Center for Neurophilosophy and Ethics of Neurosciences
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Joachim Lipski, PhD 2016

Intentionality and Neuroscience –
Toward a Translation between Mind and Brain State Descriptions


Most, if not all of us, are in practice mental realists: We explain and predict each other's actions by invoking the attribution of mental states. It is characteristic for many mental states to have intentional content, i.e. for thoughts, desires, intentions or emotions to be about dinner, meetings, sunshine, stock markets, elections, and so on. Intentional contents are assigned on the basis of a rational assessment of behavioral (and other) evidence. Many of us also wish to adhere to the notion that invoking intentional mental states does not imply having to commit to dualism, to a ghostly realm of minds and souls which exists over and above the physical world. Specifically, it is widely believed that the investigation of the brain is integral to explaining how the mind works, and that our mental states fundamentally depend on what happens in our brains. At the same time, it is not all that clear that matters of the mind are in any ontological or explanatory way identical to matters of the brain. Hence, it is prudent to neither adopt the notion that mental states are unrelated to the physical, nor that they can be reduced to the physical. Rather, a moderate position between dualism and reductionism is warranted.
This book both gives a comprehensive account of the way explanation by mental state works and of how representational/intentional properties are related to matters of the brain, i.e. to matters described by physics, chemistry and biology. The former, which takes up the first part of the book, is rooted in major accounts of a scientific model of explanation by mental states as delineated by recent analytic philosophy, such as Davidson's, Dennett's, Cummins's or Fodor's. The latter, which takes up the second part, involves an inquiry into current empirical studies investigating matters of neural representation and the theoretical frameworks which – sometimes openly, sometimes tacitly – come with it. It not only yields a unified account of representation in cognitive and neuroscience, but also relates cognitive and neural representation to mental intentionality, and ultimately endorses the investigation of cognition by neuroscientific methods as a way of establishing a translation manual between mind and brain state descriptions. Specifically, recent “mindreading” or brain- computer-interface studies are considered as examples for this ongoing endeavor. Building on Quine's and Davidson's theories of interpretation, it is shown that such correlational studies in cognitive neuroscience satisfy their criteria for empirically specifying meaning by way of holistic truth theories, thereby producing localized translations. These translations are non-reductive, since they are bound to irreducible principles underlying the ascription of intentional content, but at the same time, they establish strong semantic bonds between mind and brain, honoring widely shared views about a strong constitutional link between brain and mind.