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PhD defence Bas de Boer

How Scientific Instruments Speak: A Hermeneutics of Technological Mediations in (Neuro-)Scientific Practice

Bas de Boer is a PhD student in the department of Philosophy. His supervisors are prof.dr.ir. P.P.C.C. Verbeek from the faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social sciences (BMS) and prof.dr. H.F.M. te Molder from the Wageningen University & Research.

In this dissertation, I develop a philosophical account of the role of scientific instruments in scientific practice with a specific focus on the neurosciences. I conceptualize scientific instruments as mediating technologies, a notion derived from the approach of postphenomenology developed in current philosophy of technology. In this specific understanding, scientific instruments are not understood as mute instruments that allow to better realize pre-existing human goals and projects, but as mediating how human beings relate to the world, thereby shaping their experience and understanding of reality. Based on this conceptualization, I develop an account of mediating technologies that is specific to the practice of science.

Investigating the role of mediating technologies in scientific practice requires a focus on a specific type of practice. My focus is on an area of science that has been rapidly growing in the last decades: the (cognitive) neurosciences. There are two main reasons for focusing on this specific area. Firstly, the development of the neurosciences into a ‘Big Science’ ran parallel with the development of advanced imaging technologies allowing to visualize brain activity. This makes it an excellent area to study how the neurosciences and the objects that neuroscientists speak about are shaped in relation with technologies. Secondly, the neurosciences currently draw a lot of public attention and media coverage, often conveying the message that increasingly mental phenomena are demystified by the neurosciences and can be explained purely in materialist terms. The enormous public interest in scientific explanations of the mind make some suggest that we currently witness a ‘neurohype’. This makes it pivotal to understand how the objects that neuroscientists investigate and make claims about are shaped by the technologies used. This dissertation contributes to developing such an understanding through a detailed study of the mediating role of brain stimulation and brain imaging technologies in neuroscientific practice.