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Countless Questions

Monday, March 9, 2009 – Jeremy Craig, University Relations

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For millennia, philosophers have explored countless moral, ethical and existential questions from the temples of ancient civilizations and the salons of the Enlightenment, to the armchairs of today.

Georgia State University professors — and master’s degree students — are exploring these questions, but are also using the scientific method and empirical evidence in a discipline called neurophilosophy to consider how information about the way the brain works can help in answering these philosophical inquiries.

While doctoral programs with a specialty in neurophilosophy exist elsewhere, Georgia State uniquely offers a Master of Arts degree program with a neurophilosophy track.

“Philosophy and neuroscience sound about as alien as two sets of creatures that you can find,” said George Graham, professor of philosophy and one of the world’s top philosophers in psychology and psychiatry. “But what's happened in the last 20 to 30 years is that the philosophers who work on mind-related issues think of their work as inseparably connected with the work of scientists.”

“Philosophers have been thinking about the mind for thousands of years,” said Eddy Nahmias, associate professor of philosophy. “With neurophilosophy, there is this chance to integrate from the top-down and the bottom-up to see how things actually work, and in an empirically informed way.”

Integrated inquiry
Neurophilosophers use the tools of science to better answer philosophical questions, such as using magnetic resonance imaging scans to see which areas of the brain are active when considering questions involving tough decisions.

Neurophilosophy also explores the way sciences look at the mind. Nahmias recently received a grant from the University of Chicago to work on a book exploring the concept of free will, and how neuroscience and psychology can both threaten this concept, and yet help to explain how and when humans have free will.

Graham, co-author of the Oxford Textbook in Philosophy and Psychiatry, explores whether mental disorders can be best understood as purely neurological disorders. Graham holds that it's not the case. Such an inquiry requires a philosopher to look at the neuroscience and psychology behind the current understanding of such disorders.

“In order to make the thesis work, it helps to look at the neuroscience,” Graham said.

Collaboration: learning from different fields

Neurophilosophy at Georgia State stems from the successful Brains and Behavior initiative, which has transitioned into the Neuroscience Institute. The institute draws top faculty and graduate students across diverse fields — from biology and chemistry to computer science and philosophy — to explore the mind and brain.

“One of the great things about the Brains and Behavior program is that it started off with an interdisciplinary vocation,” said Andrea Scarantino, assistant professor of philosophy, who is working with Michael Owren, associate professor of psychology, on how animals pick up information from their environments. “The idea was to try to put together people from different fields to see how they can make progress. It has fostered a great spirit of collaboration, which I am confident will continue in the Neuroscience Institute.”

Students in neurophilosophy bring philosophy and science together through taking courses in both disciplines.

“We’re taking classes that allow us to talk about things which may seem quite disparate, but in fact overlap in a lot of interesting ways,” said Ryan DeChant, a first-year student in the neurophilosophy track. “We can talk about mental disorders in a seminar one night, then go to a neurobiology class the next day to learn about neurotransmitter systems and how they're related to changes in behavior, thinking about the way the two interact.”

For more about the neurophilosophy track at Georgia State, visit www.gsu.edu/philosophy.