Lost in a mind field

Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science
October 5, 2001

I have often wondered what future historians will make of the path taken by cognitive science, the field that aims to combine philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence and linguistics. Its founders 30 years ago had lofty expectations. Cognitive science was finally going to tackle all the fundamental questions thrown aside by behaviourists shortly after the death of William James in 1910 - language, meaningful knowledge, human purpose, emotion and consciousness. All the portents seemed right, since after seven decades behaviourism finally seemed ready to fizzle out. Cognitive science started in a burst of enthusiasm in the 1970s, propelled by eager foundation support and high hopes all round.

In the event, it often seemed that the field was captured by dry and repetitive scholasticism, 20th-century style. Linguists abandoned the messy precincts of real language and went gung-ho for the mathematical glories of Chomskian grammar. Artificial-intelligence buffs ground out endless dissertations that rapidly turned to vaporware. Cognitive psychologists turned out not to have abandoned behaviourism quite yet, managing to evade the fundamental questions of consciousness, volition and self as adroitly as Skinner ever did. Philosophers became snared in the same mind-body paradoxes that engrossed Plato and the sages of the Upanishads . The bureaucratic professionalism that is modern academia soon appeared to grind all the high hopes to dust. It was depressing. Worse, it was boring.

Sunny Y. Auyung, a physicist by training, suggests that the problem is conceptual. Mainstream cognitive science, she claims, is dominated by a view of "the closed mind controlled by mind designers". Instead she aims to substitute a framework of "the open mind emerging from intricate infrastructures". Her book is a whirlwind tour of the scenery, with brief stopovers at this interesting controversy and that benighted idea, all designed to show the weakness of "mind designers" and the promise of the author's answer.

In defence of cognitive science, no one really thinks the human mind is a product of mind designers, but it can be argued that cognitive flow diagrams and simulations are like the things mind designers might produce. They are not the products of aeons of biological evolution, as brain scientists often tell us.

Even so, the mind-designer critique rings hollow. After all, scientific methodologies are neutral. The only question is whether they are useful and yield testable insights. There are no biological connections between birds and airplanes, but the equations that govern fixed-wing aircraft also happen to yield deep insight into bird flight. Similarly, some strategies used by the brain were independently discovered by cognitive scientists. What about Auyung's proposal for an "open mind emerging from intricate infrastructures"? Terms like "open and closed mind" are more than a little tendentious, raising the suspicion that one is about to be treated to a battle between the Children of Light and Darkness. Here Auyung strives for definition. "The closed mind," she writes, "perceives or computes with meaningless representations. My model of the open mind... posits mind as a high-level emergent property of a person engaged in and open to the natural and social world." The battle lines are now clearly drawn; we know who is good and deserving and who is not, but what does that really mean scientifically?

No satisfying answers emerge in the next 500 pages. The author's notion that the mind is active, predictive, involved and occasionally creative is hardly new. Dozens of well-known cognitive scientists have said much the same thing, and some have provided new insights and evidence to prove the point. I found no startling new revelations; regrettably, because much can be said for Auyung's general critique. Meantime, oddly enough, something wonderful has happened to cognitive science. A decade ago, a high-octane mixture of advanced physics and powerful computers suddenly created free access to the brain at work. Brain imaging revealed a whole new world, and in that discovery the great barrier between cognitive science and neuroscience began to crumble. We can now see human brains silently talking to themselves, experiencing visual imagery and changing moods. Suddenly all the sterile controversies seemed to fade. Cognitive science, as such, was dead; long live cognitive neuroscience.

Rather than complicating things, brain imaging has created unexpected simplicity. Consciousness is back, as is volition, self and all the familiar conceptual furniture of traditional psychology. Poets and novelists, it turns out, had a far better grasp of the human condition than scientists. James walks among us again, and even the gulf between science and the humanities may be waning a little.

This unexpected turn of events makes Auyung's remedy moot as well as unconvincing. She has diagnosed the disease, but the patient has already stumbled on a different cure. History has pulled another fast one, wandering in a completely unexpected direction and leaving thoughtful people like Auyung battling yesterday's afflictions.

Bernard J. Baars is senior fellow in theoretical neurobiology, Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, California, United States.

Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science

Author - Sunny Y. Auyung
ISBN - 0 262 01181 6
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £34.95
Pages - 529

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