The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that the postulation of irreducible, distributed cognitive systems (or group minds as they are also known in the literature) is necessary for the successful explanatory practice of cognitive science and sociology. Towards this end, and with an eye specifically on the phenomenon of distributed cognition, the debate over reductionism versus emergence is examined from the perspective of Dynamical Systems Theory (DST). The motivation for this novel approach is threefold. Firstly, DST is particularly popular amongst cognitive scientists who work on modelling collective behaviors. Secondly, DST can deliver two distinct arguments in support of the claim that the presence of mutual interactions between group members necessitates the postulation of the corresponding group entity. Thirdly, DST can also provide a succinct understanding of the way group entities exert downward causation on their individual members. The outcome is a naturalist account of the emergent, and thereby irreducible, nature of distributed cognitive systems that avoids the reductionists’ threat of epiphenomenalism, while being well in line with materialism.
KeywordsDistributed cognition Dynamical Systems Theory Emergence Downward causation
I am thankful to Adam Carter for comments on an early draft of the paper. I am also thankful to two anonymous referees for Minds and Machines. This paper was produced as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Extended Knowledge’ research project (AH/J011908/1), which was hosted at Edinburgh’s Eidyn Research Centre.
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