Philosophy: Posts

Read our exclusive interview with Justin Garson, author of The Biological Mind

‘A wonderful, clear, lively, informative, and extremely accessible book. It is a terrific introduction to the philosophy of mind for those who want to explore the relation between our biological and psychological natures.’ Karen Neander, Duke University, USA

The Biological Mind is already garnering praise from philosophers in the field. We talked to author Justin Garson to find out more about the book.

What sparked your own interest in this area of philosophy?

I was always interested in the big questions of human nature and mind. Are people ultimately selfish? How does consciousness arise from the brain? What's the role of nature and nurture in making us who we are? Do we have free will, and what does that even mean? As I dug into these, I felt that the biologists were the ones making real advances here, and even changing the terms of the debates. So I gradually got pulled toward the philosophy of science and the philosophy of biology, but always with an eye to the big questions of the mind.

How has your background informed the book?

My professional background is in the philosophy of biology. Philosophers of biology try to make sense of core concepts in biology, particularly the ones that aren't well-defined in that field. For example, when biologists talk about "genetic coding," what do they mean? When neuroscientists talk about "information processing" in the brain, what is that? What do we mean when we say a part of the body is "functioning well" or "functioning poorly"? As you can imagine, we're constantly brushing up against questions about the fundamental nature of the mind, and what makes us human. So, over time, the need for a book like this became more and more obvious to me. Philosophy of biology has extraordinary potential for shaping how we think about the mind, though philosophers haven't entirely appreciated its significance yet.

What makes this book different from other books on the market?

My first goal was to write a comprehensive survey of how philosophical reflection on biology can help us think about the mind. There are a lot of good introductions to the philosophy of biology, and many of them devote one or two chapters to these perennial questions of the mind. To me, that was always the most exciting part of the field! This book brings those topics together into one place. I should say, though, that it goes far beyond being a survey, in that I develop some original ideas, and I defend some ideas that I think are worth taking seriously. My second goal, and this is very important to me, was to make it as accessible as possible, particularly for people without much background in biology. Whenever I could, I dropped the biology jargon, and even the philosophy jargon, to get these exciting ideas to a broader philosophical audience.

Can you sum the book up in one sentence?

It's a book about how philosophical reflection on biology is transforming the way we think about the human mind.

How do you envisage The Biological Mind being used on courses in the field?

I think philosophers of mind and psychology can use the book to connect some of the classic readings in their field to the wealth of new material coming out of biology. The chapters on altruism, consciousness, free will, and intentionality are all particularly useful here. Additionally, philosophers of science and biology can use the book to help students grapple with some of the broader philosophical and even social implications of their work. Is evolutionary psychology a legitimate science? Does "nature and nurture" even make sense anymore? Are mental disorders just biological diseases? And, of course, I think the book can be used as a stand-alone text for any course connecting biology and mind.

In the course of writing this book, what has surprised or challenged you the most?

Honestly, what has surprised me the most is how many times I've explained the premise to a colleague or friend, and they say something like, "Oh, it's about time somebody wrote a book like that!" It's as if people immediately recognize the need and value for this kind of book. Needless to say, I'm very happy about the enthusiasm it's been generating.

To find out more about The Biological Mind, click here.