The Relationship Between The Philosophy And The Science Of The Mind

A persistent challenge to philosophy is whether it is rendered obsolete by science. Consider this exchange on the philosophy of mind:

Cognitive scientists are working to understand many issues raised by Kant—do you think the scientists are going to get conclusive answers to the question about consciousness and the mind—and other minds—and if they are, doesn’t that make the Kantian project and the philosophers working in that tradition of just historical interest? I guess the question is whether you think philosophy should be heeded in the contemporary setting anymore?

Interviewer Richard Marshall puts those questions to Anil Gomes (Oxford) in an interview at 3:AM Magazine. Gomes replies:

That’s a great (and deep and difficult) question. At its most general, it’s a question about whether philosophy has any role to play in the study of the mind. Of course, even if cognitive science gave us conclusive answers about the mind, that alone wouldn’t show that the philosophy of mind couldn’t make a contribution to the study of the mind, since there’s a long and distinguished conception of philosophy serving as under-labourer to science, to use Locke’s famous image. So there’s a role for philosophy in clarifying the concepts that scientists use, in criticising the way in which they take certain evidence to support a view, in offering alternative hypotheses which science can go away and investigate… None of these tasks is easy, and to see philosophy as playing this role is not to detract in any way from the importance of philosophical input, nor to diminish the distinctive contribution that can be made by philosophical reflection. But there’s a sense in which this construal of the relation between the philosophy and science of the mind has the former as parasitic on the latter.

But I think I’d be wary of the assumption that if philosophy can’t contribute towards the study of the mind in that way, then it has no contribution to make and is just of historical interest. Some of the questions which we’re concerned with in the philosophy of mind are questions which arise from our ordinary conception of the mind. One question about those ordinary aspects is how they fit with the scientific description of the mind—this is the project Wilfrid Sellars described of reconciling our scientific and manifest images. But to reduce the philosophy of mind to this question is to ignore the questions we might ask about those ordinary aspects in their own right, questions such as those about the character of perceptual consciousness and its role in explaining our knowledge and thought of a mind-independent world, or those about the kind of relation we stand in to others’ minds. These ordinary aspects of the mind can be the objects of philosophical puzzlement and the starting point for philosophical investigation—and whilst I think that anything we say about these topics shouldn’t be in conflict with what we know about the mind from the sciences, I don’t take it that our pursuing those questions is legitimate only to the extent that they can be eventually substituted for questions tractable in scientific terms. The questions about the mind which are pursued in the sciences are not the only questions about the mind we might want ask.

You also asked about the Kantian project and its role in all of this. Again, I don’t think it would be bad if the Kantian project were just of historical interest, since to be of historical interest is presumably one way of being of interest, and the value in studying Kant’s philosophy is not dependent on it being able to contribute to a future cognitive science. Still, there’s no doubt that Kant’s views have been influential in the philosophy of mind and, at least from my point of view, exposure to Kant’s genius can be a source of insight about the nature of the mind. But Kant’s views on the mind can also seem alien to us in all kinds of ways, and that’s also interesting since it makes prominent some of the background assumptions in our contemporary thinking about the mind which are otherwise too prevalent to command attention. [emphasis added]

I think Gomes answers this question quite well, but I’m curious to hear what others—and not just those working in philosophy of mind—think can be said in response to these kinds of challenges.

P.S. Philosophers and prospective philosophers should check out part of Gomes’s answer to the first question of the interview, about how he became a philosopher:

I often hear philosophers say that you should only do philosophy if you can’t imagine doing anything else. This tells you more about the imaginative capacities of philosophers than anything important. (They really can’t imagine doing anything else?) It’s a kind of self-congratulation which drives out from the discipline people who don’t see this as a vocation. And it ignores the way in which some of us find it difficult to imagine ourselves in a discipline which is so overwhelmingly white. I love my job very much, and feel very lucky to be able to spend so much of my time talking with smart, interesting people. But I don’t want to do this forever, and I hope I’ll get to do something else at some point.

There are 28 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please enter an e-mail address