by A. Greco, Dept. of Anthropological Sciences, Lab. of Psychology, Univ. of Genoa, Italy
At the same time, the book wants to be a discussion concerning how things stand in this field and a critical evaluation of how far CS has kept its promises. More, it makes some predictions on what CS is likely to be; it also makes proposals on what it should be. With so many different purposes, the author might easily run the risk that none would been fully accomplished.
However, in my opinion, the author has succeeded, although - of course - he could not cover all those aspects in equal depth. At first sight, one can say that the book is similar to a map or a guide for a touristic exploration into a field that, honestly, often appears confused. The author is very clever in tying up different strings hanging from different skeins and in giving insights on how to reach their roots. Of course there also must be many parts of the book that are not easy and that probably cannot be read as a simple introductory text, inasmuch as one needs some knowledge and experience to fully appreciate all those brilliant reflections and allusions. The field of Cognitive Science has many fundamental problems. As a consequence, the book also may be of interest to an advanced scholar who wants to go deep into concepts.
The book is divided into two parts, one treating "the constituent disciplines" of CS, the other proposing "a new foundation" for CS. The first part, which is better developed than the second, can be read as an excellent introduction to the main topics in CS subfields, but at the same time as a preparation for the proposals for a new foundation of Cognitive Science. In fact, the author here starts drafting his own view, called the "Nolanian framework" (from John Nolan, an early author's pseudonym). In this framework, three aspects of mind (immanent, computational, and phenomenal) and three modes of cognition (egocentric, intersubjective, autistic) are considered.
Different subdisciplines of CS are treated thoroughly. Philosophical epistemology focuses on how Occidental thought, starting from Greek philosophy, has faced the problem of knowledge. One might ask w In this route, also non standard authors are mentioned, like Thomas Aquinas. hy epistemology should be more relevant to the search for mind than philosophy of mind. In fact, the author does not endorse such a claim, but he does not hide his antipathy for a certain kind of philosophy where a priori argumentation prevails over demonstration. In part, it is only a question of what titles emphasize.
But if we were expecting O' Nuallain to put his cards on the table, he is not reluctant to declare that two philosophical places are available in the Nolanian framework. One is occupied by Kant, who achieved at his best the idea that sensory data somehow must be structured into categorical shapes. The other position is taken by Merleau-Ponty, who made us aware that cognition should not be considered as a "disembodied" soul.
In the part dealing with psychology the author is even more explicit about the role of phenomenology and what he defines the "mistake" of ignoring affect and social factors. To reach such a conclusion, he sketchily analyzes many contributions from different areas in psychology, ranging from perception to memory, to problem solving, to reasoning (oddly, references to work on concepts and categories are missing), and also such authors as Wertheimer, Freud, Gibson, Piaget, and many others. Of course the role of perception may not be ignored, since it is the basis for cognition; development should also be taken into account, like memory and learning. But to study mind, we must start from "the human organism immersed, embodied, in a life world". And to study problem solving (to mention but one topic) we must ask "why one sets problems for oneself", that is, consider affective and motivational aspects.
Linguistics is entered as a "minefield", given its "fractious" character (sometimes the book gives us the opportunity of learning unusual words). O' Nuallain examines issues of formal grammars and computational linguistic (with all that stuff like parsing, transition networks, etc.) only to convince us of two basic things: 1) studying language per se in cognition is a vacuous exercise if the language-thought relation is not explored; 2) language, like all other behaviour, is situated and occurs in a context.
The chapter dealing with neuroscience covers methodology and gives an outline in neuroanatomy. The main part, however, focuses on neural networks and on Edelman's work. O' Nuallain (in my opinion, correctly) realizes that most of the PDP appeal is essentially in considering it as a theory of nonsymbolic activity or "tacit knowledge". Edelman's claim that neurobiological evidence exists to constrain cognitive psychology is rejected, but his general conclusions are accepted (e.g. the need for a biological ground in CS, the rebuttal of functionalism and of the computational metaphor). The overall lesson coming from neuroscience is that we must look at an active subject/body seeking fitness in environment.
AI, on its part, seems to have almost nothing important to say to CS, in author's opinion. So that a "30-second history" of AI (further reduced here) sounds like this: a group of excited young men wanted to build intelligent machines; they initially had some limited success with automated tasks in speech, vision, or reasoning. They got funding, but, as they became older and wiser (and - we can add - they wanted to extend their findings from toy-worlds to real world), they discovered that they had been misguided, and that only by becoming concerned with issues like knowledge representation they could regain some credibility. In fact, it seems curious in a chapter on AI to read names like Husserl and Bateson. Like in all sections of this book, there is a moral: syntax is not enough, a system detached from environment is not enough. A few pages on ethology and ethnoscience follow to suggest that mind cannot be studied out of context, either environmental or socio-cultural.
As we have said, the book's second part, proposing a "new foundation" for CS, is shorter than the first. But the first part has laid the foundation for the development of arguments. The treatment of concepts like symbols, consciousness, selfhood is the last demanding job in the book. The effort of the author is turned toward an integration of those concepts, so that "conscious experiences are those that self identifies as nonalien". Into the pleats of this discussion one can find much more, even free will and religion.
All the time the reader is reading the book, like with a thriller, he is told that the Nolanian framework will be fully revealed at the end. And like in any self-respecting thriller, we don't want to spoil the surprise but stimulate to directly read it. But for the most part it can be guessed from many (perhaps too many) things we already disclosed.
This book is written in a brilliant and exciting style (sometimes difficult for a non-English reader); it features many pictures, rather cartoons (to tell the truth, not always clear) inspired by Myles, an Irish comic writer. If we want to take stock of its merits and limits, its main merit is to draw the attention of cognitive scientists to non-standard issues in current CS like phenomenology, affect, social factors. Perhaps a shortcoming of the book is to present itself both as an introduction as well as a critique; as a consequence it is not always clear which is the audience. Eventually, it seems that, having pursued its noble aim of enriching CS by conducting it towards "mind", even though it realized that the "C" in CS is too narrow and limiting, it remains entangled in CS, and the author has not taken the bigger step, to go beyond CS, and to declare that a new science is needed.