Professors, students explore intersection of philosophy and neuroscience

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Hillsdale’s Central Hall (Courtesy)

“What we call phi­losophy of mind has to do with a set of issues that have been with us since the start of the enlight­enment,” Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Jim Stephens said. “When René Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am,’ it con­tained a whole new way of looking at the mind.”

This semester, Stephens teaches a course called Phi­losophy of Mind alongside Vis­iting Lec­turer of Biology Angelica Pytel. The class, res­ur­rected after they taught it two years ago, seeks to inte­grate neu­ro­science and cog­nitive science with modern phi­losophy as it relates to the mind.

“How do two things, that are sup­posed to be as dif­ferent as Descartes says they are, interact causally?” Stephens said. According to him, Descartes never offered an ade­quate answer. “To phrase it in another way: how could a human mind exist in a physical uni­verse? That’s phi­losophy of mind.”

Pytel brings a sci­en­tific per­spective to the course through her expe­rience and fas­ci­nation with neu­ro­science.

“We talk about phi­losophy here, and we talk about science there,” she said. “But really, it’s seamless. They nat­u­rally go together. Any­thing Dr. Stephens would say about a philo­sophical theory of mind, like type-identity theory, I’m going to have a per­spective on that and how we would think about that idea in the field of neu­ro­science.”

A new field rel­ative to phi­losophy, neu­ro­science engages in the study of the brain, nervous system, and its con­nection to learning, per­ception, and behavior. Fun­da­men­tally, neu­ro­science attempts to answer ques­tions about how biology relates to the phe­nomenon known as con­sciousness.

“A lot of these the­ories of mind are older than neu­ro­science. There are absolutely merits to aspects of Aris­totle, Descartes, and Plato,” Pytel said, pointing to one of Aristotle’s works. “We’re on the pursuit of under­standing how con­sciousness happens, the neu­ro­logical or brain mech­a­nisms involved in the building of con­sciousness.”

Pytel thinks the problem of mind will soon be handed off from philoso­phers to neu­ro­sci­en­tists. “It’s no longer the mystery, the inef­fable thing, that a lot of philoso­phers thought it was even 50 years ago.”

Both Pytel and Stephens think that Phi­losophy of Mind fits right in with Hillsdale’s larger goal of devel­oping bal­anced pupils, well-versed in all aspects of the liberal arts; however, while the topics taught in the core are far-reaching and diverse, they thought that inter­facing dif­ferent facets of the liberal arts edu­cation into a cohesive class, like Phi­losophy of Mind, could begin to har­monize topics that stu­dents still see as sep­arate.

“Pro­fessor Pytel and I, and a lot of others, think that what we’re doing is kind of putting some flesh on the bones of claims about the Hillsdale core,” Stephens said. “If the dis­ci­plines are there for a reason, if they’re not simply tossed in, then the dis­ci­plines in the core ought to be able to interact with one another to give us a kind of inte­grated picture.”

To Pytel, Phi­losophy of Mind aims to break down the per­ceived bar­riers between science and the human­ities.

“There’s this wall that’s built up. Science is other. They do some­thing we do not do,” Pytel explained. “That’s the beauty of this course: science has a lot to con­tribute to a person’s wonder about this world… You know more about yourself if you know how you think, not just what you think.”

Cur­rently, six stu­dents are enrolled in Phi­losophy of Mind. Julia Hoyda ‘18, who took the class as a junior, said she really enjoyed it.

“The course largely revolved around the history of phi­losophy of mind,” Hoyda said. “Going through pre­vious schools of thought about con­sciousness and how, as we learned more about the brain, those ideas evolved.”

The class also grapples with man’s con­ception of self and how it relates to arti­ficial intel­li­gence.

“We dis­cussed how we rec­ognize con­sciousness in others and what the para­meters for that are. It was also really inter­esting to see how humans have thought about them ‘selves’ over time and looking at what it means to be human from a neu­ro­logical and psy­cho­logical per­spective,” Hoyda said. “And that’s how it really fits in to the liberal arts: under­standing what it means to be human, dis­tin­guishing us by our minds, and learning about how we think.”