Seán Ó Nualláin is a member of Nous Research, an Ireland-based organization which ‘conducts research into mind and society, and in particular the interaction of science and society … as a resource for those attempting to remodel society along more equitable, sustainable, and rational lines.’ Their website (www.nous-research.com) is worth a look, not least because it includes an ‘extended abstract’ of Ó Nualláin's book Being Human: the Search for Order. His other book, The Search for Mind, seems to have a dual purpose: it aims to keep us ‘up to date with current findings in the study of mind’, while the subtitle promises a ‘New Foundation for Cognitive Science’. The Nous website summarizes the book's contents as given in italics below, juxtaposed with my comments.
The degree to which cognitive science as currently conceived can aspire to be the science of mind is a difficult issue. Proposing an integrated approach to cognitive science, this revised edition of The Search For Mind has been updated to meet the newest developments of this rapidly changing field.
‘Cognitive science’ (usually ‘CS’ in the book) here means essentially the computational approach to developing a theoretical model of mind (which of course may have applications in AI or physically realized models). ‘Integrated’ means that the author tries to incorporate the subjective aspects of ‘consciousness and selfhood’ into the model, partly by drawing on the phenomenological tradition. Jacob Needleman's puff on the back cover claims that the ‘emerging science of Consciousness needs to pay attention to this voice in order to keep alive the hope of humanizing modern science.’ But any ‘humanizing’ done here has already been done with greater clarity and cogency by Varela, Thompson and Rosch in The Embodied Mind (1991), Bruner in Acts of Meaning (1990), and many others.
The first edition of this book came out in 1995, and the ‘updating’ of the content since then seems to be minor, judging from the author's own remarks and the dates of cited sources. This undermines the description of CS as a ‘rapidly changing field’. But then the question arises, Why a ‘revised edition’?—especially one that nobody bothered to proofread. Extracting a signal from the typographic, syntactic and stylistic noise is no easy task, and what does come through looks like a collection of hasty jottings—quirky, often clever, sometimes insightful, but badly in need of an editor who could at least open up a few clearings in the jungle of acronym-laden jargon.
The first part of this book constitutes clear introductions to the disciplines that traditionally are seen to constitute cognitive science (namely: Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence and Ethnology).
Even overlooking its lack of clarity, this book can't really qualify as ‘introductory’. Ó Nualláin claims (p. 9) that ‘a great deal of this material has been successfully presented to Computer Science, Computational Linguistics, Cognitive Science and Electronic Engineering students,’ but if so, the presentation must have been considerably more orderly and patient than it is in the book, which skitters over the surface of the field like a flat stone flung across a pond. Typically a new concept is introduced with a few cryptic sentences and a promise to develop it further in a later chapter. But the reader arrives at the later chapter only to find the concept mentioned obliquely as if an explanation of it were already in place. Thinking he must have missed something, the reader tries to locate it in the intervening pages, but to no avail. In short, the structure of this book seems to exemplify Norbert Wiener's remark that ‘there are no answers, only cross-references.’
Of the six broad topics listed above, two are given very short shrift. Ó Nualláin considers neuroscience and ‘ethnology’ to be ‘boundary disciplines’ (p. 4), meaning peripheral, while the other (more computation-friendly) disciplines ‘traditionally comprise the core of CS’. ‘Ethnology’ conflates anthropology with ethology, and the chapter on it features contemptuous diatribes against Richard Dawkins, ‘sociobiology’ and Margaret Mead—targets already well studded with darts in the literature. The author's distaste for biology is evident in the chapter on ‘neuroscience’, which deals mostly with connectionism and PDP (parallel distributed processing). Among scientists who have delved into the workings of living brains, only Gerald Edelman is deemed worthy of more than a passing glance. Treatment of the ‘core disciplines’ is somewhat fuller, but still highly eclectic. Ó Nualláin bestows attention and approval on prior theories (for instance those of Piaget) in proportion to their usefulness in building what he calls the ‘Nolanian framework’, which purports to be the ‘new foundation’ promised in the subtitle.
The second section focuses on the nature of symbol systems, considered generically, and goes on to detail a theory of consciousness and selfhood. The two strands are woven together into a new theory of cognition and its development. Ó Nualláin concludes that a science that fully attempts to treat cognition must remain au fait with the findings from all other approaches to the study of mind, from the purely behaviorist to the purely experiential.
If the theory offered here is really an original contribution, then its eclectic, elliptic and often polemical presentation is forgivable and even welcome. But for this reviewer at least, what seems fundamental in Ó Nualláin's framework is not new, and what's new is more idiosyncratic than fundamental. Still, there is something endearing about ‘this irritating Irish know-all’ (the author's self-description on p. 34). If his book is not the place to start in a search for mind, it could still be a refreshing place to visit now and then.
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