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Making Biological Minds

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MBM (Making Biological Minds)

Reporting period: 2016-05-01 to 2018-04-30

The neurosciences are flourishing, while the relationship between the neurosciences and the humanities is not. Whereas some scholars have welcomed closer collaboration, much work attempting to bring the two together can seem off-putting or else preparatory to a larger engagement. These deficiencies in turn have generated widespread doubt that either side has anything to learn from the other.
This project argues differently. After all, both disciplines are trying to understand one of deepest mysteries: human nature. Using state of the art techniques in the history and philosophy of science, the project shows that biological understandings of the mind arise when we come to see ourselves as deeply individual, outside of scientific study, and when the means of bettering our lives through politics seem to break down.
But the project also argues that the mind has been studied by a variety of disciplines in the past, and there is no reason why they cannot again. But to do so requires us to address some fundamental questions: what is thought? How does it relate to the proxies we measure? How do we transform these proxies into scientific models? How do these models relate to our own sense of self? These are questions that the humanities are particularly suited to address. Provocatively, the project suggests that some of the high restrictions that neuroscientists place upon themselves in order to be scientific should be relaxed. This may not help produce answers, but with the help of humanists create much more insightful questions about ourselves.
Central to the project is a case study from the history of the human sciences. The project focuses on changing understandings of human nature in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. It traces how notions of an immaterial mind or soul declined, and in their place arose conceptions of humanity which were based on the nerves and brain. It examines the events, the personalities, the ideas that led thinkers to deny that we can access the minds of others, to believe that social progress is difficult if not impossible, and to reach for higher laws of nature which they thought could only be found in the body. These insights are developed in a monograph The Makings of a Biological Mind, Britain 1750-1880, which will be published in the near future.
Such insights also guided the discussions during a two-day conference, which brought together historians and philosophers to explore theories and practices in the neurosciences, towards understanding the goals of the discipline, the progress they’ve made, and what can be changed to lead it forward. Proceedings of this conference will soon appear for free under open access in the internationally-recognised top-tier journal History of the Human Sciences.
The project goes beyond the state of the art by considering disciplines within the humanities – including political economy, jurisprudence, literary criticism, critical aesthetic, linguistics, comparative religion, even history-writing itself – as legitimate sources of knowledge about human nature. The project shows how these disciplines have been in dialogue with the natural sciences in the past, so that there is no restriction on them from collaborating in the future.
The project has already made a start in this direction. Discussions with a practicing neuroscientist have borne a plan to write a small book together outlining our different positions and talking about what the future might hold. We will show the potential of the neurosciences, how these might be fulfilled, as well as its limits. By so doing, we intend to make human nature a question for many more scientific and non-scientific disciplines, and show that social progress is a question for us all.