Where Is My Mind?

The long standing philosophy and science behind the question

Writer: Sermila Ispartalıgil
Editor: Gracie Enticknap
Artist: Sophie Maho Chan

“With your feet on the air and your head on the ground/ Try this trick and spin it…/ Your head will collapse/ If there’s nothing in it / And you’ll ask yourself/ Where is my mind?”  As the 1988 Pixies song suggests, the questions concerning the mind are endless, but where do they begin, and where are they now?

Long before empirical fields emerged, philosophy was concerned with the nature of the mind, its features, mental states, relationship to the body, and learning processes. Exploring the workings of the mind trace back at least to Ancient Greece. While Socrates focused on finding definitions of our concepts, Plato claimed that knowledge is about abstract ideas instead of things. Plato’s notion of Ideas and his suggestion that knowledge of them is innate has left a lasting influence in both philosophy and other fields in cognitive science. Aristotle, like current cognitive scientists, looked at the ways in which objects are represented in our thoughts, with his theory of perception in which the Form defining objects is transmitted to the perceiver’s consciousness. Although these ideas of the Ancient Greek philosophers are no longer recognised as they were, they still influence research in cognitive science.

While the rationalists relied on reason to understand the world, which is adopted by many cognitive scientists, empiricists placed sensory perception over reason. John Locke’s ideas regarding how the mind works primarily through linking basic concepts by experience has formed the foundation for a long-standing tradition known as Associationism in cognitive science. Even though Kant would not have accepted cognitive science, his beliefs, which may be thought of as incorporating both empiricism and rationalism, are the most closely matched with those presented in modern cognitive research. Philosophy before Kant presumed that the world “exist[s] independently of us” and questioned the ways in which we might learn about it, whereas Kant argued that cognition was only partially constitutive of the world around us. To him, uncategorized sensory experience and the objects that they spring from (which he called things in themselves) cannot be known by us. His ideas can be seen as part of a turning point in philosophy: what we know about the world depends on how we construct it.

Until the nineteenth century, when experimental psychology emerged, the study of the mind was confined to philosophy. Wilhelm Wundt and his students studied the mind more systematically in the laboratory, before behaviorism started to dominate experimental psychology. This was followed by the abandonment of the debates around consciousness and mental representations, but arguments against the premises of behaviourism still remained, in regard to treating language as merely a learned habit, as criticised by Noam Chomsky. With pioneers such as psychologist Miller, Chomsky, and computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert Simon, the field of cognitive science started to emerge, as an interdisciplinary endeavor, incorporating philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, sociology and anthropology. 

Philosophy remains deeply interconnected to both the theoretical and experimental paradigms within which cognitive science works. In his paper, Paul Thagard explores the ways in which both fields can inform one another. One idea that is recurrent throughout the paper is that not taking philosophy into account would in fact simply mean adopting a certain philosophical view without ever questioning it. He makes use of well known phrases to adapt them to philosophy: “Those who ignore philosophy are condemned to repeat it… Those who believe themselves to be exempt from philosophical influence are usually the slaves of some defunct philosopher.” Seen under this light, avoiding philosophy seems impossible, as it leads to doing it implicitly and ineptly.

Thagard focuses on two ways in which philosophy is relevant in cognitive science: generality and normativity. Generality aids research in areas like psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, and artificial intelligence, which is often undertaken within a narrow framework or aims to address highly niche and specific questions. The generality of philosophy also works as a unifier in cognitive science which is very multidisciplinary. Normativity, on the other hand, helps consider how things ought to be and not just how they are. While scientific research within cognitive science is mostly concerned about reaching descriptive claims, normative ones should also be in the picture to assist the ways in which those descriptive claims are reached. 

Similarly, philosophy also needs cognitive science. In order to support its theories and claims about the character and workings of the mind, knowledge, and morality, philosophy should utilize the discoveries of disciplines like psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics. While thought experiments can sometimes be helpful by themselves, they are most often not enough in supporting hypotheses without scientific support. Not a priori conjecture, but a reflection on scientific advancements in domains like psychology, neurology, and computer science will lead to metaphysical conclusions regarding the nature of thought. In parallel, epistemology is based on and benefits from scientific findings about mental structures and learning mechanisms, while ethics can make use of the psychology of moral thought.

To conclude his paper, Thagard makes use of an analogy to explain the nature of the relationship between philosophy of mind and cognitive science. “The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. The reasoners resemble spiders who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course. It gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.” What he hopes to see in philosophy of mind and cognitive science is that honey of the bee, which is the mixture of the experimental and the rational. 

Therefore, to answer the challenging questions posed by the lyrics of our favourite songs, we might find it most helpful to consult both philosophical theories and scientific findings, as the answers to where our mind is might be hidden somewhere underwater in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, or their interconnections. 

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