What is empirically-informed philosophy of mind?

John Schwenkler’s thought-provoking survey on the climate for women in empirically-informed philosophy of mind prompts me to think more carefully about what empirically-informed philosophy of mind actually is. Are there necessary and sufficient conditions for a type of philosophical inquiry to be considered empirically-informed?

I would like to generate a discussion here. I encourage blog readers to join me in meta-reflection.

A cluster of domains of inquiry seems to shelter under the umbrella of empirically-informed philosophy of mind. The best way to define this field of inquiry might be to consider these domains. Put broadly, philosophers of this sub-field are interested in making the world as we encounter it relevant to philosophical inquiry on the nature and workings of the mind. There are a myriad ways to go about doing this kind of work. Let’s consider a few.

Some empirically-informed philosophers of mind aim to bring the empirical research in behavioural sciences to bear on traditional problems in philosophy of mind. Instead of dwelling on such questions as the mind-body relation via abstractions or thought experiments, they scrutinize the findings of behavioural sciences and apply them to solving the above-mentioned questions. In turn, such philosophical inquiry illuminates and sometimes even directs research by these sciences.

Relevant behavioural sciences include psychology (with the sub-disciplines of developmental, clinical, social psychology, etc.), neuroscience, psychiatry, and anthropology. For instance, the problem of other minds is reflected upon by using various behavioural sciences, as exemplified by the theory of mind debate. Questions such as how we attribute mental states to others, how their actions are connected to their mental states, how we can explain and predict their behavior, when we develop the capacity to attribute mental states to others, whether such capacity is innate, whether other non-human primates share this capacity, what happens when these capacities are delayed, or not developed, etc., are answered (or at least discussed) by using research in cognitive, developmental and social psychology, not to mention anthropology and neuroscience.

Another way of doing empirically-informed philosophy of mind is to engage with the problems in general philosophy of science, including problems on the nature of scientific explanation, the validity of scientific reasoning, reductionism, the problem of incommensurability, and so on. The inter-disciplinary nature of the empirically-informed philosophy of mind makes it necessary to consider methodological, observational and conceptual issues among sciences, as well as the variation and convergence among their data.

Also important is the methodology of developing philosophical arguments. In non-empirical philosophy of mind, thought experiments are often consulted to prompt philosophical intuitions about the questions on the mind; these include the series of fission and fusion thought experiments to prompt intuitions about personal identity and continuity over time. Empirically-informed philosophers on the other hand employ a wide variety of methodologies to reflect upon these problems.  Running surveys to understand “folk” intuitions of philosophical problems such as free will and appealing to animal cognition research in anthropology, biology, and zoology to bolster approaches to human social cognition are among such endeavours. In addition, especially in philosophical psychopathology, and philosophy of psychiatry, first-person experiences and the accounts of patients are employed to explore a number of questions: what the “pathological” mind tells us about the “normal” mind and vice versa (e.g., the case of the patient H.M.), what we can learn about the phenomenological experience of psychopathology from patients’ reports, what the memoirs of psychopathology tell us about how psychiatric taxonomies organize the personal and interpersonal experiences of patients with mental disorders, and so on.

To pin down a definition of empirically informed philosophy of mind, we might look at the journals and conferences where empirically-grounded work is disseminated. Relevant journals include Brain and Behavioural Sciences; Philosophical Psychology; Trends in Cognitive Sciences; Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology; Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences, Synthese. Conferences of note include those of Society for Philosophy and Psychology; Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology; Association for the Advancement in Philosophy of Psychiatry; International Network of Philosophy and Psychiatry; Philosophy of Science.

The above lists are by no means exhaustive. They are merely my initial attempt to capture a rich domain of inquiry. I look forward to hearing what fellow philosophers have to say.
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  1. gualtiero

    Serife, thanks for the interesting post.

    i would include within empirically minded philosophy of mind work that appeals to “mathematical” theories such as computability theory, information theory, or dynamical systems theory to clarify foundational issues in the sciences of mind.

  2. Eric Thomson

    This is interesting, as within neuroscience if a work is all or mostly mathematics (e.g., Hopfield) it would not be called empirically oriented, but theoretical or computational, the main contrast class with experimental neuroscience. These are fuzzy categories–I am an experimentalist with a computational streak.

  3. I think it’s reasonable to include the mathematical in the empirical if the mathematical theories are making predictions that can be tested empirically. In current physics experiment and theory are co-reliant when deciding the degree to which a theory is accepted, while more esoteric theories remain out on a limb awaiting experiment (or even some indication of what might constitute an experiment).

    The difficulty with philosophy of mind is that where we are experimentally in psychology is quite far removed from some of the detailed biology, chemistry and physics. The ‘higher’ up we look at behaviour, from individual neuron activity ‘up’ to external human personal and social behaviours, the more distant and vague the connections are. And most behavioural sciences like psychology are still pretty much black-box views of some internal complex activity.

    The difficulty is plain to see when we consider that multiple brain states can produce what looks like identical behaviours, and a single brain state is consistent with multiple external behaviours. It’s difficult to pin down causal explanations.

    In thermodynamics the state of a balloon can be described quite well at the macro level, in terms of pressure, volume and temperature of a gas; and consistently with this there is a much lower level explanation of gas atoms that describes temperature and pressure in terms of the vibrations and interactions of atoms. But a gas is very simple.

    The complexity of the brain currently prevents us reaching this degree of consistency and understanding between the macro level of thoughts, concepts, emotions on the one hand, and the micro level of neurons, neurotransmitters, interconnections on the other. What interesting and specific results have been found (e.g. grand-mother neurons, mirror neurons, stimulating out-of-body experiences, …) may be a step in the right direction, but are still incomplete.

    So, in physics we tend to rely on philosophical musings to speculate about what might be the case beyond our current physics. With the brain we are still relying on philosophy to speculate about what might be the case between the macro and micro observations. In physics we are looking to go further, while with the brain we are looking to close an explanatory gap.

    I feel we are waiting for advances in the technology of monitoring and analysing the brain. Something non-invasive, has the precision to monitor individual neurons, and the capacity to collect this data in real time for whole networks of neurons. Then we might be in a position to correlate brain activity with thoughts and feelings to a far greater degree that eventually starts to show how the brain actually ‘thinks’, consciously and sub-consciously, and how these aspects interact.

    This might still not answer the ‘hard problem’, but I’m not convinced the hard problem represents a real obstacle.

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