The Cognitive Neuroscience Revolution

February 24, 2014

Trey Boone

Abstract: Once upon a time, there was cognitive science—the interdisciplinary study of cognition. It included (aspects of) six disciplines: psychology, computer science, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy. The six disciplines were supposed to work together towards understanding cognition, but there was also a clear division of labor between them. On one side stood psychology, with the help of computer science, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy; on the other side stood neuroscience. Psychology etc. studied the functional, cognitive, or—in Marr’s terminology—the computational and algorithmic levels; neuroscience investigated the neural, mechanistic, or implementation level. These two approaches were considered to be autonomous from one another. This division of labor leaves no room for cognitive neuroscience. Indeed, from this perspective, the very term “cognitive neuroscience” is almost an oxymoron, because neuroscience is supposed to deal with the mechanisms that implement cognitive processes, not with cognition proper. Yet cognitive neuroscience has emerged as the new mainstream in cognitive science. What gives?

We argue that cognitive science as traditionally conceived is on its way out and is being replaced by cognitive neuroscience, broadly construed. Cognitive neuroscience is still an interdisciplinary investigation of cognition. It still includes (aspects of) the same six disciplines (psychology, computer science, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy). But the old division of labor is gone.

The old two-level view (functional/cognitive/computational vs. neural/mechanistic/implementation) is being replaced by a view on which there are many levels of mechanistic organization. No one level has a monopoly on cognition proper. Instead, different levels are more or less cognitive depending on their specific properties. Old psychological theories pitched at the “functional level” are simply sketches of mechanistic explanations at one of many levels of mechanistic organization (Piccinini and Craver 2011). The disciplines contributing to cognitive science are not autonomous from one another. Instead, these different disciplines contribute to the common enterprise of constructing multilevel mechanistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.


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