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Contribution of Cognitive Science to An Understanding of The Human Mind and Behaviour

Contribution of Cognitive Science

The foundation of all our knowledge, emotions and behavior is the human mind thinking. The methods by which the mind cogitates have been the subject of speculation and investigation for as long as people have been self-conscious enough to recognize mind as an entity. In recent centuries, with the rise of the scientific method, objective studies of mental function have led to postulations concerning the structure of mind and its processes. My purpose in this essay is to examine the contribution of cognitive science in our emotions, learning behavior and our beliefs are directly related to our socialization. Termed cognitive science, this field combines components of the field of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and philosophy to approach a model of human mental function that is based in scientific investigation. Cognitive science has developed several, sometimes competing, theories of mental function, and these are of interest to humanities scholars because they at once reflect an overarching attitude toward human nature present in our science dependent culture and in turn contribute concepts which influence our culture

The plasticity of the human mind allows for many transformations throughout a lifetime in both thought and emotions. Many would argue that culture enables us to perform many complex cognitive tasks.[1] Cultural epidemiology only describes part of the story of human cognition and provides a misguided picture of the emergent nature of cognition.

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Cognitive ScienceWilliam James argued that human psychology is based on the adaptive value of certain behaviors and mental processes.[2] James was extending the work of Charles Darwin, who thought that his theory might someday extend into the realm of psychology, where mental powers were acquired through natural selection.[3] Evolutionary psychology proposes that the mind is composed of adaptations contained in cognitive modules that developed through evolutionary processes to solve certain adaptive problems faced by our ancient Pleistocene ancestors. The purpose of this essay is to understand several aspects of human behavior and emotion and the contribution of cognitive science in understanding these human complex behaviors.

What is Cognitive Science

Normal human minds have evolved to pay particular attention to certain aspects of the environment and process them in a special way. Boyer provides a detailed account of several theories that have attempted in the past to provide a general definition of religion such as: religion as an explanation of unknown phenomena, religion as a source of emotional comfort to relieve anxiety, religion as a source of social order and stability, and religion as an illusion instituted by the superstitious.[4] Boyer points out the problems in each of these theories and argues that cognitive science and evolutionary theory offer better explanations of the existence and character of religion.

The most fundamental characteristic of human mind is that it has an inference system specialized for interpreting and conceptualizes particular information in certain ways. For example, avoidance of predation was a result of several factors, an important one being emotional arousal that quickly readied the animal for action.

One characterization of cognitive science is the multidisciplinary scientific study of cognition and its role in intelligent agency Bechtel, Abrahamsen, & Graham, 1998). As a discipline, it did not popularly emerge until the late 1990s. However, the seeds of cognitive science were planted long before that, and it was largely rooted in the cognitive revolution of psychological science in the 1950s. In fact, Howard Gardner came to call the cognitive revolution the “unofficial launching of cognitive science,” (Gardner, 1985).

The beginning of Cognitive Science

The cognitive revolution began largely as a revolt against behaviorism; the scientific methodology promoted by Watson (1913), and came to dominate psychology and linguistics, among other disciplines, in North America (Bechtel et al., 1998). By the mid-1950s cognitive science was formed, and it existed largely through conferences that brought together various disciplines that focused on the mind as a processer of information.

Exploration of mental activity has a rich history, most of which comes from philosophers. In terms of hypothesizing about human motivation and drive, the Greeks were the earliest on record to make such speculations. They had a term for weakness of will called akrasia, which has been discussed since the time of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato (Charlton, 1988). Between 300 BCE and the emergence of modern science in the 1600s, little progress was made in philosophy or science (Hergenhahn, 1997). Thus the next significant influence on the development of cognitive science can be said to be Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes, often cited as the father of British empiricism, suggested a theory of motivation in the 1600s, whereby he argued that human behavior is motivated by pleasure seeking and avoidance. In terms of mental control, Thomas Reid (1710-1796) became the first philosopher to thoroughly address conscious experience (Schneider, 1993), a necessary precursor to discussing mental faculties or skills. Alexander Bain, who founded Mind, the first journal devoted to psychology, in 1876, contributed to this area with his conception of the components of the mind, which he categorized as feeling, volition, and intellect. Bain’s exploration into voluntary behavior foreshadowed the emergence of trial and error learning as well as operant conditioning (Hergenhahn, 1997). Franz Brentano introduced the concept of intentionality, the directedness of consciousness toward an object, in 1874. Brentano, a German philosopher, is generally regarded as the founder of act psychology, or internationalism, which concerns itself with the acts of the mind rather than with the contents of the mind (Velarde, 1999).

Concurrently in North America in the late 19th century, William James (1890) devised a theory of will or voluntary action. His theory held that of many possible choices an agent has, the one that is chosen is the one that has been attended to more than others. James added that choice or will expands energy through the process of holding the idea attended to in consciousness while inhibiting other ideas. Thus James concluded that volition occurs by attending to those ideas that assist one in achieving one’s goal (Hergenhahn, 1997).

Role of Cognitive Science in human behavior

Although cognitive and evolutionary science can greatly contribute to our understanding of behavior and emotions, these sciences can only provide a piece to a much larger puzzle. In fact, the cognitive adaptations that Boyer describes are not an accurate representation of how cognition works. Boyer may be helpful in articulating certain types of constraints for the way in which cognition works, but certain concepts are not reducible to by-products of cognitive adaptations. Many aspects of concepts are the product of emergent cognitive processes and top down systemic constraints. Several cognitive systems that process concepts are composed of emergent patterns of neuronal activation that are dependent upon feedback and top-down cognitive and cultural constraints. In subsequent chapters, I shall argue for a different understanding of the functions of cognition.

Currently, the cognitive science conducts research according to a standard model that specifies the functionality of cognitive processes in the development of human concepts. This model is self-identified as reductionistic and I would argue that it is a clear example of causal reductionism. There are two theories of cognitive functioning in the standard model that contribute to this causal reductionism: cultural epidemiology and evolutionary psychology. Cultural epidemiology attempts to describe the transmission of religious concepts in terms of a pathogen that spreads due to its ability to exploit certain default inferences of cognitive adaptations. The social factors involved in the spread of religious concepts are reduced to the functional biases of cognitive adaptations. Evolutionary psychology argues that human cognition functions according to cognitive modules that solved adaptive problems of our ancient Pleistocene ancestors.

Boyer notes three other aspects of the standard model. First, they are general, meaning that they are cross-cultural and would apply in any religious or cultural environment. The focus is on the cognitive systems that process religious information, not the social contexts in which they are embedded. Secondly, cognitive accounts are probabilistic, meaning that the probability of a particular religious concept remaining in a culture is dependent upon how much those concepts match up with the way that the cognitive inference systems process information. Thirdly, cognitive accounts are “experience distant,” meaning that the experiential and explicit accounts of religion are different from the actual processes that make them memorable. The implicit cognitive systems that are used are unconscious and work automatically, providing constraints on the processing of religious information.

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (some of the most prolific researchers in the field) argue that evolution has constructed a specific and universal cognitive architecture.[5] This perspective claims that the “human brain has specific adaptations similar to other human organs, yet these adaptations are cognitive in that they solved certain problems of hunter-gatherer societies and are passed on genetically.”[6] So while phylogenetic similarities across species may provide psychologists a better understanding of the gross anatomical and neurological structures within the animal kingdom, evolutionary adaptations have structured a brain with specific modules that solve problems relevant to survival and reproduction.[7]

This environment is known as the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) and only particular adaptations will allow for successful survival of the species. Tooby and Cosmides identify the criteria for an adaptation as:

  1. The adaptation must be genetic and must be transmitted across the generations of species.
  2. It must be reliably manufactured during the developmental life cycle of the organism.
  3. It must reliably develop in interaction with the specific environmental problems that it is meant to solve.
  4. It must solve those particular environmental-niche problems better than the alternative designs existing in that population, ultimately enhancing the reproductive and survival fitness of its particular relatives.[8]

To understand these cognitive modules it is necessary to investigate cognition through a type of “reverse engineering.”[9]. In that case, it is not the intellectual capabilities and tasks of modern humans that should be studied, but rather the tasks and problems of our ancient ancestors. Some of these tasks include “foraging, kin selection, engaging in social exchange, avoiding incest, choosing mates, caring for children, recognizing emotion, and interpreting threats.”58 Thus, modern cognitive abilities are simply by-products of a “Stone Age” mind.[10]

Tooby and Cosmides suggest three complementary levels of explanation in evolutionary psychology based on the work of David Marr and his three levels explanation in cognitive science: computational theory, programming, and hardware.[11]

The adaptive problem is the problem that a particular cognitive adaptation was designed to solve; the cognitive problem is the specifics of the cognitive solution to that problem, and the neurophysiological basis is the chemical, cellular, and neuronal systems of the physical brain.

Tooby and Cosmides argue that current research shows that these modules are present from birth and help humans navigate the environment. Humans are born with ‘crib sheets’ that provide cues for what to look for in the environment. For example, when a baby is born, he or she will immediately be drawn to stimuli that resemble faces rather than other types of stimuli.[12] At two and a half months, an infant will assume that objects are bounded and cohesive and will be quite surprised by any object that seems to magically go through another one.[13] There are hundreds if not thousands of different cognitive modules that process environmental information and provide solutions to relevant problems. These cognitive modules are domain-specific and only become activated when the relevant adaptation problem is encountered in the environment. For evolutionary psychology, behavioral flexibility is dependent upon acquiring more and more adaptations to solve the relevant problems.

The evolutionary psychology conceived by Steven Pinker, Cosmides, Tooby, and others has been criticized for being too narrow in its understanding of cognitive and neurological processes. Steven Quartz defines this “narrow evolutionary psychology” as a combination of the modern synthesis in biology and nativist cognitive psychology.

“Specifically, narrow evolutionary psychology brings together the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology, which views evolutionary change primarily in terms of changes in gene frequency, with a nativist cognitive psychology, which views the mind as a collection of relatively autonomous specialized processors, or modules.”[14]

Quartz goes on to argue that narrow evolutionary psychology is highly adevelopmental, missing the role of environment and growth in the acquisition of specific cognitive functions. By rendering developmental and environmental perspectives unimportant for understanding cognitive features, evolutionary psychology ignores an important aspect of human cognition.

Quartz and Terrence Sejnowski argue that the view of cognition suggested by evolutionary psychology is a type of “genetic blueprint.”

One response is to suppose that there’s a genetic blueprint for the human brain. According to this scenario, the brain is a collection of specialized circuits, each chosen by natural selection, each built according to a genetic blueprint.[15]

From this viewpoint, different cognitive functions are the product of a specified genetic plan in the cortex that internally directs cognitive development. Yet research in the cognitive neurosciences shows that the cortex does not develop through a specific internal plan, but actively incorporates experiential variables in addition to the genetic directives.

Several areas of research point to a different view of the development of human cognition, one that is based on environmental factors and developmental changes in the human cortex. As I shall argue in subsequent sections, this perspective leads to an emergent view of cognition that incorporates other causal variables in its explanation of religious concepts.

Current debates in cognitive neuroscience involve the extent to which important basic level features of cognition are innate or develop over time. The missing factor in current evolutionary psychology is an understanding of how environmental information can alter the development of representational ability in the cortex. In fact, rather than genes playing the central role in development, new research is indicating that over time the brain has learned to exploit external factors in the environment.

So our cognitive system was not designed to contain hundreds of specific cognitive adaptations, but to be generally adaptable and flexible according to local conditions. Several cognitive functions such as memory, language, and visual processing allow us to survive and reproduce in the environment. Yet certain adaptations, such as language, are neither part of a language module nor genetically determined, but rather are the result of changes in the human cortex and culture that have co-evolved to make learning language easier. This theory of the acquisition of language skills suggests a co-evolutionary process of language acquisition with both cognitive changes and changes in language contributing to its development.

The critiques presented by Quartz, Sejnowksi, and Buller support an emergent view of cognition that incorporates aspects of neural plasticity, behavioral flexibility, developmental processes, environmental variables, and dependency on culture in cognition. Understanding beliefs as an emergent property integrates these perspectives to provide a clearer picture of cognition. Top-down causation describes the mechanisms by which culture and experience constrain the development of religious cognition.

Alternatives to Causal Reductionism

In the preceding sections, I have argued that many theories in the cognitive science of are causally reductive; concepts are reduced to by-products of cognitive adaptations. The standard model in the cognitive science assumes that causation is bottom-up from cognitive adaptations to cultural concepts.

Part of the problem in arguing for an emergent rather than reductive view of cognition is that casual reductionism is part of a worldview that includes certain presuppositions about causation. Consequently, many of the theories from the cognitive science of religion are not just scientific hypotheses, but also metaphysical statements about the nature of religious beliefs.

Therefore, part of accepting an emergent view of cognition will require a worldview shift. In this section, I suggest a worldview shift that involves moving from a reductive to an emergent worldview by understanding reality in terms of emergent complex systems that interact according to bottom-up and top-down causation. Secondly, I suggest a type of metaphysical pluralism that would include theological interpretation of research in the cognitive science of religion in addition to the naturalism that currently dominates the discussion. The first section describes the historical factors involved in the development of a causally reductive worldview. The next section describes the shift to a worldview that understands reality as emergent complex systems and the addition of top-down causation to complement the investigation of bottom-up processes. Finally, in the last section, I shall discuss the possibility of theological interpretations of research in the cognitive science of religion.

Worldview Problems

Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown argue that causal reductionism is part of a particular metaphysics that developed during the transition to the modern worldview.[16] The hylomorphic view of Aristotle (matter and form) was the primary understanding of motion during the medieval period, but the Copernican revolution displaced the earth from the center of the universe and required a new understanding of objects in motion. Modern science revived the atomism of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus and suggested that motion could be understood in terms of smaller particles that constituted objects. With the adoption of this view, everyday items became ontologically secondary to the primary status of atoms. The functions of wholes were considered epiphenomenal in contrast to the ‘real’ causal work that was occurring between atoms. Wholes were merely aggregates of micro-level processes, by-products of the behavior of their parts. This understanding of the relationship between parts and wholes had a lasting effect in scientific explanation. The causal explanation for a particular phenomenon is reducible to the functions of its parts. Thus, religious concepts are reducible to the ‘parts’ of cognition, specifically, evolutionary cognitive adaptations.

Prior to the modern conception of the hierarchy of the sciences, the hierarchy in the medieval worldview was a hierarchy of being.[17] Each level within this hierarchy represented greater causal influence by non-material entities such as angels, spirits, and ultimately God. Thus, top-down causation in the hierarchy was often attributed to nonnatural or spiritual powers, while matter had limited forms of bottom-up causation. By the time of Isaac Newton at the beginning of modernity, the laws of nature were expressions of God’s will and governance over the universe. But a century after Newton, Laplace argued that God was an unnecessary hypothesis and the laws of nature were self-sustaining with no need for occasional readjustment by God. Thus, the causal role of different levels in the hierarchy was modified with the elimination of top-down divine interactions and replaced with bottom-up causation and natural laws.[18] This may be why there is suspicion within the sciences about any notion of top-down causation, because the only account of top-down causation has been in terms of spirits and other nonmaterial entities. Through modernity, bottom-up causation and causal reductionism have been the only options in the explanation of natural phenomena.

Therefore, at least part of the problem in the cognitive science of religion is the modern understanding of causation in terms of bottom-up processes. The cognitive science of religion relies on a particular interpretation of the causal relationship between religious concepts and cognitive structures. A statement like “religion is a by-product of evolutionary adaptation” indicates a direction of causality from evolutionary adaptation causation alone. As Robert Hinde argues, human activities (including religion) involve several levels of complex interaction between individuals, social groups, and societies.

With the incorporation of an account of emergent complex systems, it can be argued that aspects of religious concepts are not reducible to by-products of cognitive adaptations. Rather, the causal explanation of the development of religious concepts is at least partially determined by top-down causation where emergent complex levels act as a constraint on certain cognitive processes.

Arthur Peacocke argues that top-down causation is one of the primary aspects of a model of emergent complex systems. With the addition of top-down causation, Peacocke attempted to show that top-down processes should be considered as a cause in addition to the bottom-up processes identified by causally reductive explanations.

According to Peacocke, contemporary science placed such an emphasis on bottom-up processes that it neglected the role of larger systemic factors in the formation and construction of particular phenomena. The incorporation of top-down causation opens up the possibility for understanding the role of emergent complex systems in the explanation of natural phenomena and their particular configuration as a causal constraint on the constituent parts of a system.

Nancey Murphy argues that top-down causation may be subject to criticism by the causal reductionist. If causation occurs, it must be the ‘parts’ of a complex system that instantiate the cause, thus causation is bottom-up after all. Murphy relies on the work of Alicia Juarrero to argue for top-down constraints that function within complex dynamic systems.[19] Juarrero argues that top-down constraints ’cause’ by altering the probability of different outcomes within a complex system.

The incorporation of emergent complex systems and top-down constraints into a description of causation enables the release from a causally reductive worldview that stifles the imagination in terms of causal processes. These two worldview shifts allow for the possibility of understanding other causal processes involved in the formation and use of religious concepts.


The cognitive science does not possess an accurate description of how cognition works. This is primarily the result of certain assumptions of causal reductionism in their description of cognition, especially in the case of cultural epidemiology and evolutionary psychology. Cultural epidemiology assumes that cultural information spreads like a pathogen according to its ability to exploit certain features of the inferences provided by cognitive adaptations. Evolutionary psychology understands cognition as a collection of adaptive cognitive modules that solved certain problems of our ancient evolutionary ancestors. Belief is a by-product of these cognitive programs. Several perspectives in cognitive neuroscience do not cohere with this view of cognition. Human cognition has evolved to be more dependent on environmental and developmental factors in the construction of different representational abilities.

The incorporation of emergent complex systems and top-down constraints into an explanation of causation within the hierarchy of the sciences provides a better account of the multiple causal factors involved in the development of religious concepts. Additionally, the incorporation of other interpretational frameworks in addition to a naturalistic worldview allows for a theological interpretation of research in the cognitive science of beliefs without explaining theology away.


Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bailergeon, R. “Representing the Existence and Location of Hidden Objects: Object Permanence in Six and Eight Month Old Infants.” Cognition 23 (1986): 21-41.

Barrett, Justin L. “Theological Correctness: Cognitive Constraint and the Study of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 11 (1999): 325-339.

Boyer, Pascal. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (London: John Murray, 1859).

Clark, Andy. Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology.” In The Cognitive Neurosciences ed. Michael Gazzaniga. Cambridge The MIT Press, 1995.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology.” In The Cognitive Neurosciences ed. Michael Gazzaniga. Cambridge The MIT Press,


Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

James, William. Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 1890.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1936.

Murphy, Nancey, and Warren S. Brown. Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow, 1994.

Quartz, Steven R., and Terrence J. Sejnowski. “The Neural Basis of Cognitive Development: A Constructivist Manifesto.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20 (1997): 537-596.

[1] Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997); Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001)

[2] William James, Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890).

[3] Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (London: John Murray, 1859).

[4] Ibid, 2

[5] Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer [HTML] (1997, accessed April 12, 2010); available from www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html .

[6] Ibid

[7] Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “Introduction to Evolutionary Psychology,” in The Cognitive Neurosciences ed. Michael Gazzaniga (Cambridge The MIT Press, 1995).

[8] Ibid, 1192.

[9] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 21.

[10] Cosmides and Tooby, Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer.

[11] Mark H. Johnson and John Morton, Biology and Cognitive Development: The Case of Face Recognition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

[12] Mark H. Johnson and John Morton, Biology and Cognitive Development: The Case of Face Recognition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

[13][13] R. Bailergeon, “Representing the Existence and Location of Hidden Objects: Object Permanence in Six and Eight Month Old Infants,” Cognition 23 (1986): 21-41; Elizabeth Spelke, “Principles of Object Perception,” Cognitive Science 14 (1990): 29-56.

[14] Steven R. Quartz, “Toward a Developmental Evolutionary Psychology: Genes, Development, and the Evolution of the Human Cognitive Architecture,” in Evolutionary Psychology: Alternative Approaches, ed. Steven J. Scher and Frederick Rauscher (New York: Springer Publishing Co., 2002), 185.

[15] Steven R. Quartz and Terrence J. Sejnowski, Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals about How We Become Who We Are (New York: William Morrow & Company, 2002), 37.

[16] Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 44.

[17] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936).

[18] Murphy and Brown, Did My Neurons, 45.

[19] Murphy, “Reductionism,” 32.

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