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National Conference 2014: "The New Neuroscience - friend or foe ?"

In July I attended the OUPS Summer Conference and the Editor has bravely (again) invited me to share some thoughts about it. Although quite different from last year – which was on the Psychology of Conflict - to me at least it was just as interesting. It is a shame though that more OUPS members did not grab the opportunity to come along, as it was an excellent series of talks. This time there was a fair bit of interaction between the speakers themselves, particularly at question time, although the downside of this was that there were fewer naïve questions from the floor. We also had the very enjoyable and well attended 40th Anniversary Dinner and Disco on the Saturday evening, featuring an entertaining after-Dinner speech by Neil Frude.

As Fred Toates explained in his Introduction on Friday evening, this Conference was not really about the biology or physics behind Neuroscience but rather about the social (sociological?) and philosophical debates that surround it. Which was lucky for me as only a few weeks prior to the Conference I had completed module AA308 ‘Thought and Experience: Themes in the Philosophy of Mind’. I still have misgivings about Analytical Philosophy but the two OU modules I took as part of my degree (the other being A222) do seem to have improved my understanding of a range of academic issues as well as my critical thinking skills. So, in this article I will try to say a few things about the relationship between philosophy, psychology and neuroscience as well as picking out and commenting on some of the philosophical concepts and themes that got covered in the Conference.

Philosophy and the Sciences

It has been said of philosophers of science that they need science far more than scientists need philosophers. I don’t know whether anyone has actually done a correlational study linking views on the usefulness of philosophy with positivity towards science - but I suspect that it would show a fairly significant inverse relationship. There is, of course, an ongoing dispute about whether psychology really is a science but there seems little doubt about where the bulk of the psychology research money is heading. As Simon Thorpe pointed out at the start of his talk, One Billion Euros has been promised by the EU for the Human Brain Project (HBP) over the next 10 years and a similar project will be happening in the US. The HBP Vision statement states:

“Understanding the human brain is one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century science. If we can rise to it, we can gain profound insights into what makes us human, build revolutionary computing technologies and develop new treatments for brain disorders. Today, for the first time, modern ICT has brought these goals within reach.”

HBP website, 2014.

Those words “... what makes us human ...” would ring in the ears of long-dead philosophers. “But that is what we spent our life’s work doing”, they would say.

Master Builder or Under-Labourer?

What then is the role of philosophy in relation to other disciplines, including psychology? Two contrasting approaches have been suggested i.e. those of ‘master builder’ and ‘under-labourer’. The master builder approach sees philosophy as establishing theories about the nature of being, of knowledge, and of methods of enquiry which are then offered to other disciplines as foundations for use in further construction work. The under- labourer approach accepts that other disciplines are often better placed to generate theory relevant to their needs and therefore sees the role of the philosopher as more of a constructive critic. Somebody like Daniel Dennett, in his recent works at least, positions himself in this second category. His orientation though lies very much towards Science which by its nature makes universal knowledge claims.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Post-Conference, I read the excellent ‘Philosophy of Social Science: The Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought’ by Ted Benton and Ian Craib (Second Edition, 2010), which expanded considerably on the limited amount of philosophy included in DD307 (Social Psychology: Critical Perspectives on Self and Others). Will the Social Sciences ever, fully, come to terms with the Natural Sciences – and if not, why not? It was notable that the authors felt obliged, somewhat apologetically, to devote three whole chapters to Science before going on to consider alternative approaches. It was also notable that both of the authors are (or were) Marxists: something that is not unusual in the Social Sciences but much rarer in the Natural Sciences. The ‘equality agenda’ was one of the reasons given by Lance Workman in his talk on Evolutionary Psychology for continuing hostility to the perspective. EP is seen by some as endorsing a form of biological determinism in relation to individual differences that is used to confirm, rather than challenge, the political status quo. A relevant philosophical concept here is the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ – where you demonstrate how something ‘is’ empirically, then argue that is how it ‘ought’ to be, morally. (For example, there are some physiological and structural differences which show that the sexes have adapted in the past to different social roles. The fallacy is to argue that Nature intended them to be confined to those roles.) It is not clear that EP as a whole is trying to be political in that way, but some researchers do take up positions in the political debate and do draw on evidence from their own discipline in support of their arguments.

With regard to politics, it was mentioned in Q & A that the distinguished evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith was, for a while at least, an active member of the Communist Party in Great Britain. It is interesting to hear, in his own words, why he became disillusioned with it. (See Web of Stories link, under References.)

The Problem of Labels

Sophisticated philosophical positions are often reduced to labels consisting of one or two words – preferably ending in “- ism”. So, for example, we have Cartesian Dualism, Determinism, Eliminativism and Interpretationism. The point to remember though is that these labels tend to be given by opponents and are meant to be dismissive or derogatory. If you can sum up a position with a single word, even if it is a long one, then there cannot be all that much to it. It is a habit that is not just confined to philosophers: Raymond Tallis in his talk, and in his book ‘Aping Mankind’ (2011), provided several examples including Biologism, Neuromania and Darwinitis. All three no doubt intended to sound like diseases – and something best avoided. Such lampooning can be hugely enjoyable in short doses, but at book length it becomes rather wearing. I have become bogged down in Tallis’ book as a consequence. Or it might just be that, unlike Tallis, I don’t have a particular problem with Dennett. Dennett’s views have been described as counter-intuitive, and they are certainly controversial for some, but I don’t find them incoherent if you accept his premises. Even he though cannot resist having a dig at rivals such as Jerry Fodor, John Searle or David Chalmers. All this in contrast to the philosophical Principle of Charity, honoured more perhaps in the breech than the observance, that says that you should assume your adversary is rational and use the most positive interpretation of their arguments.

The Natural and the Supernatural

Contemporary Western philosophers, for the most part, believe that the Universe is made out of one kind of physical stuff and is subject to (or at least can be described by) one set of physical laws. In its basic form it has come to be known as Physicalism, or Naturalism. The philosopher who probably did the most to establish this consensus was David Hume (1711-1776), notably in his discussion on miracles. Hume was a critic of religion at a time when, as well as being a source of much sectarian conflict, it still wielded considerable power over the expression of ideas. A century earlier, René Descartes (1596 – 1650) had proposed what was then quite a radical view that the brain and body were material things which operated on mechanical principles. Descartes though considered the mind to be made of an immaterial substance, something created and administered by God almost independently of the rest of Nature. His

Cartesian Dualism, as it came to be known, continues to cast a long shadow even though few philosophers today would defend his view. One reason, I believe, for its longevity is that opponents of physicalism are frequently accused of being dualists (a subtle difference being that they are now property dualists, rather than substance dualists). But it is also invoked by critical social psychologists when criticizing mainstream cognitive psychology (which is intrinsically physicalist) for its Mind- Body dualism. So Descartes’ position is now something of a straw-man.

There were two Conference talks that approached the topic of the supernatural – or at least the paranormal. Simon Thorpe, who is Research Director of CNRS in France, argued for a lifting of the taboo on research into the paranormal. Most of his talk though was dedicated to the prospects for simulating the human mind using neural networks (rather than conventional silicon-based computing), which for some functions at least seem quite good. Nevertheless, if the mind is a computer, then it is not the same sort of computer as your PC. Thorpe could possibly be summed up as a moderate sceptic who likes to keep an open mind, a luxury afforded by his senior research position. In contrast, David Lorimer came across as a believer in the paranormal who is looking to neuroscience to provide supporting evidence. It is in the area of Consciousness Studies that the paranormal still seems to have a tenuous finger-hold. Lorimer put forward the view that there is ample evidence (most of it anecdotal) that Near-Death Experience (NDE) is a real phenomenon which science as yet cannot explain. It is a view that Descartes would also entertain, given his philosophy. It is not a view that I personally hold but I believe we underestimate – at our peril - how attractive, even intuitive, such ideas seem to many people. There are risks for the scientific community either in engaging - or failing to engage - with this sort of issue but I think on balance Thorpe is right to argue against it being taboo.

Agency and Determinism

Another controversial area on which neuroscience could possibly shed some light is the extent to which we really are fully in control of our actions. Adrian Raine described how a combination of factors - some biological, others environmental - could lead to abnormal changes in brain structure and function. What effect does this have on agency (i.e. free will)? To put it in fairly stark terms, could a murderer or a rapist ever successfully argue that ‘his brain made him do it’? If the mind simply is the brain (Mind-Brain identity theory), and the brain is defective, then it would appear to become much easier to argue along these lines. The debate then shifts to the experts in brain science who are asked to establish what ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ are. It reduces what is potentially a philosophical or ethical debate to an argument over scientific ‘facts’. There is not really the time or space to expand on this here other than to say that it is a potential minefield (and, probably, a potential goldmine for the lawyers).

Pleasure and Pain

Hedonism - the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, has long been the subject of philosophical interest. The Ancient Greeks, literally, had different schools of thought on the matter. The English philosopher Jeremey Bentham (1748 – 1832) infamously attempted to itemize all the various ways they could be experienced, so that calculations could be made for the greater good. Hedonism is one of the research areas that Fred Toates has been interested in, as it naturally ties in with biological conditioning theory. He described how there is a subtle difference between desiring something and liking it. (There are all sorts of issues here relating to what is, or isn’t, good for us – in the various senses of ‘good’.) Hedonism was also featured in the talk by Morten Kringelbach. Both he and Fred Toates share the view that the pursuit of pleasure is not something specific to human beings but has deep biological roots. This need not imply that humans and other animals are identical in their experiences, rather that there is a continuum. Kringelbach was quite positive about the potential for neural interventions - citing the treatment of Parkinson’s disease symptoms with deep brain stimulation. Others are more cautious, noting the potential differences in mechanisms involved in motor and higher cognitive functions.

Sex and Gender

The biological basis of sex/gender differences is always a controversial topic but it was given a light-hearted treatment by Gina Rippon as part of her talk on separating Neuro-news from Neuro-trash. There is seemingly an insatiable demand for pseudo-scientific explanations that pander to our prejudices and the new neurosciences provide much fodder for the papers and for the authors of popular ‘psychology’ books alike. In addition there are companies now seeking to make money by peddling, in effect, hi-tech mind -reading equipment. Rippon’s argument is that the brain cannot simply be read in this way and philosophers such as Dennett are echoing this.

Women continue to be underrepresented in senior science positions, so it is encouraging that there are effective communicators like Gina Rippon around to carry on the fight (see, for example, Sarah Knapton’s article in The Telegraph, 8th March 2014). On her recommendation I have added Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender to my reading list.

Friend or Foe?

Finally, the Editor has asked me to climb down off the fence and state whether the new neurosciences should be regarded as friend or foe to psychology. I have sympathies with both camps so I am reluctant to do this but I would like to make a couple of points. The history of scientific research to date clearly shows that if work is considered important enough to funders then it will get done. One of the best ways of getting funder’s attention is to dangle potential benefits in front of them (even if these are some way down the line and therefore by no means certain): curing disease, poverty, or crime, or fighting terrorism, for example. There is a systemic bias towards inflated expectations but it operates across the spectrum. Bids for funding of social research are couched in similar terms. Inevitably some of the money offered will not be well spent, at least as seen from the perspective of the funders. (If I were a researcher in a relevant area I might think differently.) To maximize the benefits, and minimize the wastage, is necessary to engage both critically and constructively with new areas at an early stage. Doing so across disciplinary boundaries is never going to be easy but if the criticism is seen as being ideologically motivated then it is much less likely to be taken seriously. There are bigger prizes potentially at stake and those are what we should focus on.


Benton, T. and Craib, I. (2010). ‘Philosophy of Social Science: The Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought’ (Second edition). Palgrave Macmillan.

European Commission (2014). ‘Human Brain Project: Vision’, [online]. Available at https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/ vision (Accessed 2nd October 2014).

Fine, C. (2010). ‘Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference’. WW Norton.

Knapton, S. (2014). ‘Men and women do not have different brains, claims neuroscientist’, 8th March [online]. The Telegraph. Available at http:// www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science- news/10684179/Men-and-women-do- not-have-different-brains-claims- neuroscientist.html (Accessed 2nd October 2014).

Maynard Smith, J. (2008 [1997]). ‘Dealing with stories of Stalin's excesses’, Web of Stories [online]. Available at http://www.webofstories.com/play/ john.maynard.smith/17 (Accessed 3rd October 2014).

Tallis, R. (2011). 'Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis And The Misrepresentation Of Humanity'. Acumen.


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