Cognitive Science or Cognitive Philosophy?

The basic hypothesis behind this blog is that there are no fixed laws of thinking. Our brains are programmable in a way comparable to computers. The processes or procedures of thinking and the representations used in thought are not hard wired but learned and developing and, as a result, can change during life, may be different from person to person and may vary from culture to culture and between different historical stages of cultures.

It may be possible to investigate how each single cognitive structure or piece of knowledge works, how it arises, how it is implemented in terms of more basic structures and eventually in terms of the neural “hardware”, but it would be impossible to find a general set of laws or algorithms of how these processes work. Practically everything (except for the immediate first steps of processing sensual data and the last steps of controlling muscles) can change. Innate structures, if they exist, are only the starting point of change, not a fixed, law-like structure constraining what can happen.

If you define science as a discipline that looks for fixed, universal laws governing a part of reality, then this approach would mean that cognitive science cannot be a science in the sense that physics or chemistry are sciences. It would, instead, have to be treated as one of the humanities or as a branch of philosophy.

However, I would suggest to expand the concept of science and to include such disciplines among the umbrella concept of “science” (in fact, terms like “human sciences” and “cultural sciences” are sometimes used), i.e. I suggest to expand the concept of “science” into something akin to the much broader German term “Wissenschaft”.

I think that reality contains systems that are programmable and thereby changeable in a way that makes a complete formal theory, i.e. a law-based description of them, impossible. Every description of such systems in terms of formal theories is incomplete since they can develop out of the scope of that theory.

This class of systems, I think, includes the area of living organisms, the area of brains and the cognitive processes happening inside them, the area of human technology including computers and the internet, and human cultures and societies in general. Each single instance of what is happening in such systems is implemented in terms of material systems, but you can always change the systems so that you will never arrive at any complete theory covering it all. Such systems can generate new information or take up new information from the environment and incorporate it into themselves. With “new” I mean information not derivable from a particular given description of the previous state of the system.

As long as cognitive science is trying to find general fixed rules and “the” structure of cognition, its successes will be limited.  If instead it turns into a more philosophical human science, it could achieve much more, even if each single special piece of research will be intrinsically incomplete. The incompleteness and non-generality of all exact theories (and the creativity that is both the reason of this incompleteness and, in a sense, the way out of it) must be faced, not denied.

On the other hand, I see an approach here to make the human sciences more “scientific” in that we can investigate how “mental” or “cultural” phenomena are implemented or emulated by material systems. We would not look for general laws of these phenomena, which do not exist, but for their mapping onto the underlying level of physical systems anf for the way they develop or emerge. We can start such investigations in technological systems and then move on towards “natural” systems.

(The picture is from Showing a neolitic figurine, it is maybe the oldest work of art that might be interpreted as a work about the topic of thinking.)



  1. Reblogged this on The Asifoscope.

  2. You are always thinking outside the square. I often wonder what I would have been like if I grew up somewhere else in the world?

    1. I think it is not so much a matter of where you grow up, more a matter of personality structure. The “square” might be a result of frequent interaction with others where people exchange ideas and somehow equalize their views. I am not autistic, but a quite introvert person and like to stay alone. I also don’t feel much peer preasure that others might be more sensitive to. So I simply don’t see where the borders of the “common square” are because I am less involved in the communication that creates it. I probably have my own private square somewhere (only partially overlapping with the “common square”) although I am trying to reflect my thinking in order to expand it.

  3. I know several people that have undergraduate degrees in philosophy and graduate degrees in cognitive science or neuroscience. I think people are realizing there is a benefit to looking at the brain from both perspectives, as you suggest.

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