Computation and Agency in Scientific Cognition

Abstract

I begin with a representative example of a contemporary scientific activity, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope, and ask what approaches within the cognitive sciences seem most fruitful as aids in developing an overall account of this sort of scientific activity. After presenting the Hubble Space Telescope System and a recent result, I consider applying a standard computational paradigm to this system. I find difficulties in identifying an appropriate cognitive agent and in making a suitable place for the instrumentation that constitutes such a large part of the whole system. I next consider applying the notion of distributed cognition as developed by Hutchins (1995), and then return to the question whether The Hubble System, understood as a distributed cognitive system, should be regarded as a computational system. I find a large computational component, but also an important part, the Hubble Telescope itself, that seems better characterized as a dynamic system than as a computational system. Moreover, the group of scientists interpreting the images produced by the system seem best thought of as a human/cultural system along the lines advocated by those developing a cognitive (Lakoff, 1987) or usage-based (Tomasello, 2003) approach to language acquisition and language use. I argue next that, while cognition may be theorized as distributed among both humans and instruments, there is no need to introduce into cognitive science a notion of distributed knowledge beyond simple collective knowledge. Even less is there any need to introduce notions of distributed mind or distributed consciousness. The result is that the agency involved in distributed cognitive systems remains simply human agency as ordinarily conceived. I conclude that distributed cognitive systems like The Hubble System are hybrid systems composed partly of dynamic physical systems, partly of computational systems, and partly of human cultural systems.

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Ronald Giere
Last affiliation: University of Minnesota

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