Foundations Of Cognitive Science


Materialism is a philosophical counter-position to Cartesian dualism.  According to dualism, the mind is made of different “stuff” from the objects that make up the physical world, including the body.  Materialism rejects this view, and argues instead that mind is the result of physical processes.  In its most succinct modern form, materialists believe that the mind is caused by the brain (e.g. Searle, 1984).

Materialism is a position that is held by almost every modern cognitive scientist.  That this is true of modern classical cognitive scientists is interesting, because many of the foundational ideas of classical cognitive science have links to Cartesian philosophy.  Why was dualism abandoned by classical cognitive science?  One reason was that 19th and 20th century advances in mathematics, logic, and computer science permitted materialist accounts of phenomena that, in Descartes’ day, were used to support dualism.  One of these is the creative aspect of language (Chomsky, 1965, 1966) – the fact that language has the potential to express an infinite variety of ideas.  Descartes (1641) uses this property to argue that machines and animals could not have true language, because they were finite systems, and therefore incapable of infinite expression.  Modern advances in computation (e.g.Turing, 1936) demonstrated that finite systems – in particular, symbol manipulators capable of recursion – could indeed produce infinite variety.


  1. Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects Of The Theory Of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Chomsky, N. (1966). Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter In The History Of Rationalist Thought ([1st ed.). New York,: Harper & Row.
  3. Descartes, R. (1641/1996). Meditations On First Philosophy (Rev. ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Searle, J. R. (1984). Minds, Brains And Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Turing, A. M. (1936). On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Series 2h, 42, 230-265.

(Added September 2010)