Optogenetics and philosophy: mutual enlightenment?
In an often-quoted paper of 1999, Francis Crick pointed out that "to turn the firing of one or more types of neurons on and off in the alert animal in a rapid manner, the ideal signal would be light". Several years after the publication of the first paper by Boyden and Deisseroth in 2005, optogenetics has become a widely used method, the success of which goes beyond the realm of neuroscience, and which has also attracted the attention of philosophers (e. g. Craver, 2012; Bickle, 2016; Robins, 2016; Sullivan, 2018).
Optogenetics controls the activity of neurons or other cell types with light after expression of light-sensitive proteins in target cells. By activating or inhibiting neurons in animals, researchers have induced changes in behaviour and the cessation of symptoms of psychiatric diseases. Furthermore, optogenetics has made it possible to erase and create a memory, and to manipulate perception in behaving rodents. Strikingly, in a first medical application of optogenetic technology, vision was partially restored in a blind patient (Sahel, 2021).
The aim of this workshop is to bring scientists and philosophers together to discuss the impact, promises, current limitations, and significance of this method.
Several key points will be raised during this day:
The contributions of the method: could we have otherwise achieved what we found with optogenetics?
Can optogenetics establish a causal relationship between the activation of neurons and behaviour, and what does "causal relationship" mean in this context?
Can it be said that optogenetics can control not only behaviour, but also perception, memory, emotional state, etc.?