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Philosophical Foundations of NeuroscienceReview - Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience
by Max R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker
Blackwell Publishers, 2003
Review by Constantine Sandis
Oct 15th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 42)

What has neuroscience to do with philosophy? Everything and nothing, depending on what the interpreter in question takes the neuroscience to have shown. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience - the result of a collaboration between a distinguished neurobiologist (Bennett) and  the leading authority on the philosophy of Wittgenstein (Hacker) - aims to shed a light on how neuroscience has been both influenced by and an influence on philosophy past and present. The overall tone is highly critical and those whose work tries to show that neuroscience can help answer philosophical questions (e.g. about emotion, cognition, volition, consciousness etc.) are likely to be offended by this controversial book which points to the multifarious ways in which scientists display conceptual confusion when interpreting their own work .

There is, however, nothing anti-scientific or irreverent about Bennett & Hacker's approach to their subject. In fact their writing stands as a tribute to the great figures of cognitive science for only if we rid them of their philosophical confusions can the real value of their work come to light. Although insufficient space has been devoted to this positive aspect of the book (which is only explicitly addressed in its concluding pages), that the work of these giants (some of them Nobel Prize Winners) is immensely valuable is not up for debate. What the authors question is their stance towards the relation between empirical and conceptual issues. Neuroscientists may make monumental discoveries concerning the physiological mechanisms which give rise to human capacities such as thinking, remembering, imagining, perceiving, and so on, but they are confused when they identify these mechanisms (as they are usually prone to) with the psychological capacities in question. This confusion informs how neuroscientists understand their own work thereby leading them to a misguided vision of what the fruit of their own labor actually consists in.

The book divides itself into four parts of more or less equal length. Part I ('Philosophical Problems in Neuroscience: Their Historical and Conceptual Roots') is an illuminating overview of the history of neuroscience, from its early growth in Aristotle's work on biology to Doty's recent research on hemispheroctomy. Of particular importance to the book's theme (as we shall see) is the comparison between Aristotle's conception of the psuchê as the form of every living organism (to be understood as the array of its powers) and Descartes' conception of the mind as an entity (at times identified with us and at other times described as a part of us) which is separable from our bodies and to which all of our psychological functions are to be ascribed (p15). Parts II ('Human Faculties and Contemporary Neuroscience') and III ('Consciousness and Contemporary Neuroscience: An Analysis') critically deal with just what their titles suggest: what contemporary neuroscientists have to say about human faculties and about consciousness.

As the fourth and final part of the book ('On Method') makes clear, the authors' criticisms are not directed at the scientific methods used (indeed these are often applauded) but at the philosophical aspirations which inform the aims of the research. Two appendices on the methodologies of Daniel Dennett and John Searle - who (as a famous exchange in the New York Review of Books during the mid-nineties revealed) are themselves fiercely critical of one another's conception of the relation between science and philosophy - aim to show that both philosophers are ultimately misguided in thinking (as Quine did) that science can help solve philosophical problems. These appendices are the icing on a delicious cake of a book in which Bennett and Hacker guide the reader through a conceptual minefield of confusions repeatedly made by neuroscientists and philosophers alike. The target list includes (among many others) Blakemore, Chalmers, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Crick, Damasio, Dawkins, Edelman, Einstein, Gregory, James, Libet, Marr, Penrose, Searle and Young.  Even Bennett's own 1994 work on memory gets exorcised and we are left mystified at how so many bright minds (so to speak…) could produce so much nonsense.

The lethal virus turns out to be Cartesian Dualism in a number of guises the most recent of which is brain-body dualism, the brain now playing all those roles Descartes had originally assigned to the mind. They key argument here is the subject matter of the 3rd Chapter of Part I: 'The Mereological Fallacy in Neuroscience'. Bennett and Hacker point out that psychological predicates such as thinking, intending, believing, desiring, and so on, can only be sensibly applied to people as a whole, and not to any of their parts, save metaphorically. It makes no more sense to say that the brain thinks or remembers than it does to say that my hand plays tennis (which is not to say that I think with my brain in the same sense in which I play tennis with my right hand). To make such claims is to be guilty of a mereological fallacy, mereology being the study of the relations between parts and wholes (p29). Descartes, who attributed all psychological capacities to the mind (rather than the person as a whole) is the Godfather of this fallacy which remains intact in the work of present-day 'physicalist' neuroscientists who talk of the brain literally doing all sorts of things we would ordinarily think only a human being (or what resembles a human being, as Wittgenstein would have it) was capable of doing. And it is even further confused to think that science can answer such questions as  'does the brain think?' These are grammatical questions calling 'for conceptual clarification, not for experimental investigation' (p71). To claim, as Searle does for example, that a 'pain-in-the-foot is literally in the physical space of the brain' is not to make a statement of fact (which science could either prove or disprove) but to talk nonsense. As the authors write in their appendix on Searle's methodology:

We hold there is a radical dividing line between philosophy thus practised and the natural science. We agree with Searle that philosophical questions are typically about conceptual issues, and we hold that philosophical problems and puzzles are typically the result of conceptual entanglement or one form or another of conceptual unclarity. These problems and puzzles cannot be solved, resolved or dissolved by scientific theory or by scientific experiment (p437). 

Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has read Hacker's commentaries on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (especially volumes III and IV) but it was about time the treatment was made specific to neuroscience. Needless to say, there are a number of initial responses which the cognitive scientists under attack could make. One would be to try (á la Churchland) to turn the tables on Wittgenstein and claim that terms like 'thinking' describe brain processes and that when we say a person thinks, we either mean that his brain thinks, or we are talking nonsense. Another is to agree with all the 'obvious truisms' which the authors have been using as arguments but to insist (as Blakemore does) that all their talk of brains thinking is just a harmless façon de parler. But Bennett and Hacker have no trouble showing that if what the eliminativist claims were true 'his utterances could not be taken to be assertions or claims, and his supporting arguments could not be taken to be reasons for believing what he says' (p377) and that neuroscientists treat their claims as if they were literally true:

'Of course, neurophysiologists do not think there is a 'ghostly cartographer' browsing through a cerebral atlas – but they do think that the brain makes use of the maps. According to Young, the brain constructs hypothesis, and it does so on the basis of this '"topographically organized representation"' (p80).

There are other similar-styled objections which the authors address (see pp 74-81 & 386-8) none of which seem capable of undermining what is going here. Indeed, given the strength of their argument, it is a shame that the authors do not tackle some of the more famous objections to Wittgenstein, such as the one rehearsed by Chomsky in his Knowledge and Language. We've all heard about the so-called analytic/continental philosophy divide, but here is a methodological war seriously threatening to split 'analytic' philosophy departments in two.

 

© 2003 Constantine Sandis

 

Constantine Sandis is currently completing his PhD on The Things we Do and Why we Do Them at the University of Reading. He also teaches in the Philosophy Department there, as well as at Campbell Harris, London.


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