Cognitive science is, of course, not really a new discipline, but a recognition of a fundamental set of common concerns shared by the disciplines of psychology, computer science, linguistics, economics, epistemology, and the social sciences generally. All of these disciplines are concerned with information processing systems, and all of them are concerned with systems that are adaptive—that are what they are from being ground between the nether millstone of their physiology or hardware, as the case may be, and the upper millstone of a complex environment in which they exist. Systems that are adaptive may equally well be described as “artificial,” for as environments change, they can be expected to change too, as though they were deliberately designed to fit those environments (as indeed they sometimes are). The task of empirical science is to discover and verify invariants in the phenomena under study. The artificiality of information processing systems creates a subtle problem in defining empirical invariants in such systems. For observed regularities are very likely invariant only within a limited range of variation in their environments, and any accurate statement of the laws of such systems must contain reference to their relativity to environmental features. It is a common experience in experimental psychology, for example, to discover that we are studying sociology—the effects of the past histories of our subjects—when we think we are studying physiology—the effects of properties of the human nervous system. Similarly, business cycle economists are only now becoming aware of the extent to which the parameters of the system they are studying are dependent on the experiences of a population with economic events over the previous generation. In artificial sciences, the descriptive and the normative are never far apart. Thus, in economics, the “principle of rationality” is sometimes asserted as a descriptive invariant, sometimes as advice to decision makers. Similarly, in psychology, the processes of adaptation (learning) have always been a central topic, at one time a topic that dominated the whole field of research. Linguistics, too, has suffered its confusions between descriptive and normative attitudes towards its subject. But we must avoid the error, in studying information processing systems, of thinking that the adaptive processes themselves must be invariant; and we must be prepared to face the complexities of regression in the possibility that they themselves may be subject to improvement and adaptation. It might have been necessary a decade ago to argue for the commonality of the information processes that are employed by such disparate systems as computers and human nervous systems. The evidence for that commonality is now overwhelming, and the remaining questions about the boundaries of cognitive science have more to do with whether there also exist nontrivial commonalities with information processing in genetic systems than with whether men and machines both think.
Cognitive Science - A Multidisciplinary Journal – Wiley
Published: Jan 1, 1980
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