Thanks to John for the invitation to post in the Brains blog and for his detailed introduction and overview of my work. I also want to commend him for the many exciting developments since he took over from Gualtiero’s admirable tenure as founder.
Here are the topics I hope to cover in the next few weeks:
- Automaticity and Control
- Self-monitoring and auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia
- Consciousness and the primate cortical visual streams
- Attention is….
- Attention in Introspection
The first post on automaticity and control, a topic that needs more philosophical scrutiny, will be up in a few days. I just want to say a few words about being a philosopher in a cognitive science department and why philosophers might be usefully (and gainfully!) employed therein. I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences too in trying to bridge philosophy and cognitive science.
My institute, the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), is a joint project of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. It brings in researchers at all levels from a large number of departments across the two universities. The currently affiliated faculty number around 100 and the affiliated departments are also many. Aside from neuroscience and psychology departments, the CNBC also includes on the CMU side machine learning, statistics, engineering, and robotics. The website for the institute is here: https://www.cnbc.cmu.edu/
The CNBC was originally started about 15 years ago by Jay McClelland who was subsequently joined on the Pitt side by Peter Strick as co-director. After Jay moved from CMU to Stanford, CMU recruited Mike Tarr from Brown to be the CMU co-director. I have to say, Mike is one of those rare administrators who tackles the ever present two-body problem in academia as opposed to waiting for something to happen: he created a unique position for me so I could work in the same university as my wife who is a neuroscientist at the CNBC.
As a lone philosopher surrounded by scientists, I am something of an oddity. Fortunately, my colleagues are quite welcoming, being themselves theoretically minded. Still, there is an open question as to what philosophy might contribute to cognitive science, and when I first arrived, I know a few were not sure what to make of philosophy. For any empirically centered philosopher of mind, there are many strong justifications for philosophical work in cognitive science, but I think for many scientists, there are open questions.
There are two areas where I think it is clear that philosophers are needed: (a) conceptual work in cognitive science and (b) empirical attempts at dealing with old workhorse philosophical questions regarding the mind such as those concerning agency, free will, and consciousness. I hope that the posts in the next few weeks will show how I’ve tried to tackle (a) and (b), but just a few general comments.
On (a), one need only look to work on attention to see why refined conceptual work is needed. I find that a surprising number of cognitive scientists I have interacted with in the past year are actually quite skeptical of the idea of attention and there has been an interesting recent article by Brit Anderson in Frontiers titled: “There is no such thing as attention”. I conjecture that this skepticism is partly rooted in the not great state of the concepts that we use in discussing attention, something that attention theorists themselves have noticed. So, we have work to do.
On (b), the main challenge is formulating philosophical questions such that it is clear whether we can get an empirical purchase on the questions at issue. Of course, the clarity of one’s questions depends in large part on the clarity of the concepts with which one poses those questions. So, dealing with (b) begins with (a). Ok, that’s the framework in which I’m operating, trying to do philosophy in a sea of science. It’s not a bad place to be.