Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry V

The Problems of Multiple Levels, Explanatory Pluralism, Reduction and Emergence

For the fifth conference in this series we are exploring how the field of psychiatry incorporates more viable explanatory approaches than almost any other discipline in a modern university. Serious scholars have attempted to understand the causes of psychiatric illness from the perspective of molecular neurobiology, molecular genetics, cellular neurophysiology, systems neuroscience, neuropsychology, clinical psychology (including a wide diversity of theories incorporating an array of mental constructs such as personality, cognition, and unconscious processes), epidemiology, genetic-epidemiology, sociology, and anthropology. The last decades have seen increasingly sophisticated scientific paradigms that have suggested that many of these levels can indeed yield useful and empirically verifiable risk factors for psychiatric illness. A central conundrum of the field is how to integrate this cacophony of scientific perspectives into a meaningful whole. 

Major Conference Themes

  1. The importance of reduction – under what circumstances are lower levels of explanation to be preferred? Is wholescale reduction possible or is it more realistic to pursue “small” or “patchy” reductive approaches?
  2. How is it best to conceive of the multiple “levels” at which psychiatric illness can be understood? Is “levels” even a useful term here?
  3. What are the advantages and problems of explanatory pluralism versus explanatory monism – when can we truly integrate results across “levels”?
  4. Given that levels of explanation in psychiatric cross the mind-body divide -- the subjective and objective worlds -- how can we best span these widely divergent perspectives on reality?
  5. A recent survey has shown that truly cross-level research in psychiatry is rare. Why is this and what scientific, cultural and financial barriers exist to more integrative approaches?
  6. Individual researchers and research groups often bring strong commitments to their perspective on psychiatric illness that derive from extra-scientific personal beliefs. Such approaches have often fueled ideological disputes in the field. How can we better understand and reduce such often wasteful debates?