The Impact of Neuroscience on Philosophy

Philosophy, in its traditional guise, addresses questions where experimental science has not yet nailed down plausible explanatory theories. Thus, the ancient Greeks pondered the nature of life, the sun, and tides, but also how we learn and make decisions. The history of science can be seen as a gradual process whereby speculative philosophy cedes intellectual space to increasingly wellgrounded experimental disciplines—first astronomy, but followed by physics, chemistry, geology, biology, archaeology, and more recently, ethology, psychology, and neuroscience. Science now encompasses plausible theories in many domains, including large-scale theories about the cosmos, life, matter, and energy. The mind’s turn has now come. The classical ‘‘mind’’ questions center on free will, the self, consciousness, how thoughts can have meaning and ‘‘aboutness,’’ and how we learn and use knowledge. All these matters interlace with questions about morality: where values come from, the roles of reason and emotion in choice, and the wherefore of responsibility and punishment. The vintage mind/body problem is a legacy of Descartes: if the mind is a completely nonphysical substance, as he thought, how can it interact causally with the physical brain? Since the weight of evidence indicates that mental processes actually are processes of the brain, Descartes’ problem has disappeared. The classical mind/ body problem has been replaced with a range of questions: what brain mechanisms explain learning, decision making, self-deception, and so on. The replacement for ‘‘the mind-body problem’’ is not a single problem; it is the vast research program of cognitive neuroscience. The dominant methodology of philosophy of mind and morals in the twentieth..
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