Physical models and embodied cognition

Synthese 197 (10):4387-4405 (2018)
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Philosophers have recently paid more attention to the physical aspects of scientific models. The attention is motivated by the prospect that a model’s physical features strongly affect its use and that this suggests re-thinking modelling in terms of extended or distributed cognition. This paper investigates two ways in which physical features of scientific models affect their use and it asks whether modelling is an instance of extended cognition. I approach these topics with a historical case study, in which scientists kept records not only of their findings, but also of some the mental operations that generated the findings. The case study shows how scientists can employ a physical model as an external information store, which allows alternating between mental manipulations, recording the outcome externally, and then feeding the outcome back into subsequent mental manipulations. The case study also demonstrates that a models’ physical nature allows replacing explicit reasoning with visuospatial manipulations. I argue, furthermore, that physical modelling does not need to exemplify a strong kind of extended cognition, the sort for which external features are mereological parts of cognition. It can exemplify a weaker kind, instead.



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Ulrich Stegmann
University of Aberdeen

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Scientific modelling with diagrams.Ulrich E. Stegmann - 2019 - Synthese 198 (3):2675-2694.

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