Philosophy in the Sea of Science

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:

  1. Automaticity and Control
  2. Self-monitoring and auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia
  3. Consciousness and the primate cortical visual streams
  4. Attention is….
  5. 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:

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.


  1. James Genone

    Hi Wayne,

    It’s great that you’ll be blogging here–I’m really looking forward to your posts.

    Regarding philosophy and cognitive science: when non-philosophers (or non-philosophers of mind) ask me what I do, I sometimes describe it as the theoretical branch of cognitive psychology, along the lines of the distinction between experimental and theoretical physics. This description seems to be helpful, especially to those who are scientifically minded, though I often feel uncomfortable with it. For one thing, I consider myself relatively ignorant of many areas of psychology and neuroscience. But more importantly, I’m influenced by many philosophers of mind whose work isn’t empirically engaged at all (those who are primarily concerned with issues in epistemology, for example). So I sometimes worry that making a distinction between empirically informed philosophy of mind and work that is, if not empirically uninformed, at least not particularly empirically engaged, somehow obscures the connections between the two.

    Nevertheless, I often wonder whether there are genuinely two different kinds of questions in the philosophy of mind: those ripe for empirical investigation (to which philosophers can contribute the conceptual work you describe), and those that are purely theoretical (the normative questions, perhaps). I have my doubts about this, but I gather that there are philosophers who would claim that *all* the philosophical questions fall under one of these two descriptions. Since your work strikes me as exemplary of making connections in both directions, I’d be very interested to hear how you think about this issue.

  2. Wayne Wu

    Hi James:

    Good to hear from you. You raise an important issue about categorizing and dividing questions of interest to readers of the blog. I was thinking more along the lines that you raise in your first paragraph, that philosophers can be part of the enterprise of cognitive science and, to the extent that cognitive scientists aim to tackle certain perennial philosophical questions, be part of that enterprise as well. So, I suppose it would have been better to speak of a kind of philosophy of (cognitive) science to which the philosophy of physics model might provide a better analogy: we philosophers of mind can be part of theoretical cognitive science though that is already a very broad category. I guess I take some of my work to be in that vein, say the work on auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia or issues about zombie action.

    On the more classical philosophy of mind questions, how many of those can be connected to empirical work in an interesting way is an important question worth reflection. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect direct or very interesting connections between issues about the nature of mental causation qua causal relation and empirical results, but I would be pleased to be corrected on that. There are, I think, a host of other areas where the empirical is relevant, but part of the challenge is figuring out relevance. That’s also a philosophical task, I think.

    On the more classical sort of question, I’ve made some strong claims about the relation of attention and action (though Alan Allport and Odmar Neumann made these points long before me), and in that work, actual empirical results weren’t particularly important (and indeed, I use the selection for action line to reinterpret results about attention to dodge objections!).

    I guess I would be inclined to say that there are two sorts of questions, as you suggest though you have some doubts. Perhaps, as with many things, it will be a continuum between those which have obvious empirical import and those that have less so. I hope that isn’t a cop out in respect of your question!

  3. James Genone

    Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for your reply. I was thinking of the idea of philosophy of mind as theoretical cognitive psychology (and I should have said “part of” as you rightly did), as a somewhat different pursuit than philosophy of cognitive science, which I think of more as an exercise in methodological reflection (much as we’re doing here). The former I think of as interpretation of experimental results in light of various competing theoretical considerations and explanatory aims–trying to make it all hang together, as it were.

    With respect to your work on attention and action: it seems to me that even if your claims are purely conceptual in nature, they make testable empirical predictions and provide explanations of empirical findings (such as the Kentridge work you discuss at the end one of your papers). So I think my doubts incline me more towards the continuum model you suggest, which doesn’t seem to me a cop out at all.

  4. Wayne Wu

    You’re right of course. The claim that attention is necessary for every action is testable, even if it is derived on conceptual grounds. Where we make claims about how the mind works, then those claims are certainly subject to empirical test.

    My view that attention is ever present in action does raise for many cases of absent minded action, and often the claim that one can sort of drift off in thought while one is driving and yet end up in the right place, miles later. While I think perceptual attention is clearly implicated there, many do not. But we then have a case where you might think some sort of empirical test is plausible, and could settle the issue. Of course, as I noted above, I’m liable to reinterpret the findings in light of my conception of attention, but I also think that such cases are more plausibly cases involving attention when you allow for unconscious attention. But more on that later!

  5. Hi Wayne, thanks for the post!! Just a quick comment:

    “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)”

    I agree with you about the importance of (a) and (b), but I wonder whether (b) must always be preceded by (a). Let me use an example from my own work, since I think about it explicitly in terms of (a) and (b) (I was glad to see you also frame your own work in this way!!).

    On the one hand, I am interested in getting clear on notions of representation as employed in cognitive science–more specifically research on object recognition in the visual system. This would qualify as an (a)-type project, it seems. (This sort of project has been pursued, on my topic, by e.g. Cummins and more recently Ramsey.)

    On the other hand, I want to show that causal-informational accounts of intentional content can be modeled statistically, and tested empirically–more specifically, Fodor’s asymmetric dependence account. This would qualify as a (b)-type project, it seems to me.

    However, rather than seeing this as a one before the other (a claim that perhaps I should not be holding you to), I see the two approaches as mutually supporting. By making the scientific notions clearer, and the philosophical notions more empirical, the idea is that we can show that there is a connection (in my case, that the notion of representation employed by vision scientists commits us to asymmetric dependence…of all things). I wonder if this resonates with how you think about your own work.

  6. Wayne Wu

    Hi Brendan:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with your suggestion that we should see tackling both as mutually supporting. In writing what I did in the post, I was more thinking of empirical attempts to tackle some of the large questions without adequately grasping them as a problem for some empirical attempts to tackle “philosophical” problems, and that the inadequate grasp due to conceptual inclarity. But I agree with your point.

    Your project sounds very interesting. I actually work with some important visual object recognition researchers: Marlene Behrmann, Mike Tarr, and Carl Olson, to name a few. The question of representation in the visual object domain is an important one. One of the nice things about being at the CNBC was that I had Carl Olson, who works on inferotemporal cortex, talk theoretically about approaches in the field. This was for a “conceptual foundations” class I taught. It was very interesting…many things to sort out, especially how representation is used by philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists.

  7. Wayne Wu

    I think some of the issues that are broached in the exchange with Brendan and James are coming out in the automaticity and control thread, namely the issue of questions (or so it seems to me).

  8. Hi Wayne,

    Thank you for the the reply. And the elaboration on the relationship between (a) and (b).

    I am familiar with some of Tarr’s work. I would be very curious what Olson said, as we do work on IT using fMRI and MEG.

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