Armchairs and onions

One of the great things about being in UCSD right now is that I get to go to any classes I want, free of charge (unlike the poor saps who have to pay hundreds of bucks for the privilege – of course, they need course credit…). So at one of the recent cognitive neuroscience classes I went to (they’re really lectures), a guest speaker was there – a philosopher-turned-neuropsychologist.

During his lecture, one of the most amazing things happened. I didn’t fall asleep. Granted, I did doze off for a few seconds during the previous speaker’s lecture, but even so. Anyway, this ex-philosopher was talking about that old chestnut, the mind body problem, and also of course qualia.

I was expecting that I wouldn’t hear anything that was particularly new to me, since this was essentially an introductory one hour lecture and I’ve read a few books by people like Dennett that cover the same sort of material. Luckily, I was wrong. The first thing that caught my attention was the speaker’s listing of two conceptions of philosophers, the armchair conception and the onion conception.

The armchair conception is what we traditionally think of philosophers as; people who seek to answer questions a priori, that is, without experience of the matters in question. This means that, surprisingly enough, they can do everything from their armchairs. Scientists on the other hand act a posteriori, by conducting experiments and looking at the world.

The problem with this, the speaker argued, is that many philosophers such as Aristotle and William James defied the armchair classification because they did conduct experiments. Aristotle, for example, had a great interest in biology and went around dissecting things to find out more about them. So to accommodate this, there’s the onion conception. In this, the area of knowledge and questions that philosophers address is continually shrinking inwards, and as it shrinks, the layers it sheds become new disciplines that are more capable of addressing those questions that philosophy alone cannot. One of the first layers to be shed would be mathematics, and then subsequently disciplines such as biology, physics and so on.

One of the latest disciplines to be shed is psychology, which didn’t even exist separately until around one hundred and fifty years ago. Psychology and the now related area of neuroscience are now thus capable of better investigating the nature of the mind body problem, qualia, consciousness and all the rest.

Another great thing about being in UCSD is seeing the heavyweights of psychology and neuroscience plan their strategies and arguments. A couple of days ago I was having coffee with Prof. Ramachandran and a few others, and we were discussing how to pin down Damasio’s somatic marker theory, which is a hot topic in psychology and is regularly taught in psychology courses across the world. It struck me then, that, wow, this is how and where science gets made.

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