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Book Reviews, Neuroscience, Schizophrenia

‘Neuroscience and Philosophy’ by Bennett, Dennett, Hacker and Searle (book review)

Neuroscience and Philosophy is an academic book that will be of interest mostly to professionals working within these disciplines. The book assumes a high level of understanding in terms of the technical language used when talking about the brain and about philosophical matters. At the outset, then, I can say that I would not recommend this book to anyone who prefers reading books written in everyday language. This one is for the specialists!

The structure of the book is roughly as follows. To begin, there is a short introduction from Daniel Robinson of Oxford University, which explains the reasons for the book, and the book’s structure. There is then a section entitled ‘The Argument’, which contains selected extracts from another book, The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (PFN) by Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker. PFN is the previously published book on which the discussions in this particular volume are based. The extracts in this section give an overview of the important arguments in PFN.

The next section comprises rebuttals from Daniel Dennett and John Searle. They have read PFN and proceed to criticise that work and the views that Bennett and Hacker have presented. Next, there is a section entitled ‘Reply to the Rebuttals’, which gives Bennett and Hacker the opportunity to respond to Dennett and Searle’s rebuttals. Lastly, there is a concluding chapter from Daniel Robinson (who opened the book) which discusses the merits and problems in the arguments made by all the various contributors.

The main theme of the book is the problem of whether one can refer to parts of the brain, or the brain itself, as having the ability to do things like think, analyse, reflect, and process information. It would seem that it is common for neuroscientists to talk about the brain as having such abilities. The argument from Bennett and Hacker is that there is a certain nonsense in attributing these kind of abilities to the brain. This is because it is the human being – the whole person – rather than the brain, that is able to do these things.

The main counter-argument comes from Dennett, who says that when neuroscientists use these kinds of terms in reference to the brain, they are merely using poetic language. Dennett doesn’t feel that the neuroscientists are speaking literally, and so he gets frustrated with Bennett and Hacker and can’t understand their confusion. The main problem for Bennett and Hacker is that if there is conceptual confusion about what the brain can be said to do, then this will influence the scientific endeavour of exploring the brain, and will lead to difficulties when scientific experiments are undertaken, and when theories are postulated.

The problem is clear, and I am wholeheartedly inclined to agree with Bennett and Hacker’s appraisal of the situation. It is very confusing and not at all true to say that a brain thinks or reflects or analyses. It is a bit like saying that a car drives or a bicycle rides; it just doesn’t make sense. The tendency seems to come from over-enthusiasm on the part of neuroscientists who have complete faith that the brain is the human being. I think that this is a fallacy. Consciousness, I believe, is so much more than the physical matter of the brain. Consciousness is non-physical, and I am highly sceptical about attempts to explain non-physical consciousness in terms of the physical brain.

Schizophrenia is mentioned in the book.  It worries me when neuroscientists try to explain conditions such as schizophrenia in terms of neurological processes. Having experienced psychosis, I know that there is a deeply spiritual aspect to mental illness that cannot be explained by looking at brains, which are just a small physical part of what makes up a whole person. I am convinced that there is a God who acts through human beings, who creates and sustains us, and who directs our every experience. Because of God, our individual consciousness is an expression of an infinite power who permeates the cosmos and is the life force in all life. Therefore we will never understand human beings by looking at brains.

The conceptual confusion by which neuroscientists incorrectly attribute certain abilities to the human brain stems from a misunderstanding about what constitutes a person. Bennett and Hacker are quite right to highlight this confusion, but they could have gone even further and explored in greater depth what does constitute a person. By exploring and explaining what a human being is, they might have strengthened their argument. I don’t believe Dennett and Searle produced impressive counter-arguments, though their rebuttals are thoughtful and often well expressed.

In conclusion, Neuroscience and Philosophy takes an interesting look at a discussion which is of central importance to contemporary science.  It is written using the language of specialists, but addresses subjects that are relevant to everyone – in particular how the human self is to be understood.  I will return the book to my bookshelf with a nagging frustration, as I wonder for how long neuroscientists will continue to examine the brain in an attempt to answer questions that examining the brain cannot answer.

For a more in depth look at my views regarding how God relates to the human self, you can read my articles on Free Will or The Reason Why We Suffer, or you can order a copy of my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man.

About Steven Colborne

Philosopher and author from Oxford, England.

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