How should neuroscience research about social-psychological phenomena identify its objects of inquiry, so as to develop adequate experimental paradigms and tasks to elicit them, and then look for their neural correlates? How should it go about conceptualizing objects such as morality, empathy, art, love, creativity, or religious belief? If a neuroscientist is after the neural correlates of X, how can she tell X from non-X? This is an important methodological problem, to which neuroscience hasn’t given enough thought. I argue that it actually consists of two distinct questions: first, what counts as object X; and second, how to tell what counts as object X. At neither level can neuroscientists avoid taking sides in philosophical and social science controversies. I further argue that they can therefore benefit from the relevant literatures in philosophy, social science, and the humanities. These literatures can help neuroscience studies better conceptualize and operationalize the social-psychological phenomena they are interested in—and thus better get at them, specify how experimental results might speak to the real social world, and clarify what exactly neural correlates are neural correlates of.
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This narrower sense includes sensory perception and the ‘basic emotions,’ which might be shaped or triggered by social factors. By contrast, social-psychological phenomena are not only shaped or triggered by social factors, but also, more importantly, certain social conditions are necessary for them to exist and be intelligible at all. Both kinds of phenomena are investigated in the fields of social and cognitive neuroscience.
While I focus on ‘of X,’ others have focused on the ‘neural correlates’ part of the formula. For example, tough methodological, logical, and conceptual questions have been raised about neuroimaging evidence (what exactly it is and does), brain areas (how to demarcate them), localization, data analyses, the subtraction method, reverse inference, and correlation (vis-à-vis causation) (e.g., Friston et al, 2006; Hanson and Bunzl, 2010; Klein, 2010, 2012, 2014; Kriegeskorte et al, 2009; Logothetis, 2008; Machery, 2014; Margulies, 2012; Mole and Klein, 2010; Poldrack, 2006, 2011; Poldrack and Farah, 2015; Shulman, 2013; Vul et al, 2009). For their part, sociological, anthropological, philosophical, and historical works have critically examined the practices through which neural correlates are produced, how they become knowledge claims and scientific articles, and what these might conceal (e.g., Choudhury and Slaby, 2012; Cohn, 2004, 2008; Dumit, 2004; Ehrenberg, 2004; Joyce, 2008; Lahire and Rosental, 2008; Meloni, 2011; Ogien, 2010; Ortega and Vidal, 2011; Pickersgill, 2013; Rose and Abi-Rached, 2013; Singh and Rose, 2009; Vidal and Ortega, 2012).
A terminological note: ‘demarcation’ is more specific than ‘conceptualization’; it’s an aspect of it, or a way of seeing it (see, e.g., Laudan, 1983; Leiter, 2011; Pennock, 2011; Pigliucci and Boudry, 2013). Further, the two words come from different traditions. These differences aren’t too important in this paper, though.
Not that these dichotomies would be self-explanatory. What makes a challenge hard is itself a hard (and challenging) issue, and what makes an object complex is itself a complex (though not necessarily objective) issue. It’s also a complex issue whether those hard challenges apply also to natural science phenomena (and if so, which ones); whether primary qualities are a special kind of quality and natural kinds are a special kind of kind (and if so, what makes a quality primary and a kind natural); and how the eventful history of natural science’s epistemic objects, historical epistemology, and the history of science at large speak to these philosophy-of-science issues (if at all) (Chang, 2004, 2011; Feest and Sturm, 2011; Hacking, 2002; Kuhn, 1970; Stroud, 2011). These questions would take us too far afield, however.
For the sake of simplicity, I take this quotation to be the OED definition of ‘moral,’ although it’s actually one of its senses only (and it’s not ‘morality’ but ‘moral’). Likewise, I quote only one part of the definition of one sense of ‘love.’
This distinction has interesting similarities to the ‘problem of the criterion’ in epistemology. One question is ‘what do we know?’ or ‘which statements are true?’ A different question is ‘how are we to decide… whether we know?’ or ‘how can we tell which statements are true?,’ i.e., what are our ‘criteria of knowing’ or ‘criterion of truth’ (Chisholm, 1977, p. 56; Cling, 1994, p. 262; Sextus, 1933, 2.20).
You could argue that neuroscientists don’t need a precise definition (or conceptualization) of X, but only a rough one. Be that as it may, these two questions won’t go away. For instance, Jones and her lab members might have agreed on what morality roughly is, or they might have agreed on a ballpark definition, rather than a list of necessary and sufficient conditions. Yet, their experiments still have to distinguish roughly-morality from not-roughly-morality, or ballpark-morality from not-ballpark-morality, because they compare brain activation in moral and non-moral conditions. Thus, both precise and less precise definitions (or conceptualizations) require that those two questions be addressed. What’s more, the claim that a rough definition suffices is itself a view about definitions and scientific concepts. While it’s surely a legitimate view, not everyone will agree (see Argument B 2).
Typically, neuroscience studies don’t discuss their conceptual choices, philosophical underpinnings, and demarcation criteria. This is understandable, given space constraints and intended audience. Either way, implicit commitments can be discerned in much of this work—specifically, to moral philosophy as consequentialism and deontology frame it. Such commitments are explicit in broader pieces, sometimes in the review genre, which do broach conceptual and philosophical matters (Moll et al, 2008; Parkinson et al, 2011; Young and Dungan, 2012). Whether implicit or explicit, moral neuroscience still underappreciates that these commitments aren’t impartial, but load the theoretical dice. More generally, objections have been raised to neuroscience’s and psychology’s unclear conceptualizations of morality, ‘the moral brain,’ or ‘human morality’; the fact that research about moral action or behavior is less common than research about judgment about moral action or behavior; and fallacies of composition, e.g., papers’ data and findings about moral judgment, ‘moral cognition,’ ‘moral decision making’ or altruistic or pro-social behavior don’t warrant conclusions and theories about morality tout court (see, e.g., Crockett, 2013; Decety and Wheatley, 2015; Funk and Gazzaniga, 2009; Kvaran and Sanfey 2010; Marazziti et al, 2013; de Oliveira-Souza et al, 2015; Pascual et al, 2013; Prehn and Heekeren, 2014; Tancredi, 2005; Verplaetse et al, 2009). I won’t assess these objections’ forcefulness, as my arguments are orthogonal to the worth of diverging conceptualizations or understandings of morality (or any other object).
As discussed above, you may believe that X is nothing but what people mean by the word ‘X.’ If a neuroscientist concluded that this is the best metaphysical account of social reality, then her goal would indeed be a neuroscience of word ‘X.’ If this metaphysical account turned out to be true, then the neuroscience of X would have to become the neuroscience of word ‘X,’ plus ‘X-translated into German,’ plus ‘X-translated into Mandarin,’ plus….
These paragraphs touch on longstanding epistemological conflicts about social scientific knowledge (see, e.g., Andler, 2009, 2011, 2016; Dupré, 1993; Hacking, 1999, 2002; Searle, 2010; Taylor, 1985a, b). Such conflicts aren’t occasional events in the history of the social sciences, but their normal state of affairs, which every generation rehashes in its way—though occasionally they do get rowdier and get called ‘Methodenstreit,’ ‘Positivismusstreit,’ or some other fancy German word. Thus, I certainly can’t do justice to these issues here. Furthermore, I talk about social science and natural science, but what about the humanities? And what differentiates the humanities from the social sciences in the first place?
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Logically, this article has been made possible by an infinitely large number of people, organizations, and Brazilian butterflies (Lorenz, 1993). For their intentional or unintentional causal effects on it, I’d like to thank Alain Berthoz, Alain Ehrenberg, Ann Morning, Antonio Rangel, Bérangère Thirioux, Bruno Wicker, Claude Rosental, Claudio Benzecry, Claus Lamm, Dale Jamieson, Daniel Andler, Daniel Margulies, David Sbarra, Dennis Patterson, Devin Terhune, Diego Golombek, Fernando Vidal, Gil Eyal, Gretty Mirdal, Jan Slaby, Jimena Mantilla, Leila Hamit, Luciana de Souza Leão, Marie Meyerhoff, Mariano Plotkin, Mariano Sigman, MaryAnn Noonan, Michael Pardo, Olessia Kirtchik, Oriel FeldmanHall, Patrick Sharkey, Rafael Mandressi, Rubén Flores, Saadi Lahlou, Samuel Dinger, Sebastián Abreu, Sheila Jasanoff, Simon Luck, Steven Epstein, Steven Lukes, Steven Tester, Suparna Choudhury, and Torsten Heinemann. My research has been supported by the Department of Sociology at New York University, Institut d’études avancées de Paris, Uses and Abuses of Biology Programme (Faraday Institute, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge), and Lichtenberg-Kolleg at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. I’m thankful, too, to BioSocieties editors Nikolas Rose, Ilina Singh, and Catherine Waldby, editorial assistant Beatrix Daniels, copy-editor Lauren Baker, and anonymous reviewers for their terrific comments. Because my causal effects on this article were larger than these individuals’ and organizations’, the blame for its shortcomings should be laid on me. I may pass on the blame to those Brazilian butterflies, though.
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Abend, G. What are neural correlates neural correlates of?. BioSocieties 12, 415–438 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-016-0019-y
- neural correlates
- logic of inquiry
- philosophy of neuroscience
- critical neuroscience