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Paul M. Churchland on Looking in the Mirror

The religious hypothesis of mind-body dualism has been in trouble with evolutionary biology, and with several other sciences as well, for more than a century. It didn’t need any special input from artificial intelligence or neuroscience to make it scientifically implausible. I bring it up here only because it is a clear example of a popular and important belief currently under siege by modern information. And because its example may be repeated. The fact is, there is a much more intriguing area of current conceptual commitment, one more likely to be affected by emerging cognitive theory in particular. It lies even closer to home and is even more widespread, if that is possible, than mind-body dualism. It is our current self-conception: our shared portrait of ourselves as self-conscious creatures with beliefs, desires, emotions, and the power of reason.

This conceptual framework is the unquestioned possession of every normal human who wasn’t raised from birth by wolves. It is the template of our normal socialization as children; it is the primary vehicle of our social and psychological commerce as adults; and it forms the background matrix for our current moral and legal discussions. It is often called “folk psychology” by philosophers, not as a term of derision, but to acknowledge it as the basic descriptive and explanatory conceptual framework with which all of us currently comprehend the behavior and mental life of our fellow humans, and of ourselves.

Suddenly we are looking in a mirror. Not into the distant heavens nor down the halls of evolutionary time nor into the teeming microworld, but squarely at ourselves. Is our basic conception of human cognition and agency yet another myth, moderately useful in the past perhaps, yet false at edge or core? Will a proper theory of brain function present a significantly different or incompatible portrait of human nature? Should we prepare ourselves, emotionally, for yet another conceptual revolution, one that will touch us more closely than ever before?


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