Friday, June 10, 2011

Philosophy of Mind and Neuroscience

Scientists, when they investigate any question as science, are limited by the scientific method. They have to concern themselves with theories which make empirical claims and predictions which can be verified or falsified, or at the very least, they have to consider hypotheses that are potentially verifiable, even though they may not be so at the moment. Philosophers, on the other hand, are not limited by these concerns. For the same reason, there is hardly anything that philosophers can say with definite certainty which would leave little room for legitimate disagreement.

Here is a list of the major philosophical positions on the mind-body problem. Perhaps none of these can be refuted beyond doubt; some of the positions do seem unlikely to us given our present state of knowledge (such as Philosophical Behaviorism and Popular Dualism) but most of the positions listed are still philosophically tenable, and we can find philosophers supporting respective positions all over the spectrum. Neuroscientists investigating the mind-body problem are limited by the scientific method and do not have this luxury. They cannot work with philosophical ideas that make no empirical predictions, or that deal with issues that cannot be investigated by scientific means. There are only a limited number of philosophical positions that neuroscientists can work with as provisional hypotheses; Physicalism (reductive as well as non-reductive) and Functionalism are the most popular among scientists for understandable reasons. Just as a biologist cannot work with Intelligent Design (because no matter what its status as a philosophy, it is not science), neuroscientists cannot work with non-physical philosophies of mind. The approach is not without advantage, because science is remarkably good at shedding light on what it can shed light on. If a biologist proves natural selection as a valid scientific theory, then it automatically renders intelligent design untenable. If neuroscientists can prove some physical theory of consciousness, then it would render all other theories untenable. If they show physical theories to be inadequate in providing a full-explanation of the problem, then non-physical theories would still remain tenable, but even so, exploring the physical theories by science would have opened up new arenas of empirical observation, which would make it possible for further philosophical positions to be scientifically investigated.

What's the moral of the story? I think if this background is kept in mind, it would lead to healthier discussions on the mind-body problems. Philosophers have to understand why scientists can only work with physical theories of consciousness, and scientists have to understand that just because they can only work with physical theories doesn't mean that they have already demonstrated non-physical theories to be invalid and any philosopher disagreeing with them is being unscientific. Philosophers should be limited by the already established scientific facts, but they are not limited by the scientific method when it comes to the unknown.