Interview to Markus Gabriel
Markus Gabriel, born in 1980, studied in Bonn, Heidelberg, Lisbon, and New York. He is one of the most prominent representatives of the New Realism in philosophy, which is part of his project for a new illustration. At the age of 29, he became the youngest Professor of Philosophy in Germany. Since 2009 he has held the chair of epistemology, modern, and contemporary philosophy at the University of Bonn and is the director of the International Center for Philosophy (NRW). He is also director of the Center for Science and Thought, which pursues the interdisciplinary exchange between philosophy and the natural sciences to find productive and sustainable solutions to several of the most pressing issues of our time. He has been a visiting professor in Brazil, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, Portugal, and the United States. Several of his books have been translated into Spanish, including: Why the world does not exist (2015), I am not my brain (2016), Meaning and existence. A realistic ontology (2017), The sense of thought (2019), Neo-existentialism (2020), The power of art (2020), and Ethics for dark times (2021). He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of CINET, whose first international workshop was held in November 2021 in Cáceres (Spain). Below you can read an extract of an interview that was carried out to him in the framework of this workshop. The video for this interview can be seen here.
Can empirical neuroscience benefit from the learning of philosophy?
I do indeed think that empirical neuroscience can benefit a lot from learning philosophy, engaging with philosophers and so forth, because the way in which we pose questions, even in very technical areas of empirical neuroscience, is always going to be informed by our picture of how the brain is integrated. Even the tiny little details that we find out with our fancy technology that is now available will depend on the interpretation of a certain context: where do we integrate the process, what are the causal systems that we are discussing, and so forth. So I think that indeed philosophical modes of thinking about what empirical neuroscience is doing, even in a given technical set up, have consequences for how the experiment will run, and it will open up the scientists also space of imagination and bring forth ideally radical breakthroughs.
Which is the main ethical challenge you meet in neuroscientific researches?
Fundamentally, neuroscience tells us something about a very important part of the human being, namely the nervous system, typically focused on the brain. So the more we learn about the system and its details, the more we thereby directly or indirectly change the image of the human being (what I call “our self-portrait”). I have to think that ethics is fundamentally guided by how we think about the human being, because ethics is about what we owe to each other qua human beings in virtue of our shared humanity and what we thereby also owe to other animals and the inanimate environment that we share with them as a socially and cross-speciously constructed ecological niche. Therefore I think neuroscience, given that it impacts our self-understanding as human animals, enormously has immediately ethical consequences on the theoretical level, and then directly and indirectly also practical consequences.
What can neuroscience learn from philosophy and what can philosophy learn from neuroscience?
I think what we are doing here together with neuroscientists, philosophers, and a few physicists is science. This is how science ought to be organized. The idea that science is always just the specialized acquisition of details knowledge is precisely a fundamental cultural mistake. From the standpoint of a cultural humanities-driven investigation, the way in which we think about the relationship between science and society is highly pathological. What we need is new forms of integrating different systems of scientific knowledge acquisition, maybe even by drawing in things that we know from how the brain coordinates its own system. So why not think of the organization of knowledge as modeled along the lines of what we know about the brain? This would also be a potentially revolutionary outcome of what we are doing: connect the different modules of knowledge maybe in the way in which the brain connects its different modules.
What metaphor can work to understand the brain other than a computational metaphor?
The metaphor of the brain as computer is utterly confused and highly problematic though it has led to quite some interesting discoveries, as it were accidentally. I happen to think of the brain as a receiver of presence. For me, the brain is more like as it were a TV station, where you can receive various programs. The brain selects a proper subset of the physical fields that are out there for a particular kind of processing. So I happen to believe that I receive your image right now rather than produce it by way of computation. If we think of the brain as a receiving part of reality itself, of a larger reality, then we will also look at what it does in a different way than if we think of it as having mental content. So I think the mind, and maybe even consciousness, is not here. Here is the brain, and the brain plays an important role for producing the presence of consciousness. But mind and consciousness extend well beyond the brain, and the brain rather receives the mind than produces it. So this is my way of thinking about the brain, and that is an utterly different model that I think will also have consequences for empirical research if we try to think along those lines.