International Conference 2012

Abstracts Detail

Reflective equilibrium as a process and coherence as an aim - philosophy’s modest but important role for interdisciplinarity.

Machiel Keestra

Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Amsterdam

The hey-days of encyclopaedic philosophical endeavours, reigning from Aristotle to at least Hegel, have widely declared to be over. With it, the conviction has waned that some deep structure of reality can be identified via philosophical analysis, enabling such analysis to cross boundaries between domains or levels of reality that at first sight appear incommensurable. With the demise of such foundationalist approaches to philosophy, associated with notions of elemental and derived truths, scientific or practical matters have been developed. This presentation will reflect upon two such alternative conceptions and destill from both some principles that can guide the interaction between philosophical analysis and science. By applying the results to the relation between philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, we will consider whether we can find these same principles at work within cognitive neuroscience and if so, what role this leaves to philosophy in the interaction with this (inter-)discipline.

A first alternative conception of the aim and role of philosophy to be discussed is a coherentist conception. Instead of strictly distinguishing between truth and falsehood, and between elemental and derived truth, a coherentist conception of knowledge aims at developing conceptual and theoretical networks that are maximally coherent. An advantage of such an approach is that establishing coherence can start from data or factual statements without a preliminary need to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Instead, it is important to distinguish between data that cohere less or more with other data and theories (Rescher, 1973). The principles that help to ascertain coherence are not absolute as was the case in foundationalist conceptions of knowledge, as indeed in the coherentist conception even pragmatist principles can play a role, which was not the case in foundationalism.

A second conception to be discussed is the process of reflective equilibrium, developed in ethics and particularly for solving applied ethical problems (see (Rawls, 1951) for a first outline of this process). Here as well, the process aims at developing maximal coherence between moral intuitions. At the same time, the process should uncover or develop theoretical statements of a more general nature, from which the moral intuitions concerning practical issues can be derived. However, such theoretical statements are not foundational in the sense that their status is independent from the moral intuitions, as their role is dependent precisely upon the coherence with those intuitions.

The presentation will draw lessons from analyzing both conceptions. It aims to characterize the coherence that is aimed at, while analyzing also how different kinds of statements – factual, theoretical and normative – are being integrated. It will do so while taking the cognitive neuroscientific investigations of free will as an example. These investigations have to navigate between folk psychological notions and the neurophysiological evidence about brain based origin of action tendencies. Cognitive neuroscientists themselves when carrying out such investigations have to solve serious problems of interdisciplinary communication, striving as well to maximize coherence between the various statements. Although a plea has been made for philosophical foundations in this domain (Bennett & Hacker, 2003), this has been welcomed unsurprisingly more by philosophers than by scientists. The privileged role for philosophy that this plea implies is no longer granted once a more coherentist conception of philosophy is accepted (Keestra & Cowley, 2011).

Instead, a much greater role for scientific statements must be accepted in such a philosophical analysis, corresponding with a much more modest role for philosophy in such interdisciplinary endeavours. The presentation will close by describing this novel role or position of philosophy, contributing to rather than guiding interdisciplinary investigations, partly by keeping coherence with other theoretical and practical problems outside of this domain in mind. In doing so, philosophy can play a role in addressing the complex problems that we are facing, as it may help in avoiding incoherent and inconsistent ‘solutions’.

Bennett, M. R., & Hacker, P. M. S. (2003). Philosophical foundations of neuroscience. Malden, Mass.,: Blackwell.

Keestra, M., & Cowley, S. J. (2011). Concepts – not just yardsticks, but also heuristics: rebutting Hacker and Bennett. Language Sciences, 33(3), 464-472.

Rawls, J. (1951). Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics. The Philosophical Review, 60(2), 177-197.

Rescher, N. (1973). The coherence theory of truth. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.