- Cognitive science, as an interdisciplinary school of thought, may have recently moved beyond the bandwagon stage onto the throne of orthodoxy, but it does not make a favorable first impression on many people. Familiar reactions on first encounters range from revulsion to condescending dismissal – very few faces in the crowd light up with the sense of "Aha! So that's how the mind works! Of course!" Cognitive science leaves something out, it seems; moreover, what it apparently leaves out is important, even precious. Boiled down to its essence, cognitive science proclaims that in one way or another our minds are computers, and this seems so mechanistic, reductionistic, intellectualistic, dry, philistine, unbiological. It leaves out emotion, or what philosophers call qualia, or value, or mattering, or... the soul. It does not explain what minds are so much as attempt to explain minds away.
- This deeply felt dissatisfaction with cognitive science has many grounds – some good, some preposterous – improperly jumbled together in a knot of anxiety. When you get right down to it, many people just do not like the idea of their minds as computers, and hence are strongly inclined to endorse any champion who will stand fast against this deplorable juggernaut. So critics of cognitive science, especially if they take themselves to be radical or revolutionary critics, must be uncommonly surefooted if they are to avoid being swept up in the more hysterical campaigns. And defenders of cognitive science must be uncommonly discriminating, and not just brand every critic a crypto-dualist, a vitalist, a Mysterian, for although the most vocal critics to date have often richly deserved these epithets, there are other, more thoughtful critics who do not. Moreover – truth to tell – even a crypto-dualist can stumble onto an important insight on occasion.
- Francisco J. Varela, an immunologist-turned-neuroscientist, Evan Thompson, a philosopher, and Eleanor Rosch, a psychologist, are radical critics of cognitive science, calling for what they consider to be more of a revolution than a set of reforms, and they have pooled their skills to execute what is surely the best informed, best balanced radical critique to date. Just how radical? Their heroes are the Buddha and the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. They argue that Buddhist meditative traditions offer not just a wealth of important phenomena of human consciousness, but otherwise unobtainable insights into the relations of embodiment that permit us to understand how the inner and the outer, the first-person point of view and the objective point of view of science, can coexist.
- Cognitive scientists standardly assume a division between independently existing ("pregiven"), "external" objects, properties, and events on the one hand and their "internal" representations in symbolic media in the mind/brain on the other. Varela et al. propose to replace this with an "enactive" account. The fundamental differences are encapsulated in answers to three questions:
- Question 1: What is cognition?
- Cognitivist answer: Information processing as symbolic computation-rule-based manipulation of symbols.
- Enactivist answer: Enaction – a history of structural coupling that brings forth a world.
- Question 2: How does it work?
- Cognitivist answer: Through any device that can support and manipulate discrete functional elements – the symbols. The system interacts only with the form of the symbols (their physical attributes), not their meaning.
- Enactivist answer: Through a network consisting of multiple levels of interconnected, sensorimotor subnetworks.
- Question 3: How do I know when a cognitive system is functioning adequately?
- Cognitivist answer: When the symbols appropriately represent some aspect of the real world, and the information processing leads to a successful solution to the problem given to the system.
- Enactivist answer: When it becomes part of an ongoing existing world (as the young of every species do) or shapes a new one (as happens in evolutionary history).
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