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Title: Natural minds : maps, mental causation and virtual machines
Author: Bowes, Simon
Awarding Body: University of Sussex
Current Institution: University of Sussex
Date of Award: 2019
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My project is an empirically informed investigation of the philosophical problem of mental causation, and simultaneously a philosophical investigation of the status of cognitive scientific generalisations. If there is such a thing as mental causation, that is, mental states having effects qua mental states, and if we can classify the mental states involved in these causes in a way useful for making predictions and giving scientific explanations, then these states will be natural kinds. The first task, then, is to show that there is an account of natural kindhood that can accommodate cognitive kinds. The second task is to say how the scientific statements made using these mental kinds are not susceptible to being reduced to statements about physical kinds, and in fact require taking into account facts at many levels of explanation, including the biological and social levels. Lastly, the case will be made for Virtual Machine Functionalism being the correct account of the relationship between cognitive states and the broader physical world. I will claim that although there may be problems with traditional accounts of natural kinds and mental representations when it comes to contemporary cognitive science, this is no reason for thinking that those terms are not useful; we should refine rather than eliminate them. Something would be lost in our understanding if we rejected these terms and the theoretical understanding they contain, something that was present before some mistaken theoretical details came to be associated with the terms. Perhaps some terms that have been coined in the development of our understanding of the mind, such as 'qualia,' should be dispensed with, but others just need to be cleaned up. Broadly speaking, my argument will be that squaring the widely held but somewhat contradictory intuitions of physicalism and anti-reductionism regarding mental states will require modification of two other commonly held intuitions, namely physical causal closure and supervenience. Another way of stating my aim is in terms of defending the intuitive distinction between metaphorical and literal uses of intentional vocabulary, such as 'wanting' and 'trying,' against those who question the meaningfulness of this distinction because they take a physicalist stance on questions of consciousness. They may say the distinction is merely verbal, that there is no real difference between saying of a raindrop that it is 'trying' to get to the bottom of the window pane, and saying of a person that he or she is trying to get to the top of the mountain. Much of what follows is an attempt to describe a metaphysics that is materialist and scientific, but in which the difference between the two cases has a natural place. 4 The difference lies in the idea of intentionality: in the case of my desiring something, there is a mental state 'in' me that is there because it has the function of directing my actions towards bringing about the desired state of affairs. Such states are things that can be scientifically studied, and a scientific account of human action would be incomplete if it did not refer to such states. In the case of the water drop, there are no similar states without which the scientific understanding of water droplet action would be incomplete. The temptation to elide the distinction between intentional and non-intentional descriptions is based on a belief that since all causation is physical, there is no meaningful distinction between the kinds of causes that makes water drops drop, and those that make climbers climb. This results from the fact that it is sometimes felt that reference to such things as personal agency in intentional explanations of action is to allow in a disagreeable form of dualism. I will argue that a complete, physicalistic, scientific account of human behaviour must include reference to irreducible, mental kinds, such as beliefs and desires. The form of the argument follows the content, with natural kinds at the centre of the web of concepts that form our understanding of mind and its place in the natural world. The starting point is simple folk explanations of human actions, like, 'He ate the apple because ...' followed by a set of conditions including combinations of beliefs and desires that together constitute sufficient reasons for eating the apple. Many would say such purported explanations are fictions that mask our ignorance of the true story, which will, when we know how to tell it, have a reduced cast of characters, an exclusive set of 'purely' physical types. This is well-trodden ground, onto which defenders of 'embodied cognitive science' have stepped. However, it is not clear who they will side with, whether they could tip the balance one way or the other, or indeed whether they will even be a unified force. A 'topographical' account of natural kinds will be developed that avoids problems other accounts face, and which is suitable for use in the general statements constructed in embodied cognitive science. Following that, we will use this account in the debate around the autonomy of special sciences in general, and the problem of mental causation in particular. The discussion will then broaden out into an investigation of causation, including a refined understanding of physical causal closure. After applying the results of these discussions to our understanding of the supervenience relation, a defensible account of emergentism will be given. Next, we will look at the kinds of properties of mental states that may be referred to in explanations of rational action, namely, the representational contents of mental states. In order to understand the nature of these states, the feedback dynamics between hierarchically structured levels of cognition involved in their evolution will be foregrounded, leading to a picture of embodied cognition that is broad and externalist. We will then look at experiential 5 properties, showing them to be an inseparable part of intentional states, and describing how subjecthood is emergent from brain/body/world dynamics. We will finish by outlining the implications of the refined functionalist account defended for the metaphysical notions we started with. The conclusion drawn will be that we can indeed refer to genuine mental causes which ground the non-metaphorical use of intentional explanations. Finally, I will sketch some implications for the idea of free will using empirical landmarks from cognitive science to find a path through the eroded philosophical landscape, while at the same time using these old philosophical waymarkers to guide the scientific exploration of cognition ahead of us.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: BD418 Mind ; BF0311 Consciousness. Cognition