599 Lucas Hall (MC 73) •
piccininig AT umsl.edu
Updated: February 2011
A brief description of my research is below. A longer description is here.
Online versions of some of my works.
I founded and administer the premier group blog in the philosophy of mind, called Brains.
Some Resources for Students on how to study, write papers, apply to graduate school, publish, and get a job in philosophy.
How my students did getting into Ph.D. programs: my placement record.
I am the Editor-in-Chief of Studies in Brain and Mind, a book series published by Springer.
I edit a yearly special issue of Synthese on Neuroscience and Its Philosophy.
I edit Philosophy of Cognitive Science, an area of PhilPapers.
My facebook page.
I work primarily in philosophy of mind, with an eye to psychology, neuroscience, and computer science. My main current interests include computational theories of mind, the relation between psychology and neuroscience, consciousness, and intentionality.
In 2003, I graduated from the Department of History and Philosophy of
Science at the University of Pittsburgh.
Between 2003 and 2005, I was a James S. McDonnell Post Doctoral Research
Fellow in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology
My research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Babbage Institute, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the University of Missouri Research Board, the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and the Regione Sardegna.
My articles have been published in journals such as Philosophers’ Imprint, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophy of Science, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, Journal of Biological Physics, Neural Networks, Synthese, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science.
A Brief Description of My Research
I’d like to understand how the mind works. Mainstream psychologists and neuroscientists say that the mind works by computing—that cognition involves a kind of computation. But different scientists disagree on which kind of computation cognition involves, and some even deny that cognition involves computation. To shed light on these debates and make progress, we need an account of what computation in physical systems is. So one of the things I’ve done is give an account of computation in physical systems.
The most important notion of computation is that of digital computation—what digital computers do. According to my account, which I call the mechanistic account, digital computing systems are mechanisms that have the function of generating output strings of digits from input strings of digits (and perhaps internal states), in accordance with a general rule that applies to all inputs and depends on the inputs for its application.
But to make sense of all uses of the term “computation” in cognitive science, we need a broader notion than that of digital computation. In this generic sense, computing systems are mechanisms that have the function of manipulating medium-independent vehicles in accordance with a general rule that applies to all vehicles and depends on the inputs for its application. A medium-independent vehicle is a vehicle defined simply in terms of differences between different portions of the vehicles along a relevant dimension, and not in terms of any of its more specific physical properties. Thus, medium-independent vehicles can be implemented in different physical media. Digits are one kind of medium-independent vehicle, but there are others (e.g., continuous variables).
It’s safe to say that cognition involves computation in the generic sense. For one thing, cognition involves the processing of information, and the processing of information requires the processing of medium-independent vehicles to carry the information, because information is a medium-independent notion. But a deeper question is about which more specific kind of computation cognition involves. Here, the original computational theory of cognition hypothesizes that cognition involves digital computation. This seems to me implausible at least for most cognitive processes, for reasons having to do with how the brain works. By and large, neural processes do not resemble digital computations much. Based on what neuroscientists have found out, it seems more plausible that neural computations are sui generis—their own kind of computation.
If this is correct, we need to rethink the relationship between psychological and neurological explanations without appealing to the notion of digital computation. This will require getting clear on the relationship between levels within a mechanistic explanation, something on which we can gain new insights from Carl Craver’s recent work. Those who defend the autonomy of mentalistic (including computational) explanations from neuroscience usually appeal to functional analysis. They argue that psychologists offer functional analyses, which are distinct from and independent of the mechanistic explanations offered by neuroscientists. I think this view is based on an inadequate notion of mechanistic explanation. In a paper co-authored with Carl Craver, we argue that functional analyses are actually sketches of mechanism (i.e., elliptical mechanistic explanations), so they are neither distinct nor autonomous from mechanistic explanations.
I am interested in intentionality. I have argued at length that contrary to the mainstream view in philosophy, the notion of computation is independent of (i.e., does not presuppose) the notion of representation. In thinking about intentionality, I think we need to pay more attention to neuroscience. A lot of neuroscience is relevant to explaining intentionality and yet is ignored or underappreciated by philosophers. I have some ideas about how to proceed here. As a preliminary step, I have written a couple of papers arguing that the notion of concept may need to be split into at least two different notions, each of which explains different phenomena.
I am also interested in consciousness. An important way to study consciousness is through first-person reports, which have a controversial status in science and philosophy. I have argued in a series of papers that first-person reports, if handled carefully, are a useful source of public scientific evidence, because they are the outcome of a process of self-measurement on the part of the subjects.
For more on my research, with links to papers, click here.