Thursday, 3 July 2014

How The Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In is a philosophy festival aimed at the general public, which runs for nine days around the end of May and the beginning of June in the Globe theatre in Hay-on-Wye, and in various tents in the grounds around the theatre, as well as at the new riverside location. There are several themed strands which cover lots of different areas in philosophy.

Neuroscience versus Philosophy
This year (as in other years) there were themed talks around mind, madness and power and speakers included Steven Rose, Maggie Boden and Barry C. Smith who all participated in a discussion entitled 'Neuroscience versus Philosophy'.

Boden advocates first understanding what human traits we are looking for, expressed in computational terms, and then trying to find neuro-scientific correlates. She suggests that, as the philosophical and computational work has not been done yet, this renders the neuroscience almost totally irrelevant. She cites Uta and Chris Frith’s work on neuroscientific correlates for autism (e.g. Frith & Frith 2009) but questions what use this is to us if we don’t have a fully developed philosophical and computational notion of, say, theory of mind and other differences associated with autism. She is not even sure that having this fully developed picture would help us. If all we are able to see is more or less blood flow to certain areas of the brain in an fMRI scan under certain conditions, how do we use this in practical terms? For Boden neuroscience can’t answer philosophical questions but it might inform them.

Rose would strongly disagree with the notion of the mind/brain as a computational system. The mind/brain is not digital and therefore cannot be modeled as such. Rose would say I need a brain to undertake mental activity in the same way that I need legs to walk – but it is me that is thinking or walking. The brain is not conscious, people are, 'the mind is what we do using the brain'. A human being is embodied and culturally embedded and mind is a collective social phenomenon. He certainly agrees that we need philosophy to inform neuro-science and cites philosophical work on the self and ownership as a valuable source to increase this kind of understanding (e.g. Gallagher, 2000).

Smith agrees with Boden that we need a lot more work on what we are trying to correlate the neuroscience with. He describes neuroscience as 'data rich and theory poor' and he is concerned that we will make mistakes if we try to correlate neuroscience with capacities that are not clearly defined or understood. However, he certainly wouldn’t agree that the findings so far are irrelevant. He uses the recent experiment where coma patients are able to communicate by imagining playing tennis as an example of how neuroscientific knowledge might be used for patients’ benefit (e.g. Owen 2012). He also thinks that neuroscience gives us new philosophical questions as, for example, the unity of perception is more complex than its external normative characteristics would suggest.

Richard Bentall, Dinesh Bhugra,
Ritula Shah and David Healy
Madness Incorporated 
Richard Bentall, Dinesh Bhugra and David Healy all took part in a discussion called 'Madness Incorporated' hosted by Ritula Shah. Bentall aired his main concern about the grouping of symptoms and the construction of ‘disease’ entities holding back research and patient care. Bhugra acknowledged that psychiatry has a long way to go being about 150 years behind other medicine and was unconcerned about the use of the DSM as he and other UK clinicians do not use it in practice (although categories from the manual are used in drug trials). Healy used examples of people’s self-diagnosis through, for example, ticking boxes in online questionnaires as well as pharmaceutical companies inventing drugs to cure, say, shyness as hugely problematic for psychiatry. All the panelists agreed that the patient’s experience should be paramount and that no two patients are the same.

Other Highlights
In the international tent Hubert Dreyfus was Skyped in to a talk with Maggie Boden and Paul Dolan on Mind Machines where the debate about if or how we can ‘operationalise’ the mind continued.

At the Riverside venue Mark Rowlands ran a three hour course on Minds Morality and Agency. He distinguished between moral agents and moral subjects and how these two notions might apply to animals to try to establish whether animals can be moral.

Peter Cameron ran a short course entitled 'The Infinite Quest' on the history and understanding of infinity. Whilst it was aimed at the general public a certain level of mathematical understanding was required (particularly in the last session).

You can see some of the debates from previous years here (this site will be updated with this year’s debates in due course).

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