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The Biological Mind: A Philosophical Introduction



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Author: Justin Garson

Publisher: Routledge

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Publish Date: October 31, 2014

ISBN-10: 415810272

Pages: 208

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

Over the last several decades, biologists have developed the tools to solve long-standingpuzzles of the human mind. For example, are human beings genuinely selfl ess, or are we only governed by ulterior motives? What are the respective powers of nature and nurture in making us who we are? Does the distinction between “nature” and “nurture” even make sense in this post-genomic era? Do we have free will? Can we explain consciousness in terms of brain activity? What’s normal and abnormal when it comes to our thoughts and emotions? What is the essence of thought itself? How does the brain, which is inside the skull, represent the world outside the skull? Biologists have not only been making progress on these puzzles, but in some cases they’re entirely changing the terms of the debates.

This is a book about how philosophical refl ection on biology can help illuminate these traditional problems of the mind. It is a book about how philosophers who think about biology can contribute to these issues. Why do we need philosophical refl ection on biology to help answer these questions? Why philosophers? Why can’t we turn to biologists themselves? If I wanted to know whether I am at risk for diabetes, I would turn to a practitioner of medicine, not a philosopher of medicine. Likewise, if I want to know whether neuroscience can explain consciousness, I should turn to a neuroscientist, not a philosopher who thinks about the brain. If I wanted to know whether people can be genetically disposed to schizophrenia, I would speak with a molecular biologist, not a philosopher who thinks about molecular biology.

There are three ways that philosophical refl ection on biology can help us make inroads on the mind: clarifi cation, connection, and caution. I think of these as three roles that philosophers can take in relation to the production of biological knowledge. This isn’t to say that biologists cannot or do not assume these roles. They can and do. When they do, however, they are “putting on” the philosopher’s hat. They are approaching biology from a philosophical perspective. I will come back to this point.

First, philosophers can help biologists by clarifying basic concepts and defi nitions. This may sound arrogant, but let me explain. Obviously, consulting with biologists is essential for clearing up factual misunderstandings, or for appreciating the limits of our current theories, or for grasping major points of controversy. For example, suppose I’m a philosopher with a theory about how consciousness evolved. Suppose, moreover, that I base my theory on some gross misunderstanding about how evolution happens. For example, suppose I think that evolution can somehow predict future changes in the environment and provide the creature in advance with what it needs to succeed in the “struggle for existence.” It would be miraculous if my theory about consciousness turned out to be right, given such a patently false starting point. The best advice we can offer our philosopher is to take a biology course, or pick up a good introductory textbook on evolution. In other words, this would represent a factual error about evolution.

Other sorts of problems, however, can’t be straightforwardly resolved by opening a biology textbook. This is because they have more to do with general concepts and defi nitions than with facts. They have to do with the conceptual frameworks that we use for interpreting data, rather than the data themselves. For example, the question of whether Pluto is a planet has as much to do with concepts and defi nitions as with facts. The question of whether humans and other animals are “altruistic” depends on how we defi ne concepts like “biological altruism,” “psychological altruism,” and “group selection.” Whether neuroscience debunks free will depends on what we take “free will” to mean. Whether brain activity explains consciousness depends on what counts as an “explanation.” Long-standing and apparently irresolvable disagreements between biologists can be symptoms of these inconsistencies. I realize that we can’t entirely separate the “facts themselves” from our “interpretations” of them, but the distinction will do for my present purposes.

This is where philosophical refl ection on biology can help. Philosophers have a useful role here, because they can help to make sense of the conceptual problems that arise when we try to apply what we know about biology to grasp the mind. Think of it this way. Philosophers are like contract lawyers. They demand precision in the use of their terms. Sometimes science needs such precision in order to advance. Otherwise, scientists run the risk of talking past one another. Philosophers can be useful because they can clarify the meanings of the terms we use.

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