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What Makes Us Think?Review - What Makes Us Think?
A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain
by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur
Princeton University Press, 2000
Review by Shaun Gallagher, Ph.D.
Feb 12th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 7)

In What Makes us Think? Jean-Pierre Changeux, a leading neuroscientist at the College de France, and Paul Ricoeur, a well-known Parisian philosopher in the phenomenological-hermeneutic tradition, now at the University of Chicago, meet in conversation to explore fundamental issues in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind. The text of this conversation, as a theorist of hermeneutics would say, goes beyond its authors. Not only are the agreements and disagreements instructive, but the misunderstandings that punctuate this encounter are productive for further thought. The authors demonstrate an extensive erudition, incorporating references to ancient and modern authors from both Eastern and Western traditions, as well as contemporary empirical science and philosophical theory. The book documents a series of conversations, which results in a somewhat loose organization of topics. This is especially the case in the first 170 pages before the conversation turns to the theme of ethics, the primary target in a set of broad-ranging discussions.

Before arriving at the discussion of ethical issues, the authors consider a variety of methodological and terminological questions. What role does neuroscience play in relation to other disciplines, especially psychology and phenomenology? Does a complete explanation of brain functions amount to a complete explanation of cognition, or are there aspects of experience that cannot be captured by neurobiology? Changeux, as one would expect, is optimistic about the power of neurobiological explanation; Ricoeur is receptive to the science of the brain, but careful to define its limits. Neurobiology will not be able to capture all aspects of human experience; natural explanation must be supplemented by considerations that extend to reflectivity, experience, and social understanding. Changeux, in turn, is quite open to the importance of these dimensions. Still, he insists on the capacity of neuroscience to provide a naturalistic account of such things. In the face of Ricoeur's contention that neurobiology and phenomenology constitute two heterogeneous and irreducible discourses (a semantic dualism), Changeux defends the hegemony of the former. Ricoeur responds with a question: precisely what does knowledge about the brain contribute to my understanding of my own life situation? He admits its fundamental importance in science, but questions its importance in the pragmatics of life.

The irreducible discourses converge and diverge on terminological usage. The term 'representation' as it is used in the cognitive sciences is especially problematic for Ricoeur, although Changeux seems unable to do without it. The reverse is the case for the word esprit, which, like many of the contested terms, has several meanings. Changeux, although allowing for connotations of esprit that involve concepts of mind and the transcendental, refuses to use the term at all because of its association with the notion of inspiration, under which Ricoeur includes religious feeling, poetic creativity, genius, and so on. For Changeux, such "bric-a-brac" are best explained by brain chemistry -- although he nonetheless admits the importance of such phenomena in his own life. He prefers Spinoza's term 'conatus', which for him is more natural.

Changeux delivers a spirited defense of materialism, to which Ricoeur raises little objection. Rather he provides a nuanced objection to various forms of reductionism, dismissing eliminativism, expressing more hope for connectionism. In contrast to Changeux who champions a naturalized phenomenology (p. 27), Ricoeur maintains a phenomenological discourse "apart from the cognitive sciences" (p. 67). This is a central issue that extends well beyond this conversation. On the one hand, the distance between phenomenology and the cognitive sciences that Ricoeur announces is undermined by his own conversational practice, not to mention his own hermeneutical theory (see p. 125-26). On the other hand, Changeux, the adamant materialist, surprises us, claiming "My purpose is not to go to war against phenomenology, to the contrary, I want to see what constructive contribution it can make to our knowledge of the psyche, acting in concert with the neurosciences" (p. 85). He cites other neuroscientists who have engaged in this project, including Alain Berthoz and Marc Jeannerod (one could add Francisco Varela and his associates). The potentially fruitful dialogue between phenomenology and the cognitive sciences, exemplified in this book in all of its productive tension, is seemingly more appreciated by empirical scientists than by philosophers of either the analytic or continental-phenomenological schools.

The book culminates with a comprehensive discussion of the origin of morality, worked out in the framework of evolutionary theory. This includes critical discussions of evolutionary theorists from Lamarck to Gould. Changeux wants to emphasize three things that build on evolutionary theory. First, the epigenetic diversity of human beings, based primarily on the variability found in human brains. Second, the complexity of the relationships between genetics and the organization of the human brain, which nonetheless is marked by the relatively small genetic differences that exist between the chimpanzee or Australopithecus, and man. Third, at the level of cerebral memory, the role of selective mechanisms that intervene in cultural transmission. These facts lead Changeux to a Darwinian view on the importance of social instinct in the origin of morality. He cites the work of de Waal on animal morality as supportive of this idea. Ricoeur questions this view. He cautions about reading evolutionary development in a retrospective way, so as to find precursors to an ethical attitude that may have emerged on different, purely human, principles. He agrees with Gould that evolution does not imply progress in nature. Again, there may be principles in the genesis of morality that are not reducible to neuronal or evolutionary principles. In response to Changeux's emphasis on social instinct, Ricoeur juxtaposes the question of the individual self, which correlates with Changeux's emphasis on the diversity of humans, but which the latter explains, perhaps too quickly, in terms of brain mechanisms. Ricoeur outlines a Kantian position that takes into consideration the biological notion of dispositions, manifested as capacities for individual action. Changeux and Ricoeur extend their discussions to include larger issues involving the nature of evil, war and peace, religion and politics, as well as the derivation of a set of moral rules and an ethics of deliberation. Throughout they keep track of what Changeux calls the "three histories that take shape in the brain of each person: the evolution of the species, the individual's personal history, and finally the social and cultural history of the community to which the individual belongs" (p. 232).

This book is worthwhile and not difficult to read. Changeux provides good explanations of some recent work in neuroscience. For readers well versed in this field, his discourse may appear irritatingly too lecture-like, but for the general reader he provides basic insights into the working of the brain, with interesting accounts of some landmark experiments. For those who are not well versed in phenomenology and hermeneutics, however, it will be more difficult to catch all of the nuances of Ricoeur's position. The dialogue between these thinkers is nonetheless well worth the read.

Shaun Gallagher is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. His publications include The Inordinance of Time (1998) and the edited volume Models of the Self (1999).


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