Understanding the mind

The mind that thinks our thoughts is a pretty special place. But is it distinct from the brain? Is there, in fact, a soul directing our thoughts or are they determined entirely by the output of our biology? Could that mouse scampering through your garden be thinking deep thoughts, or are humans really special?

Before there was cognitive science, before there was neurobiology -- before there was even biology -- humanists have wrestled with these questions. Traditionally, philosophy of mind scholars in the West have fallen on one side or the other of the mind/body question.

Dualists would say that the mind would function just as it does whether or not it has a body. Dualists say that there is something special about the mind – it’s not just an incredibly interesting and complicated machine. Trees and tables and billiard balls can be explained by physics and biology, but you need to add something extra, some non-physical property, to explain human consciousness.


On the other side are physicalists. Most philosophers today still find the physicalist explanation more compelling: that mental phenomena have a physiological or a neurophysiological basis. Even that simple statement, though, raises more questions. For example, if physicalism is characterized as everything physical, what does “physical” mean? It can’t mean tangible, since gravity is a physical force but it can’t be touched; rather, says philosophy professor Karen Bennett, it means that “everything is accounted for, or generated by, the kinds of things physicists talk about.” Physicists might not discuss chairs very often, but chairs are fully composed of the kinds of things physics talks about, like atoms and molecules.

“The behavior of the chair is accounted for by the behavior of the tiny bits; the existence of the chair depends on the existence of the smaller parts – the more fundamental level of reality,” she explains. Her current book project, “Making Things Up,” looks at the relations whereby more fundamental things determine or generate less fundamental things, and at what this fundamentality talk ultimately comes to.

Even among physicalists, there are two main schools of thought, says Assistant Professor of Philosophy William Starr.

Functionalists say that the mind is what the brain does, which is a procedural view. You can have the same thought processes happen in very different physical media; an alien with an entirely different biology would still have the capacity for thought. Identity theorists, on the other hand, emphasize that the mind is the brain, and that’s all there is to it, says Starr.

But how do you get belief and thought out of a lump of brain?

“This is a particularly hard version of the question of how ordinary middle-size objects arise from the interaction of atoms and molecules,” explains Bennett. “People can see that if you were smart enough and had all the relevant information about atoms and electrons, you could understand how they become a car. But people find it particularly perplexing to see how the physical goings-on really could explain and generate conscious experience."

“I myself am inclined toward the view that it’s not any more mysterious in the consciousness case than in any other,” adds Bennett.

But Laurent Dubreuil, professor of Romance studies and comparative literature, says that “whatever your position about dualism or physicalism, a mind is more than a brain. Not only are mental operations ‘extended’ beyond the nervous system and outsourced to books, objects, or computers—but they also occur ‘out there,’ especially when we share language.” And where neuroscientists look for commonalities in the brain, thus characterizing cognition as a repeatable, executed task, Dubreuil says there are situations where we assign things fluctuating meanings they don’t normally have, and create new ideas. To understand this requires more than a strictly cognitive framework, he says.

Consciousness Conundrums

Philosophers address the questions we care about for which there is no specialized – typically empirical – methodology, says Derk Pereboom, Susan Linn Sage Professor in Philosophy and Ethics and Stanford H. Taylor '50 Chair of the Sage School. In psychology, two of those questions philosophy addresses are, what’s the right model for cognition and how do we account for consciousness?

“Philosophy has an important role to play there, developing models to explain these questions,” says Pereboom.

The topic of consciousness has attracted considerable attention in recent years. It’s a familiar phenomenon, the most intimate thing we experience – that everything looks a certain way and feels a certain way to us. Yet ever since Sigmund Freud, it’s become common to believe that there’s a great deal of sub- or unconscious process going on beneath our awareness. As Pereboom notes, you might not be conscious of your anger toward your father but it’s still having an effect.


Sigmund Freud

But non-Western philosophers have approached the question of consciousness in very different ways, notes Yosef Washington ’16. As he learned in the course he took with Lawrence McCrea, professor of Asian studies, “some figures in Indian philosophy have argued that the sense of self that we call consciousness is viewed more as a witness than an agent -- we’re more witnesses to conscious experience than actually agents who are causing things to happen.”

Pereboom’s last book, “Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life” explored this corollary question to the issue of consciousness, that of free will. “If our minds are just physical things, then our minds are governed by what our minds are made up of, which is determined by the rules of physics, so is there room for free choice?” Pereboom asks.

As he explains, if preceding events render succeeding events inevitable, then going back in time, the way the universe was before you were born fixes all your choices and actions. All of our actions would be causally determined. Would it then be right to blame and punish people for their bad choices, or would believing people are free and holding them morally responsible involve a mistake?

“If determinism is proved true tomorrow, then you’d know that the brain really does work like a computer, that it’s all just a system of inputs with specific, fixed outputs, and subsequently you’d have to accept that we have no free will at all,” explains Emma Logevall ’17, a student in Pereboom’s Topics in Philosophy of Mind: Free Will course this semester.

I Think, Therefore?

Dubreuil’s new book, “The Intellective Space,” focuses on the distinction between thinking and thought. There is a process in our minds, he says, that bypasses cognitive structure, which he calls “intellection.”His extensive research in experimental psychology, literature and philosophy led him to conclude that “we say more than we think; we think more than we say.”

But is thinking an entirely neural process? One line of research in philosophy of mind, “embodied cognition,” examines how our problem-solving capitalizes on the fact that we have bodies and certain features of our environment available to us to work out our thoughts and to work through certain kinds of calculations.

“To try to understand the mind and what it does as this isolated computer stuck in our skull can be a distorting idea,” points out Starr, offering the example of people who use their fingers to count. “It’s really important to understand how the mind uses the body and the physical environment to think.”

Imagining Mary, and Her Language

Philosophers often use thought experiments to explore ideas; one of the most famous ones involves a character named Mary:

Mary is a brilliant scientist of the future who lives in a room that only displays shades of black, white and gray. Mary has learned everything there is to know about the physical functioning of the world; she knows everything about how sensation works from the neurophysiological perspective. But can she know everything there is to know about the human mind, by virtue of knowing everything physical there is to know?

One day Mary is suddenly freed from the room and is confronted with a red tomato. And she learns something that she didn’t know before, which is what it’s like to have “red” sensation.


Some would say that this famous thought experiment teaches us that there are truths about experiences that can’t be learned by knowing all the physical truths. But is color a physical perception? Or is it language-based, as some have shown?

We know from research that language doesn’t completely work, says Dubreuil. When you translate poetry into multiple languages, it’s not the same. “For a long time in science people were interested in how language can stabilize meaning, but in the humanities people are also interested in how language destabilizes meaning,” he points out.

Only in the last 30 or so years has language even become a topic for cognitive science. Before then, says Dubreuil, “language could be reduced to syntactic structures and was considered only superficially different from what you were thinking, so there was no room to study language as an abstract movement in the mind. But most humanists would say what you are saying is not the same as what you are thinking.”

Starr’s research looks at how we manage to use language to get things done. “I see it as one of the most exciting ways of understanding how the mind works, which can’t be accomplished without taking seriously how language, the mind and the world interact,” says Starr. ““For example, I don’t want to know just how this one class of linguistic constructions work, I want to know how they’re used in a population and what that tells us about the mind and meaning.”

Starr uses language use and communication as a window into humans’ special psychological and social capacities. One aspect he’s focused on is the human ability to reason about what doesn’t exist; both what might have been and the consequences of what might have been.

“If you try and spell out in a scientific way what it is we’re doing, there are a lot of mysteries that pop up,” Starr says. “To build up a whole separate world and imagine the relations between different possible events in those worlds is computationally intensive. A lot of my work is looking at models developed in psychology and artificial intelligence and engaging them with philosophical and humanist questions.”

Language is unquestionably a hallmark of the human species; the flexibility and unbounded expressivity of our linguistic abilities is unique in the biological world, as Morten Christiansen, professor of psychology and co-director of the cognitive science program, notes in his forthcoming book, “Creating Language: Integrating Evolution, Acquisition, and Processing,” co-authored by Nick Chater. In the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Cornell, Christiansen aims to produce a comprehensive account of the evolution, acquisition and processing of language. While his approach is scientific, using methods such as neuroimaging, eye-tracking, statistical learning experiments, psycholinguistic studies, and computational modeling, he notes that the humanities offer key insights into the mind as well. Language, he writes, "is a product of cultural evolution and can therefore only be fully understood through collaborations across the humanities and the social and natural sciences."

The Mind through Literature

One approach to understanding language and how it shapes (or has been shaped) by the mind is through the study of literature. Dubreuil’s current research rests at the intersection of cognitive science and poetry, what he calls the mental experience of poetry: how poetry is read and understood in the mind and how literature goes beyond simple cognition. “Literary text is a complex dynamic system and we don’t have tools in experimental science to fully address that right now,” he says.

As Dubreuil writes in an article in diacritics, “What is happening to us with poems challenges what we believe we know about cognition. It eloquently shows that there are more than rules and operations in thinking, but also that such excess can only derive—and derail—from routines, patterns, and automation.”

Christiansen and Dubreuil are planning to co-teach a seminar looking at the mind, cultural evolution and manifestations of mind in poetry and literature, as an outcome of and also as a reaction to cultural evolution.

Seeing Is Believing – Not

Nicholas Silins, associate professor of philosophy, examines the mind through questions relating to perception, drawing on the fields of philosophy, vision science and the theory of probability to answer how exactly we learn from our visual experiences of the world.

“The way you see the world can directly give you evidence that the world is the way it seems,” says Silins. “Think about how, when you have a bad headache, you can go straight from your pain to a justified belief you are in pain. Contrast that with using an emissions test to form a belief about the emissions rating of a Volkswagen diesel car, where you’d need to rely on a belief that a defect device didn’t kick in during the test to rig the result.”

Against a long, skeptical tradition in philosophy, Silins defends the view that our visual experiences are like the pain, not like the emissions test: they can directly justify our beliefs about the external world without our needing to rely on further beliefs.  Some of our beliefs about the external world can then legitimately be taken as foundations for further enquiry, without depending on any further beliefs themselves. 

Graduate student Lu Teng’s current project studies the epistemological implications of “cognitive penetration.” She’s interested in developing a view of when perceptual experiences are and are not evidentially valuable, drawing on current psychological research.

“We tend to think that perceptual experiences tell us about what the external world is like without being influenced by our own mind,” says Teng. “However, recent empirical research indicates that that’s not true: our beliefs, expectations and other mental states can causally influence what we experience.”

But if our perception sometimes results from our prior attitudes about the world, rather than being a neutral mirror to the world, this can call into question the ability of our perceptions to justify our beliefs, says Silins. For example, while it might be a good thing for a radiologist to see more in an x-ray than a patient, it could be tragic for someone with racial bias to see a wallet as a gun.


An example of cognitive penetration: even though the images are equally light, the person with African American features looks darker to us given our expectations. 

Silins and his collaborator Susanna Siegel (Harvard) will investigate how presuppositions might affect perception in a month-long NEH Institute for College and University Teachers this summer which will include participants from philosophy, history of art and English. They will focus on the implications of any such influence for how we perceive the world, including art and even food and wine, with an emphasis on implications for how we should act and what we should believe and on the question, how much can we ultimately trust our perception?

 Mind & Machine

Technological metaphors have always been used to explain the mind: John Locke described an infant’s mind as a blank slate; Freud compared the mind to hydraulic and electro-magnetic systems. The current favorite metaphor is that the mind is a computer.

John Hale, associate professor of linguistics, works in the area of computational linguistics, part of the interdisciplinary enterprise of cognitive science, and works to explain the mind's unique language-using abilities in terms of particular algorithms, data structures and computer architectures. To arrive at these explanations, he combines formal methods from logic and probability with empirical findings from linguistics, psycholinguistics and brain imaging.

“In cognitive science, the mind is viewed as a computer,” says Hale. “If we think of language comprehension as a program that runs in the brain, we can interpret the brain images as snapshots of this program's execution."


But viewing the mind as a computer raises plenty of issues. As Starr notes, there’s very little work possible in artificial intelligence or psychology that doesn’t connect with big, hard philosophical questions, which may explain why his “Mind & Machines” course is so popular. Since its inception, the course has grown from 15 students to 70; this semester, students from every college at the university have enrolled.

The course explores questions like whether it is plausible that brain cells compute and whether a computer could ever have a mind, beliefs, emotions and conscious experiences. “One thing that makes the class fun to teach is the continuing technological innovation that brings about machines and software that previous scholars couldn’t have envisioned,” says Starr.

Since taking the “Mind & Machines” class, Yosef Washington ’16 has thought about questions relating to social justice and artificial intelligence developments: if we are able to create something that is conscious and rational, do we afford that consciousness the same rights as humans? Washington notes that even calling such a consciousness “artificial” could be perceived as a microagression by the sentient computer -- what makes its intelligence less real than ours?

On Feb. 22, the College of Arts & Sciences brought together faculty members working on philosophy of mind in a Big Ideas panel, part of the New Century for the Humanities celebration. The event was held in the Groos Family Atrium in Klarman Hall and featured Bennett, Christiansen, and Dubreuil. Approximately 100 people attended, participating in a lively Q&A after presentations from the three panelists about their research.

This feature is part of the New Century for the Humanities "Big Ideas" project to explore broad contemporary themes in the humanities. The New Century for the Humanities is a series of events and projects initiated to celebrate the opening of Klarman Hall, the first building dedicated to the humanities on Cornell's central campus in more than 100 years.

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