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A Brief Philosophy of Cognitive Science

Updated on October 5, 2014
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

Despite criticism, philosophy has much to offer cognitive science.
Despite criticism, philosophy has much to offer cognitive science. | Source

What Can Philosophy Offer Cognitive Science?

According to Paul Thagard, philosophy has two primary contributions to make to cognitive science. First, it can deepen the impact of experimental findings by generalizing them for a wider audience. In this way, philosophy realizes their full potential by applying them to broader questions than those posed in the original research. This unifies the work with other areas of investigation, but also exoterically reinterprets the work, making it digestible for researchers in other disciplines.

The second point draws on how philosophy has largely concerned itself with a priori descriptions of how people think. Though experimental study has supplanted this research in terms of explanatory power, it doesn’t necessarily make it obsolete. Indeed, rather than describing how people think, philosophers may be describing how people should think. This makes a priori descriptions useful for the generation of normative theories in psychology.

There are other contributions too. Philosophical musings have been the object of human thought for millennia, and while each musing is devalued by today’s scientific standards, the sheer plethora of cogitation provides a rich vein of inspiration for theory generation and defense. Philosophy also deals with ethical principles that may be relevant for experimental practice. Ethical experiments are more likely to produce unbiased results, but they also maintain the reputation of the discipline.

Philosophers can help define the terms cognitive scientists use.
Philosophers can help define the terms cognitive scientists use. | Source

How Philosophy Defines Cognitive Science

Philosophy is particularly useful for defining scientific fields and how they relate. For example, different branches of the cognitive sciences favor different types of explanation at the molecular, neural, psychological or social levels. A reductionist would claim strict causal links in the respective order, but Paul Thagard proposes additional interactions. For example, evolutionary theory requires the selection of DNA molecules based on social or environmental factors.

Philosophy is also useful for defining scientific terms, such as `theory' and `explanation'. For example, a cognitive theory may be a description of mechanisms that explain observed mental phenomena; while an explanation would be a description of how the operation of a mechanism produces the phenomenon.

Such pedantry is propitious because it shows how theories can differ and what new theories may be possible. It can also lead to the discovery of synonymous models in other disciplines. For example, cognitive science used the computer as a model of the mind; infusing psychology with a panoply of new theories and predictions. Furthermore, cognitive science borrows models from philosophy, such as Bayesian models of probability, utility theory, and game theory. The correct usage of these models depends on the work of philosophers.

Philosophers may use these definitions and generalizations to address questions that are carelessly ignored by cognitive scientists. For example, what kinds of explanation work best in cognitive science? What does it take to confirm or refute a theory? Can the results of artificial experiments be extrapolated into the real world? Can first-person experiences be measured objectively? And, how can we unify the multitude of different approaches to cognition into a single picture of the mind?

One important question concerns the relationship between science and truth. While Newton’s theory of gravity was a useful description of the world, Einstein refined the theory for a wider range of conditions. One might conclude that scientific truth is limited by the ambit of human observation, and the precision of instruments required for this observation. New theories are always displacing older theories, so why should Einstein’s theory of relativity be anything more than a useful description? To assert truth would require inductive reasoning to extrapolate the verity of the theory from observed cases to universal reality. Though the steady advance of science has shown this view to be myopic, is the quest for truth entirely compatible with a mind engineered for survival? Perhaps some level of induction is the optimal reasoning strategy in natural selection.

Another source of intersection between philosophy and cognitive science concerns how we interpret our observations. We have innate intuitions about how the world works, and these dispose us to notice particular objects or reach particular conclusions. For thousands of years we assumed the sun circles the Earth because it is intuitive to interpret our observations in this way.

The usefulness of observations is another question of concern in philosophy. Observations that challenge the current paradigm may be rejected by a consensus of scientists. However, the most prestigious scientists will have the greatest influence, requiring cognitive theories on the nature of prestige. More than understanding what explanations work best, the philosopher asks what should work best. Should explanations postulate only what is needed (Ockham’s razor), or what serves our interests? Defining these requirements is a core concern in the philosophy of science.

Philosophers can define the difference between good and bad science.
Philosophers can define the difference between good and bad science. | Source

Maintaining Scientific Standards

In general, philosophy may have a role as a scientific enforcer; defining what is good or bad science. For example, Karl Popper defined good science as making testable predictions that address falsifiable theories.

Another concern addressed by philosophers is objectivity. While scientists use research and experiments to derive answers, non-scientists use the same tools to support answers they are motivated to believe. It is bad science to selectively look for and investigate evidence based on how well it supports a particular conclusion. Some cognitive scientists appear to support this kind of opportunism, suggesting “use whatever tools you can find that might be of help” (Boyer). While multidisciplinary approaches are admirable, one may well find `whatever helps’ but ignore what doesn’t help or what may pose a problem. Thus. scientists must be aware of their own motivations for reaching a particular conclusion.


All of these considerations suggest the need for cross-disciplinary knowledge and collaboration between philosophy and cognitive science. Indeed, utilizing philosophical perspectives can lead to more robust cognitive theories. A philosopher can provide a unique perspective on the interpretation and implication of findings in cognitive science by addressing questions that are exclusive from, or broader than the discipline. To make this contribution, philosophers need to be receptive to experimental findings in all related fields of academia in order to maximize the value of the explanations they offer.

Despite the aforementioned differences, scientists and philosophers both make propositions that are open to investigative scrutiny. Though the tools are different, there may be little difference between the two fields. Scientists will implicitly use philosophical thinking to generate and investigate scientific theories. Indeed, a good scientist will at least be aware of neoteric philosophical explanations that append his or her scientific curiosity. Thus, the only significant difference between the two fields may be the value one attributes to answering particular questions over others.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


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