International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-1525
Individual papers
Neuroscience: Experimentation, Psychology and Philosophy

Convergent perspectivism

Nina Atanasova (University of Toledo, United States)

I advance convergent perspectivism as an account of experimental neurobiology that makes sense of the multiplicity of experimental protocols for the study of identical phenomena employed in the field. The thesis is that such multiplicity is necessary under considerations for the validity of animal models which are the main experimental tool in the field. Animal models in neurobiology are used as representational models in which the experimental animals serve as proxies for humans. Their representational validity is established through a calibration strategy which requires the results of multiple experiments aiming at explaining identical phenomena to converge. The strategy is similar to the perspectival pluralism advanced by Giere (2006) as a principle for maximizing instrument-mediated observational knowledge. It also unifies accounts of the experimental practices of neuroscience that have traditionally challenged each other. For example, Sullivan (2009) argues that neither of the competitors for an account of the unity of neuroscience proposed by Bickle (2006) and Craver (2007) adequately explains the multiplicity of experimental protocols in neurobiology. She concludes that a unified account of neuroscience is not likely to be successful. On the contrary, I show that the multiplicity of experimental protocols is beneficial for establishing the validity of knowledge claims in neurobiology. This is so because different experimental protocols provide different perspectives to the study of complex phenomena which would hardly be captured by the limited representational powers of the models available in experimental neurobiology. Thus, the experimenters in this field are confined to studying these phenomena from limited partial perspectives. This leads to the inconclusiveness of the experimental results produced on the basis of the partial experimental perspectives provided by the limited representational capacities of the models. This obstacle can be overcome when multiple experiments employing different experimental protocols, and thus different perspectives, converge in the results they produce.

Autism, sociality, and human nature

Gregory Hollin (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom)

The 1990s saw the birth of ‘the social brain’ and the claim that social processes, such as empathy, are central to both the brain’s functioning and its evolution. A full understanding of the social brain is believed to require analyses of both ‘normal’ individuals and those with particular ‘social abnormalities’. Autism, as a disorder of social functioning, thus holds an important position within contemporary neuroscience and analysing its various constructions becomes an important task when searching for insight into contemporary understandings of human nature. Here I will seek to interrogate these three constructions – ‘autism’, ‘the social’, and ‘human nature’ – and the inter-relations between them. I will argue that the relationships are far from stable and that, at the present moment, autism occupies two distinct positions, each with relevance to constructions of sociality and human nature. First, autism signifies an absence; a qualitatively distinct state characterised by empathetic and social dysfunction. Within this narrative, autism offers a pure case of human-minus-social wherein an investigation of the social hole in autism offers a glimpse at human nature. I will argue that this construction of autism as absence emerged as a result of particular descriptions of the social and human nature which developed within the biological and human sciences in the latter half of the twentieth century. Second, autism marks a presence; a normally distributed and quantifiable trait applicable to all individuals within the general population. Within this body of thought, intimately linked with molecular genetics, the relationship between autism and human nature is quite different. Autism no longer reveals something about human nature through contradistinction to normalcy; autism is normalcy and feeds back into constructions of the social and human nature. I will conclude with some remarks on the importance of these dual narratives of autism for understandings of the human.

Minimal and narrative aspects of the self

Victor Romero Sanchez (Universidad Juárez del Estado de Durango, Mexico)

The self is considered one of the hallmarks of our species given its association with reason and language, also has been considered the source of our personal identity and it seems that our conscious decisions come, in certain sense, from it; we frequently affirm, for example, "I have decided to do this or that". Recently, some scientists and philosophers have considered the human self as some kind of cognitive illusion that enables us to explain the behavior and mental states of others and even of ourselves. We will see particularly Michael Gazzaniga's and Thomas Metzinger position and briefly address some of the theoretical assumptions of their claims. The self is, very often, regarded as the source of our personal identity, we attribute all events that befall us to a single subject, and it seems that our conscious decisions and psychological traits depend on that self. Although this is a classic theme in psychology and philosophy, currently, both philosophers and neuroscientists have made attempts to explain the self supported by some empirical sciences, as well as searching in the neuronal, biological and physiological processes that lead to the eventual formation of a self. It seems that humans have a worldview according to which our personal egos run all the time our actions. Our-selves would be the “headquarters”, the focal point of any conscious act: for Gazzaniga (1998, 2011), certain research in neurophysiology, particularly the one that he has done for more than four decades, show that such a thing is merely an illusion (a concept, image or sensory element deceiving us about the characteristics of its existence). According to this author, automatic brain devices, shaped by millions of years of evolution, run all the time our actions so the self is illusory (is not in charge of the actions). This is due to a particular 'device' that Gazzaniga calls “the interpreter”. This 'brain artifact' or ‘device’ produces the illusion that is in charge of our actions but it is just interpreting verbally and reflexively the past, that is, the previous brain and nervous actions, which would be, from this perspective, automatic; they "govern" the body, while the emergence of the self and the conscious mind comes later, once the automatic brain has done the job. We will try to show, in contrast, that identifying the self only with its linguistic and conscious aspects is misleading: the self is not exhausted by those aspects (as Gazzaniga seems to believe) as seen when we consider, for example, the phenomenon called blindsight: some patients with a lesion in the occipital cortex, where the visual information is processed, cannot consciously see, though his eyes work perfectly. However, the visual information can be processed at least partially: if these patients are asked to guess what objects are in front of his eyes (sometimes geometric figures projected in the wall by light) they guess right in many cases, more than would be expected by chance alone. A person with blindsight claims she sees nothing, but when forced to decide which figure is in front of his eyes, performs the task properly, she sees unconsciously. Analyzing the anatomy of the visual pathways, it has been found that connections coming from the eye go to other places in the brain, in addition to the visual cortex, so this information can influence behavior even if it is not registered consciously (a task supposedly performed by means of the narrative, linguistic and reflective self, of course). Now, in this case, would you say that the self did not perform the guessing activity, just because the subject was not fully conscious of his guessing? So what if the perception moves between conscious and unconscious levels of processing? So there seems to be more in the self than the narrative, linguistic and reflective aspects. Besides, we will see that, while explaining and considering what Thomas Metzinger (2009, 2011), Antonio Damasio (1994, 2010) and others call “the minimal self” or the “core self” (that is, all those traits that function below the level of conscious awareness that influence and affect what many consider thoughtful and reflective), we can have a notion of the self that is more comprehensive, robust and has more explanatory power than the position that assumes that the self is just some kind of narrative illusion.