CRITIQUE OF COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY


COGNITION AND THE ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN

American Psychologist, January 1996


The following brief article was written in response to Blumberg & Wasserman's Animal mind and the argument from design in American Psychologist, 50(3), 133-144.

The argument from design was nicely articulated and applied to the problem of animal minds by Blumberg and Wasserman (March 1995). When confronted with the complex patterns of animal behavior, it is easy to presume a pre-existing plan or creative force, in this case a "mind", to explain them.

One must wonder, however, why the argument from design should not be extended to all aspects of contemporary cognitive psychology. According to the authors, this "revolution" in psychology is exempt from criticism based on the argument from design and owes it success to:

"... the careful anchoring of cognitive constructs to measurable and manipulable behaviors; its success and impact were also due to a decidedly mechanistic approach to cognition, particularly the effort to understand cognitive processes with the aid of computer algorithms and mathematical models (p. 133)."
They claim that the field of comparative cognition is justified when a proper experimental approach is applied to animals. But what exactly is the difference between the study of consciousness and the study of cognition? The authors argue correctly against the anthropomorphism involved in attributing feelings, intentions and desires as explanations for an animal's behavior, but the argument from design is not entirely about attributing mental states. It is about any pre-existing plan postulated to explain the regularity in functioning of a living system.

In cognitive psychology, these mental states have been replaced with formal systems such as mathematical models, logical groupings, programs and conceptual systems. The assumption is that these formal systems are uniquely descriptive of the underlying mechanism that generates regularities in behavior.

Living systems, however, do not run by means of logical formalisms. In one of the books cited by Blumberg and Wasserman, Oyama (1985) makes this important distinction:

"Rules and instructions...are what we formulate on the basis of observation of the universe to be simulated. They are what we must use to produce results that resemble the operation of a system that runs without "rules" as we know them, but rather, produces orderly outcomes by virtue of its evolving nature and its interactions. The regularity we describe, because it is always multiply determined and is a function of the history of the system, cannot reside in a component of the system. It is the result of the operation of the system, not its cause (except insofar as results become causes by altering the system itself) (p. 62)."
This analysis applies not only to the attribution of rules to the genetic system, but to formalizations at any level of analysis. Cognitive psychology makes the error of mistaking its own descriptive formalisms for the living system itself, and assumes that these formalisms reside somewhere inside a closed mind.

There are three important consequences of making this error. First, logical formalisms are synchronic or ahistorical and as descriptions cannot portray or account for development. One may provide a series of descriptions of the "mind" at different "stages" in time, but this is not an explanation of development. One does not create a developmental approach by simply filling in the gaps between the fertilized egg and the adult with a series of snapshots.

Second, a cognitive perspective is reductionistic in that it fails to take morphology or the context seriously, and theoretically reduces human beings to disembodied minds. Our formal descriptions assume a self-enclosed level that uniquely controls the functioning of the entire system. As Blumberg and Wasserman point out in their discussion of genetic programs, control is distributed throughout levels of a living system. They rightly point out that the genetic material does not contain a pre-designed program for the development of the organism, but they still accept the possibility of a cognitive program for behavior. Both views are equally reductionistic - the functioning of the system is reduced to a sublevel of that system, in one case to genes and in the other case the mind.

A formalistic, reductionist cognitive theory can not possibly provide an adequate map for exploring the domain of human behavior. The third consequence is therefore methodological. Does it aid us in describing the orderliness of behavior, and does this description include the essential variables in producing this order? If the regularity is produced by multiple interactants across all levels of the system, including the structure of the context to which the system is coupled, then our map must be open to accounting for these aspects. Blumberg and Wasserman effectively show that taking anecdotal samples of behavior based on anthropomorphic concepts may be quite misleading and are not adequate as descriptions of the animal's behavior. The same however, applies to the use of cognitive models. The "anchoring" of concepts refers to the extent to which an account maps the phenomenon. Cognitive models map on to certain aspects of behavior, and ignore other aspects of the living performance.

For example, actual behavior is too often ignored in favor of single-shot results, children are tested in situations in which they lack information, actual processes of attention, posturing, manipulation of materials, etc. are ignored in favor of selected behavioral indicators of underlying logical processes. After reading modern cognitive accounts of behavior, one still does not even know what a human being looks like. Its all in the mind. Context for its part is usually treated as something to be controlled, rather than as integral to the behavioral output.

Cognitive psychology recognized that the complexity of behavior called for some account of structure, which was lacking in the behaviorist paradigm. However, it is not clear that the mind-body distinction is the most appropriate starting point for defining our domain of study. One does not have to be a behaviorist to recognize the problems with "mind" as a level of analysis. If the argument from design is valid as a fallacy to be avoided, we must begin to rethink our approach in light of the newly emerging perspectives on living systems and focus our attention on detailed descriptions of the system in action.

References

Blumberg, M.S., Wasserman, E.A. (1995). Animal mind and the argument from design. American Psychologist, 50(3), 133-144. Oyama, S. (1985). The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The following reply was written in the same issue by Blumberg and Wasserman:

"We agree with Heglar (1996, this issue) when he cautions cognitive psychology against "mistaking its own desriptive formulisms for the living system itself" and assuming "that these formalisms reside inside a closed mind" (p. 57). But we do not agree that cognitive psychology must necessarily fail "to take morphology or the context seriously"(p. 57). For instance, ecological psychologists and, more recently proponents of dynamic perspectives, place context centrally within the domain of cognitive research (e.g. Thelen & Smith, 1994). Moreover, we absolutely reject the notion of a "cognitive program for behavior" (p. 57), and regret any laxness in our writing that may have implied otherwise." (p. 60)


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E-Mail: Laurence E. Heglar, PhD