Special Issues of Theory & Psychology and Synthese

Our research project “Cognitive science in search of unity” led to the publication of two special issues of peer-reviewed journals. We are happy to announce that recently we fulfilled this goal. The special issues are ready. First of them, entitled “Mechanisms in psychology: The road towards unity?” is out in Theory & Psychology, while the second, called “Explanations in cognitive science: Unification vs pluralism”, was just published in Synthese.

The focus of the special issue of Theory & Psychology, edited by Marcin Miłkowski, Mateusz Hohol and Przemysław Nowakowski (2019), is on explanatory mechanisms in psychology, especially on problems of particular prominence for psychological science such as theoretical integration and unification. Proponents of the framework of mechanistic explanation claim, in short, that satisfactory explanations in psychology and related fields are causal. They stress the importance of explaining phenomena by describing mechanisms that are responsible for them, in particular by elucidating how the organization of component parts and operations in mechanisms gives rise to phenomena in certain conditions. The purpose of this special issue, broadly construed, was to solicit original papers from defenders and opponents of mechanistic explanation and theorists of psychology and neuroscience who address problems of special prominence for the psychological community.

The special issue of Theory and Psychology opens with an introductory paper where we (i.e., Marcin Miłkowski, Mateusz Hohol and Przemysław Nowakowski) introduce the concept of mechanism and explore what psychology gains from mechanistic explanation. In the following paper, Eric Hochstein (University of Victoria) provocatively claims that an experimenter interested in cognitive mechanisms should be a good metaphysician. His contribution is entitled “How metaphysical commitments shape the study of psychological mechanisms”. In the next paper, entitled “Phenomenology and mechanisms of consciousness: Considering the theoretical integration of phenomenology with a mechanistic framework” Marek Pokropski (University of Warsaw) claims that phenomenological analysis can supply descriptions of phenomena that are explained mechanistically analogically to traditional functional analysis. William Bechtel (University of California San Diego) is an author of the following paper called “Resituating cognitive mechanisms within heterarchical networks controlling physiology and behavior”. The author proposes that a primary function of cognition is not building highly adequate representations of the surrounding world on the basis of sensory input, but providing the organism with behavioral control. In the next paper, entitled “Model-based cognitive neuroscience: Multifield mechanistic integration in practice” Mark Povich (Washington University, St. Louis) points to a framework that integrates two levels of cognition, namely, the computational/algorithmic (traditionally accounted by cognitive psychology) and the implementational one (primarily investigated by neuroscience). Next, Paweł Gładziejewski (Nicolaus Copernicus University) explores the issue of explanatory unification of cognition under the free energy principle (FEP). In a paper “Mechanistic unity of the predictive mind”, the author claims that the FEP delivers only (contrary to some proponents of this perspective) a functional sketch or schema, which may be implemented by many distinct neural mechanisms. In the subsequent contribution, Sabrina Golonka and Andrew D. Wilson (Leeds Beckett University) deal with “Ecological mechanisms in cognitive science”. Their main message is that a neo-Gibsonian framework of action and perception can be reconciled with mechanistic analyses. The two papers that conclude the issue are more skeptical about the prospects of mechanistic explanation of the mental. In the first, Matteo Colombo (Tilburg University) and Andreas Heinz (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) explore conceptual problems of psychiatry. In their paper “Explanatory integration, computational phenotypes, and dimensional psychiatry: The case of alcohol use disorder”, the authors propose elucidating mental maladies by taking into account clinically relevant properties of a computational phenotype, such as the tension between model-based and model-free control. Finally, Lawrence Shapiro (University of Wisconsin–Madison)  is sketching “A tale of two explanatory styles in cognitive psychology”. He claims that although the new mechanism delivers a vital strategy of explanation in psychology, it does not mean that traditional functional analysis is redundant and thus should be completely rejected in the field. We believe that the above summarized papers provide a crucial update to the theory of mechanistic organization and unification, a number of new applications and extensions, and critical views of mechanistic explanation. 

The special issue of Synthese (2021), edited by Marcin Miłkowski and Mateusz Hohol, is a contribution to the debate between the defenders of explanatory unification and explanatory pluralism, that has been ongoing from the beginning of cognitive science and is one of the central themes of its philosophy. The debate is focused on the following questions: Does cognitive science need a grand unifying theory? Should explanatory pluralism be embraced instead? Or maybe local integrative efforts are needed? What are the advantages of explanatory unification as compared to the benefits of explanatory pluralism? 

The special issue of Synthese opens with an introductory paper, where we (i.e., Marcin Miłkowski and Mateusz Hohol) discuss the background of the above questions, distinguishing integrative theorizing from building unified theories. We also show that unification in contemporary cognitive science goes beyond reductive unity, and may involve various forms of joint efforts and division of explanatory labor. The following two papers explore computational and mechanistic modes of explanation in cognitive (neuro)science. In a paper entitled “The methodological role of mechanistic-computational models in cognitive science”, Jens Harbecke (Witten/Herdecke University, Witten, Germany) claims that a satisfactory explanatory model of a cognitive architecture should integrate phenomena at all the levels (in the mechanistic sense), accounting simultaneously for computational processes involved in the relevant component parts. Then, Lotem Elber-Dorozko and Oron Shagrir (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) draw from the reinforcement learning phenomenon to explore the problem of “Integrating computation into the mechanistic hierarchy in the cognitive and neural sciences”. The next paper is entitled “Representational unification in cognitive science: Is embodied cognition a unifying perspective?”. Its authors, Marcin Miłkowski and Przemysław Nowakowski (IPS PAS), claim that even if embodied cognition fails as a proposal of the grand unification of cognitive science, it shows that unification constitutes a notable virtue of research traditions in the Laudan’s sense. Next three papers explore the dynamical approach to cognitive processes. In the first of them, called “Appraisal of certain methodologies in cognitive science based on Lakatos’s methodology of scientific research programmes”, Haydar Oğuz Erdin (Bogazici University) reveals shortcomings in Chemero’s non-representationalism. To counterbalance, the next paper, “Resonance and radical embodiment” by Vicente Raja (University of Antwerpen), is enthusiastic about the dynamical explanation. Raja claims that the unification power of the resonance-based framework is evidenced by bridging theories of behavioral dynamics and neural reuse. Next paper, called “Make up your mind: octopus cognition and hybrid explanations” by Sidney Carls-Diamante (Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research), shows that some cognitive phenomena require the use of distinct explanatory accounts, wherein some parts/operations within a mechanism are described dynamically, while others are described in a representational way. As editors, we are proud that this paper received the Werner Callebaut Prize from the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology. The penultimate paper investigates innateness, that is one of the unifying general principles in a number of cognitive explanations. More precisely, J. Brendan Ritchie (KU Leuven) undertakes a defense of the frequently challenged notion of nativism, which identifies inborn cognitive skills with “not learned” ones. The paper is entitled “What’s wrong with the minimal conception of innateness in cognitive science?”. The final contribution, “Linguistics and the explanatory economy” by Gabe Dupre (University of California Los Angeles), focuses on generative linguistics. The author shows that in cognitive science, some theories could be considered complementary, and that they should not be overgeneralized. 

We hope that these papers contribute to a deeper understanding of the importance of unification and pluralism in cognitive science. The issue of whether unification is to be preferred over integration is far from settled. Nonetheless, as papers in this special issue also attest, unification does not boil down to reductive explanation. At the same time, the way unification or coordination is approached depends, obviously, on the general framework that one adopts in understanding satisfactory explanations.

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