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Of Theft and Honest Toil

Fiona Cowie

Mind in Everyday Life and Cognitive Science. Sunny Y. Auyang. x + 529 pp. The MIT Press, 2001. $49.95.

If you want to know how the human mind works, the one thing you shouldn't do is ask a cognitive scientist. So says science writer and Ph.D. physicist Sunny Auyang, whose latest polemic suggests that the psychologists, computer scientists, linguists, philosophers and neuroscientists whose mission is to investigate our mental functioning are less purveyors of scientific truth than nutty zealots with a pathetically overdeveloped sense of their own importance.

Cognitive science, Auyang argues, has bought wholesale into the Cartesian myth of the "closed mind." In the orthodox cog sci view, our cognitive and perceptual access to the world is mediated by inner states called representations: Thinking and perceiving, believing and knowing, wanting and hoping all involve the manipulation (somewhere in our brains) of mental representations, and the central problem of cognitive science is to explain the nature of the representing that the brain so marvelously does.

Auyang reminds us, however, that orthodoxy has its costs. One casualty of the "closed mind" is what she calls "self-consistency." Representations essentially have meanings (aka contents or intentionality): If you're not a representation of something, you're not a representation at all. But, Auyang contends (without argument), since meaning is something a mental state is given, and not something it simply has, Cartesian representationalism requires that someone be around to bestow meanings on our mental states. Clearly we can't do the interpreting ourselves, and God isn't up for that kind of thing any more, so who could it be? Gasp! It's those wily cognitive scientists! Not content with the workaday task of explaining how the mind works, they have constructed an indispensable metaphysical-cum-political role for themselves as well. In viewing their own interpretive activities as constitutive of consciousness itself, Auyang argues, cognitive scientists see themselves as godlike "mind designers," semantic supermen with the power to give (or to deny?) a mind to you or me.

Is their plot laughable or sinister? Auyang can't quite decide, but fortunately she doesn't have to, since it is (she points out) incoherent. You can't consistently believe that everyone's mental states require interpretation by an independent interpreter while tacitly assuming that your own mental states don't require interpretation. In committing themselves so fundamentally to a logical contradiction, Auyang concludes, today's "mind designers" have undermined cognitive science's "self-consistency" and neatly thwarted their own hubristic plans.

Auyang also argues, with impassioned overkill, that Cartesianism is not only inconsistent, it's just plain false as well. A second victim of the Cartesian "closed mind" paradigm is our understanding of our own experience. Cartesian representationalism, she argues, encourages a distorted picture of what it's like to be a thinking, feeling, perceiving being. When I look at my daughter's lovely face, Auyang bids me acknowledge, I am perceiving Kate: I am surveying not just some anemic representation, but the real fleshly thing. The Cartesian "veil" of mental representations "absolutely and eternally screen[s] us from entities in the world," Auyang contends, and the Cartesian thus denies the central fact of our phenomenology—that we experience reality directly.

This insistence on our cognitive and emotional "openness to the world" forms the basis of Auyang's alternative to Cartesianism. In her view, our minds contain no representations. Instead, we enjoy a pure and intimate congress with reality: Our minds glom onto the world "directly and immediately." The interpretive offices of the "mind designers" are superfluous, and meaningfulness (now conceived as a property not of representations, but of our distinctive mode of experience) "emerges" from the "complex" operations of our "mental infrastructure" in a wholly natural and unforced way: "Conscious mental processes emerge from the self-organization of many unconscious infrastructural processes."

Auyang's initial negative point is well taken: There is as yet no convincing solution to the cognitive scientist's "problem of intentionality"—the problem of explaining how our mental states could be both states of an object like a brain and so full of meaning or significance. However, her further allegations are unsubstantiated, and her positive theoretical contributions unconvincing. In assuming (without argument) that the Cartesian's problem of intentionality can be solved only through appeal to a power-hungry "mind designer," Auyang ignores cognitive science's drive to "naturalize intentionality," that is, to explain mental representation in nonmysterious terms.

Worse, her positive theory amounts to little more than a confection of sexy catchwords (emergence, self-organization, complexity, infrastructure, dynamical system, situated cognition) liberally sprinkled with Heideggerian hyphens. Substituting vague and mystical talk of "emergence" and "openness to the world" and "self-organization" for cognitive science's serious efforts to explain how properties such as meaningfulness and conscious awareness could inhere in chunks of meat (that is, in our brains) does not advance our understanding of these admittedly difficult matters. Instead, it has (as Bertrand Russell once said) all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

We already know that minds and consciousness emerge, somehow, from the operations of brains; and we already know that our minds, somehow, function as our channel to the world. What we don't know, and what Auyang certainly doesn't tell us, is how this comes about.—Fiona Cowie, Philosophy, California Institute of Technology

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