A Mechanistic Conception of Mind

In American Scientist, Gilbert Harman reviews Margaret A. Boden’s Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science:

In her latest book, the lively and interesting Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, the relevant machine is usually a computer, and the cognitive science is usually concerned with the sort of cognition that can be exhibited by a computer. Boden does not discuss other aspects of the subject, broadly conceived, such as the “principles and parameters” approach in contemporary linguistics or the psychology of heuristics and biases. Furthermore, she also puts to one side such mainstream developments in computer science as data mining and statistical learning theory. In the preface she characterizes the book as an essay expressing her view of cognitive science as a whole, a “thumbnail sketch” meant to be “read entire” rather than “dipped into.”

It is fortunate that Mind as Machine is highly readable, particularly because it contains 1,452 pages of text, divided into two very large volumes. Because the references and indices (which fill an additional 179 pages) are at the end of the second volume, readers will need to have it on hand as they make their way through the first. Given that together these tomes weigh more than 7 pounds, this is not light reading!

Boden’s goal, she says, is to show how cognitive scientists have tried to find computational or informational answers to frequently asked questions about the mind—”what it is, what it does, how it works, how it evolved, and how it’s even possible.” How do our brains generate consciousness? Are animals or newborn babies conscious? Can machines be conscious? If not, why not? How is free will possible, or creativity? How are the brain and mind different? What counts as a language?