Gualtiero: Until recently, you were known for armchair philosophizing
and not at all for empirical research. Could you briefly explain how
you became interested in doing empirical research and what your current empirical projects are?
Brit: Actually, I started out in the sciences. I have a 5-year M.S. in neuroscience from University of Copenhagen and The Danish National Hospital. My research was on neurotransmitters, specifically glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). As a hormone, GLP-1 stimulates insulin-secreting cells. As a neurotransmitter, it modulates stress and anxiety. I was, and still am, very interested in mood disorders,so I really loved this project. But owing to a terrifying event described in the personal information section of my website, I decided to go to graduate school in philosophy. I already had degrees in philosophy and linguistics as well. One of my main areas of specialization in philosophy was, and still is, philosophy of language. Philosophy of language by its very nature is a very empirical area of philosophy.
Philosophy of language by its very nature is a very empirical area of philosophy.
We look at what the linguists do, and they look at what we do. But you are right. Until recently I didn't design my own experiments or studies. My interest in designing my own studies was sparked by a series of events taking place around the time of my divorce. To deal with the consequences of these events, I felt that I had to expand on my knowledge of the brain. Another coincidence sparked my interest in synesthesia. I am now testing for unconscious color processing in 40 higher synestetes. Owing to a nice McDonnell grant, Kathleen Akins and I will be able to host a workshop on abnormal color vision (synesthesia, acromatopsia, color blindsight, etc) next year in Vancouver. I am also working on a large project about the effects of personality assessments on judgments of intentional action. That project started out as a response to Knobe. My third project is on blindsight and will be done in collaboration with a team of researchers in Europe.
Your own work seems to be heavily inspired by empirical research. What are your current projects and how did you become interested in them?
Gualtiero: Wow, I didn't know you had such a scientific background. Now I understand why you know so much neuroscience! A coincidence: I have acromatopsia, so if you decide to work on that topic, you can use me as a subject.
As to my research, I have three main projects. The first is on what constitutes concrete computation—what distinguishes things that compute from things that don't. This is relevant to many sciences: computer science, computational psychology and neuroscience, and even physics. The second is on how to integrate psychology and neuroscience into a unified explanation of cognition. It piggybacks on the first project, because both psychology and neuroscience give computational explanations of cognition. Once we are clear on how computational explanation works, we should be in a better position to say how psychology and neuroscience go together. The third project is on the legitimacy of data from first-person reports (and other "first-person data") in psychology and neuroscience. I argue that this kind of data is scientifically legitimate because such data are actually public data—the outcome of a process of self-measurement on the part of the subject.
But while my work is deeply engaged with various sciences, I don't do any experiments, whereas you do. How hard was it for you to start designing and conducting experiments on your own? Did your prior scientific training prepare for it or or did you need extra help? And do you now consider yourself a philosopher, a scientist, or both?
Brit: I didn't know you had acromatopsia. I certainly will be working on that topic sooner or later. To begin with your last question, I consider myself both a philosopher and a neuroscientist. I have the sufficient background for designing studies and experiments and know statistics pretty well. But I must confess that I still get help with the statistics part. Statistics is hard. Kathleen Akins calls herself a neurophilosopher.
I think neuroscience is hard, just about as hard as good philosophy.
I don't call myself that. I still do some armchair philosophy. I also draw heavily on other people's empirical results in my work on psycholinguistics and philosophy of language. When I think about neuroscience, I am a neuroscientist. But I think I have an advantage. Because I am a philosopher, I am used to come up with counterexamples (that's what we do, right?). So, when I design studies or look at data, it is very easy for me to spot alternative hypotheses and to come up with ways of ruling them out. I think neuroscience is hard, just about as hard as good philosophy.
Did you ever consider doing empirical experiments or studies on your own or in collaboration with others? Why? Why not?
Gualtiero: I usually don't consider doing experiments, mostly because I'm already busy enough with what I'm doing. But I do have a little bit of relevant experience.
For my undergraduate honors' thesis, I designed and conducted a fairly serious piece of experimental cognitive psychology.
For my undergraduate honors' thesis, I designed and conducted a fairly serious piece of experimental cognitive psychology. At the time I wanted to become a cognitive psychologist, but later I decided to go back into philosophy.
I found it interesting that you don't consider yourself a neurophilosopher. Me neither, because to me neurophilosophy sounds too much like picking your favorite neuroscience papers and putting a "philosophical" spin on them. I think of myself as a philosopher of mind and of the sciences of mind. How about you; why don't you
consider yourself a neurophilosopher? You also don't seem to consider yourself an experimental philosopher. Why? Experimental philosophy seems to be all the rage. Why aren't you jumping on the bandwagon?
Brit: Well, strictly speaking, my intentional action project falls under the category of "experimental philosophy". But I am not sure I think the field ought to be called "experimental philosophy". As far as I am concerned, it's social psychology. Hopefully over time I will be able to add a neuroscientific touch to my project on intentional action. But right now, I don't see the difference between that project and other similar projects in social psychology. To say that what
other people call "experimental philosophy" really is social psychology is not to say that it has no philosophical relevance.
other people call "experimental philosophy" really is social psychology.
It certainly does. I think that some of the results, as far as they hold up, cast some doubt on some of the armchair characterizations of the notion of intentional action. I also think philosophers, to the extent that they have sufficient training in designing experiments, can bring new advances to this particular area of social psychology.
I agree with you about your characterization of neurophilosophy. I prefer to just think of myself as working in two distinct areas: neuroscience and philosophy. The theories I advance in neuroscience are, of course, inspired by my work in philosophy of mind, and vice versa. Discoveries in neuroscience can provide counterexamples to theories in philosophy of mind. But philosophy of mind also provides us with results which neuroscience cannot give us. For example, neuroscience as it is currently carried out cannot give us an answer to the question of what consciousness is. Neuroscience, however, can provide an answer to the question of what the correlates of consciousness are. So, both areas have an important role to play.
What is your take on the new experimental turn in philosophy? And how do you think results in neuroscience can influence theories in philosophy of mind, and vice versa?
Gualtiero: I agree with you on experimental philosophy. I'm always glad when people try to back up their theories with empirical evidence, especially given that some philosophers tend to trust their intuitions too much. If philosophers have the expertise and resources to collect their own data, more power to them. That being said, some experimental philosophers tend to exaggerate the consequences of their theories, as if a couple of simple experiments could easily and directly refute all kinds of theories. Testing theories is harder than some experimental philosophers seem to think.
Even worse, too many philosophers, including philosophers of mind, still act as though empirical evidence is irrelevant to their theories.
Too many philosophers, including philosophers of mind, still act as though empirical evidence is irrelevant to their theories.
Occasionally this is true, but many times it's not. And since the mind is a product of the nervous system, it should be blindingly obvious that neuroscience and philosophy of mind have much to learn from each other. Philosophy of mind should look at what is known about the nervous system to constrain its theories, while neuroscience can take much inspiration from philosophical theories about the mind.
This has happened before, by the way. For example Warren McCulloch, a pioneer of computationalism, was a neurophysiologist and psychiatrist but also studied a lot of philosophy. His project was to explain intentionality and knowledge in neuroscientific terms. He didn't quite succeed, but he did make a strikingly innovative proposal that transformed the whole field. If we are going to improve on our current understanding of the mind-brain, we would do well to emulate McCulloch and study both philosophy and neuroscience.