Workshop on Cognitive Theories of Science and of Religion

March 31, 2:00-6:00

Sherwood Room, Levering Hall
Reception to Follow



2:00 p.m.-3:10 p.m.
Susan Carey (Harvard University, Psychology)
The Process of Conceptual Change

3:10 p.m.-4:20 p.m.
Nancy Nersessian (Georgia Institute of Technology, Cognitive Science)
“Engineering Models:   Model-based problem solving in biomedical engineering

4:20 p.m. -5:30 p.m.
Dan Sperber (French National Center for Scientific Research-Institut Jean Nicod)
Religion and science: an old comparison in a new epidemiological perspective

5:30 p.m. -6:00p.m.
General Discussion

6:00 p.m.


Susan Carey
Harvard University

The Process of Conceptual Change

Many cognitive scientists accept Fodor's argument for strong continuity of conceptual representations throughout development on both historical and ontogenetic time scales.  The argument:  all learning reduces to hypothesis testing, and one can't test a hypothesis one cannot represent.  Therefore, learning cannot result in new representational resources.  Meeting this challenge has two parts, descriptive and explanatory.  Descriptively, one must characterize what kinds of discontinuities occur during development.  Explanatorily, one must sketch a learning mechanism that underlies these discontinuities.   In this paper, I take on both challenges.


Nancy J. Nersessian
Georgia Institute of Technology

Engineering Models:   Model-based problem solving in biomedical engineering 

Engineering and experimenting with in vitro model-systems is a signature investigative practice of much research in biomedical engineering. In a six-year ethnographic study of two university research laboratories, one in tissue engineering and one in neural engineering, we have observed that the central components of the model-systems are physical “devices” – custom technology designed and constructed within the laboratories. Devices are not stable technologies, but are designed, constructed, and re-designed in the course of research with respect to problems encountered and changes in understanding. The devices provide sites of simulation where in vitro models are used to screen and control selected aspects of in vivo phenomena that the researchers want to understand, and in the neural engineering lab in silico models are added to the mix. The devices also provide sites where cognitive, social, and cultural dimensions of practice interlock. 

Researchers refer to their practice of engineering models as “putting a thought into the bench top and seeing if it works.” These instantiated thought experiments (model-base simulations) can involve open-ended exploration, hypothesis testing or generation, explanation, and prediction. In this talk I examine a year-long episode in the neural engineering lab where the cross-breeding of two engineered models – one computational and one physical – that involved the interaction of three researchers led to a significant conceptual innovation and subsequent engineering innovations. Investigations of such model-based problem-solving practices now used widely across engineering and the sciences provide novel considerations for cognitive science theories, which are based largely on studies of mundane cognition; in this case, of analogy and of distributed cognition.   

Dan Sperber
French National Center for Scientific Research
Institut Jean Nicod

Templeton Lecture IV
Religion and science: an old comparison in a new epidemiological perspective

Thinking of religious phenomena in epidemiological terms, as a mesh of causal chains where mental and environmental events alternate, we can identify causal factors that weigh not globally on religions, but locally on every micro-event in the propagation of religious ideas and practices. Approaching science from the same epidemiological point of view, the causal factors we can identify both in the cognitive mechanisms and in the social interactions involved determine quite a different dynamics. Are the differences such as to make the comparison an ill-framed exercise? Does the epidemiological perspective throw any light on the historical and current relationships between religion and science?