Cognitive science

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The idea that pure philosophical reflection can plumb the depths of human understanding is an illusion.
—George Lakoff and Mark Johnson[1]

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence. It embraces philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics and anthropology.[2] Cognitive science is a relatively young and developing science. Nevetheless, it has already had a fair share of influence on several fields, particularly in the humanities. There is even cognitive archaeology.[3]


See the main article on this topic: Cognitive revolution

Cognitive science grew out of the "cognitive revolution" of the 1950s and 1960s that gave birth to the field of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology fused the theoretical approach of Gestalt psychology and early models of artificial intelligence with the experimental approach of behaviorism. Early cognitive psychology tended to ignore the physical brain itself, seeing it as a "black box", though this has changed with the proliferation of brain scanning technologies and the rise of cognitive neuroscience. "Cognitive science" as a term was coined shortly after "cognitive psychology" to refer to developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence, though it soon became an umbrella term for various cognitive approaches to fields as listed above, sometimes being referred to in the plural "the cognitive sciences" due to this.

Influential figures in cognitive science[edit]

Pseudoscience and skepticism[edit]

Since cognitive science focuses heavily on memory, sensory perception, learning, and rationality, research from the field has been adopted by proponents of scientific skepticism. Cognitive biases in particular have become a staple of skeptical writing. Some cognitive scientists and psychologists, such as Elizabeth Loftus, have worked directly with skeptical organizations. Cognitive scientists likewise have used studies of pseudoscience, folk conceptions of science, religion, and mysticism to draw conclusions about the working of the human mind.

Two thousand years of Western thought overturned[edit]

A major philosophical approach to the mind and reality called embodied cognition, promoted by figures such as Lakoff and Margaret Wilson, has grown out of cognitive science. While acknowledging the usefulness of Western metaphysical thought since about the time of Socrates or so, Lakoff and his colleague Mark Johnson have this to say:

Mainstream Western philosophy adds [to the "question of what we take to be real and… how we reason"]… certain claims that we will argue are false. Not trivially false, but so false as to drastically distort our understanding of what human beings are, what the mind and reason are, what causation and morality are, and what our place is in the universe. Here are those claims:
  1. Reality comes divided up into categories that exist independent of the specific properties of human minds, brains, or bodies.
  2. The world has a rational structure: The relationships among categories in the world are characterized by a transcendent or universal reason, which is independent of any peculiarities of human minds, brains, and bodies.
  3. The concepts used by mind-, brain-, and body-free reason correctly characterize the mind-, brain-, and body-free categories of reality.
  4. Human reason is the capacity of the human mind to use transcendent reason, or at least a portion of it. Human reason may be performed by the human brain, but the structure of human reason is defined by transcendent reason, independent of human bodies or brains. Thus, the structure of human reason is disembodied.
  5. Human concepts are the concepts of transcendent reason. They are therefore defined independent of human brains or bodies, and so they too are disembodied.
  6. Human concepts therefore characterize the objective categories of mind-, brain-, and body-free reality. That is, the world has a unique, fixed category structure, and we all know it and use it when we are reasoning correctly.
  7. What makes us essentially human is our capacity for disembodied reason.
  8. Since transcendent reason is culture-free, what makes us essentially human is not our capacity for culture or for interpersonal relations.
  9. Since reason is disembodied, what makes us essentially human is not our relation to the material world. Our essential humanness has nothing to do with our connection to nature or to art or to music or to anything of the senses.
These tenets were not adopted on the basis of empirical evidence. They arose instead out of a priori philosophy. Contemporary cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds.[5]

Cognitive scientists' broad definition of "cognition" asserts that 95% or more of it operates unconsciously: too rapidly and too far below the threshold of awareness for us to notice.[6] If it were not so, we would hardly be able to move through the world, manipulate objects in it, or speak about anything at all.[7] Empirical investigation of this unconscious cognition is, however, possible.[8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]



  1. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought 1999, p. 12
  2. Thagard, P. Introduction to Cognitive Science 2005, page 1
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Cognitive_archaeology.
  4. Although in more recent times, he's known for this stinker.
  5. Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, pp. 21-22
  6. "Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought—and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought. If the cognitive unconscious were not there doing this shaping, there could be not conscious thought." Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, p. 12
  7. "Primary metaphors are part of the cognitive unconscious. We acquire them automatically and unconsciously via the normal process of neural learning and may be unaware that we have them. We have no choice in this process.
    … not all primary metaphors are manifested in the words of a language. Some are manifested in grammar, others in gesture, art, or ritual. These nonlinguistic metaphors may, however, be secondarily expressed through language and other symbolic means.
    Contrary to long-standing opinion about metaphor, primary metaphor is not the result of a conscious multistage process of interpretation. Rather it is a matter of immediate conceptual mapping via neural connections.
    If you are a normal human being, you inevitably acquire an enormous range of primary metaphors just by going about the world constantly moving and perceiving. Whenever a domain of subjective experience or judgment is coactivated regularly with a sensorimotor domain, permanent neural connections are established via synaptic weight changes." Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, pp. 56-57
  8. "The experimental techniques (for a survey, see Gibbs, R. 1994, The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge University Press. pp. 161-167, 252-257) include the following seven types: priming, problem solving, inferential reasoning, image analysis, classification, verbal protocol analysis, and discourse comprehension." Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, p. 83