Neurophilosophy at Millsaps College

Dr. Patrick D. Hopkins, Professor of Philosophy at Millsaps College, is a new breed of philosopher. With an undergraduate degree in psychology and a doctorate in philosophy, Hopkins found himself drawn to moral psychology and neuroethics which led him down some interesting and intellectually stimulating paths.

Co-teaching a class in Neuroscience and the Law and sharing his expertise on the intersections of medical ethics and cognitive neuroscience with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Hopkins is a living embodiment of the power of philosophy to broaden minds and improve lives.

Even as a student, Dr. Patrick Hopkins has always been interested in work that was genuinely inter-disciplinary/cross-disciplinary. As a philosopher who is interested in ways neuroscience and psychological data can be applied to philosophical problems and how philosophical analysis can improve empirical research, he found the actual day-today business of science was too restrictive. He did not see the joy in working on someone else’s research in someone else’s labs. Instead, he started exploring the intersections of the disciplines that held his interest: science, experimental psychology, ethics, and public policy.

Merging the Disciplines in a Coherent Way

Though he was pulled into an academic life for his own studies, he was surprised to find that he genuinely enjoyed teaching and learning about his students. Hopkins recognizes that much of the interdisciplinary crossover is supported by the nature of the work going on at smaller private universities. He believes one of the best things about private colleges, in fact, is that they are geared to give students these experiences.

Just as he had charted his own path for his studies, he wants to work with students who are allowed to combine their interests-they have this freedom at Millsaps because of the innovative nature of the private university settings where the administrative distinctions and classifications are more fluid. He notes that some academics are “merging in a very coherent way what are often seen as very different disciplines”; thus, he’s likely to have a class filled with a variety of majors, from pre-law, pre-med, and business to philosophy or English. Hopkins has no interest in maintaining traditional disciplinary boundaries, but insists on empirical and logical rigor, saying, “It’s not a pastiche of things. It’s not a stew. It’s a big, coherent, wonderful story.”

It’s difficult sometimes, however, because people get stuck in the idea that the way they do things is so methodologically different that they can’t be compared. Philosophy and science have an easier time getting along, he explains, once scientists and business people recognize what philosophers do. That is when they quickly realize, “Oh, this is the opposite of fuzzy- this is logic and analysis.” He insists that people don’t have to stick to their “silo” or their administrative unit. Though many people aren’t trained in crossing boundaries or cross-fertilization and may think what they do in one building is not what is being done across campus, ultimately he hopes “boundaries that aren’t useful can be eroded.”

Former Student Nedah Nemati is currently working in both neuroscience and philosophy. She agrees that private universities more readily offer the opportunity to cross disciplines, and she sees that as a result of a number of factors. First, she believes the core requirements of liberal arts colleges require students to develop critical thinking from a variety of perspectives. Secondly, she believes the social elements make a difference. “Places like Millsaps make it inevitable for students to be in conversation with those outside of their disciplines due to a substantially smaller population compared to state universities,” she explains. As a third factor, boundary-crossing actually results from the encouragement of professors. “While some might see the professors’ emphasis on teaching rather than research as a drawback, that is one of the main ways one is ‘liberated’ at a liberal arts college,”

Nemati states. Students enjoy more freedom, she explains, when they have professors who are not constantly advertising their own research areas or treating other areas as competition; this open-minded, blended approach allows students the opportunity to be creative and borrow readily from all appropriate disciplines.

One example of this freedom is found in the work by current Millsaps student Anna Schwartz. Schwartz is in Hopkins’s moral psychology class and doing independent research with him on the psychological effects of government assistance programs, combining philosophy, psychology, economics, and anthropology. Schwartz explains the project is approaching obesity from multiple angles and tying in disciplines such as biology (food quality), anthropology (government assistance programs, access to healthy foods, distribution of poverty/public assistance), and moral psychology (the effects of stigma and emotions). “Philosophy is intertwined with all of these,” Schwartz explains, “as we consider the ethics and logic embedded in these various factors.”


Hopkins co-teaches a course on neuroscience and law-as well as another study abroad on creativity and new product development- with his law professor colleague Harvey Fiser; they have also co-written articles on issues of neurotechnology in employment and law. In their course, Hopkins and Fiser examine relationships between the law and new neuroscientific discoveries or technologies. They consider free will and neural determinism, neural measurement, motivation to abide by law, and medical treatment for irresponsibility.

Among a variety of other subjects, they also take students through studies on the application of neuroimaging and standardized moral character testing to hiring practices, neurotechnologies for predicting employee and customer behavior, neurotechnologies Spotlight continued for detecting mental states, pharmacological morality enhancement, and neuromarketing.

In simple terms, Hopkins points out that much of the law is left over from centuries past, when we had limited information on brain functions and cognitive development. Now, we have the science to help us understand certain behaviors and choices. Drawing on his background in psychology, neuroscience, and ethical theory, Hopkins considers the evolutionary, cognitive, and neurological mechanisms of human moral psychology. With an extensive background in understanding moral judgments, moral decision making, moral development theory, and moral pathologies such as psychopathy, Hopkins offers a compelling look at the ways law, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology overlap-which offers insight that can only be gained by interdisciplinary views of otherwise separate disciplines.

Fiser believes Hopkins is the most innovative and creative teacher at Millsaps College. Fiser notes, “Although based in the Philosophy department, rarely does he allow that to hold him in one area. He works hard to stretch his disciplines into other areas of the College, creating bridges where many never even considered them.” Fiser applauds Hopkins’s cross-disciplinary approach which has led to a classroom opportunity few in the country could have: “mixing business, ethics, philosophy and neuroscience.”

Medical Ethics and Neurophilosophy

Another colleague to benefit from Hopkins’s approach is Dr. Ralph Didlake, the Chief Academic Officer and Assistant Vice Chancellor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. At UMMC, Hopkins is a professor in the department of psychiatry, though his main work is at the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities-where Didlake is Director. There, they regularly have a chance to interact on interdisciplinary medical ethics as they focus on moving the humanities toward a “more empirical, experimental, and evidence-based methodology.”

Didlake notes that his relationship with Hopkins goes back at least a decade, when they were both serving on an institutional review board. What was normally “a completely thankless, onerous task” was somehow made interesting, Didlake recalls. He adds, “Patrick would zero in on something-some arcane research studies-with a salient and “just so incredibly obvious point,” that Didlake found himself wondering how he did not see it before. Didlake thought, “I need to be around this guy.a lot.”

Because Hopkins brings in another perspective that had been missing in some of those conversations, Didlake notes they have called on Hopkins in a variety of ways- bringing him in to consult and using him as an outside faculty member to work with UMC students. Recently, for instance, they called on Hopkins to help a student who was facing an ethical boundary violation; Spotlight continued the student was sent to Hopkins for a “reeducation” of sorts. Not only did Hopkins assist the student, but he came away with recommendations for the department as well; Didlake notes that Hopkins could see the contextual, structural, and management features at work in the institution itself and was therefore simultaneously helping the student and improving the overall educational environment in place for the students. Didlake remarks, “He’s a total educator.”

He’s also helping them build a contextual framework for the Medical Humanities. Didlake explains, “Diagnosis can’t be separated from the way a patient experiences the disease. Disease is the diagnosis; illness is the way you experience that diagnosis.” Working to understand those intersections, which is what Hopkins and Didlake are focused on, is the next generation of teaching. Hopkins adds that they are employing this framework to answer questions, including. “How do the humanities fit into this clinical, science-y setting?”

Boundary Bender and Stereotype Crusher

Blending disciplines is not the only way Hopkins is a bit of a rebel. He also works to break apart stereotypes for professors, particularly philosophers. Current Millsaps student Greyson Scudder has worked with Hopkins for four consecutive semesters, but he still vividly recalls his first sight of him. Scudder was in his first college class of the semester with other somewhat apprehensive students, sitting in silence and awaiting their professor. A “Harrison-Ford type” with tortoiseshell glasses and an armload of books walked past the room but didn’t stop. Then, Hopkins walked in the room, and Scudder recalls thinking, “His biceps are as big as my thighs.” Scudder notes they were all rather “blown away” with the idea of having a bodybuilding professor.

Hopkins notes that his time in the weight room also gives him an opportunity to meet students he wouldn’t normally have the chance to meet. In his casual attire-with cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and sporting a shaved head-he’s well aware that he’s working against a popular stereotype of an out-of-touch philosopher stuck in a dusty library. Instead, he’s the one “doing bench presses” next to students.

His physique isn’t the only thing that sets him apart as a professor for Scudder though. “He has a way of teaching subject matter the way I imagine one of my peers would teach me,” Scudder explains, “He’s not sharing information with the ignorant.” As fascinated as he was by his new professor who worked out alongside him at the gym though, Scudder remembers his first impressions of neurophilosophy-“I was pretty sure that was not a real word.” However, now he’s considering neurophilosophy as a focus for his graduate work. He also appreciates the different type of bond he has been able to build with Hopkins. Though Scudder notes that he has many mentors at Millsaps, most of those people are fatherly or motherly; with Hopkins, he’s “more like a big brother.”

Nemati also benefitted from Hopkins’s nontraditional approach. Praising Hopkins’s ability to communicate effectively with students with a range of intellectual backgrounds, she notes that he draws in students from the hard and social sciences while encouraging them to couple their work with other disciplines. She notes, “Sometimes there’s this stereotype about philosophers being old white men who sit in armchairs all day and develop theories about God and the universe. This is definitely not the case for Dr. Hopkins. For him, being a philosopher means being an academic who gets out and learns to apply theories in philosophy to other fields.” She adds that Hopkins is also creative in his teaching, incorporating TV shows, music videos, and films. He remains a friend and mentor to students he has worked with, and Nemati feels lucky to be among those. “He carries no airs, doesn’t judge those he teaches, and expresses real empathy when things go wrong for his students,” she concludes.

In addition to his work on campus, Hopkins has also been invited to talk to community groups, churches, Sunday schools, business organizations, the local Children’s Museum, and healthcare associations. Over the last few years, he has completed over one hundred talks with these local community groups. “It all fits together,” he explains. The team-taught, interdisciplinary setting of his courses at Millsaps has him easily prepared to take those talks into the community to teach as well. The environment allows the opportunity. He explains that whether he’s in a business boardroom, lab, library, or gym that it is all connected. “It’s not seamless,” he concludes, “but it is vibrant and feels both old and new.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.