Cognitive science and Neurobiology


What use is philosophy to science, or science to it? Paul Thagard thinks they have something important to offer one another, especially in the field of cognitive science. What philosophy offers science is a perspective on questions of theory, explanation and evaluation that allow scientists to think about these areas rather than just carry into their work implicit, unexamined, old philosophical notions. What science offers philosophy is a constraint on the possible theories that can be defended. Here is the abstract of a 09 paper (pdf here).

Contrary to common views that philosophy is extraneous to cognitive science, this paper argues that philosophy has a crucial role to play in cognitive science with respect to generality and normativity. General questions include the nature of theories and explanations, the role of computer simulation in cognitive theorizing, and the relations among the different fields of cognitive science. Normative questions include whether human thinking should be Bayesian, whether decision making should maximize expected utility, and how norms should be established. These kinds of general and normative questions make philosophical reflection an important part of progress in cognitive science. Philosophy operates best, however, not with a priori reasoning or conceptual analysis, but rather with empirically informed reflection on a wide range of findings in cognitive science.

Cognitive science is interdisciplinary – a collaboration in their areas of overlap of Philosophy, Linguistics, Anthropology, Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence and Psychology according to Thagard. The disciplines have their own historical notions of what a theory looks like, and an explanation or evaluation. They deal with different levels of hierarchy from social to molecular. This is not unusual. Biology, itself, spans the hierarchy from the ecosystem to the molecular. Each biological science has its own theories, methods and ways of thinking but each does try to fit comfortable between the levels below and above their own. Physics has layers in harmony from particles to the cosmos. Cognitive science has not yet found that comfort.

My aim in this paper is to show that philosophy is essential to the interdisciplinary study of mind, but not for the reasons that many philosophers assume. Philosophy does not provide foundations for cognitive science and is incapable of generating the a priori truths that many philosophers have sought. Philosophy is not the queen of the sciences. Nor does philosophy have a special role in clearing up conceptual confusions about the study of mind, as this alleged role misunderstands the nature of concepts.

Along with many interesting ways he feels philosophy can be of use to cognitive science, he looks at the causal relations relations as they appear to various players.

A. reductionist: molecular – explains neural – explains psychological – explains social

Reductive reasoning is the normal sort of scientific explanation in other areas of science but has become a no-no in some cognitive science circles. Thagard is generous to those that bad-mouth reductionism but I wonder if a scholarly enterprise that does not accept a reductionist approach can be called a science.

B. downward: social – explains psychological, but neural and molecular are ignored

This is basically an anti-science approach and holds that the study of cognition is not concerned with the working of the brain. Perhaps it is an extreme post-modern stance.

C. autonomy: social, psychological, neural and molecular are three independent explanations

    This is completely non-reductionist. Thagard believes it is motivated by two things: an attempt to protect psychology from encroachment, and making cognition more general for robotics and AI.

    D. interactive: molecular – explains neural – explains psychological – explains social – explains molecular in a circle.

    Thagard does not want to call this reductionist although it would certainly be recognized as home to most reductionists. It may be that it is necessary for him to not label himself with the taboo name.

He is very even handed but I am afraid that I am not so generous, no doubt because of recent conversations with a artificial intelligence person and on the other hand someone with a postmodern outlook. I was becoming very puzzled by how two people who professed to be extremely interested in thinking, cognition and mind, had no interest in neurobiology. If we are to understand thought and consciousness then it will be through science, Neurobiology especially.

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