Marya Schechtman is Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her PhD in philosophy from Harvard in 1988. Her main areas of interest are personal identity, philosophy of psychology, bioethics, and the philosophy of memory, with interests also in existentialism and aesthetics. She is the author of the books The Constitution of Selves (Cornell University Press) and Staying Alive: Personal Identity, Practical Concerns, and the Unity of a Life (Oxford University Press), as well as several articles and essays. She 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 her in the framework of this workshop. The video for this interview can be seen here.
Can the dialogue between neuroscience and philosophy be beneficial?
I have absolute faith that the dialogue between neuroscience and philosophy can be fruitful. I think it’s difficult, it’s not straightforward… but I think we’ve already seen a lot of examples of fruitful interchange, and I think that, as time goes on and as we spend more time together, we will absolutely make progress.
Can empirical neuroscience benefit from the learning of philosophy?
Absolutely. Philosophers ask different kinds of questions about the same things that neuroscientists are talking about. I think the questions we’re both asking are big questions that all people ask (about who we are, what we are, how we fit into the world…) and that these big questions can’t be addressed head on. You have to take a little piece of it and work on it with tools that you have. So we each get a different kind of insight, we get a different perspective, we get a different set of results… and then we have to figure out how to translate them into one another. So it’s absolutely important for philosophers to inform neuroscientists and vice versa.
Which is the main ethical challenge you meet in neuroscientific researches?
That’s a hard and a big question. The ethical questions that I’ve been most involved with I work on personal identity have to do with clinical applications. Neuroscience has given us wonderful, amazing technologies that can alleviate human suffering in all kinds of ways, especially in psychiatric contexts but in many others as well. We have ways of intervening, but we need to think about what these interventions do to identity: why is it important, what’s important, what makes us who we are, how can we change that, and what are some of the consequences of changing it. So to think through what it is to be a person, what it is to have agency, and how neural interventions may or may not change that, and why it would matter if they did is one of the big ethical questions.