Since I am starting a PhD program in philosophy at Wash U, I will be required to fulfill some logic requirements over the next few years. I have never taken any course on formal logic, except for a class on critical thinking during my undergrad, but I don’t think that actually counts. Although I am starting to get more interested in pure logic for logic’s sake, I have always been skeptical of the direct relevance of formal logic to my research. My primary research interest is to understand the mind. Some logicians might say that insofar as logic is the study of reasoning, and reasoning is a product of the mind, the study of logic will allow one to better understand the mind. But I’m not so sure about how far this takes us. Logic is the study of reasoning at the most general level. When you study pure logic, you are not actually trying to produce a true idea about the world that might turn out to be wrong. In logic, the goal is not to make a substantive claim about reality, except insofar as logic itself as part of reality. Instead, you are trying to study the form of what a true argument looks like. Frankly, this just doesn’t interest me. I am interested in producing true theories about how the mind actually works which involve making substantive claims that might actually turn out to be wrong. The study of logic doesn’t produce true theories about the mind because that just isn’t what logic does. Does this mean that I am uninterested in using logic to produce truth? Hardly. Just like the jazz musician doesn’t need to know about the physics of acoustics in order to play good music, a philosopher doesn’t need to know formal logic in order to produce logical arguments that lead to truth.
When I say I am interested in producing truth about the mind, what does this mean? What does an “explanation” of the mind look like? For some orthodox philosophers, an “explanation” or “account” of the mind might look like this: every mental state supervenes on the physical world; mental states cannot change unless there is a corresponding change in the physical world. For these orthodox philosophers, this is where their job of explaining the mind ends. This type of explanation is supposed to be an argument for a “materialistic theory” of mind. Of course, these philosophers produce crafty arguments in order to reach the conclusion that the mental supervenes on the physical. And these philosophers are probably also involved in the defense of their thesis statement against various counter-examples and thought experiments such as Mary the color-blind neuroscientist, zombies, etc, In order to defend their “materialistic theory” of the mind, these philosophers would spend a significant amount time defending the supervenience theory against these thought experiments. To successfully respond to the “zombie argument” against materialism would count as “progress” in the expansion of the materialistic theory of mind. Likewise, many orthodox philosophers of mind think they are making progress in the field by coming up with counter-examples and purported knockdown arguments against other philosophical “explanations” of the mind, without ever making a substantive claim about the world that may in fact turn out to be wrong.
But honestly, I am not very impressed by such “materialistic theories”. I even think it might be problematic to call such ideas “theories of mind”. So what does a real materialistic explanation of the mind look like? For one, it’s going to be incredibly complicated and not easily compressed into a neat claim like “the mind supervenes on the physical” given that the brain, the seat of the mind, is the most complicated three pounds of matter in the known universe. To be sure, the mind sciences are in their infancy. This is why I have a love/hate relationship with philosophers. An orthodox philosopher might be content with “explaining” the mind without once referencing the brain. To me this is totally unacceptable. An explanation of the human mind MUST involve some reference to the science of mind, not just the philosophy. Thus, I think philosophy of mind is simply the theoretical branch of psychology, much like theoretical physics and its relationship to experimental physics. Philosophy jumps ahead of the data and produces theories that unify data into a more explanatory framework, which leads to better experimentation, which leads to better theory, and so on.
Now, the orthodox philosophers will probably respond by saying that such a brain-based explanation of the mind is surely limited to the local domain of earth-bound creatures, but that’s not what they are interested in. Surely, they will say, if we met an alien entity who appeared to be intelligent but did not have a brain like ours, we would not say that it lacked a mind. Hence, these orthodox philosophers claim to be interested in explaining the mind at such a level of generality that it applies to ALL minds, including exotic aliens with strange nervous systems. So any explanation of the mind that references the human brain must not be a real explanation of the mind, because it cannot handle different kinds of exotic minds. So when philosophers come up with “theories” of mind like “everything mental supervenes on the physical”, this explanation is supposed to apply to all minds in the universe, and not just humans. Thus, these philosophers think that they have some deeper insight into the mind because their account is so general.
But I think this generality and lack of concreteness is precisely the weakness of such theories. Let’s grant that an alien species would have a radically different way of thinking. Now, if we wanted to theoretically study an alien mind, would what be the best way to do so? By coming up with a priori necessary truths like supervenience? Hardly. I think the best way to learn about possible alien minds would be to study something like xenobiology. Evolutionary theory would still apply to the aliens. So would other scientific theories. I thus think that the best way to learn about “minds in general” is to study science, not a priori philosophizing. If you understand a great deal about how biological organisms evolved on this planet, I think you would have a better chance of understanding what an alien mind might be like than if you were to simply sit in your armchair and try to come up with a priori necessary truths such as “the mental supervenes on the physical”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually do think that the mental supervenes on the physical. How could I not being the materialist that I am? It’s just that I don’t think philosophy of mind should stop there and consider its job of explanation finished. And no, responding to endless counter-examples is not “progress”. Progress involves better understanding the biology and social conditioning of the mind, in all its glorious complexity. It involves at least making specific hypotheses locating mental functions to anatomy, and looking closely at the effects of development and the social milieu on mental function .
But isn’t this just going back to phrenology? I don’t think so. Phrenology was an unprincipled investigation into the location of brain function. It is based on a false belief, namely, that brain function can be understood by looking at bumps on the head. But “locating” mental processes to specific neural circuits (or distributions of circuitry, as is more likely) is vastly superior as an explanation of the mind than any kind of orthodox philosophical explanation. For example, my colleague Micah Allen and I have made concrete hypotheses about the default mode network’s involvement in reflective consciousness, and proposed a provisional model of how the DMN interacts with lower processes in the course of everyday human cognition. Our model is based on both phenomenological principles (i.e. that humans have both a prereflective and reflective consciousness) and neurofunctional principles based on recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience. Is our model the end of the story? No. The explanation of the mind is just getting started. The proper way to progress from here would be to continue the interdisciplinary style of explanation wherein philosophy and science work in harmony to produce true statements about the mind that may or may not turn out to be false.