Mirror Neurons and Social Cognition: an expanded simulationist framework

In Henk W. de Regt (ed.), Epsa Philosophy of Science: Amsterdam 2009. Springer 217--226 (2012)
In this paper, I critically assess the thesis that the discovery of mirror neuron systems provides empirical support for the simulation theory of social cognition. This thesis can be analyzed into two claims: that MNSs are involved in understanding others’ intentions or emotions; and that the way in which they do so supports a simulationist viewpoint. I will be giving qualified support to both claims. Starting with, I will present theoretical and empirical points in support of the view that MNSs play a substantial role and are perhaps neces¬sary although not sufficient for understanding at least some intentions or emo¬tions. Turning to, I will argue that the work on MNSs best supports a fairly weak version of ST, according to which social cognition involves simulation simply because conceptual thought in gen¬eral has a simulationist component. In elucidating this idea, I appeal to Law¬rence Barsalou’s embodied theory of concepts. Crucially, the term “simula¬tion” here refers not to simulations of a target agent’s experience, nor even spe¬cifically to one’s own experience in a similar counterfactual situation, but to simulations of experience in general - activating sensory, motor, proprioceptive, affective, and introspective representations that match representations one would have when perceiving, carrying out actions, experiencing emotions, etc. I then sketch an expanded simulationist framework for understanding the contribution of MNSs to social cognition. The ap¬peal to empirical work on MNSs in support of ST is therefore a two-edged sword; making this appeal persuasive requires us to modify our understanding of simulation to make it line up with the empirical work
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