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Editors Frontiers of Philosophy in China

Paul Thagard

This commentary discusses how philosophy and science can collaborate to understand the human mind, considering dialogues involving three philosophers and three cognitive scientists. Their topics include the relation of philosophy and science, the nature of mind, the problem of consciousness, and the existence of free will. I argue that philosophy is more general and normative than science, but they are interdependent. Philosophy can build on the cognitive sciences to develop a theory of mind I call “multilevel materialism,” which integrates molecular, neural, mental, and social mechanisms. Consciousness is increasingly being understood as resulting from neural mechanisms. Scientific advances make the traditional concept of free will implausible, but “freeish” will is consistent with new theories of decision making and action resulting from brain processes. Philosophers should work closely with scientists to address profound problems about knowledge, reality, and values.

Giulio Tononi and Owen Flanagan

This is a dialogue between a philosopher and a scientist about the scientific explanation of consciousness. What is consciousness? Does it admit of scientific explanation? If so, what must a scientific theory of consciousness be like in order to provide us with a satisfying explanation of its explanandum? And what types of entities might such a theory acknowledge as being conscious? Philosopher Owen Flanagan and scientist Giulio Tononi weigh in on these issues during an exchange about the nature and scientific explanation of consciousness.

Marcel Brass and Derk Pereboom

In this dialogue Derk Pereboom and Marcel Brass discuss the free will problem from the perspective of philosophy and cognitive neuroscience. First, they give their opinion on how the two disciplines contribute to the free will problem. While Pereboom is optimistic regarding the contribution of science, Brass is more pessimistic and questions the usefulness of an empirical approach to the question whether free will exists or not. Then they outline their position on the free will problem. The idea of a transcendental agent is discussed in more detail. Furthermore, it is discussed whether free will scepticism is a politically, socially, psychologically viable position. Pereboom argues that promoting the idea of free will scepticism can have a positive impact on retributive emotions and the political practice regarding retributive punishment. Brass argues that retributive emotions are deeply rooted in evolution and therefore difficult to change via high-level beliefs about free will. Finally, the future of the free will debate is discussed. Both agree that the dialogue between philosophy and psychology should be intensified. Philosophy can benefit from taking empirical research more seriously. Psychology and neuroscience can benefit from philosophy by appreciating the sophistication and conceptual clarity of the philosophical debate. Both have to find a common language and define common problems that can be tackled from both perspectives.

Thalia Wheatley and Terence Horgan

This paper is a dialogue between Thalia Wheatley and Terence Horgan. Horgan maintains that philosophy is a broadly empirical discipline, and that philosophical theorizing about how concepts work treats certain intuitions about proper concept-usage as empirical data. He holds that the possibility of strong multiple realizability undermines the psychophysical identity theory. He holds that the concept of causation is governed by implicit contextual parameters, and that this dissolves Kim’s problem of “causal exclusion.” He holds that the concept of free will is governed by implicit contextual parameters, and that free-will attributions are often true, in typical contexts, even if determinism is true. Thalia Wheatley holds that the concept of multiple realizability hinges on the level of abstraction discussed and that neuroscientific data does not yet support multiple realizability of mental states from specific, high resolution brain states. She also holds that compatibilism redefines the concept of free will in ways that bear little resemblance to the common understanding―that of being free to choose otherwise in the moment. She maintains that this folk understanding is incompatible with the brain as a physical system and is not rescued by concepts of context and capacity.

Editors Frontiers of Philosophy in China