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« Tom Sorell on Surveillance | Main | Bites Interviews in Alphabetical Order (by Interviewee) »

February 02, 2013


Jason Blea

There appears to be both interdisciplinary mingling and tension between cognitive scientists and philosophers. These two roles are not, of course, mutually exclusive. The views of practitioners who work in both cognitive science and philosophy often elicit the greatest controversy. Pat Churchland comes to mind:

I say in the most constructive way that insofar as some philosophers feel exasperated at the inexactitude and inexperience with which cognitive scientists dipping their toes into the waters of philosophy express themselves, so Colin McGinn’s imprecision, conflation, and misapplication of basic concepts of cognitive science sends involuntary shudders down the spine of the cognitive scientist. Colin McGinn has interesting ideas that are expressed in ways (often “drawing” upon empirical neuroscience) that are incredibly misleading.

I make these comments because I believe that the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy offers incredible potential. Perhaps we need institutions and fora to develop more precise modes of training and understanding for both sides. I welcome everyone’s comments about such fora or materials.

Jason Blea


Colin McGinn is incorrect about the relationship between the human brain and experience. A "brain in a jar" which has never been exposed to colour (or some simulation of colour) would not perceive colour. The human brain is extremely elastic, and develops in its environment. Even an adult brain, given a new stimulus (eg a belt which indicates compass points) will integrate that stimulus into its perceptions.

He is the second philosopher on this podcast to state that colour does not exist in the real world. This is incorrect. Our experience of colour is somewhat abstracted away from the phenomenon it represents, and can be fooled (for example in low-light) but colour is a real attribute of objects (ie the wavelengths of visible light reflected by those objects).

Jim Vaughan

How refreshing to hear a well known philosopher like Colin McGinn advocate for Descartes, and indeed give such an interesting interpretation of the Cogito! I was also heartened by his support for Nativism, and to hear him speak of the demise of the SSSM "blank slate" assumptions so prevalent in so many social constructionist theories.

As for the science, there is much experimental support from e.g. the study of eye movements in babies for the hypothesis that neonates have an innate understanding of basic physics. It also seems reasonable that our innate possession of retinal rhodopsin molecules in cones that respond only to "red" wavelengths of light, indicates our potential experience of red is innate, just awaiting the right external stimulus. (I'm less sure about perfect triangles, but maybe angles and curved or straight lines i.e. more basic innate neural correlates of visual perception.)

I liked the involvement of these innate often unconscious structures into the Cogito - very different from the "ghost in the machine" we have come to think of as characterising Cartesianism.

Stimulating discussion. Thank you!


I have come to this late in life and believe I understand the concept. But
Surely is it not so that when I was born I could perceive red but I did not know it as red , someone had to tell me this is red? So although I could 'see' colours I could make no sense of them so there is no innate knowledge of red.

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