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The Dissolution of MindReview - The Dissolution of Mind
A Fable of How Experience Gives Rise to Cognition
by Oscar Vilarroya
Rodopi, 2002
Review by Giovanna Colombetti
May 25th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 21)

Provocative and imaginative, the first volume in the VIBS' Special Series in Cognitive Science is a critique of the traditional theoretical apparatus of the discipline.† In The Dissolution of Mind, neuroscientist Oscar Vilarroya undertakes the ambitious project of reformulating the traditional notions of "concept," "thought," "communication," "representation," "language" and eventually "mind."

During a conversation lasting six days, Alice (Miss Common Sense) raises a series of perplexities to Non-Professor O (Oscar Vilarroya himself) about how human knowledge comes about. In reply, he describes how some imaginary beings, the Arkadians, acquire and manage knowledge. In short, the story goes as follows.

Arkadian knowledge is essentially grounded in experiences or "slifes"(from "slices-of-life"), and in the memory traces (the "memograms") that they leave in the brain. Slifeshave a holistic character; for example, they are perceptual and cognitive-evaluative at the same time. While in humans i) senses process sensorial information, ii) certain brain areas categorize it, and iii) eventually other brain areas reason about it, Arkadians "panceive": their brains do all those things together within the space-time of a slife.

In Arkadia, concepts and mental representations do not exist.† There are only slifes that mould the brain in a certain way, leaving imprints that will influence future slifes.† Despite this, Arkadians understand one another pretty well.† They all have similar brains that allow a similar organization of slifes, and they all experience an enormous number of slifes throughout life; this guarantees that, for example, they will all panceive tables in a similar way.

Language plays an important role in successful communication, but not because it points to objects in the world or to concepts in the head.† Arkadian words are rather switches that evoke the slifes in which they have previously occurred.† Communicating is thus evoking in the hearer "a slife equivalent to that which the emitter wants to evoke" (p.138).

On the last day of the conversation, Non-Professor O draws all these ideas together to dissolve the concept of mind, and he comments briefly on major topics such as qualia, personal identity, emotions, creativity, beauty - and more.† Finally, he reveals that what he has been telling about Arkadians applies to humans as well: indeed, we are Arkadians!

This brief summary does not do justice to the variety of issues addressed by Vilarroya, who masters the neuroscientific literature and is aware of several philosophical questions in disparate areas. Alice raises the right questions, and Non-Professor O patiently clarifies his views with a wealth of examples; he is also honest, and admits when the question is too difficult or has no answer yet. The dialogue form renders the text light and readable, and Vilarroya's coinage of new words is great fun.

Beside this, the reader should be warned that the book is really just a nicely told story. The author does not explain why his conceptual framework is better than the one he criticises; nor which are the data that are better accounted for by his views; nor what is wrong with the traditional conceptualisations. In this sense, the book offers no arguments. It simply tells the story of the Arkadians (one full of clever anecdotes, but anecdotes anyway), and gives no reason to believe that the story is also ours. There is no philosophical analysis of the concepts involved, and no explicit discussion of empirical research.

Although Vilarroya's views are consistent with recent work in neuroscience and developmental psychology (dynamical systems approaches), robotics (nouvelle AI) and empirically minded philosophy (embodied and embedded accounts of cognition), he deliberately avoids saying this in the text. This is disappointing because, although there is a bibliography at the end of each chapter, the absence of more specific indications renders it nearly useless. Those readers who know the mentioned sources will already be familiar with the ideas; those who do not, will not know where exactly to look to learn more.

It is thus not clear for whom the book is intended, and Vilarroya himself admits that his book "is not a classic academic text, nor a popularisation" (p.xix), but only the exploration of a hypothesis. I, who am sympathetic to the general approach, will keep the book as a source of ideas that should shake and provoke my imagination on many important issues. However, I will not be able to use it as a source of arguments that could be either borrowed or criticized.

 

© 2003 Giovanna Colombetti

 

Giovanna Colombetti is a third year DPhil student in Philosophy at the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex (Brighton, UK). Her research interests include emotion theories, dynamical systems models of cognition and emotion, and theories of social construction.


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