Friday 24 June 2016

Mechanisms for Cognitive and Behavioural Science (#MechanismWeek 5)

This week we have reviewed what a mechanism is, various ways to model mechanisms, and talked about the kinds of functional and dynamical models cognitive science currently relies on. We then rejected the argument that cognitive science cannot have causal mechanistic models that refer to real parts and processes. We claim that if we ground our models at the ecological level of perceptual information, a truly mechanistic analysis is possible, and we walked through a causal mechanistic model of a perception-action task as proof of concept for our claims. Sabrina then presented these ideas this week at a mechanism conference in Warsaw to an audience that included Bechtel and Craver (with great success, hurray! :)

The message we want you to go home with after #MechanismWeek is this:

Despite the fact that psychology has been trucking on very-nicely-thank-you developing various kinds of functional models, these remain extremely limited in their explanatory scope and they are not moving us towards explanatory mechanistic models. We have demonstrated that explanatory, causal mechanistic modelling of cognitive and behavioural systems is possible, so long as that analysis is grounded at the level of ecological information. These models are powerful scientific tools for exploring and understanding the behaviour of systems, and if we can get them, we should definitely be trying to. 

The research programme for getting mechanistic models is that laid out in Bechtel & Abrahamsen (2010) who used the development of mechanistic models of circadian rhythms as an exemplar for cognitive science. That programme involves spending time empirically decomposing and localising the real parts and processes of that actual mechanism. This requires going into the mechanism at a useful level of analysis; if you are struggling to find real parts and processes, you might be working at the wrong level. Only once you know the composition and organisation of the mechanism do you try to model it, typically using dynamical equations containing terms serving as representations of each component, placed in the appropriate relation to one another.

We have risen to their challenge by identifying the ecological level of analysis as the correct place to ground our work, and by identifying a cognitive science model that parallels the biological exemplar. It is our hope that this work will help others move in the direction of mechanistic research and modelling in the cognitive and behavioural sciences, so that we all gain the many benefits of causal mechanistic explanations.

This work will form the centre piece of a large scale paper we are currently writing. We've posted this part of the work on the blog in part to stake a claim to this analysis, but also to try and garner useful feedback from interested parties. If you have questions, comments or feedback, please contact us by commenting on any relevant post (we'll see it, even if it's on an older post), emailing us or finding us on Twitter

Thanks for reading along with us! We hope you enjoyed #MechanismWeek :)

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