psychology. There are no higher level patterns or processes to speak of. This is a very substantive methodological thesis—one which (if it were true) would have significant implications for how research time and money ought to be allocated.
Increasingly, it is also a thesis that is being rejected by mainstream cognitive science. In the decades since Pinker’s book was published, cognitive scientists have gradually come to recognize that neuronal firings, while surely central in determining the behavior of creatures like us, are far from the only things that matter. Rather, the neurons (and their accompanying chemical neurotransmitters, action potentials, &c.) function as one sub-system in a far more complicated web of interrelated interactions between the brain, the rest of the body, and various aspects of the external environment. While some cognitive mechanisms can be completely understood through the decompositionist approach, the higher-level cognition of complicated organisms embedded in dynamic environments (humans engaged in complex, conscious reasoning, for example) certainly cannot. The gradual relaxation of the demand that all cognitive science be amenable to something like this radically eliminative computational hypothesis has produced an explosion of theoretical insights. The appreciation of the importance of embodied cognition—that is, the importance of non-neurological parts of the body in shaping cognitive states—exemplifies this trend, as does the work of Andy Clark in exploring the “extended mind” hypothesis, in which environmental props can be thought of as genuine components of higher level cognitive processes.
- Simple reflex behavior like the snapping of carnivorous plants (as well as basic reflexes of human beings), for instance, can be understood as a very simple mechanism of this sort, where the overall behavior is just the result of individual constituent parts operating relatively independently of one another. See Moreno, Ruiz-Mirazo, & Barandiaran (2011) for more on this.
- See Clark (2001) and (2003)