Philosophy Colloquium, Marco Fenici

Marco Fenici (University of Florence) 

The modularity of mindreading: philosophical and empirical concerns

Date: Wednesday 26 April, 2017

Time: 1100-1230 

Place: A-130

According to a widely shared view among philosophers and cognitive scientists, mindreading—i.e., the ability to attribute mental states to others to predict and explain their actions—is an intrinsic component of the human biological endowment, thus being innately specified by natural selection within particular neurocognitive structures. Despite the popularity of this view, in the talk, I will address several reasons for concern about both the modularity and innateness of mindreading.

I will first discuss some theoretical issues. In particular, I will claim that the modularity of mindreading is grounded in a conventional but simplistic view about the natural evolution of our cognitive capacities—i.e., the “modern evolutionary synthesis”—, which appears limited compared with the more contemporary ecological accounts. I will also argue that the modularity of mindreading presupposes a naturalistic account of representational content, and thereby subscribes to a particular view within a debate that is far from being settled.

I will also argue that the modularity of mindreading is all but demonstrated by the empirical findings about the development of the understanding of belief in infancy and early childhood. In particular, I will show that the data from spontaneous-response false belief tasks admit alternative non-mentalistic interpretations. Moreover, I will argue that we do not have robust evidence of continuity in the development of alleged mindreading capacities from infancy to early childhood. I will therefore conclude that mindreading is more likely a biosocial capacity, that originates from the assembly of early-emergent basic capacities of action prediction and a variegated set of late-emergent executive and linguistic abilities.


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