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2007 (29) Heft 1

Mind and Economy: Methodological Problems of Neuroeconomics


Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

Among the most current 'neuro'-subdisciplines, neuroeconomics is perhaps the one with the most interesting genealogy. It seems to be not only one, but two steps away from classical economics, being itself a specialized form of behavioural economics, a field of research which for some depicts the psychology of actors more than their market behaviour. Neuroeconomics means inspection of the role the brain plays during actors' decisions, the categorizing of risks and rewards, and of social interaction. Some neuroeconomists simply want to render scientifically transparent what goes on within the single player during her economic decisions—something of little interest to 'revealed preference'-oriented economics. Other neuroeconomists, however, wish to reactivate the unity-of-science dream of the Vienna Circle philosophers by suggesting, even if only playfully, that knowledge of the biological basis of behaviour in combination with advanced game theory could provide a common platform for the presently incommensurably disordered social sciences.

Due to its interdisciplinary character, neuroeconomics raises a host of questions for economics, both of a professional and of a methodological kind. Are economists, who are not interested in the psychological and neural processes behind economic behaviour 'bad' economists? Could one really expect classical economic theories, as consumer or welfare theories, to be corroborated, specified, or extended by visceral information concerning neural normality? Have "risk", "utility", "economic rationality", "stability", "choice", etc. become under-defined terms, now that the visibility of their neural correlates looms on the horizon? As these questions relate to central theorems of economics, opinions unsurprisingly differ whether neural information is capable of providing additional relevant cues for economics, or whether it merely introduces naturalist complements, precious rather to neurologists, brain-scientists, and psychiatrists. These questions raise many problems within the methodological and disciplinary matrix of economic theory—among economists. Philosophical correlata of this disciplinary delineation discourse can easily be found, and may perhaps be formulated in a way that would be of interest to economists as well.

Philosophers are quick to point out that what is dealt with in terms of psychology and neurology is part and parcel of the notorious 'mind-body-problem'. Philosophers are generally impressed by the dualistic articulation of the problem and typically struggle against or for one version of dualism. So they see, whether rightfully or not, problems where naturalist scientists such as the neuroeconomists perceive none, and they are prone to rephrase the economists' delineation problem just mentioned in different terms, and with a different motivation. Typically, they are inclined to diagnose the ontological strata behind thoughts/mind and neurons/brain as the very reason behind the classical economists' and neuroeconomists' efforts at delineation, and easily detect in the latters' position another attempt to unify science. Instead, how a science defines its central concepts depends on its empirical fruitfulness alone, embedded, of course, in the social conditions and interests of the day. Nevertheless, given the background of their own painful development of thinking about the mind, philosophers may be more capable than others of helping with bridge-building between irreducible 'ontological spheres'.

In the present issue, Andrew Brook and Pete Mandik start by reminding us that, though neuroscience goes back at least to Descartes, it became a ma jor factor in cognitive and behavioural research only with the development of fMRI and other brain imaging systems starting in the 1980s. Since then, as they report, neuroscientific research relevant to understanding cognition and behaviour has grown exponentially. There is now quite a large group of researchers with advanced training in both philosophy and neuroscience. Brook/Mandik give a nuanced description of how neuroscientific work has even shaped traditionally 'philosophical' topics such as consciousness. Yet, according, there is still room for work to be done by philosophers.

In distinction to them, Michael Pauen tries less to synthesize theory and neuroeconomical applications than to warn against reductionism. Similarly to Brook and Mandik, he sides with the merely relative autonomy of the different disciplinary perspectives, seeing rather a complementary relation between consciousness and brain. Ralph Schumacher agrees with Pauen in stressing the irreducibility of the mental, which he illustrates with the help of the creative force of symbols within learning processes. Irreducibility comes from the symbols' dependence on content, and the content's dependence on environment. The environment cannot be in the brain, so neuroscience, strictly understood, cannot include cognitive learning, strictly understood. As can be seen, in sum, philosophers may posit themselves either more on the naturalist or more on the cognitivist side, by this somehow redoubling the inner-economic methodological struggle.

Jang Park and Paul Zak see neuroeconomics as the most advanced form of a biologically understood program of economic theory. Accordingly, they give a list of recent findings, explaining how behavioural economics corrected standard thinking about rationality, emotions, altruism, etc. Even if not explicitly, theirs seems to be an unmitigated reductionist position. They think that, for example, trust is 'caused' by influences on the brain state and that firing rates of the brain can be used to predict risky choices or consumer purchases, even fashion trends. Against the critics of neuroeconomics they think that brain-science is suited to make economics a 'modern science'. Bernhard Neumärker follows the same line of reasoning as these economics colleagues, reconstructing the successes of recent behavioural economics and legitimizing its neural subsection as adding reality to economics' hypothetical 'as if ' assumptions. Against the reductionist neuroeconomists, however, Neumärker wants to introduce 'neuroeconomic constraints' arising from types of action, situation, beliefs and outcome. Cohering with Schumacher's externalism-critique, these constraints would restrict the relevance of brain-findings. Daniel Houser et al. and Shu-Chen Li et al. devote themselves to more detailed work, suggesting both improvements in econometric methodology and reward-based decision making.


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