Cognitive ontology in flux: The possibility of protean brains

Philosophical Explorations 20 (2):209-223 (2017)
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This paper motivates taking seriously the possibility that brains are basically protean: that they make use of neural structures in inventive, on-the-fly improvisations to suit circumstance and context. Accordingly, we should not always expect cognition to divide into functionally stable neural parts and pieces. We begin by reviewing recent work in cognitive ontology that highlights the inadequacy of traditional neuroscientific approaches when it comes to divining the function and structure of cognition. Cathy J. Price and Karl J. Friston, and Colin Klein identify the limitations of relying on forward and reverse inferences to cast light on the relation between cognitive functions and neural structures. There is reason to prefer Klein’s approach to that of Price and Friston’s. But Klein’s approach is neurocentric - it assumes that we ought to look solely at neural contexts to fix cognitive ontology. Using recent work on mindreading as a case study, we motivate adopting a radically different approach to cognitive ontology. Promoting the Protean Brain Hypothesis, we posit the possibility that we may need to look beyond the brain when deciding which functions are being performed in acts of cognition and in understanding how the brain contributes to such acts by adapting to circumstance.

Author Profiles

Anco Peeters
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Miguel Segundo-Ortin
Utrecht University


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