Archive for April, 2011

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Neuroscience and the Vehicles of Thought

April 22, 2011

Joe McCaffrey

Cognitive scientists traditionally assume that concepts, the so-called “vehicles of thought” that serve as the currency of higher cognition, are amodal representations. Concepts in mainstream cognitive science are thought of as representations that are independent of any particular perceptual capacity or set of perceptual capacities. However, a number of psychologists and philosophers, such as Jesse Prinz and Lawrence Baralou, have recently argued that conceptual knowledge is composed of perceptual representations. Thinking, on this “neo-empiricist” view, involves reenacting and manipulating past sensory, motor, and other introspective states (e.g. affect). Neo-empiricism is becoming increasingly popular among philosophers and cognitive scientists, especially among proponents of embodied cognition.

In my presentation, I will argue that current evidence from neuroscience undermines the claim that percepts are the vehicles of thought. My talk has three main goals: 1) To spell out more precisely what neo-empiricists claim about conceptual knowledge and what role neuroscience might play in adjudicating between amodal and neo-empiricist theories of concepts. 2) To outline the major empirical commitments of neo-empiricism concerning neuroscientific data. 3) To examine current evidence from fMRI and neuropsychology (via a case study of semantic dementia) to evaluate the neo-empiricist position. I argue that evidence from fMRI fails to confirm the empirical commitments of neo-empiricism while, moreover, findings from neuropsychology undermine them.

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Breakdowns in the Vending Machine

April 15, 2011

Bihui Li

The “vending machine” view of theories holds that the theoretical content of non-fundamental theories is derivative of the fundamental theory and that non-fundamental theories are used only to make applications of the fundamental theory to empirical phenomena easier. I argue that non-fundamental theories are important even in theoretical realms outside the context of immediate application. Much of their importance lies in the informativeness of the specific ways in which they break down. I use examples from early quantum electrodynamics to illustrate how physicists resolved the theoretical problems they faced using non-fundamental theories. The strategies of these physicists are mysterious under the vending machine picture but coherent in a piecemeal engineering approach towards theorising, and methodological considerations suggest that these strategies apply more generally.