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.

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PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

To me this seems a serious muddle. I see no evidence that science studies anything more than ordinary mind, and always only by inference from behaviour, and it is not even capable of establishing the reality of consciousness. I think the point is whether the scientific method can add to what we learn in philosophy. If a scientific approach entails studying consciousness directly rather than second-hand than it is mysticism, which combines science and philosophy and finds no inconsistency between them. If not, then it is studying behaviour.

This idea that philosophy of mind merely helps us do science is crazy imho unless yoga is considered a science, as many people would consider it. Otherwise science can have little to say about consciousness and cannot even find it.

I wish philosophers weren’t so sheepish about their discipline. It’s more important than science and far more helpful to any study of consciousness. What have we learnt about consciousness from the natural sciences? Anything at all? Report

Matthias Michel
Matthias Michel
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

We learned many things from natural science. For example we learned that we have two visual systems. The dorsal and the ventral stream. It is likely that only the ventral stream is necessary for consciousness. Nobody would expect that on the basis of philosophical speculation. Other example: scientists showed that subliminal signals have an effects on behavior, outside of consciousness, for a few seconds. Other example: experimental paradigms such as the attentional blink, change blindness and inattentional blindness show that our conscious experience is much more dependent on attention than we usually think, although there are still debates about whether attention is necessary for consciousness or not. Other example: it is possible to dissociate introspective reports and objective performance, such that it is possible to report being unconscious of a stimulus while performing correctly on a perceptual discrimination task (a phenomenon called relative blindsight). Other example: we learned that there are many cases of confabulation and that introspective reports are not always the right way to know something about the mind. These are just a few examples from social psychology, experimental psychology and neuroscience, but I think it already shows that we have a lot to learn about consciousness from natural sciences.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Matthias Michel
4 years ago

“We learned many things from natural science. For example we learned that we have two visual systems. ”

What dope this tell; us about consciousness? Anything?

” It is likely that only the ventral stream is necessary for consciousness.”.

Is it? Where are the proofs? I believe it is not necessary and await a reason to change my mind.

“Other example: scientists showed that subliminal signals have an effects on behavior, outside of consciousness, for a few seconds.”

Hmm. I wonder. Anyway, what does this tell us about consciousness? Anything?

Your examples are all to do with behaviour and neurophysiology. There’s nothing there about consciousness per se as a phenomenon. .

Philosophy showed that the MInd-Matter problem exists long before it was a twinkle in Chalmers’ eye, while physics cannot even show that there is a problem. Philosophy of mind has lost its way, and I feel it is largely due to science-envy and lack of confidence.

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Experimental Philosopher
Experimental Philosopher
4 years ago

It might be helpful to distinguish two different senses in which one might claim that there are philosophical questions about the mind that go beyond anything purely empirical.

(1) On one hand, it could be said that there are philosophical questions about the mind that one cannot answer without a lot of reflection that goes far beyond anything purely empirical. For example, there might be cases in which the relevant empirical facts are fairly easy to uncover, and all of the interesting research is devoted to further, non-empirical reflection about the deeper significance of these facts.

(2) On the other, it could be said that there are philosophical questions about the mind regarding which no empirical facts are at all relevant. For example, it might be said that there are cases in which people try to address a question using experiments or other studies, but no results from these methods could ever be at all helpful.

I think we can all agree that there are cases of type (1). The dispute is usually about purported cases of type (2). Often, when people claim that something is of type (2), subsequent research leads to arguments that it actually is not.

The present example seems to be one such case. Gomes emphasizes “our ordinary conception of the mind” as a domain of non-empirical reflection, but surely one of the best ways to figure out what our ordinary conception of the mind is actually like is to conduct experiments or other studies.

In fact, this has been a major preoccupation of philosophers engaged in experimental work, and Gomes himself has done excellent experimental work on the topic. (See http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09515089.2015.1048328)Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

Science tells us everything we can justifiably say about the mind. Philosophy cannot add anything. If science cannot solve a deep philosophical puzzle about the mind, then we should forget about the puzzle instead of offering arbitrary answers that cannot be justified.

Insisting on trying to keep finding answers is irrational. We should just accept that certain questions will never be answered. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why aren’t we zombies? Are zombies metaphysically possible? We will never know. Now let’s find questions that we can actually provide justified answers for.

Conceptual clarification is already part of science. Scientists don’t need to have their own concepts analyzed for them by outsiders. If we want to understand how a concept is actually used, then we should conduct an empirical study. This is a job for scientific science studies, not for philosophy.

Coming up with new, interesting, testable hypotheses is also already part of science. Why would philosophers be particularly good at it? They are not trained to do empirical research. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

Lots of assertion, little argument. Though the burden of proof is probably on those who disagree with you, I guess. Note though that in saying we’ll ‘never know’ certain things, your putting a limit on what science, not just philosophy can ever do, so you could be wrong or unjustified, even if everything negative you think about *philosophy* is entirely correct. Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  David Mathers
4 years ago

Science has been successful, philosophy hasn’t. Consensus is a good proxy for success. Philosophers just keep arguing about various isms without ever settling anything whereas in science I can just open a textbook and find lots of settled facts. That’s one argument for you.

I get your point about putting a priori limits to science. But if there _are_ limits to science, if there are some questions that science cannot answer, then philosophy cannot answer them either, and we should forget about those questions. This is just pragmatic verificationism. Philosophy tries to reach beyond what we can verify. That’s why we never see any consensus in philosophy.

I think it is highly unlikely that empirical science will ever discover whether zombies are metaphysically possible. Empirical science studies the actual world, not empirically inaccessible possible worlds.

I might be wrong, of course. Please do notify me when philosophy discovers an interesting true generalization about the mind!Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

Chad wrote “Philosophy tries to reach beyond what we can verify. That’s why we never see any consensus in philosophy.”

I’m reminded of one of J.L. Austin’s quotes “One might think that overgeneralization is the occupational hazard of philosophy – were it not for the sneaking suspicion it’s their occupation.”

But seriously, I assume you’re restricting your remarks here to some parts of philosophy – there are many others (logic, etc.) where philosophers prove things about which there is at least as much consensus as the empirical sciences.
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Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Chris Stephens
4 years ago

Philosophers should stick to “logic, etc.” then.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

You don’t think that the philosophical work of Aristotle, Newton, Leibniz, Frege, or Fodor was successful in any way?

I’ll grant you that what I assume you like most about their work can, in hindsight, be categorized as ‘science’ in contrast to ‘philosophy’. But if we need hindsight to say whether something called ‘philosophy’ is successful or not, and if what we’ve called ‘philosophy’ has consistently been successful historically, then we should keep doing what gets called ‘philosophy’; it’s a great way to produce successful science!Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Johnny_Thunder
4 years ago

Most contemporary analytic philosophy doesn’t produce successful science. It is not even aimed at producing science. Pumping intuitions about the varieties of ontological dependence or about metaphysical reference relations seems to be a highly inefficient way of producing science. So instead of philosophy maybe we should have more theoretical and speculative science where the direct aim is to produce more science.Report

Richard Yetter Chappell
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

Chad writes: “If science cannot solve a deep philosophical puzzle[…] then we should forget about the puzzle instead of offering arbitrary answers that cannot be justified.”

Why should anyone bother listening to skeptics whose normative claims are, by their own lights, arbitrary and unjustified? Other philosophical views may be speculative, to be sure, but at least they’re pragmatically coherent. This sort of anti-philosophical scientism isn’t.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Richard Yetter Chappell
4 years ago

I guess we could call this kind of scientism philosophy. It’s a very broad methodological issue and thus in some sense “philosophical”. But we could just as well call it “general methodology”, not philosophy.

I think we can formulate an argument for scientism in empirical terms. Even many philosophers agree at least on that much that there is no similar body of knowledge or consensus in philosophy as there is in science (Gary Gutting’s book didn’t convince me). If our aim is to have that kind of body of knowledge, then with respect to this aim science is way more successful than philosophy. Therefore we should accept at least this form of scientism.

Then I could say that there is philosophy1 and philosophy2. Philosophy1 is good, scientistic, empirical philosophy, and philosophy2 is bad, analytic, continental philosophy. As long as I follow the standards of philosophy1 when arguing for scientism and my scientism is aimed at philosophy2, there is no pragmatic incoherence.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Richard Yetter Chappell
4 years ago

I take my scientism to be a working hypothesis. If it can’t be justified, then I will stop talking about it. I will focus on doing science instead. There are good and bad versions of scientism, and it can still be developed further. Philosophers have dismissed scientism too quickly.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

Chad – “Science tells us everything we can justifiably say about the mind. ”

Yes, if you are including the study of the mind in science. At this time mainstream science does not study it and has nothing useful to say about it. There’s more to be learnt from philosophy, and even more from studying the phenomenon itself. . Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

Psychology and cognitive science study the mind. What about subjective experience? Well, we have heterophenomenology for that, and it is already part of science. There are no other ways to make _justified_ generalizations about the mind.

Can you name a non-scientific field that has discovered non-trivial truths about the mind? What are those truths? Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

—“Can you name a non-scientific field that has discovered non-trivial truths about the mind? What are those truths?”

Two thousand years of philosophy since Plato and you cannot see even one non-trivial truth about Mind? How is one supposed to defend this sort of philosophy? Is it not more likely that you’re missing the truths? And how is one to respond to a philosopher who dismisses the philosophy of the Upanishads in such cavalier fashion? And where are the non-trivial truths about Mind discovered by science? Most scientists are Materialists for goodness sake, which indicates how much progress they have made on understanding Mind.

One of the truths that we discover in philosophy is that metaphysical problems can only be solved when we adopt a particular view of Mind – one that is not Materialism. This in itself is a triumph of philosophy. Another would be the inaccessibility of consciousness to the empirical sciences. Another would be the failure of mind-only and matter-only metaphysical theories, a result that is a triumph of logic even if it is mostly ignored.
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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

“What about subjective experience? Well, we have heterophenomenology for that, and it is already part of science… Can you name a non-scientific field that has discovered non-trivial truths about the mind? What are those truths?”

Since heterophenomenology, as a concept, is due to the philosopher Dan Dennett, there seems to be some tension here.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Yes, as a concept it is due to Dennett but as a methodology it was already part of psychology before Dennett came up with the term.

There are plenty of philosophers who have said smart things (just as there are also scientists who engage in speculative metaphysics). Usually they are naturalistic philosophers who criticize mainstream philosophy.

Daniel Dennett, Don Ross, Bas van Fraassen, Penelope Maddy, Patricia Churchland, James Woodward, and many others have lots of good negative points about philosophy. The moments where they are simply talking about science or explaining science to philosophers are also fine. What I don’t like is their positive philosophical stuff, the speculative, unjustified claims that they add on top of science.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

I see Dennett as basically saying, “if you want to study consciousness, you should do it the way scientists are doing it, not the way philosophers are doing it”. I don’t think Dennett has discovered any extra-scientific truths about the mind. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

But you asked for “non-trivial” truths about the mind, not “extra-scientific” ones. I think Dennett subscribes to the Quinean picture that good philosophy is continuous with science rather than having a distinct subject matter.Report

PeteJ
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

Chad – Pardon me, but I really do think you make a mistake by not reading more widely. Your question looks astonishing from here. Do you not know that the perennial philosophy, Buddhism say, explains the mind? It is the entire topic of study. Vast libraries of texts are about nothing else.

We could argue about whether studying the mind by apperception counts as science. I would say it does as does the Dalai Lama. But if it is not then the entire study of consciousness is not part of science. There is no more detailed breakdown of mental phenomena than the Abhidhamma pitaka, no more comprehensive explanation of mind and consciousness than is given in the Wisdom literature. Whether it is correct is for you to decide but to ask whether anything has been discovered outside science is very odd. Imagine asking that question in Tibet.

My question remains that of whether anything of note about consciousness has been discovered by science other than its elusiveness and point-blank refusal to be explained in any other way than the perennial way.Report

Assaf Weksler
4 years ago

I think that some philosophical problems require “translation” into empirical hypotheses, and only then can science address them (think of “is there acquaintance?” “is experience transparent?” “are there phenomenal concepts?” “is naïve realism true?”). Scientists do not know how to translate these philosophical problem into scientific ones, because they do not sufficiently understand them. We need philosophers to do the translation. Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  Assaf Weksler
4 years ago

A question is philosophical if it cannot be answered empirically or mathematically. If it is transformed into an empirical question, it is not the same question anymore.

If philosophical questions need to be translated into scientific questions anyway, wouldn’t it be good if philosophers started focusing on that instead of trying to answer philosophical questions philosophically? At some point we wouldn’t even need philosophy anymore. There would be nothing left to translate. Everybody would be either developing new empirical hypotheses or testing them.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

It is an impoverished view of science to suppose that it consists entirely of “developing new empirical hypotheses or testing them”, without any allowance for deepening our conceptual understanding of our theories. There are no empirical hypotheses in Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity.Report

Alan White
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Thank you for that David (if I may), as I have argued for as well in many places.Report

Chad A. Benton
Chad A. Benton
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Conceptual understanding and theoretical science are important but philosophers of physics often slip from merely clarifying concepts into speculative metaphysics. For example, how could MWI be justified? It can’t be justified empirically nor mathematically so what is left? Intuitions? Will there be a consensus about it? Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Chad A. Benton
4 years ago

I would see it rather differently. A philosophical problem is philosophical problem because it not a scientific problem, and it would be impossible to translate a philosophical problem into an empirical problem. Philosophers must focus on trying to answer philosophical questions philosophically since otherwise they are not philosophers. Report