Why philosophy and neuroscience?

Like philosophers
and philosophers
the brain and
the neurosciences

The brain is often seen as the place of consciousness, personality, individuality, thought and action, or even as the materialization of the subject. As neuroscientific research has grown since the mid-1980s, new possibilities have emerged for observing and influencing processes in the brain. As a result, many old philosophical questions were asked anew: Is everything mental reducible to brain activity? How is the brain connected to the different dimensions of our selfhood? Are we free or not?

Advances in the field of neurotechnology have recently raised a number of ethical questions: How far can we intervene in the brain? Does the privacy of the brain need to be protected in a special way? Can morality and empathy be localized in the brain? Can we or should we improve the brain? Who is ultimately responsible in human-machine interactions? Man and his brain or the intelligent, self-learning neuroprosthesis? Such questions can only be answered on an interdisciplinary basis and by integrating different perspectives and methods.

An example of how neuroscience has challenged philosophy is linked to the question of whether humans can have freedom of will if they are subject to natural laws just like everything else in the world. The discovery of the so-called readiness potential in the mid-1960s reignited the debate. This shows that there is awareness of a movement approx. 200 ms before it occurs, but that there is already neuronal activity 500 ms before the movement. To put it very simply, there is measurable brain activity before a person becomes aware of a decision. So are we humans determined by neurobiological processes? Opinions differ on the interpretation of this experiment, but it continues to fuel the debate on the relationship between free will, freedom of action and consciousness to this day.

The case of Phineas Gage also had consequences for philosophical thinking about the brain. Phineas Gage suffered a serious accident in the middle of the 19th century and was left with permanent brain damage as a result. An iron bar destroyed parts of his orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortex. Although he survived this accident and suffered no impairment of memory, perception, intelligence or the like, his personality and in particular his moral assessment of facts and ethical issues changed. This case, in turn, is a milestone in the investigation of the biological understanding of morality.

A few years ago, the field of neuroethics was established, in which researchers from the fields of philosophy, neuroscience, medicine, social sciences and law develop ethical criteria for interventions in the brain and discuss them in international forums. For example, intensive thought was given to the ethical implications of deep brain stimulation and enhancement of the brain. Recently, intelligent neuroprostheses and big data have also increasingly become the subject of neuroethical reflection.

Questions about the relationship between consciousness and the mind and the brain have also been taken up by popular culture, for example in films such as “The Matrix”. As the technical development of computers progresses, new ideas for interfaces between man and machine emerge – which haunt many science fiction films as cyborgs.

Read more:

An extensive bibliography on the subject of neuroethics (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz).

This Stanford Encycolpedia entry explains neuroscience from the perspective of philosophy.

This article introduces the term neuroethics.

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