A Dialogue with Brit Brogaard on Philosophy and Neuroscience

My great colleague Brit Brogaard has recently started doing empirical research, primarily in cognitive neuroscience.  This prompted the following dialogue, which will eventually be published in our department’s newsletter.

Gualtiero: Until recently, you were known for armchair philosophizing
and not at all for empirical research.  Could you briefly explain how
you became interested in doing empirical
research and what your current empirical projects are?

Brit: Actually, I started out in the sciences. I have a 5-year M.S. in
neuroscience from University of Copenhagen and The Danish National
Hospital. My research was on neurotransmitters, specifically
glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). As a hormone, GLP-1 stimulates
insulin-secreting cells.  As a neurotransmitter, it modulates stress
and anxiety. I was, and still am, very interested in mood disorders,
so I really loved this project. But owing to a terrifying event
described in the personal information section of my website, I
decided to go to graduate school in philosophy. I already had degrees
in philosophy and linguistics as well. One of my main areas of
specialization in philosophy was, and still is, philosophy of
language. Philosophy of language by its very nature is a very
empirical area of philosophy. We look at what the linguists do, and
they look at what we do. But you are right. Until recently I didn’t
design my own experiments or studies. My interest in designing my own
studies was sparked by a series of events taking place around the time
of my divorce. To deal with the consequences of these events, I felt
that I had to expand on my knowledge of the brain. Another coincidence
sparked my interest in synesthesia. I am now testing for unconscious
color processing in 40 higher synestetes. Owing to a nice McDonnell
grant, Kathleen Akins and I will be able to host a workshop on
abnormal color vision (synesthesia, acromatopsia, color blindsight,
etc) next year in Vancouver. I am also working on a large project
about the effects of personality assessments on judgments of
intentional action. That project started out as response to Knobe. My
third project is on blindsight and will be done in collaboration with
a team of researchers in Europe.

Your own work seems to be heavily inspired by empirical research. What
are your current projects and how did you become interested in them?

Gualtiero: Wow, I didn’t know you had such a scientific background.
Now I understand why you know so much neuroscience!  A coincidence:  I
have acromatopsia, so if you decide to work on that topic, you can use
me as a subject.

As to my research, I have three main projects.  The first is on what
constitutes concrete computation–what distinguishes things that
compute from things that don’t.  This is relevant to many sciences:
computer science, computational psychology and neuroscience, and even
physics.  The second is on how to integrate psychology and
neuroscience into a unified explanation of cognition.  It piggybacks
on the first project, because both psychology and neuroscience give
computational explanations of cognition.  Once we are clear on how
computational explanation works, we should be in a better position to
say how psychology and neuroscience go together.  The third project is
on the legitimacy of data from first-person reports (and other
“first-person data”) in psychology and neuroscience.  I argue that
this kind of data is scientifically legitimate because such data are
actually public data–the outcome of a process of self-measurement on
the part of the subject.

But while my work is deeply engaged with various sciences, I don’t do
any experiments, whereas you do.  How hard was it for you to start
designing and conducting experiments on your own?  Did your prior
scientific training prepare for it or or did you need extra help?  And
do you now consider yourself a philosopher, a scientist, or both?

Brit: I didn’t know you had acromatopsia. I certainly will be working
on that topic sooner or later. To begin with your last question, I
consider myself both a philosopher and a neuroscientist. I have the
sufficient background for designing studies and experiments and know
statistics pretty well. But I must confess that I still get help with
the statistics part. Statistics is hard. Kathleen Akins calls herself
a neurophilosopher. I don’t call myself that. I still do some armchair
philosophy.  I also draw heavily on other people’s empirical results
in my work on psycholinguistics and philosophy of language. When I
think about neuroscience, I am a neuroscientist. But I think I have an
advantage. Because I am a philosopher, I am used to come up with
counterexamples (that’s what we do, right?). So, when I design studies
or look at data, it is very easy for me to spot alternative hypotheses
and to come up with ways of ruling them out. I think neuroscience is
hard, just about as hard as good philosophy.

Did you ever consider doing empirical experiments or studies on
your own or in collaboration with others? Why? Why not?

Gualtiero: I usually don’t consider doing experiments, mostly because
I’m already busy enough with what I’m doing.  But I do have a little
bit of relevant experience.  For my undergraduate honors’ thesis, I
designed and conducted a fairly serious piece of experimental
cognitive psychology.  At the time I wanted to become a cognitive
psychologist, but later I decided to go back into philosophy.

I found it interesting that you don’t consider yourself a
neurophilosopher.  Me neither, because to me neurophilosophy sounds
too much like picking your favorite neuroscience papers and putting a
“philosophical” spin on them.  I think of myself as a philosopher of
mind and of the sciences of mind.  How about you; why don’t you
consider yourself a neurophilosopher?  You also don’t seem to consider
yourself an experimental philosopher.  Why?  Experimental philosophy
seems to be all the rage.  Why aren’t you jumping on the bandwagon?

Brit: Well, strictly speaking, my intentional action project falls
under the category of “experimental philosophy”. But I am not sure I
think the field ought to be called “experimental philosophy”. As far
as I am concerned, it’s social psychology. Hopefully over time I will
be able to add a neuroscientific touch to my project on intentional
action. But right now, I don’t see the difference between that project
and other similar projects in social psychology. To say that what
other people call “experimental philosophy” really is social
psychology is not to say that it has no philosophical relevance.  It
certainly does. I think that some of the results, as far as they hold
up, cast some doubt on some of the armchair characterizations of the
notion of intentional action. I also think philosophers, to the extent
that they have sufficient training in designing experiments, can
bring new advances to this particular area of social psychology.

I agree with you about your characterization of neurophilosophy. I
prefer to just think of myself as working in two distinct areas:
neuroscience and philosophy. The theories I advance in neuroscience
are, of course, inspired by my work in philosophy of mind, and vice versa. Discoveries
in neuroscience can provide counterexamples to theories in philosophy
of mind. But philosophy of mind also provides us with results which
neuroscience cannot give us.  For example, neuroscience as it is
currently carried out cannot give us an answer to the question of what
consciousness is. Neuroscience, however, can provide an answer to the
question of what the correlates of consciousness are. So, both areas
have an important role to play.

What is your take on the new experimental turn in philosophy? And how
do you think results in neuroscience can influence theories in
philosophy of mind, and vice versa?

Gualtiero: I agree with you on experimental  philosophy. I’m always glad when people try to back up their theories with empirical evidence, especially given that some philosophers tend to trust their intuitions too much.  If philosophers have the expertise and resources to collect their own data, more power to them.  That being said, some experimental philosophers tend to exaggerate the consequences of their theories, as if a couple of simple experiments could easily and directly refute all kinds of theories.  Testing theories is harder than some experimental philosophers seem to think.

Even worse, too many philosophers, including philosophers of mind, still act as though empirical evidence is irrelevant to their theories.  Occasionally this is true, but many times it’s not.  And since the mind is a product of the nervous system, it should be blindingly obvious that neuroscience and philosophy of mind have much to learn from each other.  Philosophy of mind should look at what is known about the nervous system to constrain its theories, while neuroscience can take much inspiration from philosophical theories about the mind. 

This has happened before, by the way.  For example Warren McCulloch, a pioneer of computationalism, was a neurophysiologist and psychiatrist but also studied a lot of philosophy.  His project was to explain intentionality and knowledge in neuroscientific terms.  He didn’t quite succeed, but he did make a strikingly innovative proposal that transformed the whole field.  If we are going to improve on our current understanding of the mind-brain, we would do well to emulate McCulloch and study both philosophy and neuroscience.

8 Comments

  1. Interesting stuff, and good to see a philosopher entering the world of experiments.

    One quote I found a bit strange:
    But philosophy of mind also provides us with results which neuroscience cannot give us. For example, neuroscience as it is currently carried out cannot give us an answer to the question of what consciousness is. Neuroscience, however, can provide an answer to the question of what the correlates of consciousness are. So, both areas have an important role to play.

    I don’t buy it. Why can’t neuroscience, as it is presently carried out, tell us what consciousness is? Plus, let’s assume neuroscience hasn’t yet told us what consciousness is. Has philosophy told us what it is, and are there special methods the philosopher has that are uniquely suited to tell us what consciousness is? If neither has told us what it is, why would we expect the philosopher to pull it off? Have the philosophers been very useful in telling us what digestion, respiration, life are?

    The more I’ve been studying consciousness lately as a neuroscience problem, the more I think neuroscientists should stop deferring to philosophers by talking about the “correlates” of consciousness. Unless they think having a properly functioning brain is not sufficient for conscious experience, then they should feel free to talk about the neuroscience of consciousness rather than the neuronal ‘correlates’ of consciousness. And who doesn’t think a brain is sufficient for consciousness? Perhaps a minority of people, even a smaller minority of neuroscientists. Stand tall, neuroscientists, don’t listen to the philosophers’, as it is you that will tell them what consciousness is, not vice versa.

    Note, obviously Brogaard’s quote wasn’t probably meant as a substantive argument, but since it touches on a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately so thought I’d throw it out there.

  2. gualtiero

    Eric,

    I think philosophers have useful things to say about consciousness too; besides that, I agree with you that neuroscientists need not limit themselves to talking about the “correlates” of consciousness. Better terms would be the “neural basis” or “neural mechanisms” of consciousness.

  3. I have argued that for neuroscience to explain consciousness it needs to adopt a bridging principle between the objective 3rd-person perspective (studying the brain from the outside) and the 1st-person perspective (experiencing the brain from the inside). This is what I have suggested:

    *For any instance of conscious content (phenomenal experience) there is a corresponding analog in the physical state of the brain*

    A proper neuroscientific explanation would then consist of the specification of the structure and dynamics of a system of brain mechanisms that can generate salient analogs of exemplary phenomenal experiences.

  4. Eric,

    One might think that one reason why neuroscientists aren’t in a position to tell us what consciousness is that it’s not a candidate for theoretical identification to neuroscientific terms. Coupled with those who believe in the possibility of functionally-identical but non-conscious zombies, the safest relation to use seems to be correlation (although I think Gualtiero’s suggestions work well, too, as long as one is restricting the domain of discourse to human consciousness–I wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility of machines being conscious, so I wouldn’t want to say that consciousness necessarily has a neural basis).

    Now, that could be wrong: physicists didn’t need to tell us what heat was, but then, in a sense, they *did* tell us what heat was (mean molecular kinetic energy or whatever); and this was not what caused heat, or was correlated with heat, but what was identical to heat. But cases like that involve, it seems to me, finding out that what heat *causes* and what mean molecular kinetic energy *causes* are the same thing, so one can make the identification. But it’s unclear, to me at least, that what consciousness causes (if anything at all) has any place in neuroscience.

  5. If we take consciousness to be an experience of ourself within a volumetric surrounding world, and if our best empirical evidence suggests that a particular kind of brain mechanism (CM) is necessary and sufficient to generate patterns of neuronal activity analogous to the salient features of our egocentric world, we could say (pragmatically) that CM and consciousness are dual aspects of the same underlying stuff. In this case, wouldn’t we be justified in saying that consciousness is a necessary precondition for all of our characteristically human activities — including our neuroscientific pursuits. How could we then deny a causal role for consciousness?

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