Cognitive Science: An Introduction/Cognitive Science Defined

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Cognitive Science is the interdisciplinary study of minds. It is distinguishable from other sciences in two important respects: theoretically and methodologically.

Theoretically, cognitive science differs from some other fields that study minds in that it tends to focus on a particular level of analysis-- that of information processing. Methodologically, the tools for investigation will differ, yet the aim of research is information processing.

Levels of Analysis[edit]

Many things in the world can be productively studied at many levels of explanation. Take, for example, the weather. We can try to understand and predict the weather at a global level. At this level we would look at large ocean currents, and convection currents in the air. We can find patterns, such as how hurricanes always rotate in a counter-clockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere due to the Coriolis force.

At this level of explanation, we are using terms such as "hurricane," and "current," which describe objects of such great complexity that it seems strange to even refer to them as objects. However, the reason that these terms are legitimate is because we can make better-than-chance predictions about their behavior. This indicates that we are dealing with a level of aggregation that is a legitimate one to study.

At a lower level, we can look at weather in terms of cold fronts. At an even lower level we can look at individual atoms and how they interact. Each level has a set of terms it uses to describe what exists. This set of terms is called the "ontology." Each level of analysis is useful for investigating certain classes of problems. Questions and their answers are described in terms of this ontology.

Similarly, people can be legitimately studied at multiple levels of analysis. Sociology, economics, and political science look at how groups of people interact. Social Psychology studies how individuals interact with each other, and how social identities affect human behavior. Cognitive psychology looks at how people perceive and use their memories to think and act. Neuroscientists look at how the brain functions, and organic chemistry investigates how molecules in living creatures interact. Although you could study people at an atomic or quantum level, it is so similar to quantum behavior in other objects that it's not worth distinguishing the quantum study of people from the quantum study of other things.

Even the levels described above have sub-levels. There are multiple levels within biology: biologists look at molecules,synapses, neurons, networks, maps, sub-systems, and the whole nervous system.

There is a tendency for scientist to be dismissive of levels of analysis that are higher than one's own. Lower level analysis tends to deal with things that are smaller, simpler, and easy to predict. It is impossible to have a sociology experiment with the kind of control that a physicist enjoys. But do not be a level of explanation bigot! All of these levels are legitimate, and are appropriate for certain kinds of questions. Just as it's (currently) impossible to predict the weather using chemistry, it's impossible to predict the behavior of a person using biology.

Scientist: Where Did The Term Come From?: The term was created by William Whewell (1794--1866), who also made up these words: cathode, physicist, consilience, and ion. [1]

Cognitive Science's Level of Explanation: The Functional or Information Level[edit]

Cognitive science tends to focus on a particular level of analysis. As described in the previous chapter, cognitive science tries to understand minds as though they were computer programs. What this means is that cognitive scientists want to understand how information is processed in minds at a very detailed level.

Where a psychologist might be satisfied with a description of, say, how IQ contributes to memorizing lists of numbers, such a descriptive and statistical model is too high a level for the cognitive scientist. For the cognitive scientist will go one layer deeper: They want to understand cognition at a level of detail such that one could make a computer program that would process information in the same way.

It is a common misconception that cognitive scientists view minds as computers. Perhaps this was the case early on, but today the computer program is the correct metaphor. We know that people do not have things like hard drives and graphics cards. However, computer programs can be written to simulate any system (to varying degrees of accuracy). Cognitive science looks for explanations that are encoded at the computer-program level of detail.

For example, it is not enough to simply say that people remember the occupations of people they meet. To achieve the level of detail necessary for a cognitive science, one would need to specify other things, such as what symbols are used to encode this information, and how it is indexed in memory so that processes can retrieve it, and other properties such as how easily it is retrieved from memory, whether or not it is believed, and how much, whether it is associated with a probability of being true, what other ideas it is connected to, and so on.

Most cognitive science explanations regard cognition as a program that is running on top of the networks of neurons. For the most part, cognitive scientists view the minds of complex animals, such as humans, as software running on neural hardware. Below the information level is the neural level, and cognitive science has started to take an interest in that as well. In terms of levels of explanation, cognitive scientist are finding ways in which activity best described at the neural level travels up into the information processing level. Consider synesthesia. This is a disorder in which senses are often mixed up. For example, feeling shapes when tasting things. The most common form of synesthesia is number-color synesthesia. This is because the parts of the brain that process numbers and colors are literally touching each other.

The Scope of Cognitive Science[edit]

We have distinguished cognitive science from general psychology in that cognitive science is interested in a particular level of explanation. However, cognitive psychologists are also interested in that level of explanation. A further distinction from psychology is that cognitive scientists are interested in all minds, even if they are not animal, where psychology focuses on human and animals minds.

What is a Mind? Relevance to physics: Defining what constitutes a mind is difficult, and there is no agreed-upon criteria. But the answer is important for physics because of something called the anthropic principle, a theory that holds that what we see in the universe might appear the way it does simply because if it didn't, we would not be around to observe it. So, for example, there might be other universes that have no matter, but such a universe would never produce observers who could create science and wonder why there's no matter. But what counts as an observer in this sense? We don't know, but perhaps cognitive science could help contribute to this issue. One might think that the idea of the observer in quantum mechanics is relevant, too. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum wave functions, the wave function collapses, causing particles to be in particular places when observed. But according to some physicists, this sense of observation simply means an encounter with another particle, not perception by an intelligent being.[2]

Humans and other animals have minds, and, as we will see, many plants have sensory and memory systems that function as primitive minds. What other kinds of minds are there? There are two salient examples. The first is the class of artificial minds. The term "artificial" in this context is the opposite of "natural." It simply means "human-made." When cognitive scientists and artificial intelligence researchers create computer programs that do intelligent tasks, the behavior of those programs are of interest. Cognitive scientists are interested not only in what cognition is, but what it could be. If alien life is ever discovered, cognitive scientists would be interested in its cognition as well.

The second salient example is that of distributed cognition. This topic will be discussed in detail later in the book, but briefly, distributed cognition is cognition that emerges from a group of interacting entities, such as a person with a calculator, a hive of bees, or the coordinated acts between a crew of individuals building a house.

Where are all of the aliens?:

Cognitive science has the potential to speak to the nature of the minds of alien lifeforms, but so far we have never encountered any. Given the trillions of stars in the universe, some think that it is likely that there are many alien life forms, many of them intelligent, somewhere out there.

One way to estimate how much life is in the universe is to use the Drake equation. Recent observations suggest that 10% of all starts would have a habitable planet.[3]

If there are any, where are they? Why haven't we seen them?

Scientists have suggested several reasons to explain why aliens have not contacted us. Many say it's because there are no aliens. Ray Kurzweil thinks that the first species planet to have life will inevitably develop intelligence and then technology that will encompass the known universe with matter that can think. So although life might have developed elsewhere, the first intelligence takes over the universe before it gets a chance. In our universe, this would be us. He predicts that one day human beings will expand and turn the matter of the universe into, basically, thinking computer material.

Cognitive Science's Methodological Definition[edit]

Cognitive science is also frequently defined by its methodology. In particular, it is the interdisciplinary study of minds. As described in the history chapter, cognitive science uses methodologies primarily from cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, linguistics, and neuroscience. Other fields that contribute, but to a lesser degree, are education, anthropology, and behavioral economics.

What does it mean to be interdisciplinary? This is a topic that is actively discussed; this book will present one answer. An inter-discipline is a community of scholars that acknowledge problems, explanations, and methods of the associated disciplines. Papers written for an interdiscipline will, ideally, remark on the ramifications of the findings and contextualize them with the other associated disciplines as much as possible. This is often limited by the knowledge and abilities of individual researchers. We might contrast an interdiciplinarity with multidiciplinarity, which requires no effort of interaction.

Cognitive science is not the only interdiscipline. Women's studies involves history, philosophy, sociology, political science, literary theory, etc. Religious studies is an interdiscipline involving history, anthropology, and philosophy, among others.

Biochemistry and molecular biology were separate fields at one point, attending different conferences and publishing in different journals. It turned into an interdiscipline, and might now be considered a discipline in its own right. Perhaps someday cognitive science will be its own discipline. For now, most studies that are considered cognitive science studies have methods that clearly come from some subset of the associated disciplines.

What is a Cognitive Scientist?[edit]

A cognitive scientist must use scholarly methods to study the mind. Apart from that, opinions vary. We will offer four definitions, in order of increasing exclusivity:

  1. A cognitive scientist is any scholarly practitioner studying minds from one of the associated sub-fields. According to this definition, a philosopher working on philosophy of mind problems would be considered a cognitive scientist even if she never read about work in other fields, published in other fields, or contextualized her findings with the theories and problems in other fields.
  2. A cognitive scientist is any scholarly practitioner studying minds from one of the associated sub-fields who has a working knowledge of some of the other subfields and actively contextualizes her work with the theories and problems of some of the other subfields. She is active in the cognitive science community.
  3. Same as the definition above, except that she actively collaborates with scholars in other disciplines that use different methods. For example, an artificial intelligence researcher who works with a neuroscientist to make computer models of networks that execute some cognitive task.
  4. A cognitive scientist is any scholarly practitioner studying minds who uses methodologies from multiple associated subfields. For example, if a linguist runs experiments on human participants in addition to her traditional linguistic analysis. She also is a member of the community and contexualizes her findings.


Cognitive science is the study of minds, but is further defined in two basic ways: in terms of its preferred level of explanation (that is, the level of a computer program), and in terms of its methodology (that is, an interdiscipline, primarily consisting of cognitive psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, philosophy, and neuroscience.)

Study Questions Answers
Under what conditions is a level of analysis acceptable in a scientific field? When accurate predictions can be made in terms of that level's ontology.
What is the metaphor cognitive scientists use to understand minds? They view mind as a computer program (not a computer.)
Cognitive scientists prefer cognition described in detail such that ___. One could write a computer program that would process information in the same way.
In the cognitive science metaphor, mind is __ and the brain is __. software, hardware
What are the main contributing fields of cognitive science? 1. ? 1. Cognitive Psychology (mnemonic: CLAPN' in that all fields clappin' for cognitive science)
What are the main contributing fields of cognitive science? 1. Cognitive Psychology, 2. ? 2. Linguistics (mnemonic: CLAPN' in that all fields clappin' for cognitive science)
What are the main contributing fields of cognitive science? 1. Cognitive Psychology, 2. Linguistics, 3. ? 3. Artificial Intelligence (mnemonic: CLAPN' in that all fields clappin' for cognitive science)
What are the main contributing fields of cognitive science? 1. Cognitive Psychology, 2. Linguistics, 3. Artificial Intelligence, 4. ? 4. Philosophy (mnemonic: CLAPN' in that all fields clappin' for cognitive science)
What are the main contributing fields of cognitive science? 1. Cognitive Psychology, 2. Linguistics, 3. Artificial Intelligence, 4. Philosophy, 5. ? 5. Neuroscience (mnemonic: CLAPN' in that all fields clappin' for cognitive science)
  1. Costa, J.T. (2015). The consilient Mr. Wallace, Skeptic Magazine, 20(3), 16--21.
  2. Tegmark, M. (2014). Our mathematical universe: My quest for the ultimate nature of reality. Penguin UK. Kindle Location 3822
  3. Lightman, A. (2015). Is life special just because it's rare? Nautilus, Sept/Oct 2015, 85--89.