Acquired Language of Thought
The brain’s small-world structure includes many local networks interfaced via hub nodes. The aim of this research it to connect the underlying structure to psychological and philosophical theories of concepts and consciousness. The overarching thesis is that lexical items in natural language are encoded so as to activate hubs, thereby revealing the tight connection between language use, concept possession, and conscious thought.
Chris Viger (Rotman Institute of Philosophy, Western University)
2017 – 2022
Dr. Viger’s research is focused on the relation between language and thought, informed by psychology and cognitive neuroscience. The small-world architecture of the brain is used to explain the underlying nature of concepts as interface structures between specialized, mostly local, processing units. Concept possession is characterized by the way in which information is processed, which aligns this view with Barsalou’s view of concepts in psychology and Dennett’s in philosophy. Mapping neuro-scientific work correlating consciousness with global cortical activation onto this framework, Viger is developing a novel argument for why consciousness is a type of user-illusion. Uniting the threads of research concerning concepts and consciousness is the role of natural language symbols in cognition. Items in the lexicon are neurally encoded to activate concepts whose content they express. Natural language lexical items are vehicles of thought on this view, thereby incorporating insights from the computational and representational theories of mind. Since learned lexical items are essential for certain cognitive operations, notably the composition of conceptual content, the view is called the Acquired Language of Thought (ALOT).
In addition to establishing the theoretical foundation outlined above, the ongoing research applies this framework to three related areas of inquiry: the interface problem, dual-process theory, and transfer of knowledge. The Interface Problem concerns how propositional thoughts interact with sensory-motor systems, whose underlying information processing is not propositionally formatted. The current investigation is premised on the idea that the reasoning-sensory/motor interface is not unique in posing a problem and that the user-illusion of consciousness is a global solution to the interface problems.
A second application of this framework is to offer an overview of dual-process theory. Dual-process theories have been advanced in learning and memory research, reasoning, decision-making, and social cognition. What is interesting from a philosophical perspective is that these diverse inquires seem to point to there being two types of cognition, one fast automatic, and unconscious, the other slow, controlled and conscious. The view being investigated here is that the differences can be understood in terms of different network dynamics. In particular, conscious reasoning involves global processing, whereas unconscious reasoning is local.
Finally, a number of recent studies have indicated that transfer of knowledge of the sort advertised for brain training techniques is not effective. At best transfer occurs only between closely related cognitive tasks but general intelligence is not improved. This result reinforces historical insights in the philosophy of education dating back to Socrates, that teaching general intelligence is not possible. The goal of this research is to consider these results in the context of the brain’s small-world architecture, in which training local networks is the standard result of learning but transfer is only possible through active global networks. Future research will apply what is learned in this context to education.
Christopher Viger (Rotman Institute of Philosophy, Western University)
Jiangtian Li (Western University)
“Why Consciousness Must be a User-Illusion” presented at the annual meetings of the Canadian Philosophical Association, June 2019.
“The Role of Semantic Hubs in Perception and Action: A Novel Solution to the Interface Problem” presented at the annual meetings of the Canadian Philosophical Association, June 2018 (with R. Foley).
“A Small-World Look at Dual Process Theory” presented at the annual meetings of the Canadian Philosophical Association, May 2017.
Image credit: Neurons | Dandelion – license