Book  Review

Sins of the modern cognitive neuroscience: conceptual confusions, mereological fallacy, and modified Cartesianism

Andres Soosaar
Department of Physiology, University of Tartu, Estonia

Max R. Bennett and Peter M. S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Blackwell Publishing (2003), xvii + 461 pp., $39.95 (paperback).



To put formally, M.R. Bennett (a physiologist) and P.M.S. Hacker (a philosopher) have released a voluminous attempt to reconceptualize the grounds of scientific understanding of mental issues through organism (sic! organism, not brain) functioning. The book is structured to four main parts covering wide area of analysis from conceptual and historical roots of brain functioning through human mental faculties and consciousness to their own methodological considerations to issues of neuroscientific research functioning and two appendices presenting their attitude to the philosophy of mind of Daniel Dennett and John Searle. In introduction of the book the reader is suggested to take this approach as a quite unusual effort to manage general questions of cognitive neuroscience. This is very much so, because they try to analyze existing scientific concepts theoretically without any real empirical support. They try to find contradictions, misconceivings, misusings of fundamental notions, concepts and hypotheses in scientific study of mind and have discovered tens of different more or less serious conceptual misdoings which would be necessary to make up to get right track for real progress in cognitive neurosciences.  In this point it is quite difficult to imagine how scientists can proceed the way of conceptual correction as science doesn’t like so much to rewrite past, accept the pure force of traditions, and at the same time science cannot for several reasons perform forced conceptual unification of the field. Interestingly, after reading the book I started to think that by reading of the book another order of chapters may make its understanding of the book easier: it would be good to jump after the first history part to the end of book, methodological section (Part IV) and appendices which express authors original positions in a more open way and afterwards turn back to the analyses of human mental issues and performance (Part II & III).


The roots and early development of neuroscience are written in a way to present together both ideological and empirical understandings of neural and mental functioning (Part I). They divided conceptual history into Aristotelian and Cartesian period and their own sympathy clearly belongs to Aristotle and his approach of psuchç as “the general principle of animal life”. The authors’ main concern in the history and development of neuroscience has been deep and modifying Cartesianism of eminent scientists until very recent times. Yes, it is possible to accuse scientists from conceptual basis, but scientists and science have followed their own route on the basis of both conviction and social circumstances which may be different from philosophical prescriptions. Here we clearly meet a fundamental question about the role of philosophy in development of knowledge and authors have chosen more conservative strategy to hold philosophy and science separately as much it is nowadays possible. Such separation gives sometimes unexpected situations when philosophical contributions cannot fit very well with real scientific practice and expectations.

Methodologically authors express very clear and broad (if not total) antireductionist position (Part IV, Ch. 13) and try to justify this. They are wrestling a lot with identities of different sorts between mental and neural issues, but now we obviously see that cognitive neuroscience and philosophy try to divide the field of mental more exactly to issues which are solvable with traditional identity and reductionist methods and to issues which seem to need certain new approach. Search for critical correlations between mental and neural (not physical or chemical) seems to be main approach of modern cognitive neuroscience and other research strategies based on mind-organism dichotomy ask different conceptual and material support for their realization. We still know relatively little about brain functioning and therefore it is not very good time to underestimate abilities of the brain and neuroscientists. Scientists like oversimplifications, but usually they are able to develop these simplifications to adequate level of understanding and nowadays scientists imagine the world to be rather very complicated issue.

According to authors another big mistake of current neuroscience is a mereological fallacy which mainly means impossibility to bind cognitive and conscious performance with brain. They say that there is a new form of Cartesianism, the brain-body distinction or crypto-Cartesianism, which is not proper way to follow for neuroscience. No doubt, this point is and will remain a big conflicting issue between their foundations of neuroscience and real neuroscience, as very big part of neuroscience hopes to derive the truth about brain functioning and cognition as well from multilevel structuring of whole organism and its central nervous system. Such more holistic approach makes life difficult in neurosciences, because empirical tools of investigation seems to be per se more appropriate and successful not in whole spectrum of existence but in smaller fragment of it as they are not able to collect simultaneously all aspects of the object under research. Natural and life sciences have practiced a long time a destructive way of cognition in a sense that understanding of the issue has been got through simplification and reducing of complexity. Authors have summarized their own methodological approach as follows, “One primary method of dissolving conceptual puzzlement is the careful examination and description of the use of words – of what competent speakers, using words correctly, do and do not say.” (400) and “Philosophy, by contrast (to science, reviewer’s addition), clarifies what does and does not make sense” (401). Those methodological considerations nicely explain why these philosophical foundations of neuroscience and neuroscience itself could not find mutual understanding, because science clearly prioritizes object of study and after that the way how to speak about that. Furthermore, science has not been so rigid with terms and concepts and has in a quite flexible way to develop its conceptual apparatus from different sources, and from philosophy among others.

Clearly problematical is the claim that neuroscience is good to explain human behavior in pathological conditions and irrational behavior, but not normal rational behavior. The question how to understand diseases without knowing normal conditions is really difficult to understand and answer, especially for people in medicine. Speaking about study consciousness, authors have found philosophy and science to be complementary, but at same time they cannot influence each other (403). So autonomous positions of philosophy and science may easily start to work against their common progress as mentioned above.


The central part of the book is the conceptual analysis of human mind and its scientific research (Part II and III). Mind is taken here as the set of traditionally recognized faculties which are very much originated and supported by folk psychology and existing language. At first authors are disturbed of crypto-Cartesianism and ascription to brain properties and abilities belonging to whole organism in modern neuroscientific research (111). They also seem to declare that modern neuroscientists follow old philosophical constructions which may block real progress of the science, but surprisingly they conclude that crypto-Cartesianism is not false but conceptually confusing and doesn’t make sense (112). I feel this as a sign of softening in the position under pressure of neuroscientific reality and achievements, because there is very difficult to find the neuroscientific enterprise accepting this too holistic conceptual line. Authors’ theses on perceptions as properties of objects and lack of representations about external world are clearly provocative issues for contemporary neuroscientific community and will hardly find real acceptance. Claims like “Sensations have bodily locations and are felt by person, not by brain” (122), “The brain is neither an organ of perception nor a subject of perception. The neural events in the brain are not forms of perceiving something in its vicinity. It is the animal that perceives and manifests its perceiving something in its vicinity” (127) are badly understandable by scientists on the reason that scientific common sense hold the idea of functional specialization of biological structure..

The section of consciousness starts with short overview on current study of consciousness from both scientific and philosophical perspectives and in some places they seem to give advices to philosophy and neuroscience to limit itself within their own area of interest (292). Such limitations are badly acceptable both by modern science and philosophy, they both like and prefer more free area for activity and the method is the key issue which limits their borders. The study of consciousness is based on division of it to intransitive and transitive forms, which is initiated obviously by importance but not totality of the intentionality of consciousness. In this point authors and neuroscientists are very much agree with each other, because scientists (especially in medicine) use often the separation of consciousness as a state and content of consciousness. In general it is obvious that conceptual clarity is an important condition for future progress of consciousness studies, but main question here is the source of the conceptual clarity and this moment empirical support seems to be very much useful for that.

Authors repeat several times the task of philosophy is to provide conceptual constructions which make sense. Scientists certainly follow the same task, but they have different apparatus and conceptual space to do this, for example design of experimental work may well serve as the issue for making sense in neuroscience. The task to produce meaningful conceptual constructions is clearly valuable and important for every cognitive activity, but science at times takes rather more important to describe, predict, and reproduce reality and at the same time science limits itself much more as philosophy does with accordance between theoretical and empirical. In fact this limitation gives to science freedom to change conceptual grounds and contents when new ones serve better the explanations. 

The dialogue would be a productive way of existence of science and philosophy, but authors don’t seem to worry themselves too much whether real neuroscience and its possible philosophical foundations can fit into one theoretical scheme. Despite of its critical attitude the volume gives a good platform for mutual discussions to create unified study of mind and to develop strong sides both more theoretical and conceptual understanding in philosophy and empirical performance of neuroscience.