In what way can cognitive science inform issues in the philosophy of mind?

Contemporary philosophy shows signs of a potential paradigm shift. A young generation of philosophers is already working interdisciplinary, taking into account current discoveries from fields pertaining to cognitive science. One could argue it be too distracting putting oneself under the pressure of learning about the latest discoveries in other academical fields. My view is that it is indispensable  nonetheless, by providing essential empirical tools. These contribute by corroborating or falsifying ideas of philosophy of mind, or ferreting out points of further investigation.

For example, there exists the notion of access consciousness, coined by the philosopher Ned Block, which is the tip of the iceberg of what we refer to as the wholeness of mental life. [1] Insights from neuroscience confirm the notion that there is no such coherent thing as mental life, rather different parts of the brain, mini-computers, performing distinct tasks. [2] Albeit the model of the mind as coherent iceberg seems debunked, the question remains valid which portions of a particular task is processed on a subconscious and conscious level, respectively. Empirically investigating such issues is particularly fruitful if we have thought a process to be conscious – and it turns out to be not.

For example, a brain fMRI experiment conducted by Soon et al shows that the brain decides on a seemingly conscious act of either moving the right or left index finger up to 10 seconds prior to the moment when a person makes the conscious decision. [3] The obvious conclusion is to assume there is no such thing as free will. [4] Hence, the objection is that the experiment eliminates philosophical concepts rather than challenging them. Cognitive science appears to debunk philosophy of mind and make it widely dispensable. Who needs it if we are robots, merely conscious of decisions not our own?

However, this is a premature conclusion. Lack of free will implies humans be steered by an unconscious instance, neither able to act on their own accord nor to reject actions imposed on them. In contrast, the experiment deals with the decision on which side of the body to move the index finger, not about whether to stir finger at all. It was the test person’s decision to move a finger. Had they decided not to follow the instructors, they would have shown neither of both reactions. The question whether the decision for compliance is subconscious has not been touched upon and remains open.

"Valladolid Rodin expo 2008 Pensador 03 ni" by Nicolás Pérez - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Valladolid Rodin expo 2008 Pensador 03 ni” by Nicolás Pérez – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Hence, instead of eliminating philosophy, such research give clues on a more modest scale. Since the brains decision is made without the person’s awareness, the experiment provides hints concerning the implementation level of the algorithm deciding which index finger to move upon external request. Evidently, this algorithm is implemented beyond access consciousness. Further investigations along the same lines could reveal something about the algorithmic level of the mini-computer, that is, whether or not the algorithm is deterministic or probabilistic. [5] In case it turns out to be the latter, it might in turn even help research investigating whether and how the brain implements instances of Bayes’ theorem.

Admittedly, these topics pertain to cognitive science. Therefore, they do not appear to inform philosophy of the mind. However, the insight about on which level of the mind processes are implemented, consciously or subconsciously, can inform philosophy about the validity and veracity of their hypothetical ideas. The least about which Soon et al can inform philosophy is the evidence for at least one  instance of a subconscious decision-making process. It can only contribute more, by confirming either a much broader scope of the subconscious, or one that is narrowly confined. Either way, assuming they are distinct, we would learn about the portions of both the conscious and the subconscious.

Furthermore, those experiments might provide marginal information regarding the Hard Problem of Philosophy of Consciousness, the gap between perfect knowledge of neurological signal processing, and how of qualia are generated – those conscious experiences we have when smelling the fragrance of a rose. [6] Let’s establish the following premises.

Both qualia and decisions awareness take place at the same level of awareness, and, correspondingly, do signal processing and subconscious decision making. Furthermore, the time by which both are separated involves the gap between signal processing and qualia. Then, investigating the processes between deciding to move a finger and becoming aware of it could narrow down the location of that gap.

Cognitive science can serve both as an empirical tool and as a compass. Making philosophical ideas falsifiable avoids sticking to false beliefs and gives confidence for following up on those which are confirmed.


[1] Mark Sprevak, transcript for lecture 6.1, Dark Matter and Dark Energy, page 5

[…] A third thing we might mean by consciousness, is what the philosopher Ned Block has called ‘access consciousness’. A thought is access conscious if it’s broadcast widely in a creature’s brain, and is poised to interact with a wide variety of the creature’s other thoughts and to directly drive its behaviour. Access conscious thoughts are usually the ones you can report if someone were to ask you, what are you thinking now? Remarkably, not all of our thoughts are access conscious. It’s one of the most surprising and well confirmed findings of 20th Century psychology that the majority of our mental life is not access conscious. Our access conscious thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg in our mental life. […]

[2] Suilin Lavelle, Transcript for Lecture 5.2, Stone-Age Minds

[…] The evolutionary psychologist’s claim, that the brain evolved to deal with lots of specific different problems, commits them to a very particular view of how the mind is structured. This is the modular view of the mind. It means that the mind is a series of mini-computers, each of which is specialized to do a particular cognitive […]

[3] Soon et al, Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 – 545 (2008) Published online: 13 April 2008, Abstract

[…] There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters
awareness. […]

[4] Is free will an illusion? David Bennet quoting Chris Frith in, 17:21:

[…] “Is it possible to predict peoples’ action on the basis of neural activity that precedes their conscious decisions? If so, then free will is an illusion.” […]

[5] Mark Sprevak, Transcript for lecture 7.1, Intelligent Machines

[…] Marr’s second level of description is called the algorithmic level. The algorithmic level concerns how the device solves its task. There are many different algorithms that compute the addition function. Without further investigation, all we know is that granny’s device is using one of them. Different algorithms would involve the device taki ng different steps or taking its steps in different orders. Some algorithms are faster than others and some use less memory. How do we know which algorithm granny’s device is using? […]

[6] Mark Sprevak, Transcript for lecture 6.1, What is consciousness?

[…] We know that your brain stores information, discriminates between stimuli, and controls your behaviour, but we have no idea how your brain produces conscious feelings. We know that we have phenomenal consciousness, and that our phenomenal consciousness has a rich structure, but we have no idea how brain activity produces phenomenal consciousness. This is the hard problem of consciousness; explaining how brain activity produces conscious feelings. […]

1 comment
  1. Peer2 said:

    A. I perceive your essay as a gift which I really enjoyed to read. I liked the fact that you included David Marr’s tri-level hypothesis in paragraph 5 of your essay. I also loved your examples about mini-computers. It reminded me of current developments in IT (i.e. Modular Driven Architecture (MDA)). Your objection handling was also second-to-none. B. To me your essay was perfect. Thanks for such a high-quality work!

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