Spotlight Series

Each month, we sit down with a member of our research team to learn more about their areas of expertise, what the turning points have been in their career, and what inspires them in their daily lives…

Adrian Downey

Teaching Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin

Adrian is a philosopher of mind and cognitive science who has research interests in all aspects of mind & consciousness. He previously held teaching posts at Queen's University Belfast & the University of Birmingham, as well as a von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellowship at Ruhr University, Bochum. 

What is your current area of research?

I am trying to develop a non-representational account of mind.

Many human activities involve the use and manipulation of representations. For instance, you might find you way around Dublin by using a map which represents its layout. The representational theory of mind says that brains function in the same way; they contain lots of internal representations which allow for sophisticated thought and behaviour. Indeed, the capacity to represent is often considered the 'mark of the mental'— you possess a mind, whereas say, a cricket, does not, because unlike a cricket, your brain traffics in representations.

I’m not convinced by this theory, largely because I think it unscientific. So I argue for an anti-representational view which says that the ability to interact with the environment is what makes a mind. If that is correct, then our minds are a lot more like a cricket’s than is commonly thought. I am currently developing and defending this controversial position.

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work?

For my undergraduate dissertation, I was interested in investigating consciousness, and the extent to which it could be scientifically explained (I concluded that it can).

Representational theories of consciousness often posit a ‘Cartesian Theatre’— a screen inside the head which displays our conscious experiences to an internal observer, or ‘homunculus’. This is problematic. Instead of having to explain the experience inside our head, the representationalist has to explain the experience inside the homunculus' head. And they cannot do that by positing another Cartesian Theatre, because then this problem recurs. The representational explanation explains nothing!

One way to avoid this problem is to deny that consciousness is ‘internal’ at all— if we directly experience the world, then we have no need to represent it inside the head. So, the Cartesian Theatre issue never arises. I found this anti-representational approach toward consciousness appealing and haven’t looked back since.

Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a philosophical researcher?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a bit more cynical, so I read research with a more sceptical eye. I no longer straightforwardly accept claims made in papers, especially if they are considered common knowledge and/or stated without supporting evidence.

This means I sometimes discover that the research in question is based on questionable foundations— the reason that a given point is not backed up with evidence is that it lacks any independent support!

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has commented on this, saying that you should always be on the lookout for the word ‘surely’; if someone uses it, then that is a sure(!) sign they have no way of defending their argument. My turning point was realising just how prevalent that kind of argumentative trick is. 

Briefly, what excites you about your research?

Much of my work involves reading about empirical work in cognitive science, and scrutinising it from a theoretical, philosophical perspective. It is difficult to take a bird’s eye view upon science when you must run a lab, conduct lots of experiments in a specific area, and so on. But philosophy gives you the opportunity to learn and write about science without facing the practical realities of being a scientist, which is a real plus!

What do you like to do when you aren`t working?

I’m a keen hurler, so I spend a lot of time training, pucking about, and travelling to matches in the middle of nowhere. I also like doing the usual stuff (going out for a drink, eating nice food, watching films, and so on).

What are you currently reading?

I tend to mostly read books connected to my academic work— right now, I’m reading a few different books about whether cognitive science needs to invoke “representation” to explain the mind (and, in line with Dennett’s advice, wondering whether these philosophical books have just completely missed the scientific point!)

Do you have a favourite movie?

28 Days Later - but I’ll watch anything that involves zombies or post-apocalyptic societies.

Is there a work of art that inspires you?

I am not really a big fan of art, but I do like listening to impressionist classical music when I’m working or relaxing. As a result, I’ve become fond of impressionist paintings too, and a Van Gogh exhibition is the only time I’ve been to an immersive art experience!

What would people be surprised to find out about you?

This will come as no shock to anyone reading this, but I find that people are often surprised to find out that I am in fact an academic philosopher!

December 2023