Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Time

Overview 183

Introduction 184

The Neural Correlate of Consciousness (NCC) 185

Timing 188

The Timing of Free Will 193

Temporal Illusions 201

Philosophical Positions on Time 210

Study Questions 212

Suggested Readings 213


Time is of increasing interest in cognitive science and the philosophy of cognitive science. The philosophy of time impacts the role time can play in cognitive science research in a number of ways. One is the phenomenology of time, discussed in Chapter 6. Another is the relationship between phenomenology of time and related cognitive processes. And lastly, the philosophy of time plays a role in how to correctly describe such processes in time. This chapter investigates the latter two kinds of impact philosophy of time can have on cognitive science.

First, we look at the relationship between the timing of consciousness and the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). We look at the relationship between the timing of consciousness and its NCCs. It is proposed that the best model of their timing is that consciousness and NCCs are simultaneous. That is, when consciousness happens, NCCs happen, and vice versa. A consequence of this proposal is that the temporal structure of NCCs and consciousness may be isomorphic—it is the same structure— rather than heteromorphic—it is different structure.

Second, we apply the ideas of timing to a well-known and controversial experiment purported to show that there is no free will. Although the experiment itself has recently been shown to have a methodological issue, the idea of such an experiment is still important. The concept of free will is outlined and contrasted to other kinds of events in the world, such as determined events and random events. The experiment is described, focusing on when different important parts of it occur and the consequences of this timing for when an act of free will occurs. Lastly, it is argued that the standard interpretation of this experiment mistakenly assumes that our judgements of the timing of our own will is self-evident.

Third, we apply the philosophy of time to examine the consequences of temporal illusions. The main examples from the literature are the cutaneous rabbit, the flash-lag effect, and the phi phenomenon. The consequences of these illusions for the accuracy of one’s experience of time is outlined, and then critically examined.

Lastly, the chapter turns to focus on the evidence of cognitive science and its impact on the philosophy of time. Some philosophical theories of time fare better with the evidence than others; those that do better are not the ones typically claimed to be intuitive.


Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind. It embraces “philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology” (Thagard 2019, online). Although a cognitive scientist can vary in their disciplinary focus and expertise, all have a scientific component to their research. They pursue answers to questions about the mind through scientific experiment, seeking empirical evidence. However, cognitive science can include some non-scientific disciplines as well—notably, philosophy.

Time is a growing subject of interest in cognitive science. The publications and discussions on the subject are varied and extensive. The role philosophy plays in such cognitive science work on time also varies. Some areas of philosophy, such as phenomenology, have played a role since the beginning. Most cognitive scientists studying time are familiar with Husserl’s phenomenological account of time. Some have even adapted and developed it. For example, the late Francis Varela adapts phenomenology into his neuroscientific work on time, giving rise to what he calls neurophenomenology. Other researchers in cognitive science use the cognition of time to explain central ideas of their theories. The philosopher of cognitive science Dennett uses the perception of time to illustrate his heterophenomenological model of consciousness. And, as briefly discussed in Chapter 5, an influential linguistic theory uses time to illustrate metaphorical speech.

Yet, although time plays a role in the deliberations of cognitive science, it is not obvious that the philosophy of time plays a role. Works where philosophy of time is explicitly discussed are rare and brief. For example, Dennett briefly describes Mellor’s work on perception only to contrast it with his own view. This chapter corrects that. It examines how the philosophy of time can impact cognitive science. Three subjects in cognitive science which may be impacted are:

  • • The neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs)
  • • Interpretations of free will experiments
  • • Temporal illusions
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >