A humanistic paradigm for mental illness

Da Vinci’s “The Skull”

Mental illnesses are much more than biological, physiological phenomena. Any attempt to reduce them down to the same features as other illnesses such as fever or cancer is inherently flawed. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS, pronounced “gee wahs”), attempts to scan individuals for thousands of genes to determine which variations lead to traits we can observe, have shown little substance for the past few decades. GWAS supporters argue that, if we find these genetic variations (single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”) more frequently among those with a certain genetic trait (or a phenotype, an observable characteristic), the SNPs must be related to them somehow. GWAS studies themselves have already shown little correlation and similarity between one another, and, instead, many GWAS studies under the same conditions have returned significantly different results. Contemporary scholars such as Robert Plomin, in his book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, have argued GWAS is a form of a “polygenic score” which can predict disorders. But these methods of de-humanizing mental illness and psychiatry into strict, science-exclusive disciplines have not shown the results they have claimed they will produce. Psychiatry as a field needs to return to its roots through philosophy and humanized notions of disease. Through thought-provoking questions and discussions on the nature of mental illness as it relates to the unconscious, debates between Freudians and Jungians on how to understand experience, and the resistance to pharmaceutical-lead pressures from industry to turn mental health into a for-profit system, we need a new humanized paradigm for psychiatry.

Psychiatry has dealt severe blows to Aristotle’s notion of man as inherently rational and, instead, embraced the idea that much of who we are is determined by genetics and other biological factors. The simplistic, reductionist view of mental illness as purely a genetic disorder has left psychiatry in the doldrums of intellectual activity and only furthered the stigma of mental illness itself. Regardless of these negative consequences, however, the differences between the science of the mind and that of the body are enough to present issues with this view in principle. The mind and body have different languages, different concepts (with differing levels of abstraction and complexity), and different sets of tools and techniques we use to study them. Psychological and physiological study of a patient in a state of anxiety might result in two separate and distinct sets of descriptive data, measurements, and formulations. There is no way to unify the two by translation into a common language or conceptual framework. We rely on analogy and comparison using abstract concepts of “disease,” instead. From a computational perspective, our psychophysiological and psychosomatic data consist in essence of covariance data, demonstrating coincidence of events occurring in the two realms within specified time intervals at a frequency beyond chance.

Arguing mental illnesses are just like body illnesses causes us to view those suffering from mental health issues as fundamentally flawed or different from other people. It leaves those suffering in fatalistic, defeatist views and, in many cases, even a cynical, disillusioned state of mind. In the most extreme case, they may even lead to eugenics-based arguments that throw ethics under the bus for the pursuit of scientific perfection. The body-based view of mental illness has let psychiatrists, researchers, and other industry professionals ignore much of what makes mental illnesses what they are. Depression becomes simply a lack of serotonin that Prozac will alleviate, and other illnesses only need patients to take medicine without much else. It’s easy to see how these disease models can be abused for industry-related motives to maximize profit under the veil of minimizing human suffering.

Instead, we need to view mental illness through dynamic, human-based issues everyone faces about who we are as human beings. We can, then, treat individuals from existential points of view in their methods of valuing life and finding a purpose in the world. Those entering psychiatry with backgrounds in mathematics, economics, and biology need to understand the etiology of disease, metaphysics of psychology, logic of diagnosis, and causal assumptions underlying epidemiology. They need the patience and reflective abilities to discover what the human mind undergoes when suffering from mental health issues far beyond what sort of gene may be responsible for depression or schizophrenia. Even the causal models GWAS purportedly infers need to be scrutinized for their epistemic limits before being put into practice. Since their inception, GWAS studies have put forward hundreds of genes responsible for different phenotypes, and, despite the wide availability of data and the large of amount of data to begin with, these GWAS studies haven’t had much more success than the genetics studies before them. Instead, scientists argue that, because they haven’t found correlations, the causes must be more complicated and composed of more and more genetic phenomena. They’ve yet to uncover specific mechanisms or causal relationships for disease, and rely on reductionist approaches that genes that are significantly expressed must cause the phenotypes themselves. Neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell summed it up: “Simply put, nothing really definitive comes out. In fact, the strongest result from these studies is a general one, and it is ‘negative’: there are no convergent patterns of gene expression in adult brain that characterise these various psychiatric conditions.” in his blog post “If genomics is the answer, what’s the question? A commentary on PsychENCODE.”

Psychiatry needs a deeper understanding of the etiology of disease. As Freud wrote in Mourning and Melancholia, psychopathology has two etiological components: constitutional (including genetic) predispositions and early experiential factors. He used this multifaceted dynamic view of psychiatric illness to demonstrate the role environmental factors and traumatic events play in the causation of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially ones early on in life. Much the same way Johann Sebastian Bach was Bach not because he simply had the appropriate genes, but through his study of music at such a young age, the brain forms through these combinations of genetics and experience. Studies such as those by psychiatrists Charles Nemeroff and Paul Plotsky have verified depressed patients release more corticotropin-releasing factors (CRFs) in their central nervous system in mammals. Memories themselves form and evolve through the prefrontal cortex as it integrates sensory information and links this information to planned movement. Research in neuroscience has revealed the prefrontal cortex is part of a short-term holding function for information, including information stored in declarative memory. Neuroscientists Joaquin Fuster and Patricia Goldman suggested the prefrontal cortex represents some aspects of working memory in recalling from preconscious to conscious. It plays essential roles in speaking, driving, weighing ethical decisions, or performing mathematical calculations. This suggests it may be involved in coordinating functions that psychoanalysis experts claim function between ego and superego. This holds promising results for the benefits of psychoanalytic therapy. The extent to which psychoanalysis may bring about changes in habits, attitudes, and conscious and unconscious behavior through differences in gene expression that produce neurophysiological changes relies on this connection between biology and psychoanalysis. Brain imaging techniques may, then, improve these techniques for neurotic illnesses through psychotherapy. Neuroscientist Eric Kandel has further argued the need for a dialogue between biology and psychoanalysis towards these goals.

Such a dialogue should address how biology and psychoanalysis have drifted apart from one another over the 20th century. Both fields have faced a mix of strides and setbacks over this time period. Advances in bacteriology would lead biologists to believe toxins in the intestine, mouth, and sinuses harm brain functions. While it may have seemed controversial at the time, recent microbial work has suggested possible that bacterial imbalance alters the body’s metabolism of dopamine and other molecules that may contribute to depression. Similarly, the theory bacteria causes peptic ulcers proposed in 1983 was met with widespread contempt, but, as experimental evidence has since shown it true, antibiotics are now regularly used to ulcers. Meanwhile, the twisted practice of the transorbital lobotomy spread across the United States in the 1940s. It was only until the 1970s it was banned in most countries, after psychiatrists raised concerns of its safety, ethics, and effectiveness. Psychiatry itself faced challenges to its legitimacy given its stance of homosexuality as a mental illness until the 1970s as well as the reformation of mental hospitals from what scientists compared to concentration camps. Psychiatrist Aaron Beck proposed the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral techniques in treating psychiatric disorders with a 1977 study showing cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) outperforming one of the leading antidepressants of the time. Researchers would further show the neurophysiological basis for CBT, suggesting the more we discover about the brain the easier it will be to disregard the apparent divide between mind and body. CBT has faced criticism, though, with its supposed effectiveness and its own theory that don’t appropriately account for agency, free will, and rationality. These chaotic, turbulent histories of both fields make a dialogue between them difficult, but possible and necessary to address the issues they face.

Psychoanalysts themselves have raised arguments for and against a reductionist biology of mind. Psychiatrist and author Marshall Edelson wrote in Hypothesis and Evidence in Psychoanalysis, “Efforts to tie psychoanalytic theory to a neurobiological foundation, or to mix hypotheses about mind and hypotheses about brain in one theory, should be resisted as expressions of logical confusion. Efforts to tie psychoanalytic theory to a neurobiological foundation, or to mix hypotheses about mind and hypotheses about brain in one theory, should be resisted as expressions of logical confusion.” Others believe there’s fertile room for cultivating psychoanalysis in the context of the science of the mind. French biologist François Jacob wrote in 1998, “The century that is ending has been preoccupied with nucleic acids and proteins. The next one will concentrate on memory and desire. Will it be able to answer the questions they pose?” in Of Flies, Mice, and Men. Kandel also believes future research on the mind will focus on memory and desire through a combination of biology and psychoanalysis with greater scientific understandings of the unconscious. Kandel has argued that research in biology will make strides in the genetic basis for the unconscious mental processes and their roles in psychopathology in solidarity with psychoanalysis.

Psychiatry needs philosophy. Researchers in the field need to draw from Plato, Freud, Jung, Adler, and many other thinkers who have put forward ideas on what it means to be human given the constrains of the human mind. When Freud laid the foundations of psychoanalysis, one may have argued that his ideas paralleled Plato’s. He adopted Plato’s theory of dreams and similar ideas of the tripartite human soul. Freud’s idea of unconscious also bears similarity to Aquinas’ who believed human acts come through reason, yet still have unconscious desires and habits. Freud contrasted Jung on the meaning of sex as the former believed it was the cause of all human desire and the latter had his doubts about that idea. Freud contested Adler’s ideas of the social realm of equal importance to the individual and that role of sole interest individuals have in advancing social welfare. Though these theories have met a combination of arguments for and against them in many different contexts over the past century, their relevance remains. Kandel has argued that we should not get stuck on Freud to idolize or denigrate him. While many of Freud’s ideas have been rejected as pseudoscientific or sexist, many elements of psychoanalysis remain in psychiatry and psychology. Psychiatric literature and psychoanalysis themselves need Nietzsche, Proust, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Descartes to put them in an appropriate context.

These issues of psychiatry have formed the foundation for many of society’s issues. We’ve created an individualistic view that our psychological shortcomings are solely due to biological deficiencies as though we were computers that simply haven’t been programmed the right way. The same way culture fashions us to understand aesthetics, value, ethics, and other humanistic qualities, our struggles with mental illness are better explained in the way our bodies understand the world. In this sense, our mental health is the way we search for meaning and satisfaction in the world. As such we need a humanized notion of mental illness.

Aim-oriented thinking for a wiser tomorrow

A celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

In addressing threatening problems of climate change, population growth, nuclear warfare, and other issues of today’s era, we need a type of rationality that embraces ideas from both science and philosophy. Towards this goal, philosopher Nicholas Maxwell has argued for education to instill more wisdom in students rather than only knowledge. Through his work on the nature of physics and philosophy as they relate to one another, he has also put forward ideas about the inquiry and quest for wisdom both fields should embrace. Physical accounts of the mind present the problem of how to determine the mental act of thinking about things such as the greenness of a blade of grass. It’s up to debate how these mental actions follow from or relate to the physical property of greenness, a feature determined by the physical and molecular structure of grass itself. Both science and philosophy create wonder for one another as we determine the limits of the methods. The former empirical, hypothesis-driven, and subject to the constraints of the natural world and the latter speculative, argument-driven, and subject to the constraints of the mind come together in Maxwell’s aim-oriented empiricism. Maxwell has written on its value in education for the academic enterprise as a whole and, most important of all, for the capacity of humanity to learn how to solve the grave global problems that threaten our future. Aim-oriented empiricism represents the way we restrict how much we know about the universe through assumptions and, as we claim to know more and more about the universe, the less restrictive our assumptions become. For research in physics and other areas of science to recognize the metaphysical assumptions that their theories and knowledge make about the universe leads to this method of unifying both science and philosophy, and understanding this view would lead to wiser world, as Maxwell intends.

With aim-oriented empiricism, we view scientific research through a series of seven levels, each corresponding to how much we know about the world from empirical information. At the highest level, we assume the universe is partially knowable. We can understand what our theories tell us about the universe. One step down, we have the assumption our universe is meta-knowable, or that we have ways to improve our methods of understanding the universe. Another level down, we may assume the universe is comprehensible. Everything in the universe has something that causes things to happen the way they do. It could be God, a purpose, a fundamental law, or anything that lets us understand the universe in the best way to improve knowledge. The next level is physicalism, or the idea that we can physically comprehend the universe with physical phenomena such as gravity, electromagnetism, and relativity. Next down in the hierarchy are the assumptions which do best justice to theoretical knowledge in physics. String theory resides here as it explains the universe using quantum strings. Below this level are the best accepted fundamental theories, general relativity and the standard model. Finally, at the bottom are empirically-driven laws that experiments tell us. These levels describe the relationship between various aspects of scientific research and the metaphysical assumptions at each level in such a way that research can improve the nature of science itself.

As philosophers and scientists have described the mind-brain problem and the related issues in understanding consciousness and experience, we find our theories and arguments often at limits with what we try to describe. It’s important to understand the purpose and intention behind scientific explanations, such as the physics of neuroscientific phenomena or attempts to create neural correlates of experience, to determine what we can know about consciousness and experience. On a broader level, Maxwell attempts to describe a solution to the human-universe, how we understand physics and what it tells us about the world. First, physics only describes the universe in a very highly specialized sense. While it may be the most fundamental science and place great emphasis on the nature of matter and reality itself, it tells us nothing about many features of experience such as what things sound like, what things look like, or what mental experience it is to have a mental representation of something. If physics describes the causal influence of the universe as though we could create a true physical theory of everything, then we interpret its laws analytically yet factual, empirical, and testable. This means its physical entities exist with necessary properties. Physics doesn’t need our experiences nor the features we describe from it. Maxwell even goes as far as arguing that physics itself can’t predict experiential features such as greenness. Yet this limitation, Maxwell believes, is what gives physics its power to predict explanatory theories that describe the causal phenomena of the universe.

Though science tells us nothing about mental processes, philosophy research on the mind means mental processes aren’t mysterious or inexplicable. They simply reside outside of physics. Maxwell further describes two differences between the objective and subjective in describing these processes. The objective exists while the subjective appears to, but doesn’t. The objective has an independent character from people while the subjective relies on something about people. Then, we may describe the mind-body problem as similar to the physics-universe problem. As in, the way describe the relationship between mental experiences and brain processes parallel features that we observe in the universe and the physical processes underlying them (such as the greenness of grass separate from the physics behind the grass).

Maxwell continues to advocate for a wisdom-based education through schools and universities to implement a knowledge-inquiry of science and scientific reasoning to other ares of life. As Western civilization has embraced since the Enlightenment, we can learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress through methods such as aim-oriented rationality, a method of thinking about the world from aim-oriented empiricism. Aim-oriented rationality means constructing similar hierarchies of whatever problem we wish to solve. We continue to contemplate and reason about problems we want to solve in the world through an imaginative and critical manner, especially as we find our universities more and more emphasizing specialization and marketability-driven motives and purposes.

Though his goals may echo Enlightenment ideals, Maxwell clarifies three ideas the Enlightenment got wrong. Scholars need to identify the progress-achieving methods of science, they should generalize them correctly to apply them to any problem, and they should explore these generalized methods to make social progress for a wiser world. The natural philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot failed to apply these generalized scientific processes in ways to other areas of life. Had they addressed these issues, Maxwell argues, academia and universities would be much different than they are now. With a wisdom-driven education, we could resolve the conflict between Rationalism and Romanticism and what mindful hearts and heartfelt minds we could use to address the issues of tomorrow. Academia would have a more humanistic education to realize what we value in life through intellectual and technological methods. We’d have institutions of learning well-designed from the standpoint of helping us create a better, wiser world.

With these ambitious goals, Maxwell envisions five revolutions that need to happen in academia for these results to occur in his paper “Arguing for Wisdom in the University: An Intellectual Autobiography.” For the first two, the philosophy of science and science itself both need to heed to aim-oriented empiricism. The third is that the social sciences and humanities need to address the problems of living through aim-oriented rationality. Fourth, academia must help people understand what to value in life, and, finally, we should prioritize cooperative problem-solving rationality and aim-oriented rationality so that we realize what is of value as we live in so far as this is possible.

I find Maxwell’s ideas of wisdom and embracing a dual scientific-philosophical approach to solving problems of the world and universe alluring. His aim-oriented empiricism lays a foundation for putting scientific and philosophical theories into a context such that they may address the issues brought upon by metaphysics and epistemology. I caution myself in reading too much into aim-oriented rationality, though. I worry it may be scientistic to apply science or scientific reasoning to other areas in life where it might not be applicable or very limited.

Finding meaning from fMRI research

Scientists and philosophers have discussed the assumptions and premises in fMRI research as they relate to features of the mind. fMRI tends to rely on localizing functions to various parts of the brain, such as the motor cortex being responsible for controlling muscle groups. Psychologists Stephen Hanson and Russell Poldrack and philosopher Martin Bunzl argued brain processing acts holistically with many parts of the brain acting in tandem with one another for cognitive tasks in their paper “An Exchange about Localization of Function.” They put forward the thought experiment of a radio repair man taking a tube from a radio that causes the radio to whistle with the repair man concluding that he ripped out the anti-whistling tube. The man confuses the function of the effect the same way neuroscientists in brain lesion and neuroimaging experiments.

Scientists and philosophers have discussed the assumptions and premises in fMRI research as they relate to features of the mind. fMRI tends to rely on localizing functions to various parts of the brain, such as the motor cortex being responsible for controlling muscle groups. Psychologists Stephen Hanson and Russell Poldrack and philosopher Martin Bunzl argued brain processing acts holistically with many parts of the brain acting in tandem with one another for cognitive tasks in their paper “An Exchange about Localization of Function.” They put forward the thought experiment of a radio repair man taking a tube from a radio that causes the radio to whistle with the repair man concluding that he ripped out the anti-whistling tube. The man confuses the function of the effect the same way neuroscientists in brain lesion and neuroimaging experiments.

Cognitive scientists who use the brain activity activation to validate cognitive theories also fall victim to many instances of circular reasoning. In some situations they believe that a region in the brain causes an effect on the body and these effects on the body cause regions of the brain to activate.

We may further press fMRI researchers for their use of reverse inference of using the instances when brain regions activate to infer a cognitive process when the inference depends on the likelihood of the pattern a task employs a given cognitive process and the likelihood of the pattern of activation for the process. Neuropsychologist Max Coltheart raised the issue that neuroimaging has not been used in accordance with psychological theory. Philosopher-cognitive scientist Adina Roskies argued this it’s impossible for brain imaging to be consistent with all psychological theories.

Some neuroimaging techniques rely on using a single cognitive process inserted into another set of cognitive processes without affecting the rest.

Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene has performed research using fMRI to study ethics. Taking philosophy back to its empirical roots, Greene embraces the trolley problem to test how people respond to various scenarios and decisions involving the problem. In the problem, a runaway trolley speeds down railroad tracks as it approaches five people tied to the tracks in front of it. You may pull a lever to switch the trolley to another path that would only kill one person. In an alternate experiment, you may push a man off a bridge in such a way he would stop the trolley from killing the five people.

The research has shown the majority of people believe it’s moral to pull the lever but not push the large man. Greene’s fMRI research has shown that, when people think through both dilemmas, they take a rational, utilitarian approach. This is rooted in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Pushing a man off the bridge also involves a neural system with emotional responses in the way it produces a strong negative response.

Are mental states reducible to neurobiological states?

Examining arguments of how neuroscience and psychology relate to philosophy by looking at how skeptics and enthusiasts have touched upon the subject. We’re going to take apart how psychology and cognitive science can be reduced to neuroscience.

Principled skepticism

These skeptics may argue there is a distinctive mental dimension that is not reducible to anything physical. Among them are those that argue this mental dimension actually harbors a separate mental substance as the nonphysical mind or the soul (substance dualism) or whether it’s limited to nonphysical properties of the physical brain (property dualism). There are also skeptics who argue a principled skepticism of reductionism uses the hypothesis that generalizations of psychology emerge with respect to the generalizations of neuroscience. Mental states and processes create a domain of study that’s autonomous with respect to neuroscience with functionalist arguments. They reject the dualist position.

Substance dualism

Mental states are not of the brain, but a different substance. It requires explanation for the way two different substances may interact and how the nonphysical mind creates those mental states. They must also account for free will in a nonphysical mind. Ultimately consciousness and qualities of felt experience may be explained with neurobiological terms or the logical-meaningful dimension may have a causal neurobiological explanation. Generally the dualist philosophers that attempt to explain the subjective experience may treat it as an irreducible property, in what we call property dualism.

These property dualists argue that, although there are nontrivial differences among the hypotheses advanced by assorted property dualists, they maintain that, even if the mind is the brain, subjective experience qualities are emergent with respect to the brain and its properties. The commonsense conceptual framework to understand psychological properties in a way that doesn’t reduce to any future neuroscience. Within intertheoretic reduction, we recognize subjective experiences won’t reduce to neuroscience. Property dualists don’t believe there’s a nonphysical substance inherent to experiences. They believe subjective experiences are produced by the brain and affect the brain even if they aren’t actual physical properties of the brain.

Philosopher Frank Jackson used the thought experiment of Mary the neuroscientist to show that differences between knowing our states through introspection and knowing through nonintrospection give the grounds to reduce psychology to neuroscience. The thought experiment supposes Mary is a neuroscientist who has lived her entire live in a room with no colors, yet she is still taught everything about how the brain works. Even if she knows everything about the brain, she still doesn’t have the experience of seeing color. There’s something in psychology not captured by neuroscience. It’s possible these two methods of knowing about the world are subject to different learning methods. Others may argue that Mary would still be able to identify the color red as it is an empirical question.

Dualist theories may include our capacity for introspection just as light still exists as a phenomena even if it may be reduced to electromagnetic radiation. A reductionist may also believe an evolved psychology can reduce to an evolved neuroscience.


Acknowledging there are categories of folk psychology that are incorrect for categorizing mental states, these categories delimit intentional states and logical processes, and they don’t reduce to categories are the neurobiological level of description. In this context, we introduce functionalism as the thesis that mental states are defined in terms of their abstract causal roles in the wider information-processing system. We characterize mental states as they relate to causal relations of environmental stimuli. Happiness is about the behavior associated with being happy and the way it relates to neurobiological phenomena that govern it. Mental states and processes are functional in a usually physicalist manner. We can describe causal and logical relations among perceptions, beliefs, desires, and behavior at the structural level. The same way switches in a computer govern the way it functions, a functionalist theory may believe that our physical phenomena of what goes on in the brain may govern behavior and actions.

One may argue that, if mental states and processes are functional, we can understand how to solve problems, think, reason, and perform similar actions by their functional organization. Neuroscientific methods of reasoning and theory need to focus on functional systems with knowledge of minutiae for other significant areas such as for neuropsychiatric disorders. Cognitive scientists determine the functional or cognitive theory of mind while neuroscientists figure out the physical devices that instantiate the cognitive “program.” Computational psychology is an autonomous science. This line of reasoning runs into issues with the Chinese room argument, as philosopher John Searle articulated, that one can copy intelligent action without interpretation or understanding through a purely functional system. An individual in a room with only Chinese symbols in a box with an English rule book for using the symbols in various ways may follow commands to send the symbols in a certain method without understanding the meaning of the symbols themselves. Philosopher Patricia Churchland continues to press functionalism that intertheoretic reductions aren’t conditional on a one-to-one mapping of higher-level theory to a reduced theory. One may argue against reductionism in this sense that there are fundamental differences between neuronal explanations and functional computational explanations.

Co-evolutionary research ideology

Cognitive psychology is autonomous with respect to neuroscience in the sense neurobiological data are irrelevant to the cognitive “program” the mind runs. We may argue this on the grounds that our mental state and processes are states and processes of our brains, the nervous system evolved from simpler nervous systems, brains are the classiest information processes available for study, neuroscience research cannot be ignored by cognitive scientists, and categories at levels that specify the fundamental kinds may need revision. This method of reasoning lets us use the mathematical development of statistical mechanics to, for example, expand to include temperature, equilibrium, entropy, and similar properties as discoveries at both lower and higher levels. We may deduce there are many relationships between genes and their functions, instead of a one-to-one mapping mentioned earlier. Similar co-evolution can show that genes have input-output functional properties we characterize through functions and laws that combine lower-level and higher-level discoveries.

Some functionalists believe input-output operations can be realized in no unitary mechanisms at intermediate or lower levels. We may be inclined to assume the abilities at the cognitive level are precise and the method of research influence will be from higher levels to
lower levels. Co-evolution is far from interactive.
Neuroscience and psychology need one another as neuroscience needs to know what the system does while psychology needs to know how those lower-level specifications emerge in input-output theory of functionalism. But the co-evolutionary development of neuroscience and psychology means reduction is bound to occur at some point or another. The practical difficulties, understanding how the mind brain works, lack of mathematical and computational theory, and the bare fact that it might be true that psychology isn’t reducible to neuroscience.


Much of what we discuss has an aboutness. When we believe, desire, think, intend, or anything similar we have a semantically coherent system such that these things have content and intention as they’re about things. If psychological explanations of human behavior rely on matching representational states to parts of the human being, we may object to reductionist ideas as mental states are identified in terms of logical and semantical relations.

Logical relations

Mental states have causal relations to other states, but mental representations have causal roles in virtue of their formal properties, as Fodor argues. There are arguments against reduction that don’t depend on giving a nonphysical status to representations. Psychological states for which these arguments are built upon are the sentiential attitudes (beliefs, desires, etc.). For these sentiential attidues, logic defines the relations between sentences.


That the philosophical tradition that espouses a logical-meaningful dimension of mental business isn’t naturalist may seem to support the idea logical relations between states can’t be explained with causal relations between neurobiological states. It also may seem this way given there are limitations of neuroscience such that no theory in neuroscience can tell us a lot of information. But it may be possible we explain neurobiologically what goes on in the brain unless the psychological phenomena are indeterministic with respect to the relevant neurophysical level.

In addition some criteria folk psychology uses in specifying content on features that are irrelevant to the causal role of the mental state as it interacts with other mental state. We may cite semantic features such as truth and justification as evidence of these interactions. Antireductionists may argue there are folk psychology categories that we cannot reduce representational states to, but these arguments lack the empirical evidence to support them.

Information processing

We may describe an information-processing theory as sentiential if the cognitively relevant internal states have content, the theoretically relevant relationships between cognitive states are characterized by logic, the state transitions are a function of logical relationships between sentences that identify the states, and we evaluate cognitive virtue as a function of the extent to which it succeeds in doing what the logical theory of state transition says it should do. We may also define cognitive processes as sentence-processing processes. Such an information-processing system should also have methods of determining which knowledge is relevant to its purpose. Such an artificial intelligence being would also have to do this

Describing our world through philosophy, science, and coffee

I take a sip from my coffee mug and lean back as I stare at my writing. Through libraries, coffee shops, hospitals, and other venues, I write and hack away on my laptop. On the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy, I present An introduction to ethics, An introduction to philosophy, and Contextual emergence. I hope these resources prove useful to others.

Neuroethics: the delicate balance of neuroscience and morality

Pew pew pew

How can we create frameworks of practical moral reasoning in the absence of free will? Can neuroscience research shed light on how we make moral judgements? What are the general implications of neuroscience research itself? How can we differentiate between the study of the mind or the brain to begin with? In the current development of neuroscience research, scenarios have changed. Researchers are beginning to uncover a new knowledge about personal identity, emotions, awareness, and free will. All of these are key pieces in the understanding of the puzzle of the mind human. These issues that seemed to be alien to science are now exposed in the scenario of Neuroethics, the ethical issues brought upon by neuroscience as well as the neuroscience of ethics itself. As presented by Kathinka Evers, principal investigator of the Center for Research in Ethics and Bioethics from the University of Uppsala, we can investigate a slew of questions that born in this interface between the sciences of the human spirit and the natural sciences in her book “Neuroetica.” It should be remembered, in the face of this reconciliation between science and ethics, that there have been challenges and struggles to write on neuroethics. Understanding “the analysis of the concepts involved in practical moral reasoning “(p 21), and the first, according to Robert Hooke, as “knowledge of natural things, and of all useful arts, manufactures, and mechanical practices, artifacts and experimental inventions “(p.22), it’s easy to come to incorrect conclusions on these ethical issues.

Fortunately, through history not all modern thinkers have seen science in this way. As Evers points out, in accordance with philosopher Francis Bacon’s views of science, the study well-organized and detailed in nature, science should be much more than the mere school search for knowledge. The sciences have to fulfill a fundamental function, namely: to allow human beings to improve their life on earth (p.21); objective that would be difficult to achieve if it were insisted on keep excluded the philosophical, political, moral and metaphysical that are born in their same this particular case, within the neurosciences.

Now, although the ethical problems initially raised in neuroscience referred to the practice and use of brain imaging technologies, neuropharmacology or the interests of research and sponsors of this, currently neuroscientific research itself is also concentrated in the construction of “adequate theoretical foundations that are required to be able to deal appropriately with the problems of application “(p.28). This establishes a distinction clear between an applied neuroethics and a theoretical neuroethics, concerned about the capacity that could have the science of nature to improve our understanding of moral thinking. We can determine whether the former is really important for the latter by considering both concerns as part of a greater question, that is, if human consciousness can to be addressed or not in biological terms.

It should be mentioned that any attempt to expose the complete set of ideas that go through neuroethics and the development of these would be foolish. We can still refer to a small, but representative, set that begins with the idea of unifying different levels and types of knowledge, taking both the techniques and the methodologies of each discipline, in order to build bridges. Fragile as they may be, they would allow the flow of the knowledge of the neurosciences to other sciences and disciplines, integrating in turn, this knowledge in the conception that have human beings of himself. It resonates through the world and morality in a shared theoretical framework (p.30 and p.57). The materialism position may respond, aptly illustrated and proposed in chemistry by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in 1953 and extended by neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changueux, to the neuroscience of the present. It may be that far from any naive reductionism and dualism (ontological), we can assume the brain as “a plastic, projective organ and narrative, which results from a sociocultural, biological symbiosis that appeared in the course of evolution … ” (p 69), judging emotion as the characteristic mark of consciousness from an evolutionary perspective.

Following, you can expose an idea pretty striking, a neurophilosophical model of the free agency that tries to answer how even though Free will is or can be: “1) a construction of the brain, 2) causally determined, or 3) initiated unconsciously “(p.80), it is not something” illusory .” As Evers argues, first, the fact that free will be a construction of the brain not necessarily means that it is an illusion, and that perhaps if it is an illusion it will be for other reasons (p.86); second, “causality is a prerequisite for the free agency “(p.88), otherwise the behavior would be totally random, in addition, causal determinism does not imply an invariable and necessary relationship between cause and effect, to the extent that this relationship can be variable and contingent; third, although the processes non-conscious appear to be far from control aware, the relationship and influence between both are “To a certain extent mutual, and not unilateral” (p.104). Of course, to understand the development and integration of each argument to think of free will as “The ability to acquire a causal power, combined with the ability to influence the use of said power ” (p.107), you need to read chapter II of the book, where Evers makes use of different authors (Changueux, Le Doux, Libet, Freeman, Churchland, Pinker, Blakemore, Pylyshyn, among others) to recreate the scenario in which situates all this discussion and each one of his ideas.

Finally, we note the normative relevance of the neurosciences according to the understanding of the neural bases of development of thinking and moral behavior. We can mention four innate tendencies closely related that appeared in the evolution: 1) self-interest, 2) the desire to control and security, 3) the dissociation of what can be considered unpleasant or threatening, 4) selective sympathy. Regarding the latter, the author risks saying that the human being is a xenophobe with natural empathy insofar as it is “empathic by virtue of [your] understanding of a relatively large set of creatures; but […] nice so much more narrow and selective towards the restricted group [in which born or has chosen to join] “(page 132). Although understanding (empathy) can be extended to broad groups (i.e. foreigners), the affective bond that unites human beings is restricted to their group more close. There’s an indifference to the foreigner or the which is considered different.

Keeping in mind these innate preferences, there’s no doubt about the difficult situation of current moral discussions. It becomes a priority then, to establish a diagnosis in neurobiological terms to be able intervene human behavior, recognizing that the structure of the brain determines to some degree the social behavior, moral dispositions and the type of society that is created, although the latter has an influence on brain development (p.149). At the same time, we can pose the question about the scientific responsibility of neuroscience at the socio-political level in terms of its adequacy (formulation of real problems), conceptual clarity, and application of methods and techniques without forgetting the origins and interests. Making it clear what a finding or fact (if it is) of neuroscience is not can give off categorical imperatives. A duty can be universal because of knowing that you have an innate preference does not follow that it is okay or that it must conceive this fact as good or bad.

In short, “Neuroethics” is an excellent introduction for both the unnoticed reader and for professionals from different areas of health (Psychology, Psychiatry, Neuropsychology, Medicine) and other professionals such as philosophers, lawyers and politicians, concerned about the participation of neurosciences in the understanding of the mind, the behavior, socio-cultural organizations, mental health, education, but first of all in the perception of human existence and its future. It may be “A Critique of the Neuroscientific reason,” a clear demarcation of the limits of this knowledge and its uses in society, a judgment by the other disciplines, to the extent that knowledge about the brain seems to give to neuroscientists certain power to expand their ideas beyond the laboratory, expanding their horizons and its explanatory power in domains already mentioned. It’s sometimes quite assertive when plotting new research paths, other times. But other times it’s about attacking different fields of knowledge by not knowing the limits of its frame of reference and in the impossibility to purge the investigations carried out of their own cognitive biases. That would respond more to the interests of certain ideologies than to the objective to improve human life on earth.

"The pursuit of truth," a villanelle

Chaos under control

Truth is elusive, nowhere to be found.
Footprint and forecast, through reason and verse,
through scars and marks that style the ground.

Memory and reason, fade to the bland.
Glimpse of light, the sight of truth. We converse
scratched in concrete or scribbled in sand.

From birthmark or gravestone, the discourse abound,
of dialogue, debating, counted controverse,
through scars and marks that style the ground.

Through mystery, the truth we don’t understand.
We pursue a cure, if truth were a curse,
scratched in concrete or scribbled in sand.

It evades, it leaves our own selves earthbound,
Like supernova, particles spread out dispersed,
through scars and marks that style the ground.

The highest of truths, we seek heights grand.
washed like waves, without sleight of hand,
through scars and marks that style the ground,
scratched in concrete or scribbled in sand.

On becoming a better researcher

“Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things.” – Denis Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques

I believe the ways we become better researchers only come through self-reflection and meditating upon the arguments and principles behind what we do – not the simple acts of doing those things themselves. What makes good work that we find satisfying, engaging, morally clear, and even effective for whatever purpose or value we put forward can only come as we contemplate and fully realize the effects of what we’re doing.

As French philosopher Denis Diderot sought to learn about a variety of fields, from philosophy to art to religion, he advocated strongly for the emancipatory power of philosophy. Overturning our previously held convictions of the 1700s, Diderot’s Encyclopédie showed philosophy should trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared covenants, authority, and everything that controls the mind of the common heard. Much the same way I fell in love with philosophy as an undergraduate student, I took these challenges upon myself. I wanted to figure out what it meant to be a good researcher no matter the field. 

Being a good researcher, whether it’s in science, philosophy, mathematics, or anything, requires taking apart our notions of skills, talents, abilities, and all other arguments and claims we put forward about what we do and re-framing them in appropriate ways to address the solutions in ways we decide. I’ve always believed that success requires nurturing these values and virtues in such a way that I can not only prepare for the next step in my life, but I can address the issues I want to address. This is how I search for a purpose. As I look for these purposes, I attach motives, intentions, and other moral characteristics to them. I don’t only use simple purposes like getting into a good graduate school. because I know that’s not the most effective way to work. I need to understand what it means to be good at my craft in general and apply that to what I do. 

When Diderot condemned asceticism, he argued for lifestyles in search of pleasure by cultivating passions. In response to the abstinence or celibacy of priesthood, Diderot argued those passions our body experiences cause us to achieve great things. I believe these methods of understanding the passion inherently tie into becoming a good researcher, but as Diderot sought to restructure knowledge itself and attack fundamental beliefs of his society, he was thrown in prison.

Because this task of taking apart what it means to be a good researcher is so arduous and complex, even simple things I do on a day-to-day basis can be incredibly difficult. My methods of thinking through these problems and becoming the best researcher I can possibly be don’t align so perfectly with the tasks I’m assigned to do on a day-to-day basis. It simply doesn’t make sense to me that, if I want to become the best researcher I can possibly be, I need to follow the simple directions that are put forward in front of me every day. It also doesn’t make sense that other factors such as how many hours I work should be relevant to success when there are far more certain, nuanced factors such as what effect my work has had on the world. Instead, I absolutely need to take apart arguments and claims about these notions such that I can figure out what it means to be a good researcher. 

I notice minute differences in the way we reason to become better researchers. These little things can be as small as the difference between asking the question “What would the best researcher possible do in this situation?” vs. “What can I do in this situation to become the best researcher possible?” We can see this difference in running a protocol that hasn’t been used before on the grounds that the best researcher possible would do that or running a new protocol because it will make me a better researcher. The former shows courage and audacity in trying new things because the best researcher already has those traits established and would do that. The latter implies we’re not the best researcher, but, if we value the willpower in carrying out the task, performing it would make us the best researcher possible. Each method of reasoning is suited for different purposes and goals in what we do. That’s why it’s essential we understand these methods of reasoning for the purpose of becoming a better researcher. 

If my boss tells me, “Do this because you need to do it to get a good recommendation for graduate school,” it’s very difficult for me to convince myself to do that thing. I see that sort of motive as empty, selfish, and even contrary to how researchers should perform. Besides, it becomes trivial and almost nonsensical to reason that “If I do X, Y, and Z, then I’ll get a good recommendation.” A good recommendation cannot be made by performing actions for the sake of getting a good recommendation. There needs to be authenticity and genuine moral agreement in it. Even if it were true that my boss would have the action itself to write about my actions in my recommendation, this still doesn’t show much as my actions are things that I myself can write about in my graduate school applications themselves. There’s no deeper meaning or theoretical idea my boss puts forward. As a result of the way I reason through these issues, it’s often incredibly difficult for me to follow simple, straightforward directions because I’m so busy taking apart the justification, validity, and other characteristics of anything we do in a way that I can figure out what they should mean. 

The way I discern these differences in attempts to address these questions have caused me to become confused about what I should do in the present moment. It shows that, even though I’m always trying to be the best researcher I can possibly be, that doesn’t mean that what I do in the present moment is a direct statement on how good of a researcher I am. What I do in the present moment is a mixture of all of these thoughts about what it means to be a good researcher burning within me. 

Not having these methods of discerning these issues took its toll on me. When I was an undergraduate student at Indiana University-Bloomington, I could barely see the purpose in much of my work to the point where I nearly dropped out. I had faced so many obstacles from other individuals in my attempts to address these issues, and I was so discouraged by almost no other individual posing these questions to begin with. My justification and motivations for doing things in the present moment are complicated, as I’ve explained due to my interest in these issues. 

Challenging the very notion of knowledge itself, Diderot worked with mathematician-philosopher Jean le Rond d’Alembert to create the Encyclopédie, which they described as a theater of war in which Enlightenment intellectuals desiring social change rallied against the French Church and state. Allowing free thought, especially through atheism, the scholars laid down the fundamentals of fields such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy themselves. By reasoning through the inquiry and scope of these fields, d’Alembert wrote that memory gives rise to history, imagination to poetry, and reason to philosophy. I continue to turn to philosophy for finding truth in science as I work. 

The truth is I’ve been struggling with these issues for maybe four years now, and I still struggle with them. They affect me in ways that I detect through everything I do. When I wake up, go to work, contemplate my actions, and even dream while I sleep, I find these questions on my purpose shaking me in ways I can barely articulate. 

History transcending science’s boundaries

When I attended the 2019 meeting of the American Association of Advancement of Science, I couldn’t help but feel déjà vu. At my second AAAS conference, I found familiar faces among scientists and journalists. I also felt the conference’s theme “Science Transcending Boundaries” resonating with centuries-old writing that has remained relevant to this day. 

At the AAAS meeting, Erika Hayden, director of the Science Communication program at the University of California Santa Cruz, and I discussed how science writers should tell stories with history in mind. This would not only let writers put current findings in context, but transcend the boundaries of research. Looking at the work of philosophers and mathematicians in the 1950s, we can address ethical issues of automation and predict how artificial intelligence will change the workforce. Referencing 19th-century novelist Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can warn of the dangers of genetic engineering. I also discussed how engaging the public with history and literature can instill more faith in them as readers. 

I spoke with researchers and journalists about my website A History of Artificial Intelligence as well as my other writing on scientific history. I mentioned how my work had opened up eyes of my audience to the nuanced, complicated history of science. It can sometimes be a stark contrast to journalism’s principles of concise, straightforward writing, but, by writing with a historical perspective in mind, scientists and science writers can at least find well-reasoned, humanistic answers to age-old questions. These answers speak true to the lives, virtues, and values the human being seeks to instill within research. A historical account of science lets scientists and writers draw from fields such as ethics, art, and philosophy – a true transcendence of boundaries. The same way Bill Nye and Carl Sagan capture the current public’s imagination, popular science emerged from tens of thousands of popular science books published in France throughout the 1700s. Today’s scientists and writers can understand this history of science writing to put their roles and purposes in context and transcend boundaries.

Throughout the conference I spoke with journalists, researchers, and other professionals about the best ways to engage the public as a science communicator. As I reflected upon the historical works, I spoke with others how the 18th-century French author Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote about science such that a wide audience could understand in his work Conversations on the Plurality of WorldsExemplifying the theme “Science Transcending Boundaries,” he introduced readers to Cartesian philosophy centuries before the word “scientist” was even coined. I spoke with journalists on the principles of journalism and how they came about through historical events such as the French Revolution and the Dreyfus Affair. Through these events, journalists developed principles of writing in an investigative manner, independent of external forces that can, in some ways, revolutionize society’s ways of thinking. At the same time of Fontenelle, French philosopher Voltaire’s poems, short stories, critical essays, plays, letters, and history covering physics, chemistry, and botany would also redirect future scientific research. Imagining our work in these greater contexts of history, it gave others a deeper appreciation of their writing and research. With the past in mind, we would speculate on the future of issues such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

With Fontenelle and Voltaire’s writing, scientific books went from being read by hundreds to hundreds of thousands. As intellectualism flourished in 18th-century France, science itself became more professionalized. Scientific institutions received more support, and individuals took more distinct professional research paths, re-defining the scientist. In 1795 French philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet advocated scientific reasoning in democratic governance. From the lab bench to the living room, science entered the hearts of the masses. It laid the foundation for the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment to change reason and inquiry itself. Science writers themselves can learn about the purpose and value of scientific research through these historical trends. In learning from Fontenelle, Voltaire, and other historical writers, scientists can put their findings in greater contexts, writers can share a more accurate stories of science, and the world can become better for the sake of humanity.