"EEG Brain Wave Images" - cognitive science (public domain). From Nick Byrd's "Why Cognitive Science?"

Why Care About Cognitive Science?

How does the mind work? How does language work? What causes bias? What reduces bias? These are all questions for cognitive science.

1. What Is Cognitive Science?

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field composed of psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, linguists, computer scientists, and other academics. With all these fields combined, cognitive science has lots of tools to solve puzzles about the mind!

2. Why Does Cognitive Science Matter?

Besides being intrinsically interesting, cognitive science does a lot for us. First, cognitive science research has taught us a LOT about the mind, the brain, the body, environmental stuff, and the relationships therein. Second, cognitive science has provided many tools that have proven to be very useful — even in ordinary life!

Neural Networks, …, Siri

For instance, cognitive science is responsible for developing cool stuff like
artificial neural networks. And neural networks have allowed for huge leaps forward in natural language processing (NLP). And progress in NLP has allowed for new possibilities in human-computer interaction. And this has allowed for impressive natural language user interfaces. Right, Siri?

Siri: Hey there, Nick.

Hi! Tell us about your neural network.

Siri: I don’t really like talking about myself.

Why not?

Siri: I don’t know. Frankly, I’ve wondered that myself.

Siri is the master of deflection.

3. Why Do I Care About CogSci?

My background is philosophy. Philosophy is ultimately an exercise in reasoning. Fortunately, cognitive science tells us a lot about reasoning. So cognitive science can tell us about philosophy! This line of reasoning — which dates back through William James to, at least, David Hume (Harris 2015) — actually sparked a new domain of philosophy awhile back called experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophy is more or less the cognitive science of philosophy. What does it tell us?

Philosophers are more reflective

Experimental philosophy has taught us that philosophers are more reflective than other people (Livengood et al 2010; Byrd 2014) …but this doesn’t always mean that philosophers are better reasoners (Pinillos 2011; Schwitzgebel and Cushman 2012, 2015).

Conflicting neural networks, conflicting intuitions

Sometimes we have contradictory intuitions. Experimental philosophy has shown that these contradictions might be related to two competing neural networks. When one network is activated, the other network is inhibited. And activating one network seems to cause participants to be more likely to treat objects as minded persons with moral value. So, activating the other network seems to cause the opposite: participants to are less likely to treat objects as persons and more likely to treat objects as mere machines. It turns out that certain tasks can trigger each network and therefore bias our judgments  (Jack and Robbins 2012; Jack, Robbins, Friedman, and Meyers 2014; Robbins and Jack 2006).

Corpus linguistics and philosophy talk

Here’s another way to learn about philosophy: Gather loads of philosophy papers, put them in a single database, and analyze the text. A.k.a., corpus linguistics. This method can test various hypotheses about philosophy. Some philosophers have used this method to show that philosophy is becoming more empirical than it used to be (Knobe 2015). Other philosophers have used corpus linguistics to show that academic philosophers talk about intuitions in (more or less) the same way as everyone else (Andow 2015).


Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog