A generation ago, it was thought that neuroscience held the promise of solving many philosophical problems. Looking back now over those lost decades, we are able to see that it failed to solve a single one, and arguably created a new one or two.The purpose of this post is to introduce a single idea, painted with a large brush: As we see our hopes for answers from neuroscience fading, animal cognition may hold the promise of the future.
Neuroscience, it was thought, would tell us many things: what a mind is, whether humans have freewill, or where in the brain we find these things. It would explain consciousness, morality, evil, or why humans tend to believe in prime-moving inter-galactic omnipotent fairies. While there are still philosophers who hold out hope for answers from neuroscience, the failure of progress is striking. An illustration reveals the way in which the arguments typically fail: in his book Freewill, cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris argued that brain scans revealed a neural blip the moment before a subject was conscious of choosing to act. This, he considered, demonstrated that freewill is a myth, for the reason that the brain acts before we know it. Yet the argument is too easily neutralised. What was the blip? It may just as well have been one part of the brain going, 'OK, Freewill, this is one for your department.'
There are, on the contrary, significant problems that neuroscience has created. For example, its tendency to believe that the mind is nothing but the brain may open it up to a classic problem of logical systems, identified by the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel. Does Gödel's incompleteness theorem imply that the brain is unable to understand itself, so that neuroscience can have no achievable end-goal? Probably! The computer analogy of the brain is an old one, yet it is still useful. We have been inching towards a neuroscientific view that a brain is a biological computing device. Assuming that this is so, the study of the brain may reveal little about how the software works. In moving towards the view that a human mind has no animal spirits or ethereal magic in it, the consequence for neuroscience is that it is ever less in a position to solve philosophical problems – much as we would not have a hope of proving the Church-Turing thesis, or demonstrating why π is an irrational number, by shifting to a study of computer chips.
It may be more helpful for philosophers to turn to animal cognition as their primary input. This field is producing remarkable new finds, and philosophy would do well to absorb their implications. One of its most conspicuous aspects is the study of pro-social behaviour in animals – in contrast with what zoologist Robert Hinde calls 'human aggression in all its deviousness and complexity'. As a case in point, researchers demonstrated that a rat will help another rat in difficulty without needing a reward – if only humans could be relied upon to so act. While the 18th century philosophical view of humankind might be expressed (adopt a tone of pompous bloviation): 'It is the moral sense that separates men from the wild beasts which live in brutal ignorance,' humans do some pretty nasty things. My suggestion is that humans, while they, too, have inherited 'moral emotions', can out-think their own emotions and can manipulate their behaviour tactically. We need to turn the old view of humankind on its head. We don’t need to explain how we are biologically programmed. We need to understand the anomalies.
Such observations promise a rich new vein for philosophy, and it deserves our attentions. By way of illustration, now that we know that rats are compassionate, we may ask why so many bankers and politicians aren’t. Supposing that an economist should persuade bankers and politicians that everybody will become richer if they act in their own self-interest (as has been the case, starting with political philosopher Adam Smith) – then tactically, bankers and politicians may out-think their pro-social inclinations – to the detriment of the poor, and on an alarming scale at that. In this example alone, animal cognition suggests fresh explorations of morality, freewill, and belief, while the answers to the same may explain no less than why it is that our choices polarise all of humanity today.
Ben-Ami Bartal, I., Decety, J., & Mason, P. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats”. Science. 334, 2011. pp 1427-1430.
Hamilton, W. D. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour”. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1964, 7 (1): 1–16.