21.440 cognitive science like alchemy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2007 21:43:47 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 440.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 29 Dec 2007 21:41:14 +0000
         From: Wendell Piez <wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com>
         Subject: cognitive science like alchemy

Dear Willard,

I'm not sure where the intriguing thread on the alchemy vs. chemistry
is going, but it's certainly provocative. It's one of those Ouroboric
epistemological questions.

As for history, it seems every generation of historians struggles
with itself and its predecessors over what history is and is for. But
like so much human activity, it seems to persist because it gives us
at least the promise of some sort of satisfaction, however fleeting.
In particular, I would welcome the satisfaction of a history of
alchemy that went beyond the perennially fashionable trope, "it was
hopelessly benighted and muddled, and then the Enlightenment happened
and Science began", etc. In particular, I would welcome such a true
history (if that is not a contradiction in terms) since it seems
clear to me that alchemy has hardly disappeared. On the contrary, it
is alive and thriving -- just check out the promises of personal and
financial transformation that clog your Inbox to see what I mean.

What's really fun about the Law of Attraction -- the notion that
since Like comes to Like, if you can only "think rich", you will
become so -- is that it's actually true, though not always in the
sense that the marketers are happy for you to take it. Buy the book
or just send them your credit card number, and someone gets rich even
if there is no shift in attitude: it's that magical. The
Philosopher's Stone takes the form of a DVD-ROM (or a correspondence
course or a login/pw), pregnant with fantastic power: but it's up to
you to figure out how to use it.

Yet on an even deeper level, it could be that the alchemists are
literally correct as well, and that yes, in fact, you can become rich
just by shifting your outlook and expectations. Of course, "rich" in
this literal sense might not mean "rich" in the monetary sense, etc.
So beneath the scam lurks an even more occult spiritual truth, albeit
one less satisfying to the materialist.

I mention all this since I want to draw attention to how the
transition from alchemy to chemistry was far more than one of light
out of darkness. While chemistry, founded on notions of disinterested
observation and scientific method, has succeeded beyond alchemy's
most outlandish hopes in mastering the physical universe, it has done
so by "denaturing" its parent, emptying alchemy of its ethical and
spiritual component. This is indeed both a gain, in that as the veils
of personal and emotional involvement are parted, we can at last
begin to see the world "as it is", and a loss, in that such a science
is perforce ethically neutral or even ethically void. There is
nothing unscientific about torturing animals or people, if it is done
in the pursuit of truth. But there may be something inhuman about it.
And consequently we now live in a world in which not only are animals
and human beings tortured in the name of "Science" or "Intelligence",
but also rationalism and the principle of reasoning from evidence
(rather than from hopes and fears and emotional commitments to fixed
ideas) have effectively banished themselves from ethical concerns
both large and small, as being somehow alien from and above them. And
then we are shocked and dismayed to see ethics and morality given
over to the most indulgent and undisciplined kind of magical thinking.

Isn't it interesting that while we are pondering the question of
whether, given advances in neurology, cognitive science will soon
have nothing to offer, the American Psychological Association is
riven by debate over the wisdom of a policy renouncing the
participation of professional psychologists in so-called "robust"
interrogation regimens, as currently practiced by agents of the US
Government and its proxies? Though only an amateur student of
cognitive science (and fascinated by its findings), like many I have
long been skeptical of its stronger claims that the mind can be
understood as a computer. (And I have been relieved to find that its
more thoughtful proponents have not supposed any such simple thing.)
This unease on my part has been motivated by two concerns. First, of
course, I found the analogy to be facile and unrevealing, given how
much it leaves out, even (or even especially) when the human brain
can be found to be performing something like computational
processing. But more important is the ethical concern: once we have
taken the step of considering the brain/body as a machine, it seems
too easy to consider human beings to be instruments to be manipulated
rather than as Others to be Regarded.

(Indeed, I am troubled even by regarding machines as "machines",
given that they too are part of the fabric of human experience, our
creations and evidently bound up in our fate, whatever it may be. How
can I understand the computer on which I type, or the car I drive, on
without seeing how embedded they are, and how they embed me in my use
of them, in the particular kind of human society they entail?)

In view of human purposes and aspirations, the shift from alchemy to
chemistry, or the shift from psychology to neurology (with cognitive
science as a way station), must be an incomplete one, if it leaves us
questioning not just what this is all for (this question being proper
enough), but whether there is any point in caring. Surely, if there
is anything that proves to have its end in itself, it is caring, or
Caritas. But such a recognition is only possible if we regard the
human subject (or any sentient subject, whatever form it takes) as a
reality rather than as a mere ghostly "epiphenomenon" to be
discounted (as if a phenomenon that is "emergent" must be less real
thereby). Thus, while I admire and promote chemistry, neurology and
indeed all the physical sciences, I do so not in the belief that they
represent the ultimate in knowledge, but rather in the hope and
intention that they be important steps along the way to a more
sympathetic, humane and complete outlook, which comprehends and
respects Nature and our place in it with more than a cold regard.

With best wishes for 2008,

Wendell Piez mailto:wapiez_at_mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc. http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285
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Received on Sat Dec 29 2007 - 16:57:35 EST

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