Simon Bowes: Natural Minds

Congratulations to Simon Bowes, who just passed his DPhil viva with (very) minor corrections.  The internal examiner was Blay Whitby, and the external examiner was Robin Hendry.

Natural Minds: Summary

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 (mental states making things happen qua mental states, not as unnecessary accompaniments of physical causes the full description of which require reference only to fundamental physical entities and their interactions), and if we can classify the mental states involved in these causes in a way useful for making predictions and giving explanations (that is, if there can be a science of mental states), then these states will be natural kinds, in a sense that it will be part of my task to spell out. The second part of my 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 the taking into account facts at many levels of explanation, including the biological and social levels. Lastly, I will be setting out the case for Virtual Machine Functionalism being the correct account of the relationship between cognitive states and the broader physical world.
A theme of this thesis is that although there may be something problematic with traditional accounts of natural kinds and 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. Some may say that whether or not to retain the use of such technical terms is not much more than a matter of taste, as what is important is the understanding, not the name. So, many may prefer to lose the name in order to distance themselves from the details of the theories associated with them. I think, however, that something would be lost in our understanding if we reject these terms and the theoretical understanding they describe, something that perhaps was there before the wrong-headed theoretical details that came to be associated with the terms. The accumulations of mistaken theorising should be thrown out with the murky bathwater. Some terms that have been coined in the development of our understanding of the mind, such as ‘qualia’, should indeed be washed away, but others should be dried off and clothed anew.
Broadly speaking, my argument will be that to square the widely held but somewhat contradictory intuitions of Physicalism and Anti-reductionism regarding mental states will require rejection or modification of two other commonly held intuitions, namely Physical Causal Closure (some take this as necessary for Physicalism) and Supervenience (with Physical Realisation).
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’. I have been surprised in discussions with colleagues of a mathematical and scientific bent, who take a physicalistic stance on questions of consciousness, that this distinction is seen by them as purely verbal, that they see no meaningful difference between saying of a drop of water that it is ‘trying’ to get to the bottom of the window pane, and using that word to say 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 rigourously materialist and scientific, but in which the difference between the two cases has a natural place.
In brief, the difference lies in the notion of intentionality; the fact that in the case of my desiring something, there is a mental state ‘in’ me that has evolved for the purpose of directing my actions towards a state of affairs ‘out there’ in the world. 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 simplistic belief that since all causation is physical, there is no meaningful distinction between the kinds of causes that the 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 disagree, and 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, having as it does Natural Kinds at its centre, and arguing as it does that Natural Kinds are 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, for example, ‘He ate the apple because…’ followed by a set of conditions including combinations of beliefs and desires that together constitute sufficient reasons for the act of eating. Many would say such purported explanations are mere folk tales, fictions that mask our ignorance of the true story, which will, when we know how to tell it, have a much reduced cast of characters, an exclusive set of ‘purely’ physical types.
This is well trodden, and by now quite muddy, ground. Enter the various adherents of the new ‘embodied cognitive science’. However, it is not clear whose side they are on, whether they could tip the balance in favour of one side or the other, or indeed whether they will speak with one voice on this question. One of the aims of the present piece is to analyse what positions within the debate the embodiment theorist is most likely to take. The triangulation points for mapping this terrain will be arguments for the autonomy of sciences of the mind, where Natural Kinds will take centre stage, and counterarguments that rely on the notion of supervenience. An account of Natural Kinds, which I call the Topographical view, will be outlined, which, I claim, avoids the problems of other accounts, and is suitable for use in the generalisations constructed in embodied cognitive science. Following that, we will plug this account into the debate around the autonomy of special sciences in general, and the problem of mental causation in particular. Flowing from that the discussion will broaden out into an investigation of causation, including a refined understanding of causal closure and explanation. 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 move on to laying out a picture of 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 emphasised, leading to a picture of embodied cognition that is broad and externalist as opposed to narrow and internalistic. Finally, we will look at consciousness, as a necessary accompaniment of true intentional action, as opposed to behaviour that intentional language may be used metaphorically of, showing that subjects of intentional actions are emergent from brain/body/world dynamics. We will finish with a look at the implications of the refined functionalist account defended herein 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. I will end by sketching some implications for the notion of free will.