New chair embraces ‘meeting of minds’

Adela Talbot // Western News

Tim Bayne is the new chair of the Philosophy of Neuroscience at Western, a post he officially took up in November.

Tim Bayne’s research can be described as the flipside of Adrian Owen’s neuroscience coin. And that’s just one reason he’s here.

“Adrian (Owen) and his collaborators are using neuroimaging to look at brain activity in (vegetative) patients, and what they’re really interested in – and what members of the public are interested in – is whether these patients are conscious,” Bayne said of the renowned neuroscientist and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging.

Bayne, a new faculty addition in the Department of Philosophy and new Chair of the Philosophy of Neuroscience, comes to Western by way of The University of Manchester, having previously held a post at Oxford University. While not all scientists would agree, he noted, Owen’s research has a philosophical side he is excited to explore.

“To make a judgement on consciousness on the basis of brain activity, you need an inference. You need a model that says, ‘Here’s the kind of brain activity that provides good evidence for consciousness; here is the kind of activity that doesn’t.’ And to do that, you need a bunch of theoretical assumptions,” he said.

“You need to have thought pretty long and hard about how to measure consciousness, different types of consciousness, about evidence. Some of those issues are philosophical issues. There’s a kind of nice meeting of minds, where we’re not cutting each other’s grass, but there’s a bunch of data here, and we’re collectively trying to pull our wits and figure out what it means.”

But for Bayne, it is especially fitting to arrive at Western to pursue this kind of work. Boasting a strong Department of Philosophy, the Rotman Institute of Philosophy (of which he is a member) as well as the Brain and Mind Institute, Western allows for professional and academic dialogue in areas not all scholars would see as compatible.

“One thing that’s particularly nice is, you’ve got a strong Philosophy department – and a strong Neuroscience, Neuropsychology department, and particularly, you have people like Mel Goodale, Adrian Owen and a bunch of others, who value talking to philosophers. A lot of institutions have eminent neuroscientists, but they don’t see the point of philosophy – they don’t value it,” he explained.

Bayne’s research started out with a focus on the structure of consciousness and the way in which consciousness is unified, considering the relationships between different perceptual modalities, including sight, hearing and touch. Recently, his interest has shifted more toward how to measure consciousness and how we know someone is conscious.

“One of the attractions of Western is the people working here in neuroscience who are very interested in that, in particular looking at brain-damaged patients – people who have been in a coma, who have come out of a coma – what’s called post comatose patients – people in a vegetative state. Adrian (Owen) and I have known each other for a while and we’ve had a professional interest in each other’s work, and so one of the things I’ve been doing lately is trying to make sense of it philosophically,” Bayne noted.

“Consciousness got a reboot maybe 20 years ago, 25 years ago, and a lot of (philosophers) have written about consciousness and thought about how consciousness is related to neural function – Dan Dennett, John Searle, David Chalmers, Ned Block. Much less has been written about the conditions under which it’s appropriate to ascribe consciousness to a creature. What’s cool about Adrian’s work is that it sort of forces you to address that question – it’s not an optional extra.”

Western likewise has a sound footing in Philosophy of Mind, he added, and colleagues like Chris Viger, Jackie Sullivan and Angela Mendelovici who already have ongoing collaborations with neuroscientists at Western will help make his transition seamless.

“It’s nice to come into an environment where what you do is valued, where what you do is understood. And as chair, my goal is to foster that. I don’t see the need to do anything radically new. But it would be good to continue and foster what’s already here, to continue to bring in and create an environment that is going to attract the best graduate students; that’s important,” Bayne said.

“There’s something pretty great here, which you don’t have in many other departments at all. For people and graduate students working in this area, this is a really good place for them to come – one of the best in the world.”