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Attention is Cognitive UnisonReview - Attention is Cognitive Unison
An Essay in Philosophical Psychology
by Christopher Mole
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review by Tony H. Y. Cheng
Jul 19th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 29)

Attention is Cognitive Unison is probably the only book exclusively on attention in the philosophy literature in the past few decades. Before this, of course we have some nice books on relevant themes, for example John Campbell's Reference and Consciousness (2002). However, although Campbell invokes the notion of attention to do some explanatory works, his exposition of the very idea of attention is not as thoroughgoing as Mole's book. As Mole's summary of relevant history shows, in philosophy there was Alan White's Attention (1964), but that was almost half a century ago. This alone will guarantee the historical importance of Mole's book, but it has many other merits as well.

This book is a serious metaphysics. This may be a bit surprising, since attention is a typical and central topic in empirical psychology, which departed from philosophy in 19th century exactly because many researchers wanted to keep enough distance from metaphysics. In chapter 2, Mole makes a good case why metaphysics matters when it comes to attention. He points out that not every phenomenon should be conceived as processes; some phenomena are "adverbial." "Being hasty" is his master example: "there is no process of haste by reference to which one can explain what it is for something to be done hastily" (26, original italics). To be sure, the case of attention is much more complicated, but at least we need to recognize the possibility that attention is actually an adverbial phenomenon, and in the rest of the book Mole attempts to convince readers that this is indeed the case. In due course, he also distinguishes his view from multiple realizability (30-1), and explains how notions such as levels of explanation and supervenience (32-4) help us understand what are at stake. What's more, he brings in one of the main topics in the metaphysics of mind -- mental causation -- in chapter 5, and attempts to show how his view can avoid standard objections from the mental causation literature.

The book also contains a nice overview of the relevant history, mainly in chapter 1. Like most others, Mole starts with William James, but he goes further to explore F. H. Bradley's work and make a nice contrast with James, along the distinction between "process-first" and "adverbial" theories. He also carefully characterizes views from Peter Geach (20), Gilbert Ryle (e.g., 20-1, 48), and Alan White (e.g., 20-22, 49-50), among many others. The connections to (anti-) behaviorism are also clearly flagged. Usually when people look into the history of attention studies, they notice only psychologists. Mole's effort here is a nice exception.

After motivating the adverbial view in the first three chapters, Mole puts forward his own version of the theory -- cognitive unison -- in chapter 4. The definition of the notion can be found in 51. Here is a paraphrase of it: an agent's performance of a certain task display cognitive unison if and only if the resources in the task's background set are not occupied with activity that does not serve the task. Given this, the resulting theory of attention can be stated like this: an agent performs a certain task attentively if and only if that agent's performance of the task displays cognitive unison. Not surprisingly, the rest of the chapter is devoted to unpack all difficult notions involved in these formulations, such as "task," "cognitive resource," and so on.

In addition to provide a substantial theory, Mole also puts the view into both psychological and philosophical contexts, in chapter 6 and 7 respectively. In the case of psychology, one especially interesting case study is EEGs (electro-encephalograms, 127-8). While most empirical consequences of this revisionary theory are negative, there are indeed some positive results, for example when it comes to the "biased competition" mechanism (Reynolds and Desimone 2000): "the selectivity of a competition is not owing to limitations in the competing processes" (133). In the case of philosophy, Mole discusses both content and consciousness, two major themes in philosophy of mind. For the former, he focuses on Campbell's 2002 work and poses Wittgensteinian challenges to it (142-3); he also develops his various ideas concerning attention and reference later on. As for consciousness, Mole is conservative too. In particular, he argues against the view that attention is necessary and sufficient for consciousness (156-62, 167-9). But again, he has some positive things to say towards the end, this time about free will (169-70).

Let me now raise some questions about Mole's argumentation. One general worry is that it is not clear how this book can serve as an effective communication with psychologists. One of Mole's main purposes is to urge that metaphysics matters for attention researches. It is understandable if most psychologists are not interested in it, given that it is written by a philosopher, but if the format of the book is more user-friendly for psychologists, then perhaps the situation will be a bit better. A nice comparison would be Ned Block's work on attention and working memory (2007, 2008). Given Mole's style, it is hard to see how psychologists can really go through it, even provided that they are interested in what philosophers say about attention.

I shall provide two specific examples that both psychologists and philosophers can think more about. The first is Mole's interpretation of Anne Treisman's work on feature binding. Mole thinks Treisman holds that "there are some cases in which attention is wholly constituted by feature-binding processes" (37, my italics). If so, then Treisman clearly commits the process-first view. However, in the opening remark of their 1980 paper, Treisman and Gelade write that a "new hypothesis about the role of focused attention is proposed" (97, my italics). This indicates a general situation in psychology: researchers care more about what attention does (and how), not what it is, contra Mole's metaphysical queries. True, metaphysics is important, and true, psychologists may have said something with heavy metaphysical implications. However, we must recognize that most studies in psychology are primarily about the effects attention has, not what attention is. The metaphysical questions Mole cares are certainly important, but perhaps what psychologists are after are more moderate than Mole supposes.

Another place to look at is Mole's general argument against process-first view (46). Premise 3 states that "There are some events that are instantiations of those same feature-binding process and that are not instances of attention" (original italics). This is supposed to be established by thought experiments, for example, we can "imagine those same feature-binding processes situated in a context in which visual search is irrelevant, where the thinker is devoting all of her intellectual resources to some complex and ongoing intellectual puzzle…" (37). The thought is this: if attention is to be identified as feature-binding processes by a theory (ignore the caveat in the last paragraph for a moment), and we find some examples in which there are certain feature-binding processes do not constitute attention, although they clearly constitute attention in previous considered cases, then the theory in question should be rejected. My objection is that in those imagined cases we do not really have feature-binding processes without attention. In Mole's case, the participant is devoting to a task other than visual search, while feature-binding processes underlie that visual search. However, he does not show that there is absolutely no attention presents for the visual research. How the task is defined is crucial here. Mole thinks that in his case, the participant is not doing visual search task at all, since the researchers define the task as solving an intellectual puzzle. However, the participant is actually performing the "task" of visual search as well; it is just that for researchers' purpose in that case, the task is defined as solving an intellectual puzzle. Although in this case visual search is not the "task" by definition, it does not mean that there is no attention for it at all.

A similar consideration applies to Mole's case against the claim that attention is necessary for consciousness. At one point, he quotes William James for the case in which we have some weak conscious states but have absolutely no attention at all (156-7). However, it is not clear how Mole and James can show that there is absolutely no attention. To be sure, the subject does not actively pay attention, as in the previous case that the subject does not actively pay attention to visual search. But it is far from clear that there is no attention at all. To insist there is none, as Mole does, is to rely on folk judgments concerning attention. But if that is so, this would be another point where psychologists cannot accept, and with good reasons.

Overall, Attention is Cognitive Unison is a substantial and significant work on attention and related issues. The style is clear, though sometimes with some repetitions. Even though I suspect it will not attract psychologists' attention for reasons stated above, philosophers of mind will and should take it very seriously. It will be good if in follow-up works Mole and others can try to write in a more user-friendly style for psychologists, but even without it, this particular work is both philosophically and scientifically valuable, and to this extent it can be regarded as a paradigm for philosophers of mind.

 

© 2011 Tony H. Y. Cheng

 

Tony H. Y. Cheng is a graduate student at CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently writing a thesis on attention and visual phenomenology. More general projects include perception, self-awareness, and various topics in philosophy of mind and psychology.


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