In what way can cognitive science inform issues in the philosophy of mind?
The hard problem of phenomenal consciousness and qualia is intriguing: can we study scientifically what is completely subjective? can we ascribe precise physical causation to subjective experience? will we ever be able to bridge the gap between external and internal experience?
Phenomenal-consciousness is experiential, associated with incoming sense data; the total experiential content of an event answers “what is it like”. Experiences of grass, cucumber, limes all share the experiential quality (quale) of greenishness but not the qualia of sourness or sweetness. The external experience is quantifiable. The internal experience is not so quantifiable and sometimes it’s mysterious. (References 1-3)
Moreover not everyone experiences the same event in the same way: no way am I going to pick up a worm. My worm qualia = yeuch. But I’m married to someone whose worm qualia = “wow, he’s cute”. The worm event clearly isn’t reproducible in terms of qualia produced.
Since the same experience can produce such very different qualia, the qualia can’t be a quality of the actual experience alone. There must be something extra involved, presumably an internal quality of individual minds.
Quantifying qualia: When the basic experiment isn’t generally reproducible can cognitive science really help out? But…. experiences are reproducible in the sense that groups of individuals will respond with yeuch and groups with wow. So it’s possible to study groups of individuals and compare and contrast the results. It would also be useful in ascribing cause and effect to observe a range of qualia over a range of related experiences and analyse the emerging patterns, both of reported qualia and associated imaging results.
But however interesting all that is, it still leaves the hard problem: if scientists knew all the workings of the brain, that still wouldn’t tell us why and how a particular experience produces a particular subjective feeling or indeed any subjective feeling at all. (Reference 3)
Even if this problem is true as stated, does it matter?
In weeks 3-4 of this course, cosmologists acknowledged that ideas like inflation, multiverses are in principle unobservable directly. Philosophers asked is it really science when you can’t match theory with observation? Cosmologists responded with an example: although noone is going to go to centre of sun and measure its temperature, none doubts its predicted value of 15million degrees because it comes from physics tested and validated many times over in other contexts.
In other words, science always has some limitations but with confidence in the theoretical framework we can trust inferred conclusions.
How might this help philosophy of the mind?
It is always necessary to consider any underdetermination of a theory and this is in essence the problem of the hard problem. However the wider scientific context for studies of mind and consciousness includes : biology, neurophysics, general evolutionary theory, robotics, artificial intelligence.… If new studies of the physical mind produce results which are consistent with this wider theoretical context, then they deserve weighty consideration, in the same way as cosmologists give weight to theories of dark matter, dark energy and inflation though they not directly observable. Yet. Yet is an important qualifier… further study may well provide the breakthrough or at least give important hints about what the answer to the hard problem might look like.
Bayesian theorem too can help turn prior belief into a probability which can be quantified and developed as more information is acquired. It’s relevant to both cosmology and theories of mind. Since the mind problem involves uncertainty, Bayesian analysis should be able to help significantly especially since computing algorithms can cope with very complex statistics. (ref 4) Bayesian analysis can help measure whether any learning is going on in a mind. It can quantify the likelihood that physical causation is at work rather than merely correlation.
Much thought is given by scientists to the problem of distinguishing between correlation and causation.. This also lies at the heart of the hard problem. Science says: approach it pragmatically and here’s the sort of thing that will help….Ref 5 has a handy list!
Conclusion: Utilising the help available from cognitive science has and will surely continue to help philosophers deepen their understanding of the mind. The experiential gap may not be as hard a problem as it is portrayed. The complexity of the brain is a hugely hard problem to crack. Maybe harder than the hard problem itself. I would bet that the more advances made by cognitive scientists, the less hard the philosophical hard problem will appear.
ref 2: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/
ref 3: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/
ref 4: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes%27_theorem
ref 5: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/causation-and-hills-criteria/