Why combine philosophy and Neurosciences

How philosophers
explore the brain
and the neurosciences

The brain is often understood as the place of consciousness, personality, individuality, thought and action, or even as the materialization of the subject. As neuroscientific research has been growing since the mid-1980s, new ways of observing and influencing processes in the brain have emerged. As a result, many old philosophical questions were asked anew: Can everything mental be reduced to brain activity? How does the brain relate to the different dimensions of our self? Are we free or not?

Progress in the field of neurotechnology has recently raised a number of ethical questions: How deep can interventions in the brain go? Do we have to protect the privacy of the brain in a special way? Can morality and empathy be located in the brain? Could we be allowed to – or should we even – improve the brain? Who is ultimately responsible for human-machine interactions? The human being and his brain or the intelligent, self-learning neuroprosthesis? Such questions can only be answered interdisciplinary and in the integration of different perspectives and methods.

The discovery of the "Bereitschaftspotential", the readiness potential: Does man have free will?

An example of how the neurosciences have challenged philosophy is linked to the question of whether man can have freedom of will, even though he is subject to natural laws like all other things in the world. This debate was reignited by the discovery of the so-called readiness potential in the mid-1960s. This experiment demonstrated that even though consciousness of a movement exists 200 milliseconds before a motion is started,  this is already preceded by a neuronal activity 500 milliseconds before the movement. Very simply put, there are measurable brain activities before the human being becomes aware of a decision. Are we humans thus determined by the neurobiological processes? Although opinions differ on the interpretation of this experiment, to this day it has fuelled the debate on the relationship between freedom of will, freedom of action and consciousness.


Another example for an important event in the development of modern neuro-ethics was the case of Phineas Gage, who, in the middle of the 19th century, suffered from a heavy accident. Because of the accident, he was left with permanent damage to his brain. An iron rod destroyed parts of his orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortex. Although he survived the accident and did not receive any impairment to his memory, perception, intelligence or similar cognitive capacities, his personality changed – especially, his moral evaluations of situations, circumstances and ethical problems. This case forms a benchmark in the examination of the biological understanding of morality.


A few years ago, the field of neuroethics was established in which researchers from philosophy, neurosciences, medicine, social sciences and law develop ethical criteria for interventions in the brain and discuss them in international forums. For example, intensive consideration was given to the ethical implications of Deep Brain Stimulation and to optimizing interventions (enhancement) in the brain. More recently, intelligent neuroprostheses and Big Data are increasingly becoming the subject of neuroethical reflections.


The questions on the relationship between consciousness, mind and the brain were also taken up by popular culture, for example in films such as »The Matrix«. As the technological development of computers advances, new ideas for interfaces between man and machine emerge – which, as cyborgs, appear in many science fiction films.

In the Matrix: the field of tension between reality and virtuality in pop culture.

The relationship between neurosciences and philosophy is far from being sufficiently defined by these brief explanations. To conclude, it appears noteworthy that many classical topics of philosophy have received remarkable new impulses through insights from brain research, neurology, robotics, prosthetics or computer science.

For further Reading:

A detailed bibliography on neuroethics (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz).

This entry by Stanford Encycolpedia explains neurosciences from the perspective of philosophy.

This article introduces the term neuroethics.

00   Why philosophy and Neurosciences