Understanding Cognition

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Cognitive neuroscience is an interdisciplinary enterprise aimed at explaining cognition and behavior. It appears to be succeeding. What accounts for this apparent explanatory success? According to one prominent philosophical thesis, cognitive neuroscience explains by discovering and describing mechanisms. This "mechanist thesis" is open to at least two interpretations: a strong metaphysical thesis that Carl Craver and David Kaplan defend, and a weaker methodological thesis that William Bechtel defends. I argue that the metaphysical thesis is false and that the methodological thesis is too weak to account for the explanatory promise of cognitive neuroscience. My argument draws support from a representative example of research in this field, namely, the neuroscience of decision-making. The example shows that cognitive neuroscience explains in a variety of ways and that the discovery of mechanisms functions primarily as a way of marshaling evidence in support of the models of cognition that are its principle unit of explanatory significance.

The inadequacy of the mechanist program is symptomatic of an implausible but prominent view of scientific understanding. On this view, scientific understanding consists in an accurate and complete description of certain "objective" explanatory relations, that is, relations that hold independently of facts about human psychology. I trace this view to Carl Hempel's logical empiricist reconceptualization of scientific understanding, which then gets extended in Wesley Salmon's causal-mechanistic approach. I argue that the twin objectivist ideals of accuracy and completeness are neither ends we actually value nor ends we ought to value where scientific understanding is concerned.

The case against objectivism motivates psychologism about understanding, the view that understanding depends on human psychology. I propose and defend a normative psychologistic framework for investigating the nature of understanding in the mind sciences along three empirically-informed dimensions: 1) What are the ends of understanding? 2) What is the nature of the cognitive strategy that we deploy to achieve those ends; and 3) Under what conditions is our deployment of this strategy effective toward achieving those ends? To articulate and defend this view, I build on the work of Elliot Sober to develop a taxonomy of psychologisms about understanding. Epistemological psychologism, a species of naturalism, is the view that justifying claims about understanding requires appealing to what scientists actually do when they seek understanding. Metaphysical psychologism is the view that the truth-makers for claims about understanding include facts about human psychology. I defend both views against objections.






Steenbergen, Gordon J. (2015). Understanding Cognition. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/9839.


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