Mind Brain and Learning

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Mind, Brain and LearningIntroductionThere is much that we think we know (perhaps rightly) about the nature andfunction of the mind, its relation to the brain, and its various learningmechanisms. This information is derived from a variety of sources ordisciplines, each focussing on the mind from its own particular perspectiveand with its own distinct questions and methodologies. But gatheringinformation about the mind and the brain is just the first step in a larger, morecomprehensive, and arguably much more difficult project. Integrating this richand growing body of information into one coherent account of the mind andthe brain remains one of the great outstanding intellectual challenges facingphilosophers and cognitive scientists alike. But while the task is difficult, theintellectual rewards attending success will be unparalleled, for we will haveuncovered the very springs and cogs of human nature, and at last satisfiedthe Delphic injunction to “Know Thyself”.Alas, at present philosophers and cognitive scientists are very far from beingable to provide this elusive account of human cognition. This “taster” isdesigned to give a sense of the nature of this challenge by looking at oneparticular tension in the information we now possess.The relevant sourcesBefore looking at a particular case study let us begin by identifying oursources of information regarding the mind and brain. Our integrative projectembraces:• “Folk Psychology”• Psychology• The social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, anthropology)• Linguistics• Computer science and artificial intelligence• The neurosciences (e.g., neurophysiology, neuroanatomy)• Evolutionary biologyThis list is not meant to be exhaustive; but it does give an indication of therange of disciplines being brought to bear on our chosen subject. Each ofthese disciplines provides a particular slant on the nature and workings of themind, and our picture of the human mind would be incomplete without theirrespective contributions. All theoretical investigations begin with what is called“folk psychology”, i.e., our pre-theoretical beliefs and assumptions about whatit is to have a mind (more on this shortly). Psychology provides empiricalstudies of human behaviour, studies which usually begin with the assumptionthat our behaviour is caused (at least in part) by our beliefs, desires, goalsand general character traits. These studies are then carried out in either


specific contexts (economics, sociology) or further afield (anthropology) by thesocial sciences. Linguistics has focussed on the nature of language andlanguage acquisition, and has produced theories which have importantimplications regarding the architecture of the mind (e.g., Chomsky’sgenerative linguistics). The computer science and artificial intelligencecommunity, working on the assumption that the mind is an informationprocessingmachine akin to a computer, has provided the hardware/softwaremetaphor of the mind, and taught us to look at the mind through the lens ofthe computer programmer. The neurosciences study the proximate causes ofcognition and mental activity in general, identifying the neurophysiologicalprocesses at work within the tissues of the brain itself. And last but not least,evolutionary biology has begun to identify the ultimate causes of thearchitecture of the human mind. If one sees the mind as a set of informationprocessingprogrammes designed by natural selection to allow our ancestorsto cope with frequently recurring problems encountered in the ancestralenvironment, then one is able to begin to explain why human minds are theway they are, as well as discover hitherto unnoticed features of humancognition by identifying what kind of mind would have been sculpted by theselection pressures operating at the time.A Case Study: Folk Psychology and the NeurosciencesIt is perhaps not surprising that when one surveys the vast body of informationproduced by this array of sources one begins to notice that not all of itcoheres as nicely as one might hope. There are tensions, not to say outrightcontradictions, to be found in the stories these disciplines are bringing backfrom the front lines. Consider the tensions to be found between FolkPsychology and the neurosciences:No one doubts that human beings have a set of capacities normallyassociated with minds, and that human beings, while alive, have a set ofproperties found nowhere in the inanimate world. Unlike inanimate objects weare capable of nutrition and growth, sensation and perception. We areconscious, and capable of imagination, emotion and thought, knowledge andunderstanding. Moreover, human beings are self-moving agents whoseactions are understood by reference to beliefs and desires, goals andintentions. Indeed it is only commonsense, seemingly, to distinguish betweenthe minded and the unminded, the knowing and the unknowing, the rationaland the arational, the self-moving and the immobile. And, again, these pretheoreticalviews receive support from the sciences insofar as the socialsciences incorporate and build upon the main elements of folk-psychology.This commonsense understanding of psychological phenomena is generallytaken to have at least two elements. Folk psychology (FP) has an ontologywhich includes beliefs, hopes, fears, intentions, desires and otherpropositional attitudes, and a set of principles or explanatory laws governingthe behaviour of propositional attitudes. For example we are told (Churchland,1981, p. 71) that FP contains laws involving quantification over propositions,such as


(x) (p) [(x fears that p) → (x desires that ¬ p)](x) (p) [{(x hopes that p) & (x discovers that p)} → (x is pleased that p)](x) [(x is angry) → (x is impatient)](x) [(x suffers bodily damage) → (x is in pain)]It is by appealing to beliefs and desires and laws of this sort that we are ableto explain and predict the behaviour of human agents. These general lawscan be added to perhaps indefinitely, but this ontology and laws of this sortform the bare bones of folk psychology.The conceptual apparatus of FP is sometimes enriched by the addition ofpersonality traits or characteristics, traits which are then governed by a furtherset of laws or “trait implications”. It is not just that we make inferences aboutthe psychological causes of our behaviour and the behaviour of others interms of beliefs and desires. According to this enriched FP, we also seeourselves and others as vain, boring, happy-go-lucky, modest, reliable,prudent, stupid, vapid, optimistic, and so on for a myriad other character traits.Moreover, we think that these traits tend to come in inter-connected groupsrather than as discrete items. This clumping of traits in coherent groups allowsfor certain inferences to be drawn. For instance, if we think that so-and-so is awarm-hearted chap we also tend to assume in advance of any furtherevidence that he will have other positive traits as well - he will be generous,kind, wise, happy, etc. Conversely, if we find someone to be a bit of a coldfish, we are likely to believe that he is also a bit tight with money, probablyhumourless, critical rather than supportive, etc.Now since Fodor’s The Language of Thought (1975) philosophical psychologyhas been preoccupied with a particular hypothesis regarding the nature andstructure of the human mind. The hypothesis has been (i) that FP constitutesor embodies a theory of the internal organisation and structure of the humanmind. This would mean, at a minimum, that the human cognitive system at aneurophysiological level has at least two sub-systems, one for registeringstates of affairs in the world and how that world might be changed, andanother, a preference system, which ranks those possibilities in a hierarchicalorder. Psychologists have been betting that neuroscientists will eventuallydiscover structures and processes in our nervous tissue which embody ourbeliefs and desires, structures and processes in virtue of which we havebeliefs and desires. Now if this hypothesis were correct, then one could assert(ii) that we are able to predict and explain the behaviour of human agentsbecause we operated with this theory, and can successfully deploy it whenrequired (as required by commonsense and the social sciences) and finally(iii) that we are successful at predicting and explaining the behaviour ofhuman agents because this theory is at least roughly true. The hope then hasbeen that the intuitions of folk psychology are generally right because theyprovide at least a rough guide to how the human mind is organised at aneurophysiological level.


The problem is that many now believe that this straightforward coordinationstrategy has failed. Why? For one, it has proved very difficult to findneurological correlates to the psychological notions of beliefs, desires,consciousness and intentionality. Neuroscientists simply haven’t foundprocesses or structures that match these pre-theoretical psychologicalnotions. And many now think that this isn’t just because we don’t knowenough about the brain. Many think that beliefs and desires and the like havefeatures (intentionality, for example) which no piece of brain tissue could everhave or support. This has lead some, like Paul Churchland, to assert thatQuestionsOur commonsense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes aradically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both theprinciples and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced, ratherthan smoothly reduced by completed neuroscience (1981, p. 67).We are faced, then, with apparently inconsistent reports from the front lines.This leaves us with a difficult question: What are we to make of this? Ouroptions are strictly limited:• Should we reject FP on the strength of neuroscience, or reject theneuroscience on the strength of FP? Neither option is particularlyattractive. And each raises a further question: How do we decide whichreport to “privilege”? Which report takes priority, and why?• Or should we assume that there is really only a prima facie tensionbetween FP and neuroscience, and that these tensions will disappearonce more information comes to light, or as we learn to conceptualisethe mind and brain in new ways? This will buy us some time, but is itjust wishful thinking?• Or should we accept, as some philosophers do, that producing acoherent account of the human mind is beyond our cognitivecapacities, and that we need to learn to deal with this limitation? Ifsome questions are beyond the cognitive capacities of mice, forexample, why can’t there be questions we simply cannot answer due toour own cognitive limitations? This certainly isn’t wishful thinking, but isit prematurely defeatist?These are important and difficult questions, questions that arise time andagain on a myriad of topics as one sifts through the findings of the relevantsciences. Of course one cannot hope to answer these questions without beingfamiliar with the basic findings of the various sources of information regardingthe mind, and without developing some philosophical skills. If you find thissubject matter fascinating, and these sorts of questions perplexing, then thisMA in Mind, Brain and Learning is your opportunity to explore them further.


Suggested/indicative ReadingBarkow, Cosmides and Tooby, Eds. (1992) The Adapted Mind. OxfordUniversity Press.W. Bechtel and G. Graham (1998) A Companion to Cognitive Science.Oxford, Blackwell.W. Bechtel and A. Abrahamsen (2002) Connectionism and the Mind, 2 ndEdition. Oxford: Blackwell.M. Boden (1998) Artificial Life. Oxford: OUP.M.J. Cain (2002) Fodor: Language, Mind and Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity.Andy Clark (2001) Mindware. Oxford: OUP.Andy Clark (1997) Being There. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Paul Churchland (1981) “Eliminative Materialism” and the PropositionalAttitudes”. Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 78 (2), 67-90.Paul Churchland (1989) A Neurocomputational Perspective. Cambridge,Mass.: MIT Press.Crow, Tim (ed) (2002) The Speciation of Modern Homo sapiens. The BritishAcademy: Oxford University Press.Daniel Dennett (1986) The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Daniel Dennett (1998) Brainchildren. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Donald, M (1991) The Origins of the Modern Mind. Harvard University Press.Jerry Fodor (1975) The Language of Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press.Jerry Fodor (1983) Modularity of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Jerry Fodor (1987) Psychosemantics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Jerry Fodor (1998) Concepts. Oxford: OUP.Gib, K. (1993) Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.John Haugeland (ed) (1997) Mind Design II. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Hurford, Studdaert-Kennedy and Knight (Eds) (1998) Approaches to theEvolution of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.David Marr (1980) Vision. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.Mithen, Steven (1996) The Prehistory of the Mind. Phoenix.John Searle (1990) The Rediscovery of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Syke, Bryan (1999) The human inheritance: genes, language and evolution.Oxford; Oxford University Press.Wray, A. (ed) (2002) The Transition to Language. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

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