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On the Origins of Cognitive ScienceReview - On the Origins of Cognitive Science
The Mechanization of the Mind
by Jean-Pierre Dupuy
MIT Press, 2009
Review by Mog Stapleton, MA, MLitt, MSc
Aug 31st 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 35)

On the Origins of Cognitive Science is an excellent review of early twentieth century cognitive science. It stands out amongst other reviews of cognitive science by taking a broad perspective over the ideas that were alive during the cybernetic era and not limiting itself to just that part of history that seems relevant in light of current orthodoxy. Dupuy explicitly states that the book is a testament to the failure of cybernetics, which I feel is not warranted by his exegesis. I found it to be an inspiring story of a research program that had lofty ambitions of exploring the ways in which new technologies could shape the way we understand the mind. Furthermore, it becomes clear through the book how much current orthodoxy and the research programs that are challenging this orthodoxy in the 21st century all owe to the research and new ways of thinking that the cyberneticians spawned.

The book is not introductory reading. While there is explanation of many of the concepts involved, to benefit most the reader should have some background in cognitive science and some knowledge of the contemporary debates. With a little background in hand however, this book will help to clarify notoriously difficult concepts such as information and representation by situating them within the interdisciplinary debates in which they became orthodox terms. Though the style feels a little stilted to begin with, perhaps due to the nature of translating not only from French to English but also from an academic culture more influenced by phenomenological writings than the Anglophone academic culture, as the narrative progresses it becomes a joy to read. I would recommend all students of the cognitive sciences, and in particular the philosophy of cognitive science, to take the time to read this book; the familiar concepts put in their original setting take on a fresh face and give us cause to reassess the exciting potential of old ideas within the frameworks and technologies currently available.

Dupuy splits the book into 6 chapters with a somewhat heavier introduction that is worth re--reading at the end of the book. In the introduction Dupuy introduces us to the Macy conferences, 10 conferences held between 1946 and 1953, at which a group of top researchers from mathematics, logic, engineering, physiology, neurophysiology, psychology, anthropology, and economics came together with the explicit aim of creating a science of the mind. Despite their differing backgrounds these researchers were all working towards an understanding of how the mind works which took cognition, thought, and the mind, with all of its meaning and intentionality, to be computational and explainable by physical laws. They referred to this view of the mind as 'Cybernetics'. In short, the aim of the cyberneticians was to mechanize the mind using physics as a model. As Dupuy emphases throughout the book, this should not be confused with the project of making the machine human.

Dupuy discusses the importance of models to the cybernetic project. He highlights the different ways that models can be understood and the dangers of conflating a model of the mind for a model for the mind. Physics This turns out to not be trivial; it is the abstraction (the model of the mind) that becomes taken by the cyberneticists to be more real, that which is the true mechanism, and hence a model for the mind. This clearly is what underlies functionalism as it is still understood in cognitive science and philosophy of mind; if the model of the mind captures the essential functional relations of cognition then this can be used as a model for creating cognition in different systems, the very basis of multiple realizability.

I found it important that Dupuy also reminds us that the "Turing thesis", "that every mechanically computable function is computable by a Turing machine" (p. 35) often used to ground computational--representational functionalism is just that -- a thesis -- and has not been, nor is it able to be, proved. Regardless of its provability it became treated by the cyberneticians as a theorem, and continues to this day to be the basis of how cognitive scientists approach computation. To those brought up in the current orthodoxy the Turing Thesis has become something of a gospel truth, and to see it placed back into its roots and original context allows us to approach one of the fundamental tenets of orthodox cognitive science with a healthy dash of open mindedness and critique.

With these warnings in place Dupuy uses the rest of the book to guide the reader through a history of the ideas raised in the Macy conferences with enough of a description of the characters involved to allow one to get a feel for the excitement that clearly resonated throughout those early years of cognitive science. Without idealizing either the ideas or the people, and illuminating the differences in the attitudes of the researchers involved, Dupuy manages to portray a realistic glimpse into the difficulties and the excitement of interdisciplinary research programs. The core set of 'cyberneticians' were Wiener, Rosenbleuth, Bigelow, McCulloch, Pitts, and (Dupuy argues) von Neumann. What stands out is that Dupuy feels strongly that McCulloch has not been sufficiently acknowledged for the importance of his contributions to the cybernetic project, overshadowed as he was by Wiener. Perhaps more than any other review of this intellectual period therefore, this book shows how much the cybernetic project, and thus current cognitive science, owes to McCulloch's involvement. It was not only McCulloch's suggestion that instigated the conference series, but he organized and attended all ten conferences. Furthermore Dupuy argues that McCulloch "played a key role along with von Neumann in the first round of meetings, which we know was more eventful than the second and which served to establish the identity of the group, its composition, and its program of discussion" (p.75).

Dupuy presents cybernetics as having been a failure and having been forgotten or "poorly remembered". Yet it is clear to me on reading the text that this is not true. Though today it is not a fashionable area of research, and Dupuy is right that its impetus -- as "cybernetics" -- has petered out, what can be seen clearly from Dupuy's exegesis of the history of 20th century cognitive science is that the ideas from cybernetics pervade through the disciplines of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence and Philosophy of Mind. This is reminiscent of the way that Freud's work has come to be ostracized, and often ridiculed, by current orthodox theories of the mind, and yet on closer inspection the vocabulary that Freud provided us with pervades our discourse even in the lay-world. Likewise, it is clear from Dupuy's review of the history of cybernetics and cognitive science that many of the concepts, metaphors, and positive research programs were taken up by other research programs. It seems then that cybernetics has been left as owning only those that were not successful, and thus deemed as having failed. One could however take the opposite perspective and consider this as the ultimate success; many of the ideas spawned from this research program have been borrowed and built upon and have been adopted by new successful research programs. I think that Dupuy is overly harsh in judging the original cyberneticians for not having taken ownership themselves of all of the ideas that cybernetics spawned.

It is particularly interesting to see the tension arising throughout the course of the Macy conferences between those cyberneticians whose attitudes would now be considered orthodox -- functionalist in particular -- and those who went on to participate in, or whose sympathies lay in, second-order cybernetics the focus of which was self-organization and complexity of the systems rather than the mechano-logical abstracted model so fundamental to first-order cybernetics. These two very different ways of understanding minds, machines, and organisms have once more become the forefront of cognitive science and the tension is creeping into the philosophy of mind. While connectionism and systems research have become orthodox in AI and cognitive science those inspired by the second-order cybernetic program have been quietly building up an alternative research program and in the last two decades this has burst on to the Anglophone AI, Cog Sci and Philosophy of Mind scene under various monikers including 'Embodiment', 'Embeddedness', 'Situatedness', and 'Enactivism'. Once again there is a tension between those who wholeheartedly welcome seeing minds and organisms as created from self-organizing processes of simple, "stupid" elements, and those for whom Turing--functionalism has become something of a self-evident truth and who push for understanding the mind in terms of a formal, abstracted, Turing-functional model.   As was the case with the first- and second-order cybernetics both the current orthodox tradition and the Enactive challengers hold sacred that we are essentially machines, but the specter of the homunculus seems to haunt those who ally themselves with the more orthodox streams in their insistence on the need for more than a self-organized system to generate meaning and intentionality, such as the need for a controller in a dynamical mechanism, or an 'executive system' in the brain.

 

© 2010 Mog Stapleton

 

Mog Stapleton (MA, MLitt, MSc) is a final year PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Working at the intersection of philosophy, neuroscience, and cognitive science she is writing her thesis on the relation between emotion and cognition. 


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