The Dynamics of Group Cognition

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    From a dialectical perspective, the term ‘Distributed Cognitive Systems’ should be preferred over ‘Group Minds’. The reason is the common objection that minds are usually associated with consciousness, whereas groups are unlikely to enjoy consciousness over and above the consciousness of their individual members. The force of this worry, however, is not clear enough. Firstly because group consciousness may in fact be possible, and secondly because, even if impossible, its absence may not be the difference that makes the difference: Not all parts of our brains are conscious after all; accordingly not all parts of groups may need to be conscious in order to qualify as minds (for example, it may be sufficient that some parts, such as their individual members, are conscious). Moreover, the above objection looses considerable ground if one is willing to take the possibility of philosophical zombies seriously: If philosophical zombies are possible, then consciousness does not seem to be necessary for mindedness (see also Tollefsen 2006, fn. 11, on this point). Nevertheless, following Theiner et al. (2010, p. 379), the term ‘distributed cognitive systems’ will be here preferred over the term ‘group minds’ for the reason that no one really knows what individual minds are, which makes the idea of group minds much harder to establish. On the contrary, there is a better grasp of what specific cognitive processes (such as memory, decision-making, problem-solving, knowing, etc.) consist in, such that, should there be collective entities that manifest these cognitive processes, then we can claim that the corresponding entities may at least qualify as distributed cognitive systems.

  2. 2.

    ‘Entirely novel’ behavior here means behavior which implies some sort of substance or property dualism that would be inconsistent with what Stephan (2006, 486) calls the principle of “Physical Monism: Entities existing or coming into being in the universe consist solely of physical constituents. Properties, dispositions, behaviors, or structures classified as emergent are instantiated by systems consisting exclusively of physical entities.” As Stephan points out, however, there are a number of other conceptions of novelty associated with emergence that are entirely compatible with Physical Monism.

  3. 3.

    The term ‘materialism’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘physicalism’, according to which all properties are, or supervene on, physical properties (for an overview, see Stoljar 2015). The term ‘physicalism’ is quite ambiguous, however, and, usually, it is very closely associated with the science of physics, thereby creating the mistaken impression that all properties are reducible to the properties recognized by the language of physics. As we shall see later on, such a reading of physicalism is problematic and largely responsible for the uncharitable and mistaken interpretation of many emergentist claims. Accordingly, it is here important to insist on the subtle distinction between material and physical properties—since the latter are only a subset of the former—as well as on the distinction between the corresponding views of ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’. For more details, see Sect. 4.

  4. 4.

    Though note that there have been several attempts to defend emergence from a broadly 'naturalistic' perspective. See, for example, Campbell (1974), Humphreys (Humphreys 1997a, b), Corradini and O'Connor (2010), O'Connor (1994), Wilson (2013), Wimsatt (1986, 2000) and Stephan (1999, 2006).

  5. 5.

    In what follows, the answers to the above set of questions will be specifically concerned with the phenomenon of distributed cognition so as to provide a naturalistic approach to the emergent status of group entities and group properties (i.e., the paper’s main target). Mutatis mutandis, however, the argument I present can be in principle applied to any case where emergence is invoked in order to understand the behavior of hierarchically organized multi-component entities.

  6. 6.

    Theiner and O’Connor (2010), Theiner et al. (2010) and Theiner (2013a) provide an account of group emergence in terms of (a) the absence of intelligent design, (b) the manifestation of multiple realizability and most importantly (c) a failure of aggregativity, in Wimsatt’s (Wimsatt 1986) sense. As Wimsatt (2000) himself acknowledges, however, the problem with his approach to emergence is that it is compatible with reductionism (and thereby does not exclude the threat of epiphenomenalism). For a further critique of the above approach to emergence, see Ludwig (2015). The present account is compatible with all of the above senses of emergence, but it goes further by focusing on DST in order to provide a naturalist understanding of downward causation that can clearly resist the reductionist critique of epiphenomenalism.

  7. 7.

    For a number of interesting treatments of ‘downward causation’ see Murphy et al. (2009).

  8. 8.

    For an excellent overview, see O’Connor and Wong (2012).

  9. 9.

    As Stephan (1999, 49–50) points out, irreducibility entails unpredictability “since irreducible properties are eo ipso unpredictable in principle before their first appearance.” Moreover, Stephan (52–53) notes that there can be two reasons for which a system might be irreducible: (a) Its behavior is neither micro- nor macro-scopically analyzable or (b) the behavior of its component parts does not follow from their behavior in isolation or in different constellations. The present account falls under the second version of irreducibility, which is stronger than the first, because it implies ‘downward causation’.

  10. 10.

    As noted above, however, it is preferable to avoid such categorization. The present account—whose distinctive feature is that it is motivated by DST—should be rather viewed as a complement to the available accounts of emergence and the choice to classify it under any of the existing categories should be left to the informed reader. It should also be noted that many of the ideas to follow appear to be in good fit with emergentist ideas expressed by Wilson (2013) and Craver and Bechtel (2007).

  11. 11.

    Even though this formulation of supervenience is uncharitable to arguments for emergence, we can use it here in order to consider the reductionist argument in its strongest form. In Sect. 4, we will return to the formulation of supervenience to show how it should be amended on the face of the arguments and analysis that follows in this and the following section.

  12. 12.

    For an overview on ‘multiple realizability’, see (Bickle 2013).

  13. 13.

    Other examples of multiply realized social (but not necessarily socio-cognitive) properties are being an ‘army officer’, ‘being allies’ and ‘go to war’ (for example, even ant colonies go to war: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/08/london-zoo-ants-1924). For more details and examples see Ruben (1985) and Tollefsen (2015).

  14. 14.

    For overviews on the notion of ‘downward causation’ see Campbell and Bickhard (2011) and Emmeche et al. (2000).

  15. 15.

    For a general introduction to Dynamical Systems Theory see (Abraham et al. 1990).

  16. 16.

    For ease of reference, Table 1 includes the definitions of most of the terms that figure in the discussion to follow. They are listed in the same order they appear in the main text (starting with the most basic terms and moving on to the more complex ones).

  17. 17.

    Craver and Bechtel (2007) make similar remarks in the context of a discussion on mechanisms and downward causation.

  18. 18.

    “Limit sets and basins of attraction may deform and move around a bit, but the new flow will be qualitatively similar (i.e., topologically equivalent, or homeomorphic) to the old one” (Beer 1995, p. 180).

  19. 19.

    In (Arrow et al. 2000), the authors go through several examples of how DST could be used to model the behavior and properties of groups in terms of collective variables. Some of the suggested examples include the quantity or rate of production of the group’s product; the quality of the group product; the temporal features of conflict, such as speed of escalation and de-escalation; the discrepancies between member behavior and shared normative expectations; the development of group task strategies; leadership structures; patterns of communication, and so on. For more examples and details, see pp. 134–137 and pp. 148–156.

  20. 20.

    An anonymous referee points out that, instead of outlining how cognitive science can employ the main concepts and techniques of DST in order to model the behaviour of distributed cognitive systems such as TMSs, it would be preferable to actually offer such a detailed model. While offering such a model would no doubt add to the plausibility of the paper’s overall argument, exploring and developing such a model is beyond both the scope of the present paper and the available space. The present paper aims to demonstrate that should DST be a promising tool for modelling distributed cognitive systems such as TMSs, then it is possible to provide a naturalistically respectable argument for the emergent, irreducible nature of distributed cognitive systems as well as a rigorous understanding of the downward causation that such collective systems exert on their individual members (for more details see Sects. 3.2, 3.3 and 4). Similarly, offering a successful DST model of a distributed cognitive system such as a TMS would add to the prospects of DST as a successful tool for modelling collective systems in general and distributed cognitive systems in particular. Nevertheless, as the above notes and many of the studies that are cited in the introduction of the paper indicate, there is a fast growing body of research (e.g., Raczaszek-Leonardi and Kelso 2008; Fusaroli et al. 2014a, b; Fusaroli and Tylén 2014, 2016; Tylén et al. 2013) that has already started employing DST concepts in order to model collective cognition and behaviour and, indeed, several of these studies (e.g., Schmidt et al. 1998; Coey et al. 2012; Schmidt and Richardson 2008; Duarte et al. 2013a, b; Richardson, Dale and March 2014) have been successful in providing considerably detailed DST models of collective phenomena such as sports team performance and rhythmic coordination. Within the literature, therefore, there is growing evidence attesting to the promise of DST as a successful tool for modeling the behavior of distributed systems such as TMSs, which, in addition to strengthening the present paper’s overall argument, offers strong incentive for carrying out future empirical studies in this exciting direction.

  21. 21.

    Rupert has pressed this objection against group cognition in a number of places (2005, forthcominga, forthcomingb).

  22. 22.

    Prominent ethnographers and philosophers of science would also provide the examples of several scientific research teams (Knorr-Cetina 1999; Nersessian 2006; Giere 2002a, b).

  23. 23.

    In other words, the underlying group includes as its proper parts the cognitive systems of all the interacting individuals. An anonymous referee notes that this raises the question of how the different, interacting levels of cognitive systems stand in relation to each other. Briefly, the behaviour of the distributed cognitive system supervenes on the behaviour of the underlying individuals’ cognitive systems. At the same time, the behaviour of the individuals’ cognitive systems is affected, via downward causation, by the activity of the distributed cognitive system they are parts of. For more details, see Sect. 4.

  24. 24.

    Theiner (forthcoming) distinguishes between several approaches to group cognition. ADC would fall under GC6, i.e., “the Dynamical Stance”.

  25. 25.

    Though note a significant difference: the Social Parity Principle holds that the relevant process is cognitive, because it would count as cognitive were it to be performed within the agent’s head. P3 of ADC does not put forward such an additional criterion regarding the locus of individual cognition. This is an advantage of ADC, because as Ludwig (2015) argues, this additional appeal to brain-bound cognition invites a number of problems.

  26. 26.

    For an overview of behaviorism, see Graham (2015).

  27. 27.

    For details on the debate on the ‘mark of the cognitive’, how it may be used against the hypotheses of extended and distributed cognition, and the considerable difficulty to come up with an unproblematic account for such a concept, see Clark (2010), Menary (2006), Adams and Aizawa (2001, 2008, 2010), Ross and Ladyman (2010) as well as Rupert (2011). On a different but related note, an anonymous referee points out that Huebner who supports, in Theiner’s (forthcoming) terminology, the “computational stance” to group cognition would not be satisfied by the appeal to attitudinal behaviorism. Huebner additionally requires that the relevant cognitive task be performed on the basis of collective mental representations. However, the general dynamicist approach to cognition and the “dynamical stance” to group cognition (Theiner forthcoming) that the present approach falls under (see also fn. 22) avoid appealing to the indeterminate notion of mental representations, let alone to collective mental representations [for an overview on the debate of mental representations, as well as their relation to the “computational” and “dynamical stance”, see (Pitt 2013)]. Appealing to mental representations therefore marks a fundamental methodological difference between the “dynamical” and the “computational stance” to cognition in general and group cognition in particular. As a side note, it is worth noting that cognitive scientists hardly ever appeal to the presence of mental representations in order to assert that a system qualifies as a cognitive system, precisely because there is no consensus (either within cognitive science or philosophy of mind) as to what mental representations are supposed to be.

  28. 28.

    The Social Parity Principle (Theiner et al. 2010; Theiner 2013a, b) puts forward essentially the same approach for recognising which group processes may count as cognitive.

  29. 29.

    For alternative discussions of the epiphenomenalist worry within the context of group cognition, see (Theiner & O’Connor 2010, sections 2.2.3 and 4.1) and (Huebner 2013, chapters 5–6).

  30. 30.

    This is not to say that all multiply realizable properties will lead to the postulation of higher-level entities. Following Fodor’s (1974, 1997) rationale, if there are only a few realizing states, or if those states display some common features, the reduction of the higher-level properties to lower-level ones may still be performed unproblematically. If, however, the several possible underlying bases of a higher level property are an otherwise unrelated combination of many underlying concepts and terms (as is the case of properties that are both multiply and wildly realizable), then postulating the higher-level systems will be necessary for the reason explained above. Conversely, not all properties of every dynamical system are going to be multiply realizable. Whether this is going to be the case or not will each time depend on how easy it is for the parameter space of the target system to exceed bifurcation points. When small changes in the parameter space of a system are likely to cause bifurcations in its state space, the system will be less likely to be multiply realizable.

  31. 31.

    An alternative way to put the idea is to express it in the following two steps: (a) individual-level properties and linear relations are necessary 'enabling' conditions; (b) once group level properties are in place, due to non-linear interactions between the individual members, they (group properties) can have distinct downward-causal effects on the individual members of the group.

  32. 32.

    It should be here noted that the above principle refers to local, rather than global supervenience. That is, the physical (biological and psychological) description of two group entities might be identical without them being sociologically identical. Nevertheless, if, in addition to their physical (biological and psychological) properties, two group entities also share the same sociological (yet still material) properties, they will also be sociologically identical. This is a form of local supervenience, because the sociological properties that determine whether the relevant group may qualify as a group entity in its own right are properties whose occurrence or absence depends only on the (non-linear) interactions of the components of the relevant group and no other external (global) factors constitutively affect their manifestation.

  33. 33.

    It is for this same reason that, in Sect. 1, it was important to draw the subtle distinction between ‘physicalism’ and ‘materialism’. The difference is that, according to materialsm, all properties are, or supervene on, material—as opposed to specifically physical—properties. See also fn. 3.

  34. 34.

    It is worth pointing out that the present approach to downward causation is not so different from Craver and Bechtel’s (2007) approach to top-down causation as constitution. Craver and Bechtel argue that top-down causation is the restraints of mechanisms on their component parts. In the absence of the parts, there would be no overall system to constrain their subsequent behavior. This means that there is a symmetrical relationship between parts and the mechanisms they give rise to. Craver and Bechtel further note, however, that causal relationships have been traditionally thought of as asymmetrical relations. Top-down causation, which is symmetrical, should therefore be understood in terms of constitution rather than in causal terms.

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Acknowledgments

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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Palermos, S.O. The Dynamics of Group Cognition. Minds & Machines 26, 409–440 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11023-016-9402-5

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Keywords

  • Distributed cognition
  • Dynamical Systems Theory
  • Emergence
  • Downward causation