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The Neurological Turn: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? (April 2023): The Tenacity of Tradition

By Heidi Storl

The Tenacity of Tradition

In 1927, Martin Heidegger in Being and Time urged his reader to remove the Cartesian lenses that have been worn for so long. Though Heidegger’s suggestion is perhaps more about philosophical method than substance, the two are undeniably linked. Heidegger urged his reader to adopt a strategy, the phenomenological method, in order to move beyond the traditional Cartesian categories of immaterial substance and material substance—mental and physical; mind and body; subject and object—to being itself. Heidegger’s concern centered in large part on the seemingly insurmountable difficulties inherent in Descartes’s subject (mind)/object (body) divide and thus, the need for new phenomenological approaches to the nature of being human. According to Heidegger, the Cartesian lenses had systematically prevented insight into the unified nature of being. Though Heidegger insisted that his work involved a phenomenological examination of being and thus avoided traditional traps in areas now characterized as philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, and neurophilosophy, his work provides one of the first breaks with longstanding philosophical traditions that embraced mind (idealism), body (materialism), or some form of dualism. Heidegger’s insistence on a shift in methodology had far greater reach than he realized. The insights enabled by the shift endorsed what is today a reconceptualization of the nature and significance of neuroscientific findings.

Before examining the current state of neuroscience and its philosophical underpinnings, one must acknowledge the ongoing tenacity of the dualist tradition. Though there are cracks in the veneer, the mind-body split remains. This is clearly evident in the following texts: Contemporary Dualism: A Defense, edited by Andrea Lavazza and Howard Robinson; Richard Swinburne’s Mind, Brain, and Free Will; and the Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, edited by Jonathan Loose, Angus Menuge, and J. P. Moreland. In the first of these Lavazza and Robinson provide fourteen original contributions that highlight a variety of dualisms. They describe these contributions as constituting a “progressive research” program. For a defense of a form of dualism that is more epistemologically grounded, Richard Fumerton’s Knowledge, Thought, and the Case for Dualism is a worthwhile read. The mind-body split is also subtly present in descriptions of empirical neuroscience in which terms such as “mental process” and “mind” are (perhaps unwittingly) used to describe many neurophysiological processes. Some works explicitly attempt to reconcile the concerns of dualism with contemporary neuroscientific research or, at a minimum, to avoid an exclusive commitment to a hard physicalism. An accessible text that attempts such a reconciliation via reconsideration of the plausibility of a form of neutral monism is Jonathan Westphal’s The Mind-Body Problem. In the last chapter of this brief but fascinating text, Westphal argues that “it is no good trying to wriggle out by assimilating one set of concepts to another, so that everything mental is declared to be really, incomprehensibly, physical…. The beauty of neutral monism is that it allows us to shift our given elements from one category into another, in a way that is legitimated by the phenomenology and does nothing to undermine the integrity of the given categories.”

There are reasons for caution in endorsing mind-body dualisms. Does our methodology, as Heidegger suggested, blind us in our investigations into the nature of who and what we are? Is this an example of theoretical bias in the interpretation of objective empirical fact? The question of methodological plausibility is raised by Steven Gouveia in Philosophy and Neuroscience: A Methodological Analysis. Gouveia explores four distinct methodologies before settling on a nonreductive philosophical approach. It is also worth noting that the first person, I-based perspective is not universal even in the physicalist tradition. Many years ago, Derek Parfit suggested this in Reasons and Persons, in which he defended the plausibility of “discounted” accounts of persons against sturdier substance-based approaches to self. (Parfit also acknowledged the existence of the more radical Buddhist anatta view of self.) The question remains as to whether our first-person perspective, Descartes’s much-celebrated “I,” might not frame our sensations and perceptions in misleading sorts of ways. Is it possible that, as Heidegger suggested, our long-standing dualistic framework has biased observations in the same way that Plotinus’s lenses needed correction by Copernicus? A second reason for proceeding cautiously in revising or revamping dualistic approaches to the nature of self and other is also a reminder of concerns raised long ago. Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine,” from The Concept of Mind, may still lurk. If we embrace two fundamentally different substances, or perhaps fundamentally different properties, we still must account for the causal interactions between these substances or properties. Whereas this may be done successfully with certain nonreductive forms of materialism, it is subtle nuance that distinguishes these nonreductive forms of materialism from quasi- or outright forms of dualism. Consider, for example, Gerald Edelman’s classic Wider than the Sky. Edelman defends the existence of a “dynamic core” of neural activity that results in a “phenomenal transform”—a subjective experience indicative of uniquely human experience. The fineries of this ongoing tension are explored in two texts: Neuroscience and Critique: Exploring the Limits of the Neurological Turn, edited by Jan De Vos and Ed Pluth, and Neuroscience and the Soul: The Human Person in Philosophy, Science, and Theology, edited by Thomas Crisp, Steven Porter, and Gregg Ten Elshof. In the introduction to the former, for instance, De Vos and Pluth write that the book “engages in questions about the conditions of possibility, impossibility and the domain, or range, of different sciences and disciplines.” Some contributors to this highly provocative work suggest that “there might be some basic and inevitable paradoxes, deadlocks, and even aporias within the neurosciences that structurally prevent the field of the neurosciences from being fully unified and closed.” And Neuroscience and the Soul, according to the editors, provides the “thoughtful nonspecialist” with an engaging, high-level overview of the impact of brain science on the nature of the soul and human interaction. 

What the forgoing discussion reveals is the tenacity of tradition. Whereas Descartes’s form of dualism may have few remaining advocates, intriguing new forms of dualism have emerged. These contemporary dualisms drive substantive debate surrounding the descriptive, explanatory, and predictive power of now well-entrenched neuroscience, and serve to reveal that the neurological turn is not yet complete.