In the spotlight: The Italian American philosopher at UMSL

Gualtiero Piccinini is a professor of philosophy at UMSL. He holds a BA in philosophy and cognitive science from the University of Turin, in Italy, and a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo composite by August Jennewein and Sandy Morris)

Gualtiero Piccinini says he was “a thoughtful kid.” His parents advised him to think for himself, and he “took that seriously.” He’s been a philosophy professor at UMSL since 2005 and works primarily in philosophy of mind with an eye toward psychology, neuroscience and computer science.

Almost an engineer. Piccinini’s father was a research engineer, so Piccinini thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps. “I was going to do environmental engineering and solve the world’s environmental problems.”

“Foucault’s Pendulum.” The summer after high school, Piccinini picked up “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a rather dense, cerebral book full of philosophy and history references. “It was very hard for me to follow. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s all this stuff I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be cool to understand all this?’” Later that fall, he changed his major from engineering to philosophy.

Why get a philosophy degree? “Philosophy majors do very well in the job market,” Piccinini says, “and they have one of the fastest growing incomes of any major on average.”

Philosopher and scientist. “Philosophy and science have the same origin: the quest to understand what we experience. So, science and philosophy can work together. Scientists do experiments and construct theories to make sense of them. Philosophers can help to think clearly about science and its implications. That’s what I try to do.”

Scholarly life. Piccinini’s published one book, 44 articles and 12 review and encyclopedia articles. His book, published out of Oxford University Press, is titled “Physical Computation: A Mechanistic Account.”

The myth of mind uploading. Piccinini says there is no evidence that the mind can be uploaded on a computer. “Even if the mind were a computer file or simulated on a computer, the simulation would just be a replica, and there is no immortality in that.”

How does the brain think? This is the core of Piccinini’s National Science Foundation grant-funded research. He says traditionally experts say there are two levels to cognitive processes. One is the realm of cognition, where psychologists look at things like mental imagery or other internal representations of things. This is the “computational” level, meaning how the mind processes what its senses perceive. The second level is that of neuroscience and the study of the brain’s physical and neural mechanisms.

Piccinini’s theory. He does not think cognitive processes are distinct and autonomous from neural processes. “Once you’ve figured out how neural mechanisms perform the relevant computations, you’ve already explained cognition. You don’t need an additional ‘cognitive’ or ‘computational’ level of explanation.” In other words, Piccinini’s research aims to prove that neural activity already computes a person’s psychological reaction.


This story was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of UMSL Magazine. Have a story idea for UMSL Magazine? Email magazine@umsl.edu.

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