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Egenis · Events

Egenis seminar with Prof Barry Barnes: 'How Brain Scanning Can Lead Us To the Truth: Some Further Thoughts'

Seminar   11.03.2013






Professor Barry Barnes

Organised by



Egenis,Byrne House,University of Exeter,St Germans Road,Exeter, EX4 4PJ

Room no: GF7

Event details

Time: 3:30 - 5.00pm


In a talk in Egenis in 2010 I described some recent studies of brain activity using MRI scanners, and briefly indicated why they could prove interesting to social scientists. In the present talk emphasis has been placed on the latter topic at the cost of a curtailed description. And mindful of the growth of philosophy of biology at Exeter, I have made it clear that the significance I attribute to the work is at once sociological and epistemological.

The MRI experiments monitor brains in situ, as subjects engage in 'decision taking' activities. They have a recognised connection with the problem of free will but initially interested me because they bear upon the problem of sameness. Sameness relations may be understod in non-technical terms as relations of analogy. Philosophers identify them as intransitive relations. Crucially, it is recognised that even though they may be extended in innumerable ways they are generally extended in just one way and that the problem of identifying what makes this the 'correct' way is both important and unsolved. The problem may indeed be insoluble, but it has to be coped with somehow. Psychologists try to cope by assuming initial similarities in individuals: they all interact with the world via 'the same' sensory and cognitive apparatus. Social scientists sometimes invoke the connections between individuals instead: they transcend differences as they interact. My argument, however, is that any half-way defensible naturalistic account must combine what these accounts separate: the problem is to understand how the interaction of 'individuals' with the world and their communicative interaction with each other [in so far as there is a distinction to be made here] together sustain their shared sense of sameness.

Of course, as interactions of whatever kind proceed, things go on in our brains, and the MRI experiments seek to investigate what is going on therein. I shall briefly summarise standard descriptions of them, before redescribing them as instances of human social behaviour in their own right, and noting the structural analogy between them and the Milgram experiments. I argue that without recourse to an 'external' perspective on the experiments, which recognises participants as at once oriented to the world and to each other, we stand in danger of misinterpreting their results. I then, at last, turn to the results themselves, which remain interesting and important. The scanner [it is said] is able to predict a decision before the individual is consciously aware of having made it: the brain is activated to push a button before the individual is aware she has decided to push it. These findings are consistent with reports from the work of Libet onwards of a time gap between brain activity preparatory to an action and 'conscious recognition' that the action has been decided upon. This is often been found strange, but it falls into place if the human brain is that of a social agent, not an independent individual.

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