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Bayesian cognitive science

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q150-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2023
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

Bayesian cognitive science is a research programme that relies on modelling resources from Bayesian statistics for studying and understanding mind, brain, and behaviour. Conceiving of mental capacities as computing solutions to inductive problems, Bayesian cognitive scientists develop probabilistic models of mental capacities and evaluate their adequacy based on behavioural and neural data generated by humans (or other cognitive agents) performing a pertinent task. The overarching goal is to identify the mathematical principles, algorithmic procedures, and causal mechanisms that enable cognitive agents to take uncertainty into account and weigh it appropriately in producing adaptive behaviour.

The appeal of Bayesian cognitive science derives from its transparency, normativity, and unifying power. Resources from Bayesian statistics allow cognitive scientists to characterise transparently, in terms of random variables and probabilistic dependencies between them, the inductive problems that many mental capacities are presumed to solve. Given this characterisation, researchers can define an upper bound on one’s performance on that problem and use it as a benchmark for interpreting experimental results, formulating hypotheses about why and when deviations from optimal performance should be expected, and seeking explanations of mental capacities within one encompassing theoretical framework.

Although critics question the testability, explanatory power, and plausibility of Bayesian models of mental capacities, Bayesian cognitive science has proved itself to be an incredibly fruitful research programme. Fuelled by empirical and theoretical results from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, computer science, artificial intelligence, and evolution, Bayesian cognitive science has: advanced our understanding of why cognitive systems should keep track of uncertainty and use it to facilitate adaptive behaviour; clarified how the brain might encode information about the uncertainty of its stimuli and perform computations with probability distributions; and crystallised the insight that cognitive agents’ management of uncertainty might be grounded in predictive processes aimed at avoiding surprising exchanges with the environment.

Citing this article:
Colombo, Matteo. Bayesian cognitive science, 2023, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q150-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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