Dissertation, University of Cincinnati (2015)

Luis H. Favela
University of Central Florida
Mechanistic frameworks of investigation and explanation dominate the cognitive, neural, and psychological sciences. In this dissertation, I argue that mechanistic frameworks cannot, in principle, explain some kinds of cognition. In its place, I argue that complexity science has methods and theories more appropriate for investigating and explaining some cognitive phenomena. I begin with an examination of the term 'cognition.' I defend the idea that "cognition" has been a moving target of investigation in the relevant sciences. As such it is not historically true that there has been a thoroughly entrenched and agreed upon conception of "cognition." Next, I take up mechanistic frameworks. Although 'mechanism' is an umbrella term for a set of loosely related characteristics, there are common features: linearity, localization, and component dominance. I then describe complexity science, with emphasis on its utilization of dynamical systems modeling. Next, I discuss two phenomena that typically fall under the purview of complexity science: nonlinearity and interaction dominance. A complexity science framework guided by the theory of self-organized criticality and utilizing the methods of dynamical systems modeling can surmount a number of challenges that face mechanistic frameworks when investigating some kinds of cognition. The first challenge is epistemic and concerns the inadequacy of mechanistic frameworks to facilitate the comprehensibility of massive amounts of data across various scales and areas of inquiry. I argue that complexity science is more appropriate for making big data comprehensible when investigating cognition, particularly across disciplines. I demonstrate this via an approach called nested dynamical modeling (NDM). NDM can facilitate comprehensibility of large amounts of data obtained from various scales of investigation by eliminating irrelevant degrees of freedom of that system as relates to the target of investigation. The second shortcoming concerns ontological blind spots within mechanistic frameworks. Cognitive phenomena like extended cognition often fail to meet most, if not all, of the criteria assumed by many mechanistic approaches, especially component dominance. I argue that research guided by the notion of interaction dominance allows for extended cognition to be a real, empirically supported phenomenon within complex systems frameworks. In this chapter I discuss some of my experimental work on extended cognitive systems. The search for mechanisms can be a reasonable starting position when attempting to explain natural phenomena in the life sciences. However, too strict of an adherence to theoretical and methodological commitments such as linearity, localization, and component dominance can result in intractable epistemic challenges and ontological blind spots. Complexity science has theories and methods to overcome such challenges in the investigation of cognition.
Keywords Cognition  Complexity Science  Mechanistic Explanation  Dynamical Systems Theory  Nonlinear Dynamics  Modeling
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