The significance of neuroscience for philosophy (Fragment)

Patricia Smith Churchland. Patricia Smith Churchland is at the Philosophy Department, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92092, USA.

The ground is shifting under the traditional approaches to problems in the philosophy of mind. Earlier doctrines concernin & the independence of cognition from the brain now appear untenable. As neuroscience uncovers more about the organization and dynamics of the brain, it becomes increasing & ly evident that theories about our nature must be informed by neuroscientific data. Consistent with this progress, we may expect that philosophical problems about the mind will be productively addressed and perhaps radically transformed by a convergence of neuroscientific, psychological and computational research. For most of its long history, philosophy encompassed a wide range of problems, including the nature of space, time and the heavens, and the principles governing motion, life, the origin of order, and the nature of matter. Additionally, philosophers addressed problems about specifically human phenomena: the nature of knowledge, learning, consciousness, free will, and the self. As specific problems succumbed to scientific methods, and as testable theories evolved to explain certain phenomena, special disciplines branched off to call themselves natural philosophy. Thus, one by one, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and experimental psychology left the fold to become distinct scientific disciplines, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the name ‘natural philosophy’ was quietly dropped in favour of ‘natural science’. Philosophy, as pursued in the twentieth century, has been dominated by issues in logic and mathematics, and by whatever problems had yet to become the focus of fruitful empirical research. In particular, questions about the mind endured as largely intractable to science. Nevertheless, by the 1970s, some philosophers began to envisage a scientific future for the traditional problems in the philosophy of mind. The initiation of this shift in view was made possible mainly by W.V. Quine 1 and independently by Paul Feyerabend 2, who undermined the conventional wisdom that philosophy was an a priori discipline whose truths were accessible by non-empirical methods, and whose discoveries supposedly laid the a priori foundations for any science. In contrast with the contemporary consensus, Quine and Feyerabend saw philosophy as essentially continuous with science and, like science, open to revision as a result of empirical discoveries and theoretical progress. They considered the philosophical enterprise to be different from the scientific only in anoramic scope, integrative ambitions, and in embracing problems that are still too ill-defined and too mysterious to be addressed by existing sciences. Philosophy, in their view, does not differ from science either in the status of its theories or in its ultimate dependence on empirical data. It is just the crucible in which we struggle to find some useful conceptual expression of the problems that will help launch them into the realm of systematic empirical research. This view is known as naturalism and it advocates that metaphysics and epistemology should no longer be isolated from the rest of science. Though naturalism is still a minority view, it has exerted a major influence on philosophy in North America. Within this naturalistic framework, perhaps the most fundamental point for philosophers of mind was that modern science rendered mind-body dualism highly implausible. Dualism is the theory that mental phenomena, such as perceiving, thinking, deciding and feeling are not phenomena of the physical brain at all. Rather, they are processes of a unique, non-physical substance – the mind or the soul – that interacts with the brain. Descartes, and Plato before him, were unremitting dualists, and in the modern period, dualism has been defended by neuroscientists such as Eccles 3 and Dykes 4, and by philosophers such as Swinburne s and Jackson 6.