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"'You', your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: 'You're nothing but a pack of neurons.' This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing."

- Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate

I am a reductionist. I believe all our mental states, from rapture to depression, have neurological correlations. Further, all our mental states are completely dependent on these largely biochemical processes in our brains. When our brains cease to function, "we" no longer exist...except as memories and influences in other brains out there.

Now, this is not the happiest of belief systems for most of humanity. It is much easier to believe in a personal continuum of one for or another; be it a soul that reaches "salvation" or a holistic essence of which human beings are a part and to which each of us returns when brain function ceases.

I think science, and particularly the specialized field of cognitive science, is making great strides in supporting the conclusions that this just ain't so. The collection of experiences and behaviors we know as ourselves rests squarely upon definable and, increasingly, measurable biological phenomena.

This does NOT mean, however, that poetry is just words or that a sunset is just electromagnetic stimulation of our visual cortex or that the quiet sound of the wind in the trees on a cool spring evening is just vibrations in my ear. The experiences we have in life are REAL, they are OURS, intimately. They are meaningful in whatever way we choose to imbibe them with meaning. This is what makes us "human" and not grasshoppers.

The problem comes about when folks tend to take the perceived collective aspects of these experiences and say that the "essence" of these things is real outside of a strictly human context. That we are more intimately connected with a supra-human or extra-human cognitive basis than the biophysical one we all know every day.

Intimacy does not necessarily imply continuum. It is a rather old superstition to think otherwise. But, because it is an old superstition, it is deeply engrained in our cultural make-up. And I can live with that fact.

Cognitive science interests me more in its philosophical aspects than in its purely scientific ones. I am not as versed in the sciences as I am in philosophy and the arts. Regardless, it is a developing field that I attempt to keep up with regardless of whether I fully comprehend what I'm reading or not.

It is a comparatively young science and is, therefore, subject to what zen instructors sometimes call "beginner's mind." There are many possibilities in the absence of established facts. Most of these possibilities are, naturally, wrong or confused. What is supportable and what isn't is still largely to be determined. That makes the field a rather exciting one to watch and from which to learn.

What is cognitive science? In 1985 Marvin Minksy wrote in The Society of Mind: "It often does more harm than good to force definitions on things we don't understand. Besides, only in logic and mathematics do definitions ever capture concepts perfectly. The things we deal with in practical life are usually too complicated to be represented by neat, compact expressions. Especially when it comes to understanding minds, we still know so little that we can't be sure our ideas about psychology are even aimed in the right directions. In any case, one must not mistake defining things for knowing what they are."

As an emerging field, it is rather difficult to define precisely and, as Mr. Minsky put it so well, even in defining that doesn't mean we know very much about. Still, you have to start somewhere, however incomplete. Cognitive Science is a collection of scientific and philosophical models and theories that attempts to answer one or more of the following questions:

  1. What is "the Mind"?
  2. How does human consciousness work?
  3. How does the human brain "interpret" human experience?
  4. What is the relationship between language and thought?
  5. What is the biological basis for "emotion?"
  6. How can we develop sophisticated "artificial" intelligence systems?
  7. What are the cultural implications of human cognition?
There are, of course, many other questions being explored. But, this gives you an idea of the issues at hand and, perhaps, some of the fundamentally earth-shattering implications of find solid answers to such questions. That's what cognitive science is attempting to do. You'll find a more thorough definition here.

More on this fascinating field later. For now, please explore some really good links on the subject. You'll notice an emphasis on the work of Paul and Patricia Chruchland, two Cognitive Science philosophers whose writings I have followed since the mid-1980's. While I do not necessarily agree with everything they have to say, I find their conclusions thought provoking, well-reasoned and researched, and generally constructive in truly understanding human consciousness.

Copyright W. Keith Beason, 1999
Version 1.0

Cognitive Science Links:

Paul & Patricia Churchland:
A broad overview of their work.

Books about the Philosophy of Mind.

Folk Psychology and the Role of Representations in Cognitive Science:
A good critique of the Churchlands' work.

Paul Churchland: The Essentials.

Patricia S. Churchland's Personal Page.

Paul Churchland on Eliminative Materialism.

Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.

David Chalmers' Home Page:
A philosopher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who works mainly in the philosophy of mind, and in related areas of cognitive science and metaphysics.

Human Cognition in the Human Brain:
A model of human consciousness presented by Yehouda Harpaz.

The Cognitive Science Society Home Page:
A union of researchers in the disciplines comprising the field of Cognitive Science, including Artificial Intelligence, Linguistics, Anthropology, Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Education.

Conscoiusness and Neuroscience:
An interesting online paper presented by two leading cognitive scientists, Francis Crick and Christof Koch.

The Cognitive Science Initiative at the University of Houston.

Neuroscience Tutorial:
The Washington University School of Medicine's illustrated guide to the essential basics of clinical neuroscience. Some "heady" stuff.

The Pre-History of Cognitive Science Web Page:
An annotated bibliography of models of human cognition from the Seventeenth through Nineteenth centuries.

The Institute for Research in Cognitive Science.

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