I have studied neither philosophy nor cognitive science in an academic capacity.

When answering this question here, a comment was made that perhaps my answer was better suited for Cognitive Science SE. I really just want to make sure I interpret and answer questions in the appropriate way.

I need: a bit of help understanding where to draw the line between the two, and a more in-depth answer than these easily found definitions below that lead me to believe they are not mutually exclusive:

Philosophy - the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

Cognitive Science - the study of thought, learning, and mental organization, which draws on aspects of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer modeling.

  • I think it boils down to the difference between science in general and philosophy. In my admittedly amateur framework, science is focused on explanations and some form of observation is required to support those explanations, while philosophy isn't nearly so constrained. For instance philosophy can be used to determine "meaning", and philosophy is less reliant on observation, or at least observation isn't a principle of of philosophy. I love to hear more knowledgable views on this.
    – obelia
    Apr 14 '14 at 19:22

Looking at the question, I agree with the commentator on that point and in general about that question. Probably, a good way to see how is to recognize what philosophy (as the term is now used) is not but cognitive science is. Philosophy (exempting a group that does "experimental philosophy") is not an empirical science. While it was true, in say the era of Francis Bacon, we no longer ask philosophers to answer the empirical part of a question.

e.g., how much does the sun weigh? (actually a flawed question)


at what age do children start using abstract concepts?


what is the maximum possible number of things you can memorize in a day?

Cognitive science might have something to say on the last two and do some brain scans. It may then offer some philosophical (and therefore contestable) interpretations of what those scans and results mean.

So for instance, there are those Harvard brain scans about how people react to racialized language. The empirical part is the delay that is calculated. The philosphical part is what we make of it. The empirical part cannot decide whether people's delays represent a moral problem or even necessarily that they have a bias. So I for instance am not convinced that the studies mean what some of the authors want us to think they mean. I don't dispute what people do in the studies.

To give another example, some studies have shown that people's brains are already decided before they say they've reached a decision. Fair enough. The interpretation that this means that we don't make decisions and morality is bunk is however open to dispute and not really resolvable unless a more dramatic experiment takes place.

To simplify, cognitive scientists often try to do both the empirical science and the interpretative business. Philosophers needn't interrupt the experiments (unless the goal is to ask about the nature of science itself), but they needn't accept the conclusions drawn from interpreting.

  • 1
    So is it fair to say that to keep things philosophical, I should avoid simplifying the problem to something concrete and instead focus on the concept in an abstract sense. So for example in the link to the question in my OP regarding learning of mathematics without sensory input; focusing conceptually on what it 'means' to learn mathematics in an abstract sense and avoiding any reference to physical things would keep it more philosophical? More like discussing thoughts about 'thought' itself?... am I on the right track?
    – Cynapse
    Apr 14 '14 at 13:41
  • 1
    I wouldn't construe it as to "avoid simplifying the problem" as that problematically begs several questions. I would say recognize the difference between an empirically resolvable question and one that requires us to interpret the data. If the questioner wants a cog sci. answer, they should ask in cog sci. If they want to deal with the competing interpretations, they should ask it here. Nor would I say philosophy involves "avoiding any reference to physical things." Rather, it refers to the questions about what the physical means.
    – virmaior
    Apr 14 '14 at 14:15

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