31 October 2022

Neurophilosophy begs the questions

Science.org spoke at the 2nd International Conference on Neuroscience and Free Will, a project funded by the Fetzer Franklin Fund in 2019, "with project leader Uri Maoz, a psychologist and computational neuroscientist at Chapman, about how the new effort aims to change the future of free will research".

In this post I only want to question a couple of the many ways in which this attempt at neurophilosophical research prejudices and vitiates its endeavours from the very start by begging the question(s), aka petitio principii.  Here a sample from the interview:

"Q: What would a collaboration between philosophers and neuroscientists look like?

A: It is part and parcel of this grant that every project has at least two neuroscientists and at least one philosopher involved. It's written in the contract. What I expect philosophers to do is not sit there and analyze data. What I would hope to get from them is to first help in deciding what are the right questions to ask. What to investigate is not a scientific question. It's a theoretical or philosophical question. Then, if we agree on the question, how do we design the experiment that would answer exactly that question? Then, once the experiment is done, they help interpret what the results mean and produce joint publications.

Ultimately, we'd like to get at two questions. One is, what is required for people to have free will? That is a philosophical question that our philosopher colleagues should come to an agreement on. As a scientist, I don't know what it entails to have free will. Then there's the second question, which is, whatever that thing is that is required for free will, do we have that? Do humans possess that? This is an empirical question. It may be that I don't have the technology to measure it, but that is at least an empirical question that I could get at.

Q: What questions are you asking?

A: The important thing is that right now we are trying to go beyond Libet-type experiments. Rather than asking do we have free will, we are trying to get at more nuanced and better-defined questions. How does the brain enable conscious causal control of our actions and decisions? How do our conscious intentions lead to actions? A third question is about purposeful actions...."

Let's start with the "second question" posted: "whatever that thing is that is required for free will, do we have that? Do humans possess that? This is an empirical question."

This question forecloses any serious interrogation by presupposing that there could be a "thing [...] that is required for free will". This thing is supposed to be also a material thing that could be measured by a suitable technology. Neuroscience requires from the start that it can measure something or other to empirically gather material data that can be checked against some hypothesis or other. But what if no thing at all is "required for free will", and certainly no measurable material thing?

This begging of the question is then followed up by a second, that is even more prejudicial: "How does the brain enable conscious causal control of our actions and decisions?"

The "thing" that is presupposed in the first act of question-begging is now identified as the material brain that, of course, can be measured by various technologies to your heart's content. The begging of the question goes even further here by asserting that this brain-thing enables "conscious causal control of our actions and decisions". Why is the material brain the enabling instance, and not vice versa? Why is not consciousness itself (or rather, the more encompassing psyche), with its free will to psychic self-movement, the enabling instance whose intentions and decisions direct its organ, the brain, to initiate bodily actions? Such voluntary intentions, such straining and directing of the mind toward... with practical intent, of course, are directed temporally toward the future to which consciousness (or rather, the more encompassing psyche) must be open. Such temporal openness must not be taken for granted as self-evident.

But what is consciousness? And what does it mean for consciousness to look into the future and envisage it in some way? Here we draw a blank, because this neurophilosophy tacitly presupposes that consciousness is 'emergent' from a material basis that can be empirically investigated by suitable, technologically enabled, measuring procedures. A material causal basis presumably does not look into a future at all, but merely blindly unfolds a material necessity of movement along a cause-effect chain in linear time.

Consciousness itself is a relatively recent invention that was first cast philosophically in the 17th century, most famously by Descartes. This conception stepped into the place held by the psyche since philosophy's Greek beginnings. One of the prime motivations for this substitution was that the psyche or soul had been conceived from the start as non-material (gratefully accepted by Christianity). This non-materiality was a hindrance to the nascent sciences of the 17th century, and even more so thereafter. It should be noted, however, that Descartes was comfortable with both notions: soul (âme) and consciousness (conscience). By contrast, modern science is committed to material, efficient causality. Then it can apply its empiricist scientific methodology of experimentally testing hypotheses without batting an eyelid. Even with those phenomena where linear causality breaks down experimentally, such as phenomena of quantum indeterminacy, the science (quantum physics, in this case) remains absolutely committed to predicting movement. That is its raison d'être.

Does it make any sense at all to try to formulate the question concerning the existence of the psyche (or consciousness or free will, for that matter) as an empirical one? In what sense can it be said that the psyche exists? What is its mode of existence? What does it mean for any entity at all to exist? Could it turn out that, in a certain way, it is the psyche itself — as a non-entity or pre-entity — that enables the existence of entities of all kinds, and in various modes of existence, to boot? In any case, such questions demand that today's science and philosophy drop their grossly naïve, prejudicial preconceptions to step back and seriously ask themselves whether there is any merit in such a discipline called neurophilosophy. 

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