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Book Review - The Cognitive Basis of Science
The Cognitive Basis of Science
by Peter Carruthers, Stephen Stich and Michael Siegal (editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review by Lisa Bortolotti
Oct 9th 2002

In this valuable collection the authors are concerned with the aspects of human psychology that make scientific enquiry possible. Given a broad construal of science, to include technical innovations and experimental method, the question is: What is it about the mind, its architecture, its development and its cognitive processes, that promotes scientific thinking? The attempt to provide an answer to this question is a cooperative enterprise that involves psychologists, biologists, philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists. The result of this first step towards the specification of the cognitive basis of science will be of great interest to anyone who is fascinated by the intellectual achievements of the human mind.

The collection is composed of four thematic sections. Part 1 is dedicated to innateness, and more specifically to the question whether scientific reasoning has an innate basis. The contributors are Carruthers, Mithen and Atran. Part 2 is concerned with aspects of contemporary scientific cognition in adults and children, and includes papers by Valley, Gopnik & Glymour, Nersessian, Dunbar, Koslowski & Thompson, Evans and Hilton. In Part 3, three authors, Thagard, Hookway and Kitcher, discuss the role of emotions in the making of science. Part 4 explores the social dimension of science. The contributors are Giere, Siegal, Harris and Faucher et al. In order to offer an idea of the kind of issues discussed, and the variety of problems that scientific reasoning poses, I shall briefly present here the main argument of four very thought-provoking papers, one for each thematic part of the collection.

In "The Roots of Scientific Reasoning" (Part 1, pp.73-95), Peter Carruthers argues for the continuity of cognitive processes before and after the emergence of experimental science. The paper starts with the observation that the development of science is relatively recent (it has come about in the last five centuries). On the basis of this observation one might suggest that the emergence of science is due to a change in cognitive processes rather than a change in socio-economic factors. Carruthers does not think that this is the case and defends the continuity thesis, that is, the idea that "there is a fundamental continuity between the cognitive processes of scientists and those living in pre-scientific cultures" (p.74). In order to defend this thesis, Carruthers explores differences and similarities between the activities of scientists and of hunters-gatherers. He comes to the conclusion that, while there are many radical differences in belief between the two cultures, the same cognitive processes underpin the activities of both scientists and hunters-gatherers. The shared activity is the provision of theories for the explanation of events and regularities in nature, where a good theory is characterised by accuracy, simplicity, consistency, coherence, fruitfulness and explanatory scope. According to Carruthers, the tracking made by hunters-gatherers involves the provision of a theory for the purposes of explanation. Research in this direction can have important repercussions on the innateness debate.

In "The Influence of Prior Belief on Scientific Thinking" (Part 2, pp.193-210), Jonathan Evans attempts to account for an apparently perplexing phenomenon. In order to test hypotheses and interpret evidence, scientists need to be able to reason hypothetically and deductively. But when psychologists devise experiments to test whether subjects (typically university students, but also professionals and experts) can solve reasoning tasks, the results show that the subjects suffer from systematic biases. How can our success in the real world and our poor performance in experimental situations be reconciled? Evans suggests that the reason why our performances in experimental situations are so discouraging is that the tasks often are very abstract and in order to offer the right solution to them, subjects need to prescind from a context and ignore prior beliefs and experience. But human reasoning is much more efficacious when background knowledge can be used to improve the performance, like in real life tasks. As evidence for his hypothesis, Evans reports some very interesting experimental results about the confirmation bias (the tendency to seek confirmatory evidence for our prior beliefs) and the belief bias (the tendency to evaluate evidence in such a way as to favour prior beliefs). Evans concludes that these are not always to be regarded as 'biases', but attitudes that can be beneficial to the practice of science, where the disconfirmation of hypotheses is otherwise guaranteed by the social dimension of the research environment. Though Evans contributes significantly to the literature on reasoning mistakes in his discussion of the classic psychological experiments, his positive claims about the use of 'biases' in science are still at the level of mere speculation.

In Part 3, Paul Thagard's paper, "The Passionate Scientist" (pp.235-250), is a defence of the role of emotions in the scientific activity. Thagard argues that emotions should not be seen as antagonistic to reason, as in the classical accounts, but as essential to the three aspects of scientific enquiry, (a) investigation, (b) discovery and (c) justification. Thagard claims that decisions as to which topic to conduct one's research on are grounded on emotional responses rather than rational calculations. Interest and happiness are strong motivational factors. Positive emotions like pleasure and delight also follow a scientific discovery. The discovery is seen as a great moment in which the scientist is rewarded for the many efforts made in the previous years. These observations are not in the least surprising, as Thagard concedes, and the most difficult task for him is to show that emotions play a part in the context of justification, historically regarded as the domain of rationality. He argues that justification is a matter of coherence, and concerns "how everything fits together" (p.246). Within this coherentist framework, considerations about elegance and beauty are likely to be very significant in the attempt to lend support to one theory rather than the other. Thagard does not develop his ideas about justification and it is in my view a limitation of his account that he relies in his paper on anecdotal evidence and on the use of emotion words by scientists describing the different stages of their work.

Paul Harris is interested in determining the role of testimony in the acquisition of knowledge. In his "What Do Children Learn from Testimony" (Part 4, pp.316-334), he argues that the testimony of adults is important in accounting for pre-school children's knowledge of facts that are not directly observable, such as the shape of the earth and the origin of species. For these reasons, the view according to which the child is a little independent scientist whose knowledge about the world accumulates via gathering data and interpreting observed phenomena, seems to be misleading. In his very stimulating paper, Harris concludes that the influence of adults on children's development is not just ampliative, that is, it does not simply supplement the information that children already acquire on their own. The testimony of adults allows children to get to know facts of which they could not have direct experience. For instance, children can acquire not only scientific beliefs, but metaphysical ones. Some of the religious beliefs they have about God require them to suspend the biological and psychological constraints that they have learnt to apply to humans, showing that the demarcation between science and metaphysics appears at very early stages of our knowledge about the world.

This collection is the starting point of a very exciting project and even the occasional limitations of the contributions have the positive effect of opening new fields to empirical research in psychology and biology. The results of further investigation will constrain contemporary philosophical accounts of science and of the human mind.


© 2002 Lisa Bortolotti


Lisa Bortolotti studied philosophy in Bologna (Italy), London and Oxford (UK) before starting her PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra. Her main interests are in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, rationality, mental illness and animal cognition.