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Research Projects 2017-08-24T12:54:55+00:00

ETHICS AND SCIENCE

FOUNDATIONS OF PHYSICS

PHILOSOPHY OF MIND AND NEUROSCIENCE

ECOLOGICAL PHILOSOPHY

ETHICS AND SCIENCE

Scientific advances give rise to ethical challenges which cannot be resolved without using ethical analysis in conjunction with knowledge of the relevant empirical fields. Moral dilemmas that arise in the use of human subjects for medical research, for example, must be treated within the broader context of medical practice.  Long-standing ethical debates, such as characterizing well-being and happiness and their normative significance, have been transformed by research in social psychology and behavioural economics. The Institute supports ethicists working in collaboration with policy makers and scientists to address ethical challenges, and to pursue ethical investigations informed by scientific research.

Research conducted by Charles Weijer with an international team of trialists, biostatisticians, and philosophers on the ethics of cluster randomized trials (CRTs) has shaped science policy internationally. CRTs randomize social groups rather than individuals to study interventions, and are used in knowledge translation and public health research. New research extends this work into the domain of pragmatic randomized controlled trials (PRCTs). PRCTs test treatments and policy changes in real world conditions and are ideal for informing health system reform. But PRCTs intermingle practice and research, challenging the clear distinction between these activities that is often presumed in codes of conduct. Weijer is working with an international team, with a similar mix of interdisciplinary expertise, to develop consensus ethical guidelines for PRCTs in light of this challenge.

Adrian Owen and Charles Weijer lead a research team exploring ethical issues raised by the use of neuroimaging after severe brain injury. The research team brings together neuroscientists, neurologists, neuropsychologists, sociologists, epidemiologists and philosophers, pursuing four main projects: (1) the assessment of decision making capacity in behaviorally nonresponsive patients; (2) the ethics of welfare as a moral framework for such patients who retain covert awareness; (3) the impact of neuroimaging on families of patients with a serious brain injury; and (4) ethical issues in the use of neuroimaging in comatose patients within days of serious brain injury.

Research led by Anthony Skelton aims to clarify the nature and ethical importance of well-being, happiness and life satisfaction in light of scientific findings related to them, and to utilize these findings to understand the nature well-being generally and in marginal populations, including children, the disabled and the behaviourally non-responsive. The resulting interdisciplinary understanding of well-being and life satisfaction, and how it can be measured, will inform public discussions and has various policy ramifications.

FOUNDATIONS OF PHYSICS

Modern physics has transformed our conception of reality. Far from eliminating philosophy, advances in physics have challenged traditional ideas about the natural world in extremely perplexing ways. Making progress on these fundamental questions requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Philosophers study the conceptual foundations of a theory with a precision that is not demanded by applications, but yields greater clarity regarding our theories with long-term benefits. For this work to be of value, these philosophical reflections must draw on a deep understanding of physics. Several lines of work in physics have prompted active public debates about the integrity of physics and the nature of scientific knowledge, which philosophers are uniquely prepared to address.

Quantum mechanics (QM), for all its empirical success, still lacks a generally accepted interpretation.  Markus Müller has formulated influential axiomatizations of QM based on concepts that can be given clearer operational interpretation, working in collaboration with physicists and mathematicians.  Based on this work, he further aims to characterize the unusual features of QM more precisely by situating it in a larger class of possible theories. Müller is one of the leading researchers in this area, and this line of work promises to clarify the basic concepts and structure of QM and help to understand the quantum world.

In cosmology there have been surprisingly open debates regarding what constitutes sound methodology.  Cosmology is different from other areas of the physical sciences, both in its subject matter and in the tools used to study it. Standard experimental and theoretical methods used in other physical sciences have little traction. These methodological difficulties make cosmology an urgent subject for philosophical research, which has drawn increased attention within the last few years.  Chris Smeenk is leading a project designed to review and set the agenda for this field, working with a group of philosophers, physicists and cosmologists.  One aim is to provide cosmologists with better tools for thinking about the methodological challenges they face, to replace the outdated philosophical ideas they currently rely on, and to clarify how these tools radically restructure contemporary debates.

Digital computers have enabled mathematicians to pursue new approaches to discovering ideas, developing conjectures, and validating proofs.  This emerging project focuses, in part, on the implications of novel computer use for the practice of mathematics. Furthermore, acknowledging the central role of computation in applied science demands a different understanding of the structure of scientific theories. The Institute has hosted conferences in the last two years on this theme.  Rob Corless is developing a project, working with computational scientists, mathematicians and philosophers, extending into these more philosophical topics from his expertise in mathematical and scientific computing.

PHILOSOPHY OF MIND AND NEUROSCIENCE

Contemporary research in neuroscience promises to lead to a much richer picture of our cognitive architecture, and the complex relationship between brain function and behavior. Yet it also raises challenges regarding how to integrate these ideas with philosophy and other fields.  Neuroscientists have challenged psychology, for example, based on their ability to create concepts that seem to perform better than traditional psychological concepts in predicting behavior. Central aspects of our self-conception, such as regarding ourselves as conscious agents, capable of free choices for which we can be held morally responsible, may also be undermined by neuroscience.  Neuroscience has a potentially transformative impact on a broad array of such fundamental issues; a new understanding of them demands a combination of scientific knowledge and philosophical acumen.

Research in this area covers such topics as how to assess consciousness in brain-damaged patients; the role that conscious perception plays in the control of action; how to measure consciousness and characterize disorders of consciousness; and the relationship between consciousness and intentionality. There are many points of contact between the research that is being carried out on disorders of consciousness and the neuroethical research mentioned above.

A primary aim of neuroscience is to understand how the brain gives rise to mental activity. It is widely recognized that achieving this aim requires input from multiple different areas of the mind-brain sciences, but these areas of science differ from each other in many ways. These differences raise questions regarding the prospects for a unified science of the mind-brain that philosophers are well-prepared to address. Do some areas of the mind-brain sciences employ methods or heuristics that are more suitable for shedding light on the mind-brain relationship than others? Are the methods used in different areas of the mind-brain sciences in competition or complementary? When are the assumptions, methods and concepts appropriate to the explanatory goals, and when might they fail?

Developments in the cognitive sciences have raised pressing questions about the adequacy of our current ways of taxonomizing the mental. Does our current taxonomy carve the mind ‘at its joints’, or does it misrepresent the structure of mental reality in important ways? These questions are especially pressing with respect to the philosophy of psychiatry, for a better account of the nature of psychiatric disorders has the potential to deliver robust improvements in mental health outcomes.

ECOLOGICAL PHILOSOPHY

A broadly ecological perspective that gives salience to the complex interactions between organisms and their environments has transformed many areas of biology in recent decades. This new perspective has been a research focus at the Rotman Institute since its inception. Work by Barker, Desjardins, and their collaborators has focused on ecological resilience, conceptions of human nature and their implications for social change, and broad questions about stability and change in social-ecological systems. Current research considers how this ecological perspective informs thinking about global environmental issues, exploring the integration of earth systems and human institutions and investigating how we can best approach their governance given the complexity of the systems involved and the diversity of relevant kinds of knowledge. This work aims to support wiser choices in environmental policy, in agriculture and conservation, and especially in climate governance.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change introduces a far-reaching new framework for global climate governance. Building on our prior research on resilience and adaptive ecological management, and the expertise of colleagues working in environmental law and climate policy, we will investigate epistemological, ethical, and conceptual aspects of the challenges and the opportunities posed by this new policy framework.

Recognizing the extent of the anthropogenic transformation of the biosphere has profound implications for conservation biology and restoration ecology. Our objective is to investigate these transformations and collaborate with colleagues in biology and geography in the creation of new research tools that improve our understanding of the functional integration of social and ecological processes.

ARCHIVED PROJECTS

Learn about previous research projects conducted by members of the Institute.