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“I survived by clinging to what makes me human. I had no choice. It was all I had left, same as you. Hold fast to the human inside of you and you’ll survive”. This is what Pierre Roussin, a character from the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, tells Jean Do — the entirely paralyzed, except for one eye, main character of Julian Schnable’s movie.
These words made me think about what really makes us human. Are we just animals with a brain that acts upon our bodies with all its electrical impulses and active neurons— or is there something else that makes us unique as specie, a kind of animal that can feel, perceive, use language, reason, and so on?
This is not a new question at all, as for centuries philosophers, and right after them scientists, have been asking themselves the same question over and over again. But some say that one day — let’s make it simpler and use a common expression — “existential problems” take over your mind in a way that you don’t have anything to do but to think about them to an overdosed extent; and then let them go away again and carry on with your prosaic life. That’s exactly what is happening to me right now: I have to think about this — and I need to share these thoughts with somebody, in this case, you, unsuspecting reader.
This idea over our humanity has been hunting me for the past few days and made me go back to some of the books on neuroscience and cognitive sciences I started reading some time ago — more as a curious ignorant than as a researcher or scholar, I must say. It caused me an uneasy feeling to verify that despite the efforts of some scientists to cooperate with one another, there are certain kinds of demarcation disputes and apparently irreconcilable philosophical differences between those two fields. But, wait a minute: isn’t philosophy the “mother” of all sciences? At least I was taught so at school.
It was exactly at this moment when I turned my attention from the existential matters which were afflicting me to the conflict between sciences and philosophy.
As I am not either a neuroscientist or a cognitive scientist and not even a philosopher in a strict sense, I consider myself a privileged observer with a peircean point of view. What I will do in this paper is to translate these apparently irreconcilable philosophical differences. Note: I am not saying that I will try to solve this problem.
It seems to me that neuroscience deals with the formulation of empirical questions about the nervous system, and it means it deals basically with physical structures of the organisms. In other words, it deals with the inciting biological structures of what makes us human and their functions. It tries to establish “matter-of-fact” concerning neural structures and the ways they act. How does the brain (physically) produce images? How these images are (physically) stored in the brain? What (physical) role does the brain stem play in “producing” conscience? How memory is (physically) formed? Etc.
Cognitive sciences, on the other hand, deal with explanations about the neural conditions that make possible for us to perceive, learn, cogitate, reason or use our will among other functions and also the way we represent things. Cognitive scientists have to work in-between the fields of neurophysiology (an empirical field) and psychology (a composition of empirical and philosophical fields) and they have to seek balance between concepts which are categorically diverse.
However, if we are living organisms in constant interaction with the environment, can neuroscience really put aside some intrinsically important and fundamental conceptual questions or try to answer them as they were only matter of facts subjugated to physical structures? Or can cognitive sciences psychologize the functions of brain’s structures reducing their importance with impunity? Structures, functions and conceptual matters are umbilically connected in living organisms — and here is where the confusion begins, for there are no well-defined boundaries to separate one from the other two. It seems as if we have a triadic relationship on the horizon, but I will come to that later.
On one hand, neuroscientists have been accused of trying to replace the rich repertoire of psychological meaning of the wide range of human activities by literal neurological explanations. In other words, neuroscientists would have a reductionist view of the complex organisms we are when in interaction with the world, and for that they make us, humans, look like brains with legs. On the other hand, cognitive scientists have been accused of disregarding the significant role of physical environments in human thinking or of neglecting the contribution of embodiment to human thought and action.
All sciences work with slices of empirical reality in order to define their object of study, and all scientific theories are partially incomplete because of this. It is precisely the conceptual articulation of ideas that can bring rigor and creative thinking into theories. And this is exactly where philosophy comes into the relationship between neuroscience and cognitive sciences.
Philosophy deals with conceptual questions, which precede any empirical affair regarding truth or falsehood, and it is so because these questions concern the way we represent things rather than the description of their literal existence. But here comes another problem: philosophers tend to think they don’t need to worry about empirical questions for they are vulgar and born with a certain level of obsolescence.
I can’t talk about the relationship between science and philosophy without thinking about Charles Sanders Peirce and his triadic theory of signs. Peirce thought about science as something that one doesn’t know yet, and, in his opinion, this would be far more important than what is already known. Science for him was living knowledge that constantly progresses, in contrast to what is already known that would constitute dead knowledge. He thought about how human thoughts and knowledge grow and came to the conclusion that they grow into and because of scientific thinking. The question he asked himself was: if empirically tested, would abstract concepts produce different results? He then created pragmatism as a methodology to empirically test abstract concepts. Peirce was an anti-cartesian, and for him the world was not divided into truth and falsehood, thoughts and objects, discourse and reality and so on. For him, all that there is inside the mind are signs or quasi-signs — and those signs work in a triadic relation with the object and their interpreter. Peirce thought that one can only directly access the object through the mediation of signs, and because of this, all that we call reality is in fact the effects of the quasi-signs upon us. No one can deny that this is an almost poetic way to link science to philosophy — and also to question the imposed distance that keep them separated one from the other. Actually, he proved that abstract concepts can be empirically tested.
These remarks make me conclude that Peirce put pragmatism to work in the behalf of philosophy and sciences. I dare to say that he worked to create a very inclusive philosophy of science and has proven that it is possible to have a bit of both worlds: abstract concepts tested by empirical methodology. Maybe neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and philosophers need a little more Peirce in their lives.
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Por Patrícia Fonseca Fanaya