What Neuroscience Tells Us About Mental Illness: Scientific Realism in the Biomedical Sciences
Keywords:philosophy of psychiatry, reductionism, medical nihilism, carte blanche realism, medical pragmatism
Our philosophical understanding of mental illness is being shaped by neuroscience. However, it has the paradoxical effect of igniting two radically opposed groups of philosophical views. On one side, skepticism and denialism assume that, lacking clear biological mechanisms and etiologies for most mental illnesses, we should infer they are constructions best explained by means of social factors. This is strongly associated with medical nihilism: it considers psychiatry more harmful than benign. On the other side of the divide, naturalism and reductionism are on the look for failures in the biological functioning of the organism whenever a genuine mental illness occurs. Psychiatry as currently practiced, accordingly, exhibits the gaps of an ongoing research programme; a yet to be completed neuroscience would link mental illnesses with identifiable biological mechanisms. Both sides of this divide claim to be fostered by scientific discoveries and advances in neuroscience, when taken at face value. Against this background, we argue instead for a modest view. To that end, we draw attention to some nuances in the scientific realism debate. While contending that neuroscientific theories and models aim to provide true representations of their target systems, and can justifiably claim to have attained some, we argue that our confidence should not be placed beforehand in specific features of these scientific representations. Hence, it would be unwarranted to extract morals for psychiatry from posits (or their absence) in neuroscientific explanations of mental illnesses. To illustrate our position, we examine some recent discoveries in neuroscience concerning bipolar disorder. We conclude by linking our topic to a broader issue in the philosophy of medicine: insofar as psychiatry is a biomedical specialty, its classifications of health and disease are guided by pragmatic concerns, as well as by scientific discoveries.
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