Werner Reichardt Centrum für Integrative Neurowissenschaften (CIN)

Philosophy of Neuroscience

Philosophy of Neuroscience

At the Boundary of Disciplines

The philosophy of neuroscience is an exciting discipline that sits at the boundary of cognitive neuroscience and traditional philosophy of mind. New analytic techniques have led to a cornucopia of information from the neurosciences in recent years. Philosophical work on mental phenomena and their explanation will need to be highly sensitive both to the precise parameters of these empirical findings, as well as the concepts, distinctions, frameworks, and questions that have been established by philosophers over the years. The Philosophy of Neuroscience (PONS) group aims to contribute to this rapprochement between philosophy and neuroscience. The current foci of the group’s investigations are: the philosophical foundations of integrative neuroscience, the relation between perception and action, body cognition, and rationality.

Philosophical Foundations of Integrative Neuroscience

The PONS research group is interested in how different levels of neuroscientific investigation relate to each other, to 'higher level' sciences such as psychology, and to philosophical questions about the mind. Questions about levels of investigation and explanation stem from the structure and the aims of the CIN itself, as it is based on the idea that integrative research is essential to making progress in explaining neural, sensory and cognitive phenomena. In particular, Marr’s (1982) three levels of analysis, heavily influenced by Reichhardt’s multi-level integrative approach in researching visual processing (e.g. Reichardt & Poggio, 1975, 1979), suggests that research can be divided into three distinct computational, algorithmic, and implementational levels. The PONS research group is interested in whether these are the only, or the best, ways to think about levels in neuroscience (e.g. Craver, 2007), and to what extent current neuroscientific explanations are integrated, to what extent they can be integrated, and to what extent they should be integrated (Bechtel, 2008, Mitchell, 2003).

A related topic is the nature of explanations in neuroscience and their relation to explanations in philosophy of mind. This includes debates about the role of reductive strategies in the mind sciences and how to conceive of emergent properties (Bickle, 2006, Bechtel, 2009). Given the complexity of the brain, it is also possible that a plurality of complementary explanations are necessary in order to fully understand it (Dale, 2008).  Finally, the group is also interested in evaluating the interplay between research methods and conceptual schemes used in neuroscience, in order to test whether classical categories such as conscious/unconscious perception, rational vs. irrational decision-making, or bodily ownership, are useful theoretical categories.

Perception and Action

One focus of the group's investigations are the questions: what is the role of perception in action; and what is the role of action in perception? It is commonly held to be constitutive of action that, first, the performance arises from its agent's intentions, and, second, that the performance is somehow controlled by its agent (Roessler and Eilan 2003). One question we might ask is: to what extent is an action under the control of its agent? A key issue here concerns the role of perceptual consciousness of the environment in action. Recent neuroscientific work on motor control has challenged the classical assumption of a link between motor-control and perceptual consciousness (Milner and Goodale 2008).

The project aims to integrate neuroscientific and philosophical work on of the role of perceptual consciousness in action, and to develop an account of the complex relations between action, consciousness, intention, and control. Whether or not it is held that action is dependent on perceptual consciousness, we can ask: is perceptual consciousness dependent on agency? And if so, is the dependency merely on agency, or also on the reflective grasp of oneself as an agent? The idea that there is a connection between perceptual consciousness and agency is notoriously difficult to spell out, and involves addressing the following questions: is the egocentric spatial content of perception connected to the perceiver's capacity for agency (Evans 1985)? Is awareness of a unified spatio-temporal world dependent on the capacity for self-movement (Hurley 1998)? Is the allocentric spatial content of mature human perception somehow connected to the capacity for agency (Baldwin 1995)?

The group aims to bring to bear neuroscientific work on the Dual Visual Systems Hypothesis (Milner and Goodale 2008), the Comparator Model of action-awareness (Frith 2005), and on the pick-up of self-specific information from the environment to address these philosophical issues.

Body Cognition

The body is the covert partner in the interaction between action and perception. Research in recent years has begun to see the body as a constitutive element of human cognition. Following this line of thought, a wide range of questions arises: What is the body’s role in cognition?  What role does the awareness of our body play and what mechanisms underlie this functioning? The empirical studies especially in the neuro and cognitive sciences, employing a great spectrum of different methods such as Virtual Reality (VR), lesion methods/ disorders and behavioural methods, have discovered numerous unexpected bodily phenomena (e.g. sense of body disownership (Marchetti/ Della Sala 1998), Anarchic Hand syndrome (de Vignemont 2007) or outer body experience (Lenggenhager et.al. 2007).) Philosophical research which is aimed at a better understanding of the role of the body therefore needs to be highly sensitive to these findings.

The PONS research group works at the boundary of philosophy and cognitive sciences in collaboration with the perception and action group and the VR group at the MPI. This collaboration helps us to better understand the more basic role of the body for cognition. Moreover, the PONS research group aims at a conceptual clarification of agency, bodily ownership, the self, as well as action and perception that arises from a re-calibrated and up-to-date understanding of the role of the body for cognition.


Rationality is an umbrella term covering the proper functioning of various processes and organisms in certain situations. It is connected to various key questions about optimisation in cognition – in particular, questions about whether a certain choice or behaviour is optimal or adaptive, and about whether certain processes of decision making are appropriate, in a yet-to-be specified sense.

PONS investigates questions concerning rationality from two directions: (1) Perception and Action: is there a rational connection between perception and action – in that perception provides a source of reasons for acting? The examination and interpretation of pathological cases, such as blindsight, are crucial here. (2) Rationality in Decision Making:In collaboration with the CIN Neural Basis of Intuition Group (headed by Dr Kirsten Volz), we are examining whether neo-classical models of decision making from decision theory are adequate as models for actual human decision making. A new sub-project in this area is an investigation of moral decision-making. Our overall goal is to characterise the actual choice behaviour of human agents and investigate the philosophical ramifications of this.