What are “Neural Correlates” Correlates Of?

By Neuroskeptic | April 17, 2017 1:52 pm

In a thought-provoking new paper called What are neural correlates neural correlates of?, NYU sociologist Gabriel Abend argues that neuroscientists need to pay more attention to philosophy, social science, and the humanities.


Abend’s main argument is that if we are to study the neural correlates or neural basis of a certain phenomenon, we must first define that phenomenon and know how to identify instances of it.

Sometimes, this identification is straightforward: in a study of brain responses to the taste of sugar, say, there is little room for confusion because we all agree what sugar is. However, if a neuroscientist wants to study the neural correlates of, say, love, they will need to decide what love is, and this is something that philosophers and others have been debating for a long time.

Abend argues that cognitive neuroscientists “cannot avoid taking sides in philosophical and social science controversies” in studying phenomena, such as love or morality, which have no neutral, universally accepted definition. In choosing a particular set of stimuli in order to experimentally evoke something, neuroscientists are aligning themselves with a certain theory of what that thing is.

For example, the field of “moral neuroscience” makes heavy use of a family of hypothetical dilemmas called trolley problems. The classic trolley problem asks us to choose between allowing a runaway trolley to hit and kill five people, or throwing one person in front of the trolley, killing them but saving the other five.

The trouble is that not all moral philosophers and ethical traditions would agree that the trolley problem is a meaningful moral issue. If it isn’t, then the neuroscience of trolley problems has little to do with the neuroscience of morality.

Abend’s point is that if we say we are doing ‘moral neuroscience’ using the trolley problem, we’re commiting ourselves to the claim that trolley problems are a meaningful kind of moral dilemma, a claim that is essentially and inescapably philosophical, rather than scientific.

Therefore, Abend says, neuroscientists should engage with “the people who have most extensively and seriously thought about” the conceptual foundations of the topic they are studying: which might include philosophers, social scientists, historians, theologians, or others as the case may be.

In my view this is an important paper, although its importance is more in the questions it raises than in the answers it provides. Neuroscientists looking for guidance as to how to carry out their research won’t find any prescriptions here. Instead, they will find a reminder of the need to think about what they are doing.

I asked Gabriel Abend what prompted him to write this paper. He replied that:

At first I focused on moral neuroscience, on which I wrote two papers: “Thick Concepts and the Moral Brain” (2011) and “What the Science of Morality Doesn’t Say about Morality” (2013).

These papers made the following argument. While neuroscientists advance claims and theories about morality, their research is mostly about a particular kind of moral judgment. But this is a small and peculiar sample of moral stuff. There are many things that are moral, yet not moral judgments. There are also many things that are moral judgments, yet not of that particular kind. Hence, instead of new scientific theories about morality, we’re getting new scientific theories about a peculiar object. Why should that be so?

This led me to delve into the neuroscience of other social-psychological phenomena whose conceptualization and operationalization can be tricky. As a sociologist, I’ve often confronted this sort of problem in my own research: what counts as X and how to tell X from non-X. So I wanted to find out how it’s dealt with in neuroscience.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, philosophy, science, select, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    pay more attention to philosophy, social science, and the humanities” each all of which are utterly arbitrary, deeply political, and astoundingly non-empirical. Macroeconomics is a sour vicious joke -and it grinds real world dense international daily data starting in the 18th century.

    www dot iep dot utm dot edu slash fem-stan slash
    netwar dot wordpress dot com slash 2007 slash 07 slash 03 slash feminist-epistemology slash
    dailycaller dot com slash 2013 slash 11 slash 26 slash prof-corrects-minority-students-capitalization-is-accused-of-racism slash
    …BS in action

  • Only Some Stardust

    If we don’t label different responses to the Trolley problem as ‘moral behavior differences’, but still find that, say, Psychopaths have a different response than normal people 9 times out of 10 or so, does it really /matter/ if it ends up being ‘meaningful’ or not? Science isn’t about ‘meaningful’, it’s about information, even if that information ends up being something someone out there considers ‘philosophically meaningless’. A study about, say, rocks, isn’t likely to contain the meaning of life in it, is it?

    And if a person carefully defines their terms, then someone reading a paper declaring ‘XYZ is C, but prefers the term ‘B’ for ‘C’ should still be able to make use of it.

    That said, yes, science should always question its assumptions, and look carefully at its definitions. Social science and neuroscience should definitely cross paths, sharing as they do similar questions, if there ends up being a mismatch in results over the same basic question then there’s a problem somewhere that should be resolved. Possibly with the social science, but you never know until you actually look.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I agree that even if the trolley problem is not a “moral” problem, it might still be a useful experimental paradigm in other ways.

      But if people were calling it “moral” when it wasn’t, then we would be going astray in our study of morality.

      • http://www.pbase.com/davidjl David Littleboy

        I find the trolley problems to be far too extreme and artificial to see how they could possibly be useful or meaningful as “moral” questions. So, yes. I think we very much _have_ gone astray in our study of morality.
        (Speaking of extreme and artificial, the environment of an fMRI machine (loud clanking even with earplugs, being physically restrained for an extended period) can’t possibly be one in which anything seen going on in the brain has anything to do with anything other than stress. (I speak from experience.))

    • Collins Michael

      Finding that “Psychopaths have a different response than normal people” makes an assumption that both “psychopath” and “normal” are meaningful categories by which you can assign to experimental groups and then quantitatively measure. Moreover these assumptions are highly subjective in ways that other group categories usually aren’t – for example university students, prisoners or biological sex. However even these other categories have meaningful associations that vary vastly in time and space and affect our experimental design and conclusions.

      The great thing about philosophy and philosophers in science – and I’m speaking as a psychologist and cognitive scientist here – is they specialise on the logic and meaning of what we do far more rigorously than we do ourselves. Thus their viewpoint is privileged in a similar way to a cell biologist has a privileged understanding of neurons that many cognitive neuroscientists don’t, despite significant overlap.

      This is actually really important because so many of the concepts used in cognitive science are on very shaky ground philosophically speaking – for example the representational theory of mind.

  • José E. Burgos

    Instead of saying “pay more attention to philosophy,” which scientists are likely to frown-upon in contempt, I would say “pay more attention to, or reflect longer and harder on your concepts, or even define them better.” Although philosophers have done this for far longer than scientists, this does not place the former (or their discipline) in any privileged position that makes their reflections uniquely true. Conceptual truth in philosophy is a very thorny issue. Of course, scientists should look at what philosophers have done about a certain concept, but only as part of their scholarly investigations, on pain of reinventing or rediscovering, not to seek any privileged truth.

  • Richard Jacobson

    Granted, if neuroscientists want to study the neurobiology of morality, they have to have some sort of definition of what that means. They have to have some idea as to what they mean by “morality,” and also what they mean by “the neurobiology of.” I know that when you talk about the neurobiology of movement, you are talking about how the brain controls the movement of the body, in terms of motor nerves firing to control muscles, descending pathways controlling the firing of motor neurons, brainstem motor centers generating those descending signals, etc. So I assume that the neurobiology of morality deals with the activity of brain centers that control moral behavior and associated emotions. (Leave for a moment the question of what “feelings” are). And what can be categorized as “moral behavior” can certainly be informed by centuries of philosophical discussion and religious contemplation. (In fact, I would maintain that,if it hasn’t been discussed in the Talmud, it is probably trivial.)

    Similarly, philosophers have to go beyond discussing morality in a vacuum. We are biologic creatures, and our behavior arises from a brain that was shaped by evolution. In human evolution, moral behavior necessarily involved interactions with other humans. There is no such thing as morality to an individual human living his/her entire life in complete isolation. Therefore, we can best understand morality in terms of how it arose from the behavior of hominids living in groups. Only with this biologic grounding can we start talking about whether our modern concept of what is moral differs from the moral system that arose within the groups that our primate ancestors lived in. So, I would argue that biology informs philosophy just as much as philosophy informs biology.

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  • Matt B

    This paper and its thesis seem both fairly obvious and obviously true. And personally also feels like a validation. Way back in 2009 my masters thesis in philosophy at Edinburgh (with the worst title ever, ‘Conceptual constraints in empirical investigations into consciousness and behaviour.’) makes this point. There was a push by some experimental psychologists (and now also neuroscientists) to explore the relationship between things like ‘intentions’ or ‘conscious intentions’ and behaviour (and neural processes) but there was no clear pinning down of what intentions are, certainly not in any useful scientific way. Thanks for drawing attention to this because I actually think its a fairly big problem in behavioural neuroscience.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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