Dreaming in and of Neurophilosophy

img.jpg

Nils Klinger, The Sleeper - View from the side XVII, 2003

Dreaming in and of Neurophilosophy

Nicolas Langlitz’s anthropological investigation of brain research and philosophy in the sleep laboratory shows how philosophical questions that scholars have wrestled with for centuries are addressed in novel ways through laboratory experiments.

Philosophy was among the first disciplines in the humanities to adorn itself with the prefix of “neuro.” Emerging as a branch of analytic philosophy during the 1980s, neurophilosophy has since then attempted to solve philosophical questions with the aid of empirical knowledge acquired in the field of brain research. For example, the sleep laboratory of Finnish philosopher and neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo is investigating the nature of consciousness through dreams. Working at the intersection of dream research and neurophilosophy, Nicolas Langlitz’s anthropological-historical study explores how philosophical questions scholars have wrestled with for centuries are addressed in novel ways through laboratory experiments. His study is part of the “Cerebral Subject” project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and is made possible by funding from the Volkswagen Foundation’s European Platform for the Life Sciences, Mind Sciences, and the Humanities.

When Patricia Churchland published Neurophilosophy in 1986, she differentiated her approach from the philosophy of ordinary language. For instance, Churchland was not interested in what others meant when they spoke of “free will.” Rather, she sought to ascertain whether we possess a free will at all. Like many fin-de-siècle experimental psychologists—at the time, a fifth of all philosophy professorships in Germany were held by this group—Churchland believed that answers to the questions raised by the philosophy of mind were not to be found through armchair contemplation, but instead in scientific laboratories. In lieu of linguistic analysis in the tradition of Wittgenstein, Churchland based her own reflections on investigations in the neurosciences. For Churchland, the mind is the brain.

fig.1_cover_08.jpg

Image of the cover of the book by Patricia Churchland: Brain Wise—Studies in Neurophilosophy, published by MIT Press (2002).

This identification of humans with their brains—a subject we are exploring at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in the context of our Cerebral Subject project—is closely connected to twentieth-century research on dreams. The discovery during the late 1940s that the human brain is, in electrophysiological terms, highly active during sleep significantly contributed to the view that the brain is not to be understood first and foremost as an organ that responds to external stimuli, but rather as a system that exhibits a high degree of spontaneous activity.

That said, the image put forward in neurophysiological dream research of a homo cerebralis imagining and actively constructing the world was initially rejected by philosophers. In 1956, three years after the groundbreaking correlation of dreaming with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, ordinary language philosopher Norman Malcolm attempted to explain away Descartes’ dream skepticism as a pseudo-problem resulting from a confusion of ideas. Dismissing the results of sleep research, Malcolm suggested that the brain waves of sleeping subjects could not be associated with dreams, as dreams were nothing more than dream reports—language games in Wittgenstein’s sense. Laboratory studies were therefore described as philosophically irrelevant.

During the 1980s neurophilosophy broke with this tradition of linguistic analysis, with philosophical thinking opening itself anew to the investigation of the mind via natural scientific methods. A renaissance of consciousness research in the 1990s led Finnish philosopher and neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo to assert the dreaming brain as the model of consciousness par excellence. Uncoupled from sensory input and motor output, in this view phenomenal consciousness emerges in pure form—and can as such be empirically investigated in the sleep laboratory. As Revonsuo sees it, the Cartesian mind/body dualism would be refuted if neurophysiological measurements would allow one to reconstruct what a test subject dreams. To date, however, the stalwart monist has not succeeded in determining via electroencephalography (EEG) whether a sleeper in the REM phase attains dream consciousness at all. Revonsuo concedes that he and his team have thus far been unable to refute Descartes.

Although neurophilosophy claims to offer a form of philosophical reflection grounded in empirical knowledge, the interdisciplinary endeavor inevitably operates within a set of assumptions not grounded exclusively in science—not the least of which is the still unproven identity of the brain and the mind, in other words, the very foundations of the entire neurophilosophical project itself. This field research in the anthropology of science examines, among other questions, how those working at the borders of science and philosophy respond to ignorance of their subject. What roles do “theoretical metaphors” play in an empirically-oriented philosophy of the mind? How are science-fiction-like thought experiments used to overcome the limits of scientific knowledge in philosophical arguments? And what happens to philosophical questions once the attempt has been made to “operationalize” them in experiments?

This study carried out at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science is not based merely on a critical examination of published texts. The methodology extends to include participant observation in a working group of brain researchers and neurophilosophers connected with Revonsuo’s laboratory. This ethnographic study of interdisciplinary interaction focuses on the question of what happens to concepts and research practices when they migrate back and forth across different cultures of knowledge. Insofar as anthropologists of science and neurophilosophers have both abandoned armchairs for laboratories, this cooperation funded by the Volkswagen Foundation also presents us with the opportunity to examine commonalities and differences between anthropological and neurophilosophical laboratory experiences.

More Information

The Project “The Cerebral Subject: Brain and Self in Contemporary Culture.” Go to Website

The European Platform for the Life Sciences, Mind Sciences, and the Humanities. Go to Website

Nicola Langlitz. Go to Website

Antti Revonsuo's “Consciousness Research Group,” University of Turku, Finland. Go to Website

See video recordings of the Neuroculture Workshop at the MPIWG (February 2009).

Programme of the Neurocultures Workshop, February 20-22, 2009.

Nils Klinger (The Sleeper - View from the side). Go to Website

German Version of this Research Topic

Print version of this Research Topic

Research Topics Archive

Bear hunting throughout Europe led to the species’ eradication in many areas. Wikimedia.
52: How to Live with Bears
51: The Wonders of Bodily Waste
Bathymetry model of the Strait of Gibraltar ca. 1932, Instituto Español de Oceanografía.
50: The Strait in the Cold War—Deep Science and Global Geopolitics in the Mediterranean
Andreas Ryff, Münz- und Mineralienbuch, 1594. Autograph in possession of the Basel University Library (A lambda II 46a).
49: Mountain Clamor! Resource Flows and Metal Culture in Early Modern Mining
Parades of Miners, Craftsmen, and Officials Marking the Marriage of Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, and Maria Josepha, Archduchess of Austria in 1719. Bergakademie Freiberg.
48: Data and Decisions in Early Modern Mines
Transcript of a Bobolink song by Ferdinand S. Mathews (1904), Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music: A Description of the Character and Music of Birds.
47: Scientific Scores and Musical Ears: Sound Diagrams in Field Recording
School of Athens
46: Early Modern Adaptation of the Aristotelian Mechanics
better shelter
45: Refugee Housing
44: Mapping Climatology
Black Hole Merger
43: One Hundred Years of Gravitational Waves
42: How High Is the Sea?
41: The Renewal of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the Post-War Era
40: Do Data Have Politics?
39: From Sound to Knowledge
38: Colours and Their Context
37: Is Bigger Better
36: Rooting Language Family Trees
35: Making Genetics Human
34: Galileo's Laboratory of Ideas
33: Historicizing Big Data
32: Ancient Balances at the Nexus of Innovation and Knowledge
31: Looking at Diversity
30: How Recipes Created Knowledge in Early Modern Households
29: Metallurgy, Ballistics and Epistemic Instruments
28: Science under Scrutiny
27: The Globalization of Knowledge and its Consequences
26: Parts Unknown: Making the Familiar Strange
25: Apprehending Human Difference and Population Size
24: Endangerment and Its Consequences
23: The Equilibrium Controversy
22: Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe
21: Knowledgescapes
20: Baby Science in fin-de-siècle America
19: Let him reconquer language
18: Histories of Scientific Observation
17: On Historicizing Epistemology : an essay
16: Johann Lambert's Conversion to a Geometry of Space
15: The Uncertain Boundaries between Light and Matter
14: Every move will be recorded
13: Courting the Crafts in Qing China
12: The Concepts of Immanuel Kant's Natural Philosophy
11: Jean Piaget and the Child's Spontaneous Geometry
10: Galileo and the Others
9: Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biodiversity
8: Dreaming in and of Neurophilosophy
7: Who Were Einstein's Opponents?
6: Physiology of the piano
5: Numbering Bees
4: New Ways of Using Digital Images
3: Telling Instruments
2: Microscope Slides: An Object of the History of Science?
1: What (Good) is Historical Epistemology?