(Image credit: “Legacy Bridge, University of Utah” by Daderot via Wikipedia [public domain])
I will be at the University of Utah presenting a paper at the Intermountain Philosophy Conference tomorrow entitled “Neurobiological Correlates of Philosophical Belief & Judgment: What This Means for Philosophy.” An abstract is below. The conference website is here.
It is becoming increasingly common to find journals publishing articles that demonstrate psychological correlates (e.g. Adelstein, Deyong, Arvan) and biological correlates (e.g. Harris, Hsu, Stern) of various self-reported beliefs and judgments. It is perhaps most common to find articles reporting the correlates of political beliefs and judgments (e.g. Amodio, Arvan, Hatemi, Kanai, Tost). This paper sets out to show that philosophical beliefs are also worth experimental attention. But that is not all: I hypothesize that variations in peoples’ biology—perhaps their neurobiology in particular—could correlate with variations in their proclivity towards or aversion to particular philosophical beliefs and judgments. In the first section of the paper, I lay out what we might expect to learn about our philosophical beliefs from our neurobiology. Before I conclude that philosophical beliefs (or philosophical cognition) are worthy of experimental attention, I mention some philosophical and methodological concerns and some objections to the suggested research. I am careful to note along the way that while many of the conclusions reached by this research could be illuminating, we none of it should be devastating to philosophy. That is not to say that the research wouldn’t inspire some methodological reform (e.g., whether and how philosophers appeal to intuition or exploit certain language), but it would by no means “end” philosophy.
This link is a poster about philosophers’ brains that I presented at the Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tuscon—I gave a talk based on this poster at University of Utah. Use the link to see a full-size PDF that will allow you to zoom ad nauseum without the blurriness—vector graphics are so cool!
We should not be surprised if some of the differences between philosophers views correlate with differences between philosophers’ brains. I list a handful of neurobiological differences that already correlate with philosophical differences among non-philosophers. It’s not obvious what we should glean from the possibility that philosophers’ brains could differ as a function of their views. After all, it might be that studying certain views changes our brain. That would not be surprising or concerning, really. But if it were the other way around — e.g., that structural/functional differences in brains predisposed us towards some views and away from other views — then that might be concerning. What if academic philosophy is just an exercise of post hoc rationalization of the views that philosophers’ brains are predisposed toward? Of course, it’s entirely possible that causation works in both directions. But even that could be concerning because that is compatible with self-reinforcing feedback loops. For instance, perhaps we are neurally predisposed to certain views, so we study those views which further predisposes us toward that view (and away from its alternatives). But these questions are getting ahead of the evidence. Hopefully, the neuroscience of philosophy will provide some answers. Until then, check out the poster to see what questions the research has already answered.