Research Group
in Analytic Philosophy

How to Be a Moderate Optimist about Neuroscience in Philosophy of Film and Other Places

Date: 13 April 2021

Time: 16:00

Place: Online


Research in cognitive science and aesthetics is on the rise. The most visible form of this research has played out in what Alva Noë calls the key of neuroscience. This is nowhere more apparent than the broad array of books, book chapters, and articles written on neuroscience and film. There has, not surprisingly, been a healthy dose of skepticism directed at this emerging research field. The focus of this paper is a skeptical position called moderate pessimism. Moderate pessimists grant that neuroscience might play a role modeling our best theories about the nature of film and other arts and so might help confirm existing theories and adjudicate debates about the nature of our engagement with artworks. But, they argue that it will be little help with thorny conceptual questions that are at the heart of understanding the nature of the arts. These kinds of questions are prior normative questions that are beyond the scope of neuroscience. They are best left to film theorists and philosophers. Moderate optimists like myself note in contrast that the scope of research in the arts in the key of neuroscience, like other empirical matters, cannot be resolved in advance. One must dive in, look under the hood, and evaluate each case on its merits. In what follows, I evaluate the debate between moderate optimism and moderate pessimism, introduce a diagnostic recognition framework for neuroscience of film, and, drawing on research from the neurophysiology of attention and affective neuroscience, explore the role the framework can play in discussions of narrative understanding and a spectator's emotional engagement with characters at the movies. I conclude that, all things equal, while defensive pessimism is a natural and adaptive attitude in the face of novelty, moderate optimism is a more promising methodological fit to collaborative research in neuroscience of film.