Why Philosophy Is Important To Science (And Thus To OCD)


Dear friends –

perhaps the title of this chapter is surprising to you. Let me explain: in neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience, we have to deal with basic questions concerning the truth of our observations (this applies to all natural sciences, by the way, physics and chemistry not excluded – perhaps only pure mathematics is an exception, although I am not an expert in this matter).

Suppose I perform a brain scan on a single person with OCD. The scan is the very first scan of my life, and I have seen no scans from others, anywhere, ever. This particular scan registers the general morphology (form) of brain structures.

What do I learn from these photos about the connection between OCD and the structure of our brain?


Does that surprise you? I don’t think so. You will understand that I don’t have anything at hand to compare my photo with. I know of that patients symptoms, and I have a series of photos of structures in her/his brain. I am none the wiser, and can’t report anything about my findings in any scientific magazine.

Instead of continuing this little story, and explaining what I need to do further, I will throw the ball at you, dear reader. I challenge you. Tell me what I need to do next. Every form of comment is welcome, don’t hesitate. Throw back that ball.


Now, I will quote a Wikipedia portrait of the great Scottish philopher David Hume, an exceptional man. He was responsible for inspiring the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, as well as Albert Einstein, who noted that he got basic hints for his theories on relativity by reading David Hume. I hope that you derive some inspiration from this information too, for answering my question above, or in a more general sense. Here goes:


David Hume (7 May 1711 [26 April O.S.] – 25 August 1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian, regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British Empiricist.[1]

Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to the rationalists that preceded him, most notably Descartes, he concluded that belief rather than reason governed human behavior, saying famously: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” A prominent figure in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist, he argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding instead that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience. Thus he divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas,” which are copied from impressions. He developed the position that mental behavior is governed by “custom”; our use of induction, for example, is justified only by our idea of the “constant conjunction” of causes and effects. Without direct impressions of a metaphysical “self,” he concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self. Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles. Hume also examined the normative is–ought problem. He held notoriously ambiguous views of Christianity,[2] but famously challenged the argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).

Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers” and Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy, and other movements and thinkers. The cognitive scientist and philosopher Jerry Fodor proclaimed Hume’s Treatise “the founding document of cognitive science.”[3] Also famous as a prose stylist,[4] Hume pioneered the essay as a literary genre and engaged with contemporary intellectual luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith (who acknowledged Hume’s influence on his economics and political philosophy), James Boswell, Joseph Butler, and Thomas Reid. Hume remains one of the giants of Western philosophy.


Finally, I hope you will have noticed that we’re slowly entering the field of basic neuroscience. I was hesitant for quite some time about how to do that. This is the outcome of my, erm, ruminations…

Here’s David Hume:

…and heeeeeeeeeeere’s physicist, clerk, and popular poster idol Albert Einstein!


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