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brains

By Richard Marshall.

Adina L. Roskies is The Helman Family Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth College, Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Cognitive Science Program at Dartmouth College. She is affiliated faculty with Psychological and Brain Sciences. Her philosophical research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience, and include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and ethics. She was a member of the McDonnell Project in Neurophilosophy, and the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project. Awards include the William James Prize and the Stanton Prize, awarded by the Society of Philosophy and Psychology, a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellowship from the Princeton University Center for Human Values. Here she discusses the relationship between philosophy and cognitive science, brain scanning, freewill, motive internalism, using neuroscience in law, experimental philosophy, sexism in philosophy departments and the future of AI.

3:AM: You work as a philosopher but have close associations with cognitive science. In an interview with Josh Knobe he found that his work was treated differently depending on which department was assessing his work. Do you find that philosophers and cognitive sciences assess your work differently? I guess lying behind this question is whether there is a growing convergence between disciplines or whether collaboration is best because of divergent approaches?

Adina L. Roskies: I guess that is hard to say for me, since I am fully in the philosophy department and so there is no other department that has formally assessed my work. But I’m sure that philosophers and cognitive scientists would pick different papers as the most interesting or significant. I did, before tenure, feel that I had to choose my projects with regard to how philosophical they were, and as a result I think my body of work is more philosophical and less science-y than it might otherwise have been. But I think that philosophy and cognitive science have always been kindred spirits, much more than philosophy and neuroscience, for example. Cognitive science has always been more explicitly focused on the big questions.

3:AM: You’re interested in brain scanning and what can be learned from these. You ask the question that many of us perhaps want to know: are neuro images like photographs of the brain? I saw a film where they had a machine that scanned a brain and what they saw was like a tv show. So is that going to be possible? Are they like photographs?

AR: No, not much like photographs at all (I have a paper discussing this). Neuroimages are a far less direct picture of what they aim to measure than are photographs. That said, there are parts of the brain, that, if you could read out the neural activity, would present something like a distorted movie of what the person saw (see work from the Gallant lab). But fMRI does not yield this without a lot of intervening modeling and analysis.

3:AM: One of the worries about the kind of work being done in neuroscience is that it undermines our self image as agents with freewill. You are concerned that this kind of press misrepresents findings in neuroscience. You make an interesting and subtle distinction between the idea of deterministic processes and mechanistic ones. I think you argue that neuroscience presents a mechanistic picture but not a deterministic one. Is this right? Could you explain what you think we ought to take from this recent work regarding this issue?

AR: Sure. I think the successes of neuroscience give us inductive evidence to believe that our brains are very complicated biological machines, with no necessity for invoking spooky stuff. As such, they must be subject to physical laws. But nothing that neuroscience has yet shown (or will, I argue) suggests that determinism is true – neuroscience just isn’t the right kind of science to make that determination. And I think there are viable forms of compatibilism that make the question moot – that the truth of determinism isn’t the question that freedom hinges upon.

3:AM: Following on from this, you disagree with some philosophers who claim that telling people that they have no free will leads to bad consequences. You argue that intuitions about moral responsibility will be largely unaffected. You draw on the Knobe/Nichols experiment concerning high and low affect scenarios to argue this I think. This seems to contradict thoughts of Eddy Nahmias who has argued that telling people that they haven’t freewill leads to bad consequences. So why do you argue this?

AR: My claim is based on results we got from a study in which we gave people scenarios set in deterministic or indeterministic worlds, asking them to judge agents’ responsibility, blame, and punishment due. There really wasn’t a big effect of determinism’s being true – they still held people responsible for their actions. I do not dispute that you might get some measurable effect in an experimental situation where lack of freedom is primed, although the replicability of some of the data that has been reported has been questioned. My argument is that that kind of attitude is not sustainable: we just can’t live in society and fail to act as though we owe things to each other, that some actions are good and others bad, etc. People do now and always will rationalize some of their bad behavior (regardless of beliefs in free will), but I don’t see any evidence that, say, people who are hard determinists are worse actors than Libertarians or Compatibilists. Derk Pereboom is one of the nicest guys I know!

3:AM: You have an interesting argument that denies motive internalism, the idea that having a moral belief or judgment is intrinsically motivating. So you don’t think that me thinking that it is, say, wrong to kill is in itself going to motivate me not to kill. You have evidence from cognitive studies that support your argument. This seems to be an important argument as it seems to challenge intuitions that seem to at the base of some of the theories of intention found in Anscombe,
Davidson and McDowell. Is this right?

AR: The belief very well may motivate you not to kill – it probably does. But it doesn’t have to (it is not a necessary consequence), which is the motive internalists claim. It is a common causal concomitant of the belief. I believe there are people who avow having certain beliefs yet don’t act as they should if they have those beliefs, and don’t show signs of being motivated by them. I can imagine a perverse person that is motivated to do things he thinks are wrong. But mostly, I think that certain brain structures represent the world, and other ones represent or instantiate motivational attitudes, and that these can be physically dissociated, and thus are only contingently, and not necessarily, connected.

3:AM: One area of your work that is peculiarly interesting is the question you address about the use of brain scanning in legal trials. You have interesting thoughts about this. Can you say what you think the law should make of this area of neuroscience? And do you think that there are discoveries that the law needs to be considering when trying to figure out responsibility and intentions? Do you sense that the law is taking this seriously or are the views of legal responsibility too entrenched for science to shift?

AR: How neuroscience should affect law is a pressing question. I think that 1) basic science research is not currently set up to best provide a baseline of the relevant demographic populations that will support adequate statistical inference about the data from an offender; 2) most of the paradigms for investigating, say, lie detection are a far cry from realistic, and cannot be used as a basis for classification in real-world situations; 3) most of the questions the law is called on to answer cannot be very well translated into paradigms that will be telling about an individual crime; 4) in general, much of the scientific work of potential legal relevance is not ready for prime time. In sum, I am not a fan of using “brain reading” techniques in the courtroom, at least not yet. I suspect that some in the law are taking the prospect of neuroscience in the courtroom more seriously than they should, in part because some legal scholars that have only a working knowledge of neuroscience have been far too uncritical of the scientific work (which may be excellent basic science, but whose applicability to real cases may be quite limited), and have overblown its prospects for near-term application in the courts. That said, I do think that neuroscience (construed broadly) has potentially a lot to say of relevance to law, regarding, for example, whether a person has a functional deficit, whether there are signs of trauma, whether the person has the requisite capacities to be held responsible. Of course, if what you are referring to by entrenchment is related to the not infrequent claims from some neuroscientists that “neuroscience shows there is no such thing as responsibility”, yes, I think the courts are too entrenched to shift, and so they should be!

3:AM: Now some philosophers don’t think that finding out where mental functions occur is not really all that interesting and what we should be doing is finding out whether they are located in the brain. The parade case for this position is Jerry Fodor, but he’s not alone. He quips (somewhere) that it’s the difference between philosophy and photography. Now although it may seem obvious to other philosophers, like Searle, that the mental is caused by the brain there is surely some traction in Fodor’s skepticism. So how would you answer the questions Fodor asks: why worry about where mental functions are in the brain, why not just worry about whether they do? And just what is it abut the mind –brain relation that depends on where the brain’s functional capacities are actually located? To quote Fodor: ‘ what if, as it turns out, nobody ever does find a brain region that’s specific to thinking about teapots or to taking a nap? Would that seriously be a reason to doubt that there are such mental states?’ If if not, why bother looking?

AR: I have no doubt that mental functions are consequences of brain function. If all we could do was locate where in the brain they occurred I wouldn’t find it that interesting, and Fodor and friends are happy to characterize neuroimaging as only being able to locate places in the brain. But clever use of imaging can tell us much more. New analytical techniques enable to extract information about abstract representational structure from the neural signal, and while the information is coarse-grained, it is beginning to reveal fascinating things about the nature of object representation, face representation, etc. It also points us toward where in the brain to look with other neuroscientific tools, or in other animals. The early caricatures of neuroimaging as just telling us where things happen fail to adequately appreciate the real purchase that new neuroimaging analysis techniques promise to give us on neural representation. So far imaging is one of the best tools with which to explore (if cleverly deployed) the holy grail of cognitive science: the neural basis of mental representation.

3:AM: Experimental philosophy seems to be an exciting approach to philosophy and you have papers with Shaun Nichols and seem involved in this phenomenon. How different do you find this approach to philosophy to be? One thing that seems to be the case is that everyone in it seems really
collaborative and dialogic and keen to involve other people in their projects. It seems to be a philosophical milieu that is more supportive than perhaps the traditional way of doing philosophy (but what the hell is that?) Anyway, could you say something about your own impressions about this, and how
many armchairs you have burned? (Or is it only Josh Knobe that burns them?)

AR: It is quite different, in that it is empirical, and not executed from the armchair. But in the end the data is just another set of data to philosophize about, so there is lots of room for analytical work. The X-Phi community is quite cohesive and collegial, and more collaborative than most analytical philosophy (but that is also changing). In general I’ve seen a real evolution for the better in philosophy over the past 30 years, from being a very individualistic, combative, rather unwelcoming discipline, to being far a more collegial, supportive, constructive search for the truth. I’ve only burned armchairs on powerpoint presentations; I’m not sure whether Josh has defied Fire Marshall codes!

3:AM: It’s an issue in academic philosophy that women philosophers seem to be having a hard time and that when you look at surveys about indicators of how women-friendly philosophy is philosophy doesn’t look great. In fact it seems to be worse than a lot of other disciplines. I wonder if you have any thoughts about this. Clearly you’re a top philosopher so you’ve made it, but is it something that you’re conscious of as you do your philosophical brooding and experiments? I wonder whether you notice a difference in this when you move out of philosophy into brain science?

AR: Too true! The reasons for this dearth of female philosophers at the senior levels are several, and I’m not sure I understand all of them. But philosophy seems plagued by more bad behavior by senior men than many other fields, for reasons I fail to appreciate. I think the message is getting out that that is just not acceptable, and I hope more women stick with it. Overall, philosophy has much worse representation by women than neuroscience does, which many find counterintuitive. But science is a very collaborative endeavor with a lot more support structures. A lot depends on the institution as well. At my institution, for example, we have a much better ratio of women to men than the psychology/neuroscience department does.

I have been lucky to have been supported throughout my education and rarely felt any gender bias. And when I did, I was not reluctant to (verbally) put older, more senior men in their place, even if that was politically risky. None was malevolent – just chauvinistic and dismissive. And each time it turned out that they showed me much more respect after that incident – I think standing up for myself actually helped me gain standing among people accustomed to see women as inferior, though I doubt it changed their general views. Not that I could have done otherwise – it is hard to curb my tongue when my ire is aroused!

3:AM: As you delve into the brain and think about the mind, how likely do you think it’s going to be that we build an artificial mental thing in the near future? We get stories reporting that we’ve barely scratched the surface and other stories that say we’re on the brink. From where you stand, what are your thoughts on this? Could we find ourselves in a world where machines are smarter than us even, never mind just smart?

AR: We are already in a world where some machines are smarter at a given thing than we are, and certainly they will be much smarter as time goes on. We are accustomed to move the bar for what counts as intelligent as machine abilities improve. But so far, we are not in a world where there is an artificial general intelligence. I am still skeptical that we will design a machine in the near future whose intelligence is domain general, and even more that we will design something sentient, but I am very impressed with the advances in cognitive tasks made recently with deep learning. If we can manage to make a machine that self-organizes and learns to deal with an open-ended array of cognitive tasks, I’m prepared to eat my words. And then we’ll be in a philosophically very interesting (and potentially very dangerous) situation.

3:AM: Finally, when you are not philosophizing and probing the brain, what books, films, art have you found illuminating or inspirational for you? Is there anything that has helped unlock a thought? And if you were to give the smart lay readers here at 3:AM a top five reading list from philosophy, neuroscience or anywhere you like, what are the five books you’d recommend?

AR: My biggest inspiration comes from nature more than artifacts, though I can’t say I’ve had any epiphanies that have led to great discoveries like in the anecdote about the discovery of the benzene ring. But if I can’t be out skiing, riding, climbing, etc., I love modern art, classical music and jazz, and novels and films of all sorts. Ones that really stimulate my philosophical side tend to be futuristic, somewhat dystopian sci fi, such as Never Let Me Go, Blade Runner, The Handmaid’s Tale, Children of Men. I also love a good action adventure flick, like Terminator. But all that leads to a malaise that can only be cured by getting outside again…

Here are 6 books; the last a bit of a joke – it is a great book, but you can’t really take it to bed with you for a good read.

Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid

Sellars, Empricism and the Philosophy of Mind

Quine, Word and Object

Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Dennett, The Intentional Stance

Kandel, Jessell and Schwartz, Principles of Neural Science

3:AM: And finally finally, what are your future projects going to be. And when will we be able to look forward to reading a book of yours?

AR: I’d like to get back to thinking more about philosophy of science more generally. And I am beginning to flesh out a book idea, which I hope will become a real object in the next 2-3 years.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 7th, 2017.