Making up the mind

Ian Hacking

  • The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science by P.N. Johnson-Laird
    Harvard/Fontana, 444 pp, £23.50, May 1988, ISBN 0 674 15615 3

‘Perhaps the mind stands to the brain in much the same way that the program stands to the computer.’ That is the vision behind this admirable book for newcomers. Introductions to cognitive science are seldom neutral. They’re not like beginners’ textbooks of Norwegian grammar or topology, nor do they much resemble popular science-writing about quarks or gene-splicing. Instead they are evangelical. Alongside Dr Johnson-Laird’s friendly and often charming account of ingenious computational ideas, there’s the message – which is his own conception of cognitive science, of psychology, of the mind.

The title itself conceals the message. The Computer and the Mind suggests that we are in for comparisons and contrasts between the two. That’s not promising. You can compare two things only if they belong to the same bunch of categories: that is, if most of what’s true of the one is at least true or false of the other. I can compare my laptop pc to my brain for the laptop weighs 11 pounds; it is heavier than my brain. Both would be crushed by a bus. Even the metaphors aren’t half-bad – both my brain and my laptop need recharging from time to time. It makes some sense to start comparing their functions and abilities. But comparing and contrasting minds and computers is a non-starter, for there is hardly anything true of computers that is true or false of minds. Minds and computers are in fundamentally different categories. That is the beginning of a lesson well taught by Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind forty years ago.

Indeed minds, unlike computers, are not things at all. We use the noun ‘mind’ often enough, but not to pick out a class of entities. It does not even work much like the matching words in the French or German whose Cartesian heritage we share. Although esprit is the official translation of ‘mind’, a great many of our common utterances using ‘mind’ don’t go over into expressions using esprit. The metaphors in turn are completely out of kilter. There’s a line of yuppie clothing called Esprit, but don’t try marketing Mind après-ski wear. One reason why the metaphors shear apart in the different languages is that the nouns don’t refer to a definite class of thing. Some of our philosophical tradition notwithstanding, neither our word nor its cognates in other languages denotes any thing. That is one of the reasons why the much-maligned Descartes said that mind and body are different substances, i.e. of different categories, of different kinds, and not different-kinds-of-thing.

We do have many abilities and perform many acts which for lack of a better word we call ‘mental’. And now perhaps we do have a better label than ‘mental’: ‘cognitive science’ and whatever that is about. The phrase was devised in the 1940s to mean the study of some of our mental doings named by gerunds such as knowing, thinking, perceiving, remembering, learning; or mental skills like the ability to recognise your acquaintances, improvise music, follow a chain of argument, understand an English sentence or do sums. Western thought has usually seen some sort of commonality among these knowing-how and knowing-that aspects of people. It has put them at some distance from feeling upset or even the capacity to share the sorrows of another. There has been a division of opinion, over the past couple of thousand years, as to whether seeing a rhododendron bush in bloom is more like knowing (you know that it’s a flowering shrub, don’t you?) or more like feeling sore (it just strikes you as glorious, doesn’t it? – the seeing of it, which is experiencing, not knowledge).

Cognitive science puts perceiving and knowing together. That prompts us to ask: is it right or wrong to do so? Are they two species of cognition? As if there were a fact of the matter! It is not that there is no fact of the matter, but that there are too many. It is not evident which facts matter. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Psychology is, among other things, a brilliant taxonomy of the mental. It is deliberately descriptive and anti-explanatory and is put entirely in terms of our talk, our concepts, our sensibilities. It is quite indifferent to anything that happens in the brain. Many people, especially those who can neither stand nor understand Wittgenstein, would in contrast find it deeply interesting if, for example, a uniformly identifiable bit of everyone’s brain was essential to recognising rhododendrons and improvising jazz, but irrelevant to doing sums or speaking English. But would that define two different types of mental, as opposed to physiological, activity? We have no idea how to answer, for the question is a bad one. Likewise one thinks that the grouping of some but not all mental doings at the core of cognitive science is a hypothesis, but it isn’t. What would one do to verify or refute it?

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