Cognitive closure (philosophy)

Last updated
"Transcendental naturalism" redirects here. Not to be confused with F. W. J. Schelling's transcendental naturalism.

In philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, cognitive closure is the proposition that human minds are constitutionally incapable of solving certain perennial philosophical problems. [1] Owen Flanagan calls this position anti-constructive naturalism or the "new mysterianism" and the primary advocate of the hypothesis, Colin McGinn, [2] [3] calls it transcendental naturalism because it acknowledges the possibility that solutions might fall within the grasp of an intelligent non-human of some kind. According to McGinn, such philosophical questions include the mind-body problem, identity of the self, foundations of meaning, free will, and knowledge, both a priori and empirical. [4]

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth.

Philosophy of mind branch of philosophy on the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology, nature, and relationship of the mind to the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.

Owen Flanagan is the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University. Flanagan has done work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of social science, ethics, contemporary ethical theory, moral psychology, as well as on Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self.


Colin McGinn

It cannot be simply taken for granted that the human reasoning faculty is naturally suited for answering philosophical questions: the questions and their subject matter are one thing; and rational faculty, as a human trait, is another. From the fact that it is the best faculty we have… for doing philosophy it does not follow that it is a remotely good or adequate faculty for that purpose. [5]

Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry

When human minds interact with philosophical problems, especially those of the form 'How is X possible?', they are apt to go into one of four possible states. Either (i) they try to domesticate the object of puzzlement by providing a reductive or explanatory theory of it; or (ii) they declare it irreducible and hence not open to any levelling account; or (iii) they succumb to a magical story or image of what seems so puzzling; or (iv) they simply eliminate the source of trouble for fear of ontological embarrassment... The topics on which it imprints itself, and which I have discussed in some diagnostic detail in the aforementioned book, include: consciousness and the mind-body problem, the nature and identity of the self, the foundations of meaning, the possibility of free will, the availability of a priori and empirical knowledge... Basically what we find, quite generally, is the threat of magic or elimination in the face of the theoretical obduracy of the phenomenon that invites philosophical attention. The phenomenon presents initial problems of possibility... Free will, for instance, looks upon early inspection to be impossible, so we try to find some conception of it that permits its existence, but this conception always turns out to be dubiously reductive and distorting, leaving us with the unpalatable options of magic, elimination or quietism... so we hop unhappily from one unsatisfactory option to the next; or dig our heels (squintingly) into a position that seems the least intellectually unconscionable of the bunch... Science, then, might be aptly characterised as that set of questions that does not attract [these] options – where our cognitive faculties allow us to form the necessary concepts and theories. The distinction between science and philosophy is, on this view, at root a reflection of the cognitive powers we happen to possess or lack, and is therefore creature-relative: it does not correspond to any interesting real division within objective reality... It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that our brains would have to be made of something other than neurons in order for us to have the kinds of cognitive powers needed to solve the problems philosophy poses; at any rate, this is the sort of diagnosis [transcendental naturalism] offers for our philosophical retardation... The hardness of philosophy is thus an upshot of the particular way that natural selection has built our thinking organ, not an objective trait of the subject-matter of philosophical questions. [4]

Colin McGinn, "Problems in Philosophy" in Philosophical Studies

Friedrich Hayek

For Friedrich Hayek, "The whole idea of the mind explaining itself is a logical contradiction"... and "takes this incompleteness—the constitutional inability of mind to explain itself—to be a generalized case of Gödel's incompleteness theorem... Hayek is not a naturalistic agnostic, that is, the view that science currently cannot offer an explanation of the mind-body relationship, but in principle it could." [6]

Friedrich Hayek Austrian and British economist

Friedrich August von Hayek, often referred to by his initials F.A. Hayek, was an Anglo-Austrian economist and philosopher best known for his defence of classical liberalism. Hayek shared the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for his "pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and [...] penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena". Hayek was also a major social theorist and political philosopher of the 20th century and his account of how changing prices communicate information that helps individuals co-ordinate their plans is widely regarded as an important achievement in economics, leading to his Nobel Prize.

John Tyndall

[The] passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before. [7]

John Tyndall (1871), Fragments of Science

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky argues that the cognitive capabilities of all organisms are limited by biology and that certain problems may be beyond our understanding:

Noam Chomsky American linguist, philosopher and activist

Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, political activist, and social critic. Sometimes called "the father of modern linguistics", Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laureate professor at the University of Arizona, and is the author of over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.

A Martian scientist, with a mind different from ours might regard this problem [of free will] as trivial, and wonder why humans never seem to hit on the obvious way of solving it. This observer might also be amazed at the ability of every human child to acquire language, something that seems to him incomprehensible, requiring divine intervention. [8]

Noam Chomsky, Language and problems of knowledge

Phenomena and noumena

As argued in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason , human thinking is unavoidably structured by categories of the understanding:

Quantity – Unity, Plurality, Totality.

QualityReality, Negation, Limitation.
RelationInherence and Subsistence, Causality and Dependence, Community.
ModalityPossibility or Impossibility, Existence or Non-Existence, Necessity or Contingence.

These are ideas to which there is no escape, thus they pose a limit to thinking. What can be known through the categories is called phenomena and what is outside the categories is called noumena, the unthinkable "things in themselves".

New mysterians

In his (famous) essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Thomas Nagel mentions the possibility of cognitive closure to the subjective character of experience and the (deep) implications that it has for materialist reductionist science. Owen Flanagan noted in his 1991 book Science of the Mind that some modern thinkers have suggested that consciousness will never be completely explained. Flanagan called them "the new mysterians" after the rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians. [9] According to McGinn, the solution to the mind-body problem cannot be grasped, despite the fact that the solution is "written in our genes".

Emergent materialism is a similar but different claim that humans are not smart enough to determine "the relationship between mind and matter."


While the nature of consciousness is complex, according to some philosophers, that does not imply closure, thus, McGinn's argument is flawed. [10] [11] [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

Cognitive science interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes. It examines the nature, the tasks, and the functions of cognition. Cognitive scientists study intelligence and behavior, with a focus on how nervous systems represent, process, and transform information. Mental faculties of concern to cognitive scientists include language, perception, memory, attention, reasoning, and emotion; to understand these faculties, cognitive scientists borrow from fields such as linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology. The typical analysis of cognitive science spans many levels of organization, from learning and decision to logic and planning; from neural circuitry to modular brain organization. The fundamental concept of cognitive science is that "thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures."

The Chinese room argument holds that a program cannot give a computer a "mind", "understanding" or "consciousness", regardless of how intelligently or human-like the program may make the computer behave. The argument was first presented by philosopher John Searle in his paper, "Minds, Brains, and Programs", published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1980. It has been widely discussed in the years since. The centerpiece of the argument is a thought experiment known as the Chinese room.

Mind combination of cognitive faculties that provides consciousness, thinking, reasoning, perception, and judgement in humans and potentially other life forms

The mind is a set of cognitive faculties including consciousness, imagination, perception, thinking, judgement, language and memory. It is usually defined as the faculty of an entity's thoughts and consciousness. It holds the power of imagination, recognition, and appreciation, and is responsible for processing feelings and emotions, resulting in attitudes and actions.

Philosophy of perception

The philosophy of perception is concerned with the nature of perceptual experience and the status of perceptual data, in particular how they relate to beliefs about, or knowledge of, the world. Any explicit account of perception requires a commitment to one of a variety of ontological or metaphysical views. Philosophers distinguish internalist accounts, which assume that perceptions of objects, and knowledge or beliefs about them, are aspects of an individual's mind, and externalist accounts, which state that they constitute real aspects of the world external to the individual. The position of naïve realism—the 'everyday' impression of physical objects constituting what is perceived—is to some extent contradicted by the occurrence of perceptual illusions and hallucinations and the relativity of perceptual experience as well as certain insights in science. Realist conceptions include phenomenalism and direct and indirect realism. Anti-realist conceptions include idealism and skepticism.

Mind–body dualism philosophical theory that mental phenomena are non-physical and that matter exists independently of mind

Mind–body dualism, or mind–body duality, is a view in the philosophy of mind that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct and separable. Thus, it encompasses a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, and between subject and object, and is contrasted with other positions, such as physicalism and enactivism, in the mind–body problem.

David Chalmers Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist

David John Chalmers is an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the areas of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. He is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University. He is also a University Professor, Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science, and a Director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University. In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

In philosophy of mind and consciousness, the explanatory gap is the difficulty that physicalist theories have in explaining how physical properties give rise to the way things feel when they are experienced. It is a term introduced by philosopher Joseph Levine. In the 1983 paper in which he first used the term, he used as an example the sentence, "Pain is the firing of C fibers", pointing out that while it might be valid in a physiological sense, it does not help us to understand how pain feels.

Brain in a vat thought experiment

In philosophy, the brain in a vat is a scenario used in a variety of thought experiments intended to draw out certain features of human conceptions of knowledge, reality, truth, mind, consciousness, and meaning. It is an updated version of René Descartes's evil demon thought experiment originated by Gilbert Harman. Common to many science fiction stories, it outlines a scenario in which a mad scientist, machine, or other entity might remove a person's brain from the body, suspend it in a vat of life-sustaining liquid, and connect its neurons by wires to a supercomputer which would provide it with electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives. According to such stories, the computer would then be simulating reality and the "disembodied" brain would continue to have perfectly normal conscious experiences, such as those of a person with an embodied brain, without these being related to objects or events in the real world.

Jerry Fodor American philosopher

Jerry Alan Fodor was an American philosopher and cognitive scientist. He held the position of State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Rutgers University and was the author of many works in the fields of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, in which he laid the groundwork for the modularity of mind and the language of thought hypotheses, among other ideas. He was known for his provocative and sometimes polemical style of argumentation and as "one of the principal philosophers of mind of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. In addition to having exerted an enormous influence on virtually every portion of the philosophy of mind literature since 1960, Fodor's work has had a significant impact on the development of the cognitive sciences."

Colin McGinn is a British philosopher. He has held teaching posts and professorships at University College London, the University of Oxford, Rutgers University and the University of Miami.

The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining how and why sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences—how and why it is that some internal states are felt states, such as heat or pain, rather than unfelt states, as in a thermostat or a toaster. The philosopher David Chalmers, who introduced the term "hard problem" of consciousness, contrasts this with the "easy problems" of explaining the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention, etc. Easy problems are easy because all that is required for their solution is to specify a mechanism that can perform the function. That is, their proposed solutions, regardless of how complex or poorly understood they may be, can be entirely consistent with the modern materialistic conception of natural phenomena. Chalmers claims that the problem of experience is distinct from this set and that the problem of experience will "persist even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained".

New mysterianism—or commonly just mysterianism—is a philosophical position proposing that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be resolved by humans. The unresolvable problem is how to explain the existence of qualia. In terms of the various schools of philosophy of mind, mysterianism is a form of nonreductive physicalism. Some "mysterians" state their case uncompromisingly ; others believe merely that consciousness is not within the grasp of present human understanding, but may be comprehensible to future advances of science and technology.

The philosophical zombie or p-zombie argument is a thought experiment in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception that imagines a being that, if it could conceivably exist, logically disproves the idea that physical stuff is all that is required to explain consciousness. Such a zombie would be indistinguishable from a normal human being but lack conscious experience, qualia, or sentience. For example, if a philosophical zombie were poked with a sharp object it would not feel any pain sensation, yet would behave exactly as if it did feel pain. The argument sometimes takes the form of hypothesizing a zombie world, indistinguishable from our world, but lacking first person experiences in any of the beings of that world.

Artificial intelligence has close connections with philosophy because both share several concepts and these include intelligence, action, consciousness, epistemology, and even free will. Furthermore, the technology is concerned with the creation of artificial animals or artificial people so the discipline is of considerable interest to philosophers. These factors contributed to the emergence of the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Some scholars argue that the AI community's dismissal of philosophy is detrimental.

Biological naturalism

Biological naturalism is a theory about, among other things, the relationship between consciousness and body, and hence an approach to the mind–body problem. It was first proposed by the philosopher John Searle in 1980 and is defined by two main theses: 1) all mental phenomena from pains, tickles, and itches to the most abstruse thoughts are caused by lower-level neurobiological processes in the brain; and 2) mental phenomena are higher-level features of the brain.

Metaphysical naturalism is a philosophical worldview which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences. Methodological naturalism is a philosophical basis for science, for which metaphysical naturalism provides only one possible ontological foundation. Broadly, the corresponding theological perspective is religious naturalism or spiritual naturalism. More specifically, metaphysical naturalism rejects the supernatural concepts and explanations that are part of many religions.

Mind–body problem open question in philosophy of how abstract minds interact with physical bodies

The mind–body problem is a philosophical problem concerning the relationship between thought and consciousness in the human mind and the brain as part of the physical body. It is distinct from the question of how mind and body function chemically and physiologically since that question presupposes an interactionist account of mind-body relations. This question arises when mind and body are considered as distinct, based on the premise that the mind and the body are fundamentally different in nature.

Epistemology or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", "What do people know?", "How do we know what we know?", and "Why do we know what we know?". Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.


  1. Leslie Marsh (ed.), Hayek in Mind: Hayek's Philosophical Psychology, Emerald Group Publishing, 2011, p. xv.
  2. Harris, Errol E (2006), Reflections on the Problem of Consciousness, p. 51, McGinn's stance, while he denies the possibility of ever understanding the causal connection, may be regarded as "naturalistic" in the sense that he does not reject the validity of neuro-physiological theory, and does not doubt that brain activity accompanies conscious states..
  3. Ross Wilson (ed.), The Meaning of "Life" in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, Routledge, 2009, p. 88: "[McGinn] calls his stance "transcendental naturalism..."
  4. 1 2 McGinn, Colin (1994). "The Problem of Philosophy". Philosophical Studies. 76: 133–56. doi:10.1007/bf00989821. it combines deep epistemic transcendence with the denial that what thus transcends is thereby non-natural.
  5. McGinn, Colin (1993), Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, p. 31, There is, I believe, a systematic pattern to philosophical disputation, in which the same kinds of unsatisfying alternatives recur.
  6. Butos, W.N. (2010). The Social Science of Hayek's The Sensory Order. Advances in Austrian Economics. Emerald. pp. 127–28. ISBN   978-1-84950975-6. 1. Explanation is delimited by the apparatus of classification (the mind)... 2. An apparatus of classification cannot explain anything more complex than itself... 3. Therefore, the mind cannot fully explain itself...
  7. Tyndall, John (1871), Fragments of Science, pp. 86–87.
  8. Chomsky, Noam (1988), Language and problems of knowledge, p. 152.
  9. Flanagan, Owen (1991). The Science of the Mind. MIT Press. p. 313. ISBN   0-262-56056-9.
  10. Garvey, James (July 1997). "What Does McGinn Think We Cannot Know?". Analysis. 57 (3): 196–201. doi:10.1111/1467-8284.00074. Nothing he says gets him the conclusion that we cannot solve the mind-body problem, given any of these interpretations of what is cognitively closed to us
  11. Kirk, Robert (January 1991). "Why Shouldn't We Be Able to Solve the Mind-Body Problem?". Analysis. 51 (1): 17. doi:10.2307/3328626. JSTOR   3328626. He recognizes that many will find this outrageous; and indeed I think that his reasoning is fundamentally flawed and his central thesis false. But it will be worth trying to discover what has gone wrong.
  12. Kriegel, Uriah (December 2003). "The new mysterianism and the thesis of cognitive closure". Acta Analytica. 18 (1-2): 177–191. doi:10.1007/s12136-003-1020-1. it is incoherent to suppose that we cannot understand what would count as a solution to a problem we can and do understand