Ecological-enactive scientific cognition: modeling and material engagement

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1:1-19 (2020)
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Abstract

Ecological-enactive approaches to cognition aim to explain cognition in terms of the dynamic coupling between agent and environment. Accordingly, cognition of one’s immediate environment (which is sometimes labeled “basic” cognition) depends on enaction and the picking up of affordances. However, ecological-enactive views supposedly fail to account for what is sometimes called “higher” cognition, i.e., cognition about potentially absent targets, which therefore can only be explained by postulating representational content. This challenge levelled against ecological-enactive approaches highlights a putative explanatory gap between basic and higher cognition. In this paper, we examine scientific cognition—a paradigmatic case of higher cognition—and argue that it shares fundamental features with basic cognition, for enaction and affordance selection are central to the scientific enterprise. Our argument focuses on modeling, and on how models promote scientific understanding. We base our argument on a non-representational account of scientific understanding and on the material engagement theory, for models are hereby conceived as material objects designed for scientific engagements. Having done so, we conclude that the explanatory gap is significantly less threatening to the ecological-enactive approach than it might appear.

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Giovanni Rolla
Universidade Federal da Bahia

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