I sat down for an interview with Patricia Churchland, the founder of neurophilosophy, before she gave a talk as part of the Munich Neuroscience Lecture Series on December 5th 2016. We talked about various topics including working in interdisciplinary teams, science communication, thinking of leaving research and being a woman in science. In this first part, we discussed the importance of philosophers, farming and methods to access neural circuits.

J.H.: How important is it for neuroscientists to know philosophy and for philosophers to know neuroscience?

P.C.: Let me start with the second question. If they are working on what was traditionally called ‘philosophy of mind’, then they have to know both neuroscience and psychology. Those fields are making actual progress in the nature of knowledge, the nature of representation, the nature of reasoning, etc. You cannot understand those things if you are not taking advantage of the empirical results. But other philosophers, for example working on the nature of subatomic particles, they do not need to know neuroscience, but rather physics. So it depends.

It is a slightly different take on things when you ask what in philosophy do neuroscientists need to know. There is a long history of philosophy and some of the ideas and theories are really just empirically wrong. There is no reason why anyone should spend a huge amount of time knowing them. But there might be other fields within philosophy that might be useful. Where the philosophers themselves have a broad empirical understanding and where they are really focused on a large scale question and take into consideration neuroscience and psychology, and maybe even the law and anthropology and try to synthesise across many disciplines. In those cases, it can be useful to know this. But then again, there is much philosophy that was produced at the beginning of the 20th century which is of no earthly good to any science.

Don’t you feel scientists could at least adopt the style of methodological thinking from philosophers?

I don’t actually think so. Having been working in both fields, my sense really is that scientists who are very thoughtful, smart, and honest are fully capable of doing reflection and critical analysis and really do not need any tutoring from philosophers. The smartest people I ever dealt with they were always scientists. Francis Crick, for example – there wasn’t anything he needed to learn from philosophers in order to think through a problem. He was also extremely good about backing down from a hypothesis when you showed him it wouldn’t work.

I also met and learnt a lot from other scientist in San Diego, such as comparative anatomists and anthropologists, and I learnt a lot from psychologists, but they really did not need to learn anything on the nature of critical analysis in order to invent amazing experimental paradigms. I think everyone needs to be critical, but philosphers haven’t got any special method – they sometimes pretend that they do, but there is nothing there that is unique for philosophy.

You mentioned a lot of people you learnt from – how do you approach this interdisciplinary work? Is it not sometimes difficult to find a common language?

I think that happens in any field, where you have this period of instability because you are not sure of what the other person means, then you sort that out and then you can get down to business. But basically I have not had any difficulties in this way, because you ask people something like “I don’t really know what certain kinds of RNA do, so tell me”. So you ask for an explanation, you get an explanation and off you go.

One thing which I really like a lot about science, and that contrasted to me at the beginning of my career, was that if you didn’t know something, scientists didn’t think you were stupid, they just told you! And they gave you a mini talk about what they were doing. Francis Crick for example was really good at this! He knew I didn’t know much about molecular biology and he would stop midway and explain something. And that would be wonderful!

But in philosophy, if you would ask for example, “What is situationism” they would be like “Really, you don’t know that? Oh well …”  And then they won’t tell you! And they go on and if you don’t know, you are not part of the conversation. I don’t know if that happens in Germany, but it happens all the time in the US. It’s stupid! And a waste of time, it’s arrogant, it’s anti-scientific, it’s anti-intellectual.

Would you say there is a development? Did it change?

I think it is changing in the US, but it is changing slowly.

You mentioned that communication is important. You are also writing books, giving a lot of interviews also to popular media, targeting non-specialists.

Yeah, but it’s always a challenge. You want to simplify for a broad audience, but you don’t want to simplify to such a degree that you give a distorted picture. There is always a little tension.

I also feel that this is very difficult, because of course you want the public to get to know what you are doing because it is also their money funding our research. What would you say; does a researcher have an obligation to communicate to the general public? Do you have a strategy how to do that?

I don’t think everybody has an obligation to that. Some are really shy and are still doing super well in their lab and teaching graduate students and post-docs and yet they do not feel confident in a public context and that is totally fine. But for those people who do feel confident, I think it is important that their achievement is recognised – not that people are saying oh, they are just talking to the press. They should realise that he or she is doing all of us a favour by getting some of the science out there and doing it in a truthful, careful, honest way that is also easy.

You are right, in the scientific community you can be then quickly labelled. I guess it is difficult to get credit as a scientist while also being understood by non-specialist audiences.

It is difficult and I think there is also a temptation for some neuroscientists to overhype their results and to say things that are really not true. We see that of course also in computer science.  I was reading the other day that some scientist in the field of artifical intelligence said: “My machine can see as well as any human”. Well, I know for a fact that this is not true! It is important not to overhype and not to bamboozle the public because indeed, it is the tax payer’s money and we don’t want to lose the public’s trust. This is very difficult to recover once it is lost. It is really important to be sensible and careful. But we should bear in mind that some sort of simplified version of our research has to be out there.

Do you have an idea on how to target people who are not per se interested in science? It seems everywhere around the world that people don’t believe in facts or evidence…

It’s a very serious problem. The old saying is: everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Eventually for people who choose their facts to believe, reality will come and bite them. In the US I think that will happen and it is going to be painful. But maybe those are one of the processes that humans have to go through from time to time. At the moment there is often a long distance between claiming something to be true and a fact and the reality that corresponds or fails to corresponds to that. On the farm, for example, there is a close relationship with those things: if you pretend that the plants have enough water and yet they wilt and die – there is a very close connection. But you can claim there is no such thing like climate warming and nothing will happen to you tomorrow or the next day – so I think that this is part of the reason for this disconnect. It is just more complex.

Well, do you think psychology and neuroscience can tackle these issues? In 10-15 years maybe?

(laughs) I don’t know. I don’t like to make really long range predictions. I think the time horizon for meaningful predictions in neuroscience is only 5-10 years. You really can’t predict much beyond that. We can sort of see where things are going but when people ask “Will we have a prevention or cure for Alzheimer’s in 20 years?”, you got to say “I don’t know”. We can fund research, but we can’t really say with any real confidence that we will get there. Partly, of course, it is because new methods are very unpredictable – I did not see optogenetics coming. Yet it has become a very useful tool in neuroscience in such a short time. In 1985, when I was studying neuroscience, we could not see functional MRI coming. So new techniques will happen, but it is hard to predict what they are going to be. We might know what we would like in a general sense though.

What technique would you wish for neuroscience?

Methods to access circuits. We kind of know how to access neurons and systems but we would like to access all of the dynamics in the circuitry. We still don’t know how neurons participate in the processing within the context of circuitry to give the systems level results.

Part 2 of the Interview with Patricia Churchland will be online the first week of January!