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A Dialogue with Brit Brogaard on Philosophy and Neuroscience

Posted Oct 18 2010 5:09pm
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.
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