Most introductory philosophy of mind lectures include a statement along the following line:

"Modern developments in Brain and Neuroscience have influenced the way philosophers talk about the mind", or something similar.

But from what I see the biggest developments in philosophy of mind in the 20th century seem to stem either from an general empiricist epistemology driven by the successes of the hard-sciences (type-identity physicalism, eliminativism, behaviorism, etc...) or from advances in computer science and information theory (Functionalism, CTM, Self-Representational theories of consciousness, etc...).

Even when reading Paul Churchland's - who labels himself a Neurophilosopher - "Engine of Reason, Seat of the Soul", most of what he is saying comes from the theory of artificial neural networks whose relationship to neuroscience is tenuous.

Those details in his book (and also from what I have seen in Daniel Dennett's work) which pertain directly to the way the brain and biological neurons work seem to be the domain of cognitive science, not philosophy of mind per se.

The only exception I can think of is Libet's result, interpreted as support for epiphenomenalism.

So my question is then:

What contemporary developments in philosophy of mind strictly speaking (that is the mind/body problem, personal identity, the problem of consciousness, etc...) can be traced explicitly to recent developments in neuroscience, other than Libet's experiments?

  • 1
    I will get around to writing a full answer to this later tonight, but have you read his wife's books? Her book Neurophilosophy was a landmark work in applying neuroscience specifically to philosophy, honestly I'd make the argument that her work is a lot more powerful than her husband's work but that's probably just my opinion. At any rate, it makes some amazing points about how neuroscience should be approach in the philosophy of science as well as making arguments that the mind/body problem should be viewed as a philosophy of science problem.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 22:56
  • @Not_Here looking forward to your answer. It's funny, no matter how hard I try to be a male feminist, my misogyny comes back to bite me in the ass: I realized after your comment, that subconsciously, I've always assumed that Paul was the more influential of the two. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:21

3 Answers 3


The link between philosophy and science is not so straightforward, it is rarely possible to say that some scientific developments are directly responsible for some specific philosophical developments. This said, one general trend started even before the term "neuroscience" became fashionable, and "neurophysiology" was more common. Burge describes it in Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990:

"During the mid to late 1960s materialism became one of the few orthodoxies in American philosophy. It is difficult to say why this happened. No single argument obtained widespread acceptance. Perhaps the success in biochemistry during the 1950s in providing some sense of the chemical underpinnings of biological facts encouraged the expectation that eventually mental facts would receive a similar explication in neural terms. Moreover, there were some spectacular advances in animal neurophysiology during the period."

This tendency was solidified by the emerging human neuroscience as the prospect of finding neural correlates of mental states drew closer, and led to the current dominance of physicalism in the (analytic) philosophy of mind. Books like Dennett's Consciousness Explained and Churchland's Matter and Consciousness became fashionable among general public and even scientists (Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis explicitly refers readers to Churchlands for philosophical sustenance).

Indirectly, neuroscience stimulated interest of philosophers in developing semantic models that parallel brain function. Although much of constructive work is based on speculative analysis and artificial neuro-nets, results of neuroscience experiments are thoroughly monitored, interpreted, and incorporated as far as possible (and perhaps further given the relative crudeness of experimental setups at this point). There is active work on such models of concept acquisition, see e.g. Mandler's On the Birth and Growth of Concepts, creative cognition, see Thagard on neural mechanisms of abductive inference, and neurosemantics, see Eliasmith.

The outsized impact of the Libet experiment is due to the fact that it seemed like one place where experiments had a direct bearing on a genuine philosophy of mind problem, the problem of voluntary control due to the link between the so-called readiness potential (RP) and conscious intentions. This link appears doubtful today, but it forced many philosophers of volition with libertarian leanings to seriously consider the possibility of unconscious free will as an alternative to Libet's "conscious veto". Roskies in How Does Neuroscience Affect Our Conception of Volition? writes:

"Moreover, some lines of evidence from psychology and neuroscience suggest that actions are often initiated unconsciously (e.g., Libet 1985), and so if free will is to exist, it will take the form of control or veto power over unconsciously initiated actions. Finally, regardless of whether one believes that we can act or choose freely, we normally do perceive certain actions as self-caused and others as not. Most people concur that there is phenomenology that accompanies voluntary action, and neuroscience has begun to illuminate the physiological basis of the feeling of agency."

Neo-Wittgensteinians, like Hacker, even see unconscious will as a vindication of Ryle's knowledge how and a way out of Wittgestein's rule-following paradox, see What counters are there to Spinoza's argument that acts of free will create infinite regress?:

"When one utters a sentence, every word is spoken voluntarily, but it would be ridiculous to claim that one consciously performs successive acts of will, one for each word (or phoneme?) an instant before utterance... The willing must not be conceived as doing something, the doing of which then causes the movement of one’s body. That would be a case of bringing about the movement of one’s body by doing something else. Rather, the willing would have to be an ‘immediate causing’".

Of course, the old school hard determinism also got boosted, this time under the new nickname of "willusionism", forcefully promoted in Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will, see What philosophers, other than Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, examine "will" first, before "free will"?:

"The initiation of the voluntary act appears to be an unconscious cerebral process. Clearly, free will or free choice of whether to act now could not be the initiating agent, contrary to one widely held view. This is of course also contrary to each individual’s own introspective feeling that he/she consciously initiates such voluntary acts".

In a way, history repeats itself. Similar rise of (then) mechanistic materialism and determinism, fueled by the rise of physics and "psychophysiology" of the day, occured at the end of 19th century, and was then championed by some prominent scientists, like Bernard and Du Bois-Reymond, see History of the study of indeterminism in classical mechanics. Measurable experimental connections established between sensations and stimuli, such as the Weber-Fechner law, led to unrealistic expectations about building a physical theory of the mental, and soon. Experiments, however, do not create theories on their own, although they can inspire them.

What makes me more hopeful this time is the potential confluence between neuroscience, AI research, especially embodied cognition a la Dreyfus and brain models based on deeper understanding of (artificial) neuro-net operation (see e.g. Thagard's How Brains Make Mental Models); and instrumentalist semantics (which promises an advance on the problem of intentionality, relating the mind to its referents, see Can there be a sufficient account of meaning without an account of intentionality?).

  • I'm surprised at why Burge doesn't mention the effect of logical positivism on the mainstreaming of materialism. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:18
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    @AlexanderSKing He does. Although "issues about mind tended to be submerged in the general positivist program", the next sentence after the quote is:"Perhaps the attempts of the positivists and behaviorists to make philosophy scientific had as a natural outgrowth the view that philosophical problems would eventually be solved by progress in the natural sciences - with the help of analytical clarification by philosophers". I should add that he interprets "materialism" very broadly:"Quine advocated a broadly materialist position that was tempered by a reluctant platonism about sets".
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:30

I'm not sure there's any good reason why you would see any. Consider that many philosophers are religious, in the fullest sense. i.e they have constructed an extremely elaborate world of rules for which there is no evidence at all and thoroughly believe in it. This is not to suggest that they are wrong to do so, but that philosophy is about the possible ways the world might be (by world I mean in the largest sense, including our own private experience), they are not about the way the world actually is in a pragmatic sense. That's the realm of science. The limits placed on such possible descriptions then, by science must be absolutely concrete in order to influence them, other wise the only limit is the imagination of the philosopher. Consider the huge gulf between Searle and Dennett, neuroscience is not genuinely limiting their choices with regards to conciousness, it is simply putting new challenges in their way to explaining how their theories are still true. With science, this will eventually exhaust the ability of one theorist and the remaining theory will prevail, as Kuhn describes, but this is a long drawn out process even in science. In philosophy, with its much freer scope, it is quite unlikely that any theory will ever become so strained by fitting empirical evidence to it's already chosen conclusion that it will fail entirely, it's simply too easy to do so, with a little imagination.

Furthermore, it is no longer possible to limit the activity of philosophizing to philosophers, many scientists are simply refusing to adhere to the rather unsubstantiated distinction. Neuroscientists like Bruce Hood are freely (and quite capably) theorising about conciousness and free will based on their scientific work, and why shouldn't they? V.S Ramachandran (another neuroscientist) has developed very compelling theories about free will, sense experience and identity, again without any philosophical background. David Eaglemann has published works on both conciousness and sense experience. Sam Harris is, of course, a neuroscientist first, philosopher after. Cristof Koch, on Conciousness... the list goes on.

It is notable (and odd that it's glossed over in both your question and Conifold's answer) that Libet himself drew the conclusions about free will from his experiments, he didn't just humbly pass on his results to philosophers like Roskies and Hacker for their interpretation.

In summary I don't believe any "developments in philosophy of mind" can be "traced explicitly to recent developments in neuroscience" in the traditional sense of the word development, only re-imaginings of the philosophies which already existed anyway in order to make them fit the new information, and any new theories that arise are as likely to come from the neuroscientists themselves as the philosophical community.

The direct answer to your question title (though I admit, unlikely to be what you meant by it), is that modern neuroscience and philosophy of mind are either one and the same thing, or, if philosophy of mind is a different thing, the nature of its difference is that it will not take developments from neuroscience into account.

  • Funny that you should mention that scientists are philosophizing. Dennett seems to be constantly going on rants about how scientists should stick to science and stop philosophizing because they are doing more harm than good when they do so. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:15
  • @AlexanderSKing For what it is worth I am glad that scientists are philosophizing, it is out of such mutual interpenetration that new theories are forged. Mandler, I cited, is a neuroscientist, Wegner was a social psychologist, and there is quite a bit of philosophizing in Crick's Astonishing Hypothesis too. A big takeaway for me from his book was that some activities usually lumped as "mental" (like discrimination, integration of data...) can be plausibly modeled physically, even if insoluble residue remains for now. As they say, philosophy is too important to be left to philosophers.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:48
  • Dennett is not exactly keen on much of philosophy either. In August last year saying “A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,”. I really like Dennett, but he does seem to have a very strict view of what philosophy is.
    – user22791
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 19:08

I am not going to attempt a survey, just an example raised in my mind by a different question.

I think that various modern moves, e.g. Searle's dismissal of the notion of mediating subjective experience in favor of naive direct experience, are motivated indirectly by folks like Maturana. Given its timing, even without tracing the roots, the overall revival of an active role for the mind, dismissing partitioning of the mind and body, layers of representation, etc. proceeds from modern theories of internal modelling and feature detection, as opposed to traditionalist representationality.

I personally don't think the folks moving that direction have taken in the science correctly, and I think Maturana himself proves Searle's position inadequate. But, as I see it, the science is creating a new thread within discussions of mind that finds models more compatible with post-Modernism without loss of meaning.

  • Thanks for Maturana ref. I've always thought that Searle's naive realism was him being contrarian. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:13
  • Well, if you take Quine seriously, representation does not ultimately work. If you have to get rid of it, going radical is not contrarianism. (But it is not, to me, as convincing as the idea of active engagement in negotiating and constructing meaning -- especially given the biology of feature detectors and color projection.)
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 18:28

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