Mind,-Brain-and-Learning by sdaferv

VIEWS: 18 PAGES: 5

Mind,-Brain-and-Learning

More Info
									Mind, Brain and Learning
Introduction There is much that we think we know (perhaps rightly) about the nature and function of the mind, its relation to the brain, and its various learning mechanisms. This information is derived from a variety of sources or disciplines, each focussing on the mind from its own particular perspective and with its own distinct questions and methodologies. But gathering information about the mind and the brain is just the first step in a larger, more comprehensive, and arguably much more difficult project. Integrating this rich and growing body of information into one coherent account of the mind and the brain remains one of the great outstanding intellectual challenges facing philosophers and cognitive scientists alike. But while the task is difficult, the intellectual rewards attending success will be unparalleled, for we will have uncovered the very springs and cogs of human nature, and at last satisfied the Delphic injunction to “Know Thyself”. Alas, at present philosophers and cognitive scientists are very far from being able to provide this elusive account of human cognition. This “taster” is designed to give a sense of the nature of this challenge by looking at one particular tension in the information we now possess.

The relevant sources Before looking at a particular case study let us begin by identifying our sources of information regarding the mind and brain. Our integrative project embraces:        “Folk Psychology” Psychology The social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, anthropology) Linguistics Computer science and artificial intelligence The neurosciences (e.g., neurophysiology, neuroanatomy) Evolutionary biology

This list is not meant to be exhaustive; but it does give an indication of the range of disciplines being brought to bear on our chosen subject. Each of these disciplines provides a particular slant on the nature and workings of the mind, and our picture of the human mind would be incomplete without their respective contributions. All theoretical investigations begin with what is called “folk psychology”, i.e., our pre-theoretical beliefs and assumptions about what it is to have a mind (more on this shortly). Psychology provides empirical studies of human behaviour, studies which usually begin with the assumption that our behaviour is caused (at least in part) by our beliefs, desires, goals and general character traits. These studies are then carried out in either

specific contexts (economics, sociology) or further afield (anthropology) by the social sciences. Linguistics has focussed on the nature of language and language acquisition, and has produced theories which have important implications regarding the architecture of the mind (e.g., Chomsky’s generative linguistics). The computer science and artificial intelligence community, working on the assumption that the mind is an informationprocessing machine akin to a computer, has provided the hardware/software metaphor of the mind, and taught us to look at the mind through the lens of the computer programmer. The neurosciences study the proximate causes of cognition and mental activity in general, identifying the neurophysiological processes at work within the tissues of the brain itself. And last but not least, evolutionary biology has begun to identify the ultimate causes of the architecture of the human mind. If one sees the mind as a set of informationprocessing programmes designed by natural selection to allow our ancestors to cope with frequently recurring problems encountered in the ancestral environment, then one is able to begin to explain why human minds are the way they are, as well as discover hitherto unnoticed features of human cognition by identifying what kind of mind would have been sculpted by the selection pressures operating at the time.

A Case Study: Folk Psychology and the Neurosciences It is perhaps not surprising that when one surveys the vast body of information produced by this array of sources one begins to notice that not all of it coheres as nicely as one might hope. There are tensions, not to say outright contradictions, to be found in the stories these disciplines are bringing back from the front lines. Consider the tensions to be found between Folk Psychology and the neurosciences: No one doubts that human beings have a set of capacities normally associated with minds, and that human beings, while alive, have a set of properties found nowhere in the inanimate world. Unlike inanimate objects we are capable of nutrition and growth, sensation and perception. We are conscious, and capable of imagination, emotion and thought, knowledge and understanding. Moreover, human beings are self-moving agents whose actions are understood by reference to beliefs and desires, goals and intentions. Indeed it is only commonsense, seemingly, to distinguish between the minded and the unminded, the knowing and the unknowing, the rational and the arational, the self-moving and the immobile. And, again, these pretheoretical views receive support from the sciences insofar as the social sciences incorporate and build upon the main elements of folk-psychology. This commonsense understanding of psychological phenomena is generally taken to have at least two elements. Folk psychology (FP) has an ontology which includes beliefs, hopes, fears, intentions, desires and other propositional attitudes, and a set of principles or explanatory laws governing the 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 able to explain and predict the behaviour of human agents. These general laws can be added to perhaps indefinitely, but this ontology and laws of this sort form the bare bones of folk psychology. The conceptual apparatus of FP is sometimes enriched by the addition of personality traits or characteristics, traits which are then governed by a further set of laws or “trait implications”. It is not just that we make inferences about the psychological causes of our behaviour and the behaviour of others in terms of beliefs and desires. According to this enriched FP, we also see ourselves 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 groups rather than as discrete items. This clumping of traits in coherent groups allows for certain inferences to be drawn. For instance, if we think that so-and-so is a warm-hearted chap we also tend to assume in advance of any further evidence 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 cold fish, we are likely to believe that he is also a bit tight with money, probably humourless, critical rather than supportive, etc. Now since Fodor’s The Language of Thought (1975) philosophical psychology has been preoccupied with a particular hypothesis regarding the nature and structure of the human mind. The hypothesis has been (i) that FP constitutes or embodies a theory of the internal organisation and structure of the human mind. This would mean, at a minimum, that the human cognitive system at a neurophysiological level has at least two sub-systems, one for registering states of affairs in the world and how that world might be changed, and another, a preference system, which ranks those possibilities in a hierarchical order. Psychologists have been betting that neuroscientists will eventually discover structures and processes in our nervous tissue which embody our beliefs and desires, structures and processes in virtue of which we have beliefs 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 agents because we operated with this theory, and can successfully deploy it when required (as required by commonsense and the social sciences) and finally (iii) that we are successful at predicting and explaining the behaviour of human agents because this theory is at least roughly true. The hope then has been that the intuitions of folk psychology are generally right because they provide at least a rough guide to how the human mind is organised at a neurophysiological level.

The problem is that many now believe that this straightforward coordination strategy has failed. Why? For one, it has proved very difficult to find neurological correlates to the psychological notions of beliefs, desires, consciousness and intentionality. Neuroscientists simply haven’t found processes or structures that match these pre-theoretical psychological notions. And many now think that this isn’t just because we don’t know enough about the brain. Many think that beliefs and desires and the like have features (intentionality, for example) which no piece of brain tissue could ever have or support. This has lead some, like Paul Churchland, to assert that
Our commonsense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory, a theory so fundamentally defective that both the principles and the ontology of that theory will eventually be displaced, rather than smoothly reduced by completed neuroscience (1981, p. 67).

Questions 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? Our options are strictly limited:  Should we reject FP on the strength of neuroscience, or reject the neuroscience on the strength of FP? Neither option is particularly attractive. And each raises a further question: How do we decide which report to “privilege”? Which report takes priority, and why? Or should we assume that there is really only a prima facie tension between FP and neuroscience, and that these tensions will disappear once more information comes to light, or as we learn to conceptualise the mind and brain in new ways? This will buy us some time, but is it just wishful thinking? Or should we accept, as some philosophers do, that producing a coherent account of the human mind is beyond our cognitive capacities, and that we need to learn to deal with this limitation? If some questions are beyond the cognitive capacities of mice, for example, why can’t there be questions we simply cannot answer due to our own cognitive limitations? This certainly isn’t wishful thinking, but is it prematurely defeatist?





These are important and difficult questions, questions that arise time and again on a myriad of topics as one sifts through the findings of the relevant sciences. Of course one cannot hope to answer these questions without being familiar with the basic findings of the various sources of information regarding the mind, and without developing some philosophical skills. If you find this subject matter fascinating, and these sorts of questions perplexing, then this MA in Mind, Brain and Learning is your opportunity to explore them further.

Suggested/indicative Reading Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, Eds. (1992) The Adapted Mind. Oxford University Press. W. Bechtel and G. Graham (1998) A Companion to Cognitive Science. Oxford, Blackwell. W. Bechtel and A. Abrahamsen (2002) Connectionism and the Mind, 2nd Edition. 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 Propositional Attitudes”. 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 British Academy: 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.: Harvard University 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 the Evolution 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 University Press.


								
To top