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Yihe (Vera) Xue
COGS 101
Cognitive/Computational Approach and Methodological Materialism
The cognitive/computational approach and methodological materialism are two of the most
influential methodologies that have guided research into the mind over the last century. They are also known
as the “the top-down approach” and “the bottom-up approach”.
The cognitive/computational approach brings out the different relationships that exist
when people are taken through different situations. The brain has the ability to identify causes of
certain situations. For example, when some pain in inflicted, the brain is able to disintegrate the
situation to different segments that help in identifying the output of the particular situation.
Different types of knowledge are incorporated to ensure that reasoning is applied in the different
situations that occur. The method, in this case, helps in making sure that roles and concepts are well
understood. It makes it important to understand the method, as one is likely to understand the
process of cognition more and come up with solutions to different problems.
The methodological materialism is known to operate on the basis that there exists a
parallelism between how feelings and thoughts, actions and perceptions flow, and how humans
experience them. There is the argument that feelings and thoughts are immaterial and as such, they
are caused by the states of materials in an organism. In other words, methodological materialists
simply look at nervous system and brain.
The methodological approach is more valid as compared to the cognitive/computational
approach as it is more objective in the assessment of how different perceptions are formed.
Reductive materialism, also known as the identity theory, shows the acceptance of
methodological materialism where it advances that psychologists view everything in the universe to
be physical. It simply claims that “mental states are physical states of the brain” (40). We don’t
have a mind-body problem because what appear to be two things is actually one thing. The only
problem we have is the physical states of the brain, so studying the structure and function of the
brain is the best way to understand the mind.
The first thing I consider reasonable is our scientific history. “We now know that sound is
just a train of compression waves traveling through the air and that the qualitative property of being
high pitched is just the property of having a high oscillatory frequency. Warmth is identical with
high average molecular kinetic energy, and coolness is identical with low average molecular kinetic
energy…” (41). Almost everything that we felt confused in the pre-science time has eventually been
explained in a scientific way. We also discovered that nature is made of multiple elements and
materials, so why does life, which was born from nature, generate something special and
According to the purely physical system theory from the arguments of identity theory, one
develops from a fertilized ovum which is controlled by the information coded in the DNA . The
neural dependence theory shows the same thing: what our mind does is nothing more than neuron
transmission (44). For example, the information input stimulus that dendrites all the way through
the axon then transmit to the next nerve cell and so on. The theories make a lot of sense to me
because many mental states could be explained in a physical way. For example, psychological
disorders are surely caused by abnormal activity of neural circuits in many situations. Moreover, the
patients who take the particular medicine, which helps in changing neuron or hormone functions in
the body, have things made better for them. If mental states can be easily influenced by changes in
body materials, then that would be made of physical materials, too.
It may not be the thing, somebody would say. “When I introspect, it doesn’t feel like my
feelings can be reduced into neural firing” (45). I would say that we should not expect introspection
to be so powerful. What would happen if we could notice every neural firing when we introspect?
At every moment we stay in consciousness, for example, we would feel hundreds of thousands of
information input stimulus in the nerve cells and produce certain outputs at the same time. We don’t
want to waste our energy dealing with such a large amount of information, do we? The body needs
to save the energy to deal with much more important things like observing the outside environment
and make reactions. It leads me to believe that incapable of doing something does not necessarily
mean that it does not exist.
Churchland also brings the semantic problem against the identity theory. It claims that “If
mental states are identical with brain states, then they must have the very same spatial location… to
say that my belief-that-the-sun-is-a-star is located in the temporal lobe of my left cerebral
hemisphere…” (47). And “if thoughts and beliefs were brain states, then all of these semantic
properties would have to be true about brain states. But it is senseless, runs the argument, to say that
some resonance in my association cortex is true, or logically entails some other resonance close by,
or has the meaning that P” (47). It does sound ridiculous to say that the thoughts and beliefs are
located somewhere in the brain or some resonance in the cortex is true or false, but I don’t think that
they are unsolvable.
“Thoughts and beliefs are identical to brain states” simply means that what we do and
think is all controlled by physical states after receiving the environmental stimulus. Let us leave the
words “mental states” or “physical states” for a second and explain everything we experience in a
biological way. Can we do that? Not perfectly in details, but we definitely can. For example, similar
to what eliminative materialism claims, instead of saying “she is happy”, we should say that “her
frontal lobe’s neuron system is firing” (73); the fluctuation of leptin and ghrelin hormone levels
results in a feeling of hungry or full; smiling increases the level of dopamine release and vice
versa… Is there any feeling or behavior that is unexplainable in this way? We could be unsure or
have different answers, but there is definitely a biological reason for everything. Now back to
“mental states” and “physical states”, we find that they are no more than human-made names. We
find that there are sophisticated biological changes in an organism’s body so we call them “physical
states”. And we see our diverse emotions and behaviors so we name them “mental states”. The truth
probably shouldn’t be categorized like this at all. What if I put the two things into one and call
anything we experience as something like “physical-mental states”? We’ll explain “happy” equals
to “neuron system firing,” right? The only difference would be that one is simpler to say than the
other. Problem solved. Then we do not have to worry about where “belief-that-the-sun-is-a-star” is
located. It is just located in whichever the nerve firing so that it makes one feels a sense of
believing. So the thing we are confused about is not the truth itself but our own man-made
language. What we actually experience won’t change without language definitions, so why do we
bother considering the meaning of the words? Just pay attention to looking for the truth.
Churchland then mentions another problem called “p-zombies”. We could imagine some
kind of creature is all identical to us, but doesn’t have inner life. It doesn’t have consciousness or
feeling or desire, but act exactly like us. We are not able to prove the nonexistence of it, so since we
can imagine that the mind and body are separate things, they should be separable (58).
Not likely, I think. The “philosophical zombie (p-zombie)” argument involves the same
problem with the introspection argument: we overestimated our sense ability. The reason why we
imagine that the mind and body are separate things is because we are not yet able to discover
everything hiding in our brain. We once even thought the consciousness is generated from the heart
and eventually proved it was wrong, didn’t we? We should admit our science limitation instead of
filling the blank with our own imagination.
Or we could suppose that “p-zombie” does exist. It would means that there is a certain
creature who doesn’t have consciousness or feeling or desire but acts as if it does have
consciousness and feeling and desire exactly like us. Then here comes the question. What makes the
creature behave what we behave without the same neural firing? Some voices tell it to? Or there’s
no reason? The question is just like asking whether we are a dream of the god or not. It’s
undebatable since there will never be an answer to it.
Those ideas lead me to believe the validity of the identity theory. Since the physical states
play the major role in producing our mind, we shall simply look at the nervous system and brain.
However, as the cognitive/computational approach claims, a better way to study the mind is
to find the causal relations between inputs and outputs and “there are infinitely many different
computational procedures that will produce exactly that relation” (148). Functionalism supports the
method in claiming that there are many other mental status between any input and output (63). For
example, we receive a painful input, then other mental states tell us to avoid it, then we output
The problem with the method is that we cannot go in depth to other mental states without
understanding physical structures of the brain. For example, what is the nature of the mental states
“avoiding dislike’? It’s still because of certain neuron system firing.
The methodological approach is better than the cognitive/computational approach as it is
digging in more depth about our mind. Human mind is nothing more than material, the only reason
why it appears to be complicated is its ability to do reflection upon itself, which the reflection
ability is still based on physical states of the brain.
But we still have to admit that any one of the two methods cannot live without the other. We
are not going to understand any mental states with ignoring biological causes and we won’t have
clue to explore physical states without a guiding picture of the computational approach. The two
methods will surely end up meeting.

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