Cognition in Science

Over the past two decades, historical and sociological studies have repeatedly shown the importance of scientists' engagement with the material dimension of scientific practice, including external representations, tools, and the physical layout of the laboratory (e.g. Collins 1992, Pickering 1995, Galison 1997).

And yet philosophical accounts typically assume these aspects of science to be incidental to scientific reasoning itself. While some philosophers have examined experimental practices (e.g. Hacking 1983) and visual representations (e.g. Giere 1999), most philosophical discussions assume scientific reasoning to be a matter of disembodied, logical inferences involving propositions (cf. Chang 2011).

These assumptions about scientific reasoning are challenged by recent developments within cognitive science. New situated approaches to cognition propose a radical transformation in our view of human reasoning in general, rejecting the idea that thinking is disembodied symbol processing (for an overview, see Robbins & Aydede 2009). Instead, these approaches--known variously as extended, embodied or distributed cognition--stress the importance of the interaction between the mind, body and external environment. Such work reveals that many cognitive tasks are not performed by internal thought processes alone, but instead rely on skilful exploitation of material representations, tools and the wider environment. In fact, according to the extended cognition thesis, the relationship between internal thought processes and external objects is sometimes so close that external objects become part of the cognitive process itself (Clark & Chalmers 1998).

Work on situated cognition suggests that, far from playing a merely peripheral role, the material dimension of science may be an integral part of scientists' cognitive processes. This project will use detailed ethnographical studies to examine scientists' interactions with the material culture of the laboratory, asking whether these interactions provide grounds for the claim that scientific practice involves extended cognitive processes. It will then consider some of the profound implications that such a claim would have for philosophy of science.


Project team: 

Principal Investigator (Egenis - The Centre for the Study of Life Sciences - University of Exeter): Dr Adam Toon

Co-Investigator: Prof John Dupré

Project duration: 
3 years
Funded by a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship (c. €235K)