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Mental Alchemy

By Adina Roskies

Adina Roskies is Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Cognitive Science Program at Dartmouth College. She received a Ph.D from the University of California, San Diego in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science in 1995, a Ph.D. from MIT in Philosophy in 2004, and an M.S.L. from Yale Law School in 2014. Dr. Roskies’ philosophical research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience, and include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and ethics. Her recent work focuses on free will and responsibility. Dr. Roskies is also a member of the AJOB Neuroscience editorial board.

In the last several months I’ve attended a few workshops on the topic of “cognitive ontology.” One workshop, held at the Rotman Institute at the University of Western Ontario was entitled “Rethinking the taxonomy of psychology”; the other, at Macquarie University was called “Reshaping the mind: New work on cognitive ontology”. The basic question raised by these workshops is whether the concepts we use to investigate cognition and refer to its constructs and processes are the “right” ones, or the ones we ought to use. The way in which this question has been elaborated by the speakers at these meetings varies: the topic has very broad scope. In what follows, I’ll sketch a few of the ways it has been discussed. As you will see, although the topic is more centrally one of interest to philosophy of neuroscience and psychology, it also has potential ramifications for neuroethics.

The way in which I have been thinking of cognitive ontology is prompted by my interest in neuroimaging. Functional neuroimaging studies measure changes in blood flow that correlate with changes in neural activity. Cognitive neuroimaging attempts to relate the changes in neural activity to cognitive processes involved in the performance of various tasks. In order to do this, scientists typically attempt to analyze a complex task into its component processes, and then to identify brain regions or networks that implement these components. By careful task design and comparison between different conditions, neuroimagers attempt to understand the functional role of various brain regions or networks. This methodology raises a number of pressing scientific and philosophical questions. First, the way in which we analyze or functionally decompose cognitive tasks is largely based on intuition: it may seem relatively clear what steps one would execute in order to do a task if, for example, one wanted to program a computer to so it, but there is no guarantee that the brain uses the intuitive solution. And in other cases it may not at all be clear what steps one would employ. But what if the brain does not carve up tasks in the way that we do? Because of the nature of neuroimaging, we will always get patterns of brain activations that we can associate with our task decompositions. However, these may not correspond to the functions the brain actually employs. The fact that meta-analyses of neuroimaging studies by and large suggest that there is a many to many mapping of brain regions to functions may reflect that our intuitive taxonomy is incorrect, and that we are not carving the mind/brain at its joints (alternatively, it may just reflect that there is a many-many mapping). Moreover, one might wonder whether our methods will necessarily ratify the inaccuracies of our intuition, mistaken as they may be, or whether and how we can bootstrap ourselves to a better ontology.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scientists should be worried about this and many are. New methods are being developed that use brain data rather than intuitions about psychology to try to develop revised taxonomies of function. Whether such methods are necessary and whether they are preferable will depend in part on answers to general questions about structure-function mappings in the brain that are themselves matters of great debate. I expect we will hear much more about methodological developments and philosophical debates about these topics in the near future.

A very different area in which the question of cognitive ontology comes up is with regards to the question of the status of folk psychology, otherwise called belief-desire psychology. Here contemporary questions about brain organization and function intersect with classic debates in the philosophy of mind regarding the nature of intentional states. It is interesting to ponder whether today’s neuroscience bears on the issue of whether mental states such as beliefs and desires are real, whether they are good ways of talking about the mind, or whether they are so off-base that they should be abandoned and replaced with a better cognitive ontology. While some cognitive constructs have been argued not to exist on the basis of failure to find reliable activations, it is yet unclear whether this “New Wave Eliminativism” as Tim Bayne has called it, has philosophical roots in classical eliminativist positions. If the current eliminativism is just the tip of an iceberg, neuroethicists may have a big job to do: our social, moral and legal worlds are anchored in folk psychology.

Perhaps the clearest way in which we are already rethinking our cognitive ontology is in the realm of psychiatry. The new DSM-V is not the only game in town: the NIH has instituted a more brain-focused scheme called RDoC, which requires psychiatric diseases and research programs to identify plausible neural mechanisms. Moving psychiatry from a symptom-based to brain-centered discipline will have effects on diagnosis, on research funding, on societal reaction, and even perhaps on clinical outcome, all of which should be of concern to neuroethicists.

The question of cognitive ontology is really many questions, and they are difficult ones to parse and to answer. It is unclear to me whether the questions are largely academic and we are really not badly off, or whether we are instead in the neuroscientific dark ages, not unlike the position of alchemists prior to the development of modern chemistry. The fact that I can’t tell makes the topic doubly interesting.

Want to cite this post?

Roskies, Adina. (2016). Mental Alchemy. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. Dear Adina

    Barbara staffords new book helped me to discover your neuroethics blog on alchemy and I enjoy your Robert fludd image
    Do you know people who dare to investigate deeply Robert fludds images for a new neuroscientific ontology?
    I try to do a Postdoc about this topic but miss the adequate chair

    Best jochen
    Munich and involved in a museum project in saxonia


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