Tomorrow the Royal Institution holds a debate on the nature of consciousness entitled ‘Consciousness: The hard problem‘. Dr Anil Seth, Professor Chris Frith and Professor Barry Smith will take part in the debate. They have also contributed thought provoking articles for the Guardian in the run up to the event.
The latest of these articles comes from Professor Barry Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The article ‘Neuroscience and philosophy must work together‘ is a readable overview of what could be a dry and difficult area. However, I found that while he does indicate how philosophy can benefit from new evidence arising from neuroscience, the article failed to explain why he believes neuroscience and philosophy must work together. Any philosophy of consciousness must take account of new information about what is going on in the brain which neuroscience is providing.
“Now we are also learning more and more from neuroscience and neurobiology about how much of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and mechanisms.”
Professor Smith doesn’t explain what neuroscience has to gain from philosophy or how the two working together would be beneficial. Perhaps part of the answer is that philosophy has something to offer where science comes up short.
“… it must be the brain that gives rise to consciousness and decision-making. So how does consciousness arise in the brain? Science still has no answer.”
Maybe, but this would be to relegate philosophy to the role of to a sort of stand-in science, there as a place-holder until the real science is ready to step in.
This I would object to not least because there is one branch of moral philosophy that I believe should always have a role in any field of science – ethics. As we learn more about what make us who we are, and about the neuroscience that underpins our identity, the more important it is that a firm grasp of the ethical issues involved in investigating and using this information becomes.
More fundamentally I believe it is a mistake to view philosophy and science as two completely separate (and as seems apparent from some responses to the article – incompatible) phenomenon. Both philosophy and science are ways of knowing, in this case knowing about consciousness. Neurobiology can investigate consciousness at a biological level, whereas philosophy seeks to understand knowledge and the nature of knowledge.
Philosophy therefore has a role to play in two ways. First, philosophy of science is necessary to make sense of scientific findings. While the philosophy of science may not be made explicit it is always there, for example when scientists use inductive reasoning formulate theories or derive conclusions from their experiments using deductive reasoning.
Second, because philosophy operates at a higher level than the hard sciences it is able to provide a context in which findings from different fields of science can be understood. Not that I am suggesting that every multi-disciplinary team requires a philosopher to act as interpreter between scientist operating in different specialisms but rather that they are probably applying philosophy on some level even if they are not, dare I say, conscious of it. For example, doctors with observations about the behaviour of patients with different brain injuries talking with scientists who carry out brain-imaging on subjects undergoing different activities, can each benefit from the knowledge of the other. This benefit will be operating at a level of abstraction higher than discussions of lesions to specific brain regions or the actions of specific neurotransmitters.
Moreover, it is unnecessary to operate some sort of league table for the usefulness of different fields of inquiry. Philosophy has a role in investigating and explaining consciousness I am sure, however, I feel Professor Smith’s article is a missed opportunity for making this role clear. Hopefully, once the debate has taken place follow-up articles will explain more clearly how and why neuroscience and philosophy must work together.