The evolution of human cognition and neuroscience: A dialogue between scientists and humanists

Séminaire FSER organisé par Alan M. Smith et Nancy van Deusen du 15 au 22 mai 2006

A dialogue between scientists and humanists about the evolution of human cognition and neuroscience


Joseph Agassi, John Allman, John Bickle, Andy Blunden, Michael Cole, Merlin Donald, Thais Donald, Yves Fregnac, Marc Jeannerod, Raymond Kesner, Katherine Nelson, Steven P R Rose, John Searle, Wolf Singer, Alan M. Smith, Nancy van Deusen, Gerhard Werner.


Presently there is a growing awareness by leaders in the neuroscience community that we are on the threshold of major breakthroughs in the field which will not only transform neuroscience itself, but also transform our understanding of ourselves. This is particularly evident in the field of learning and memory where experimental results are beginning to yield an understanding of cellular and molecular mechanisms which may soon be able to explain such phenomena as memory and cognition in biological terms. However, both human memory and human cognition are a product of psychological, social and historical-cultural activity as well. Thus, we have initiated an interdisciplinary dialogue between thinkers in these different fields at Les Treilles.

This first interdisciplinary conference on cognition brought together four primary disciplines: Neuroscientists including electrophysiologists, biochemists molecular biologists, and animal behaviorists; Psychologists; Social Scientists; and Philosophers. Throughout the conference an atmosphere of conviviality was present which made possible an open exchange of ideas and interpretation of knowledge from the frontiers of many disciplines. The good will on the part of all participants meant, that in both the formal presentations as well as the informal discussion which took place throughout the day and in most cases into the evening, was in large part responsible for the success of this conference. For example, on the evening of the first full day of the conference a general meeting was held to discuss just what we all hoped would come out of our conference. Several themes were suggested: the concept of the extended mind and the idea that cognition needed to be explained in terms of a bio-social-cultural framework while others envisioned a more biological framework. This special meeting was valuable because it provided everyone with an appreciation of the different perspectives represented at the conference. Several participants modified their presentation as a result.

The presentations of the Neuroscientists included: Dr. Steven Rose, “Why the mind is wider than the brain” presented an overview of his work in learning and memory at the cellular and molecular levels and why it must be integrated into a more humanistic framework. Also, he referred to his book on lifeline principles which taken together view reality as a process of being and becoming so that the past is key to understanding the present; Dr. John Bickle, “Ruthless reductionism in recent neuroscience” gave an account of the most recent cellular and molecular techniques based upon gene knock-out experiments in mice to study the molecular levels of learning and memory in mice. He further argued that such an approach would eventually yield the best scientific explanation of cognition; Dr. Ray Kesner, “Does the hippocampus play a critical role in mediating conscious awareness?” presented recent finding from his laboratory which supports his hypothesis that the hippocampus is not just involved in memory formation, but also is critical for mediating conscious awareness; Dr. Wolf Singer, “Philosophical implications of cognitive neuroscience” gave a compelling presentation which argued that perception is a reconstruction and interpretation based on a prior knowledge stored in the functional architecture of the brain and therefore cognitive neuroscience can contribute to several classical philosophical questions. e.g., epistemology, the mind/body problem and free will; Dr. Yves Fregnac, “The sensory receptive field concept: attempts and failures to map function onto neural structures” presented recent findings from his laboratory and discussed the dynamic electrophysiological properties of the brain and theoretical models to map brain function on to these recent experimental findings. One model presented was that synchronous entrainment of oscillations may underlie important brain function; Dr. Gerhard Werner, “Oscillations, metastability and phase transitions in the brain and its models” presented evidence for a Dynamical Systems Theory for brain events in cognition based upon a functional realism for the interpretation of phase transitions in terms of models of statistical mechanics.

The presentations in Psychology included: Dr. Marc Jeannerod, “Being oneself: Neuroscience of the self” presented both experimental evidence and theoretical arguments for a network of motor action stimulation that includes both momentary perception and a theory of mind. His model thus accounts for “Self” as the representation of observed action and self-produced representations of contemplated action in the brains of interacting agents; Dr. John Allman, “The neurobiology of intuition” presented evidence for a variety of mechanisms in the brain, primarily biochemical, e.g. dopamine, that have evolved under natural selection to make possible emotions, social interactions, and intuition or “gut feelings” making possible complex social behavior between conspecifics; Dr. Katherine Nelson, “Towards a new theory of human cognition: what can developmental psychology contribute?” using a dynamic systems approach outlined a bio-social-cultural theory of systems interacting in space and time to account for cognitive development starting with early infant as shaped by cultural (especially social and symbolic interactions) and neural processes. Most importantly she argued that social practice needs to be seen as mediating culture and consciousness in the individual.

Presentations in the Social Sciences included: Dr. Merlin Donald, ”Human nature, redefined in terms of cognitive evolution” presented his thesis that Homo sapiens need to be viewed as a hybrid species dependent upon both biological and cultural evolution and their integration in time and that the transition from the animal world to the human world was made possible by the creation simultaneously of a mimetic culture and mimetic mind; Dr. Michael Cole, “Culture and cognitive development in a phylogenetic, historical and ontogenetic perspective” also stressed the hybrid nature of human nature formed by biological and culture evolution while specifically including data on stabilized images on the retina to demonstrate that human consciousness is the result of shared activity mediated by artefacts and other individuals and eventually by specially symbolic systems.

Finally, presentations in Philosophy and the Humanities included: Dr. Mario Bunge, “Blushing and philosophy” unable to attend the conference Dr. Bunge did submit a paper which was read and discussed by all participants and a discussion was led by Dr. Agassi. In his paper Mario Bunge argued that contemporary philosophers to be relevant must be informed by the content of neuroscience as well as other sciences. Only the relevant sciences are able to provide the necessary knowledge to develop a psychoneural monism for cognition and consciousness. As an example of important neuroscience for philosophers he referred to the factually based hypothesis of Dehaene and Changeux’s: the “global workspace” in the brain; Dr. John Searle, “Dualism revisited” in which he argued that both dualism and monism have something to offer us and reminded us that it was only relatively recently that most scientists began to consider the question of how neurobiological processes, neural correlates, cause consciousness in the brain. Significantly he pointed out that every conscious state is subjective, are Quale, and are at the same time ontologically objective; Dr. Joseph Agassi, “Changing features of the mind/body problem” presented a philosophical framework starting with Cartesian dualism and coming down to the twentieth century showing how philosophical views of the mind/body problem have changed with the rise of modern biology and the introduction of systems theory; Dr. Alan Smith, “Cognition as the integration of bio-social-cultural processes in the individual which processes in turn are historically constituted” presented a logical analysis of concept of identity arguing that by redefining logical identity as a unity of self-opposition for developing processes, a more powerful intellectual tool (genetic logic) can be created for ordering the multiplicity of processes productive of human cognition as a complex of bio-social-cultural processes which have evolved in temporal and spatial structured material systems; Dr. Nancy Vandeusen, “The body as instrument: past and present metaphors for the mind/body” presented a philosophical discussion on the mind/body problem starting with Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Augustine coming down to the present and discussed the role of metaphor in this tradition as portrayed in Western art and music; Dr. Andy Bluden, “The subject of social justice” argued for the uniqueness of human consciousness as subjectivity in evolution and that only such a characterization of consciousness is able to provide both an ethical and scientific understanding of human consciousness. Dr. Alcino Silva was unable to attend the conference and his paper arrived too late for a discussion.

Before our conference was held one may very well have asked why do we need an interdisciplinary approach to the problems of cognition and knowledge. Haven’t we made remarkable progress in the past few centuries by emphasizing specialization and reductionism as a methodology for advancing knowledge? There is no gainsaying the fact that these approaches have yielded enormous progress in expanding our factual knowledge and that they will continue to do so in the future. However, it is the very success of this methodology which has necessitated an interdisciplinary approach based on the ontological assumptions of modern science that the world is made of interconnected and interacting developing and evolving material systems. Specialization and a reductionist approach is necessary as a methodology for gaining new facts, but it is not sufficient in creating a theoretical framework to interpret and explain these facts, especially when the problem of cognition and knowledge cuts across many disciplines. i.e, neuroscience, psychology, the social sciences, and the humanities in general. Our conference in May of 2006, clearly demonstrated that our assumption about the need for an interdisciplinary conference was warranted given the overwhelming response to invitations. More importantly we were able to make substantially progress in bringing outstanding scientists and philosophers together for a dialogue that has led to many future collaborations and a joint publication. A tentative theoretical framework did emerge during the conference based on dynamic systems theory and concepts coming from development and evolutionary biology and will be further developed in our publication. All participants found our conference extremely helpful for their respective disciplines and are convinced of the need to continue such interdisciplinary conferences in the future. We hope to hold a similar conference within two years.
During the first week of the conference publication of the conference was secured with the “Journal of Physiology of Paris” and will appear as a special issue in the beginning of 2007. Dr. Smith will be the principal guest editor for this publication along with Dr. Yves Fregnac as the chief editor of the journal.

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Fondation des Treilles (22 mai 2006). The evolution of human cognition and neuroscience: A dialogue between scientists and humanists. Les carnets de la Fondation des Treilles. Consulté le 25 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

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