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A Marriage of Philosophy and Neuroscience

The two fields rarely work together despite common interests. A seminar tries to change that


A new series of Duke summer seminars will marry philosophy and neuroscience, two fields that cross over quite a bit even though scholars in those two areas rarely mix.

The new Summer Seminars in Neuroscience and Philosophy debut in May 2016, underwritten by a $1.8 million grant from the Templeton Foundation. Twenty scholars from the two fields will come together over 15 days to study each other’s fields, work collaboratively and make presentations to the public.

The project’s two leaders are Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Felipe De Brigard, each of whom are on the faculty both in Duke’s philosophy department and Institute for Brain Sciences. (Sinnott-Armstrong is also affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics)

Here, they discussed the new program with Duke Today.

Picture of de Brigard

Duke Today: Your new Neuroscience and Philosophy seminars program is based on the premise that while people in those two fields attack many of the same questions — free will, morality, human nature — they rarely work together. Why is that?

Sinnott-Armstrong:  Barriers between fields arise for many reasons. One is simply budgets: Who gets the indirect revenue from grants?  Another is expertise: Faculty who train graduate students in one field never like to admit that anyone without that training can know much about that field. A third reason is standards: What counts as precision and strong evidence in one field is often omitted in other fields. For example, philosophers often make empirical claims without citing sources, and neuroscientists often give arguments without spelling out their assumptions. But perhaps the most important barrier is language: Philosophers and neuroscientists both talk about decisions, but they have in mind different examples of what is a decision. 

These variations in language lead one discipline to accuse the other discipline of talking nonsense or overlooking obvious distinctions. It takes great patience to overcome these barriers. The only solution is to work together for a long time until you gain the respect and trust of each other.

De Brigard: I would add: there are no venues in which philosophers and neuroscientist get together, on par, to collaborate with one another. There are no conferences that are attended equally by philosophers and neuroscientists, and the very few ones are highly specialized workshops that tend to invite selected speakers. That is why we also wanted to include an interdisciplinary conference at the end of each program.

Duke Today: In your new program, neuroscientists will get a 15-day dose of philosophy, and philosophers will get a 15-day dose of neuroscience. How much can be learned in 15 days? 

Sinnott-Armstrong:  Not enough! That is why we will also require significant advance reading and probably also advance video lectures, such as parts of Len White’s Coursera MOOC on Medical Neuroscience. More importantly, during the 15 days at Duke, philosophers and neuroscientists will pair up and design experiments that they will spend the following year carrying out. This shared project will require them to stay in regular contact and exchange perspectives as well as writing articles together. The 15 days is only supposed to provide a background to inspire and enable deeper learning in the future. 

De Brigard: We also expect that many, if not all, of the applicants already have a serious interest in learning neuroscience and philosophy. As such, we expect a sustained effort on their part to keep learning these disciplines, hopefully for the rest of their careers. We expect the seminars to act as a catalyzer of their interest and as a booster of their knowledge, providing them with the tools to keep enhancing it on their own, or with the many potential collaborators they may meet during the seminars.

Duke Today: What is the best-case outcome of this program within academia? Is it creating far more interdisciplinary scholars?

Sinnott-Armstrong:  I would love to see joint programs in philosophy and neuroscience springing up around the world, like the one Duke has already. Even outside of such formal programs, I would also like to see graduate students in philosophy encouraged to take neuroscience courses and graduate students in neuroscience encouraged to take philosophy courses. We have so much to learn from each other.

De Brigard: A neuroscience colleague emailed me yesterday with a question about a recent paper he found in a philosophy journal. The paper was about the role of prospection in our perception of free will. He studies prospection from the point of view of neuroscience, and has become increasingly interested in free will. This paper caught his attention because it dealt with precisely this question. However, in part because of his lack of familiarity with the way in which philosophers have framed this debate, and in part because of disciplinary idiosyncrasies in the terminology, it was hard for him to work through the paper.

If, as we expect, SSNAP gives neuroscientists the tools to read papers in philosophy seamlessly, we will effectively be multiplying their bibliographic searches, and thus expanding the horizons for where to find information to guide and inspire their research questions. If we can help researchers become truly interdisciplinary, I am sure that will release an explosion of creativity in the field.      

Duke Today: And what is the best-case outcome of this program outside academia? Meaning: how might this mixing of expertise make a person better suited for industry or some other field?

Sinnott-Armstrong: One frustrating experience shared by many neuroscientists occurs when they make an important advance, but then the news media distort their findings. Philosophers feel the same when they see their philosophical positions mistakenly depicted in popular books and movies. We hope that both philosophers and neuroscientists will learn to communicate better with the public as a result of having to exchange ideas with experts from other academic fields in the summer seminars. This part of the learning experience could improve the reception and understanding of neuroscience and philosophy well behind the ivory tower.

De Brigard: I also think that many of the possible effects brought about by fostering interdisciplinarity are unpredictable. It may well be possible that the new approaches to old problems that are likely to emerge from the participants in the SSNAP will have consequences, down the road, for medical treatments or technological advances to improve people’s lives.