional divisions into which her book is
released and how they might still thwart its cross-disciplinary intentions.
other motive for caution is directly tied to the way Churchland advocates the
case for neurophilosophy. Basically, my worry here is that her book will only
really appeal to converts, i.e. those who already share her conviction
that neuroscience and philosophy need to come together in answering questions
about the mind. This is because there is little in Brain-Wise that is
new with regard to, for example, a defence of 'naturalized epistemology '
that wasn't already in her 1986 book on the same subject ( Neurophilosophy).
Hence, those more familiar with Churchland's work will recognize the arguments
assembled back then to the effect that a priori reasoning takes us nowhere in
the investigations of claims that purport to tell us how things are. Those
arguments appear mostly in the second part of the book - dedicated to
epistemological issues such as how brains come to know, and how do brains
learn. The first part -- dedicated to more metaphysical questions regarding the
nature of mind - repeats familiar complaints about Dualism's inexistent
explanatory power and what we cannot conclude from our present state of
ignorance. However much one may agree with Churchland, it must be said that if
you weren't convinced by her 1986 demonstrations that we need neuroscience to
make progress in these questions it's unlikely that more cutting edge empirical
data will convince you now.
have neither the space, nor is this the place, to go into a detailed discussion
of all that Brain-Wise has to offer in terms of bringing the brain
sciences to bear on traditional philosophical questions about the mind. Like I
said at the beginning, this book is a must-read for all those seriously
interested in a rigorous investigation of the mind and it shouldn't be ignored.
In taking a definitive step towards establishing neurophilosophy as an
independent subject of enquiry drawing on the brain sciences (namely,
neuroscience and the cognitive sciences) Churchland is undoubtedly giving us a
glimpse of what a future science of the mind will look like. Even if you
disagree with the specifics of what she has to say, she is certain to be
informative and engaging.
a last note, I'd recommend the publishers take more care to avoid typos in
future editions. They are plenty (at least) in the paperback edition, and
unnecessarily spoil an otherwise most enjoyable reading.
© 2003 Isabel Gois
Isabel Gois is a
PhD student at King's College London working on Consciousness. Her research
interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She
has articles published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.
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