The Human Sciences after the Decade of the Brain – Perspectives on the Neuro-Turn in the Social Sciences and the Humanities

In April the German NERRI team had the pleasure of attending an international conference on the influence of the neurosciences on the human sciences

The conference “The Human Sciences after the Decade of the Brain – Perspectives on the Neuro-Turn in the Social Sciences and the Humanities” hosted by Jon Leefmann and Elisabeth Hildt at the University of Mainz was part of the international project ‘The Neuro-Turn in European Social Sciences and Humanities (NESSHI)’

Sociologist Sabine Maasen from the Technical University of Munich started off with the first keynote presentation on “TechnoSociety Ahead? The case of neurotechnologized selves and socialities”, that focused on the role of the brain, neurotechnology, and neuropolitics in society. In his presentation “Problems of desire. Addiction, neuroscience, and contemporary biopolitics”, Scott Vrecko (King’s College London) critically analyzed current views on addiction and neuroenhancement. Melissa Littlefield (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) who has a background in English and Women’s Studies reflected in her talk “A Mind Plague on both your houses: Imagining the impacts of the neuro-turn on the neurosciences” on possible negative implications of the so called “neuro-turn” on the neurosciences.

From the point of view of a philosopher of science, Paul Hoyningen-Huene (University of Hannover) laid out the “Appreciation problems of neuroeconomics”.

There were several presentations highlighting historical and philosophical aspects of the interplay between the neurosciences and the human sciences. For example, the issue of free will and the question of whether this topic should be discussed by philosophers or neuroscientists turned up. In the 1980s the neurobiologist Benjamin Libet performed an experiment that many people interpreted as showing  that our volitional acts are initiated on unconscious processes. While these experiments inspired neuroscientists to a new trend in neuroscience, philosophers partly embraced and partly criticized such experiments as well as the conclusions drawn by Libet. Is philosophy just presenting the problems while the solutions come from neurobiologists? Whereas Anna Drodzweska (University of Louvain-la-Neuve) focused in her talk on these problems and argued for an interdisciplinary discourse between philosophers and neurobiologists, Jon Leefmann’s (University of Mainz) presentation centered on the emerging field of neuroethics. Is neuroethics a subfield of bioethics, restricted to ethical questions in cognitive neuroscience or is the field much broader? Jon Leefmann presented a study aimed to assess neuroethics from an empirical point of view. Using scientometric methods, the study tracked the development and institutionalization of neuroethics between 1995 and 2012. Nora Heinzelmann (University of Cambridge) discussed the popular fMRI experiments by Joshua Greene and colleagues in which they identified neuronal correlates of moral decision making. Joshua Greene argued that the conclusions by his experiments allow judgments concerning traditional moral theories. Nora Heinzelmann criticized the experiments from a methodological point of view as well as Greene’s understanding of deontology, utilitarianism and Kantian ethics.

The conference aimed to shed light on the neuro-turn in the social sciences and humanities. This was especially achieved by the interdisciplinary influences on the conference. Several speakers decided to publish their presentations so that it will be possible to read their conclusions in future.

By Ronja Schuetz, Pascal Amara