Debate Magazine

Genealogizing Cognitive Science

By Cris

While preparing to write a chapter on the cognitive science of religion, I thought it would be a good idea to investigate the foundations of cognitive science before getting to the “religion” offshoot of it. My main concern was that the words “cognitive” and “science” cast a talismanic spell: when they ritually appear together, it is easy to assume that what follows is authoritative and firmly grounded in theory, method, and data. One of the best ways to conduct such an investigation, and test assumptions about authority, is to read histories of the field. Intellectual histories, which might also be called genealogies, examine the origins of an idea, or discipline, and trace its development over time. The best genealogies expose assumptions, examine conflicts, and raise doubts. They can be corrosive, undermine faith, and disrupt myths. Though its name may suggest otherwise, cognitive science is not without its fair share of faith and myth.

My purpose here is not to examine these in any detail, but to point interested readers to sources which may prompt healthy skepticism. A good place to start is with Howard Gardner’s The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. Though it is a bit dated, having been published in 1985, it more than adequately covers the deep origins of cognitivism, in Cartesian-Kantian philosophy, and more recent origins in the 1950s with Chomsky’s revolt against behaviorism. It also covers the early debates and subsequent development of artificial intelligence or “AI,” which was originally wedded to cognitivism but has since gone mostly in separate algorithmic and engineering ways.

For the truly intrepid, I recommend Margaret Boden’s two-volume magnum opus, Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science (2006). Though it is oddly organized and at times idiosyncratic, it covers just about everything. Because the chapters are weirdly named and the index rather sparse, finding precious bits within its 1,708 pages can be daunting. Fortunately, an internet search will lead you to a virtual copy of both volumes, which you can then search using Adobe tools and key words, names, or phrases.

Because Gardner and Boden are committed and practicing cognitivists, it may seem strange that their histories engender skepticism. Yet ironically they do. While the cognitivist enterprise identifies as science, situates itself within science, and uses scientific methods, these alone do not secure its status, or authority, as science in the manner of physics, chemistry, or biology. The mind, in many discouraging ways, remains a mysterious black box.

While reading conflicting cognitivist accounts of the way the mind supposedly works — “mechanically” and “computationally” — nagging concerns arise about whether these literate-symbolic representations of inner-mental representations are scientific metaphors or descriptive analogues. Metaphors do not become scientific simply, or complicatedly, because we can model, mathematize, and chart them. There are also nagging concerns about whether tests of these models are investigating anything other than the symbols, or terms, which these models presuppose. It is hard to find satisfying or foundational empirical proof in this complex conceptual pudding. Of course many cognitivists eschew such proof because it muddles the models.

So just how does the mind work? Steven Pinker, a true cognitivist believer, thinks he knows, so I re-read his popular classic, How the Mind Works (1997). While skimming over the just-so evolutionary stories he is so fond of telling, I focused on his modularity theses and computational arguments. I could not help but think that minds might work the way he claims, or they might not. We cannot get inside heads to observe the logically elegant unfolding and symbolically impressive inferencing he describes. There is no direct data. We can see all sorts of behavioral outputs, but describing these with plausible models is not the same as explaining them with definitive proofs.

Like most cognitivists, Pinker has been greatly influenced by Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics and Jerry Fodor’s early work on modularity. These were plausible models, in their day, but Chomsky’s has undergone so many major revisions that no one is really quite sure where he stands, and Fodor has rejected the massive modularity extension of his original proposals. This leaves Pinker, and his version of cognitivism, on rather shaky ground. It also led to Fodor’s rebuke in The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology (2001). Others, such as Kim Sterelny, have critiqued the massively modular-evolutionary model and offered alternative accounts. In Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition (2003), Sterelny states his particular case. Like most models, it is plausible though not compelling and certainly not definitive. None of the cognitive models command our acquiescence or obedience by virtue of scientific authority.

Where does this small sampling of sources leave us? Regardless of who is more right or less wrong, the fact that these and and many other arguments exist — among the most accomplished scholars in cognitive science — tells us something important about the status of the field. The foundations are far from being settled. This also tells us something important, cautionary to be sure, about the cognitive science of religion.

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