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The Structure of Thinking by Laura Weed

Scott O’Reilly gets quite excited about a new book on the nature of the mind by Laura Weed.

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote lines that seem to capture something of the complex and mysterious relationship between the mind and the world:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

I wonder what Ms Dickinson would think of the idea of conscious computers, particularly the idea that an algorithm could contain the essence of thought? For a large portion of the scientific and philosophical community the mind is a syntactical engine, a computational network of neurons that run the algorithm of thought. In the conventional parlance, the brain is 'hardware' while the mind is 'software.' This distinction has led many a philosopher to speculate that the essence of thought might someday be duplicated on a computer, producing, if you will, a silicon sentience.

In her incisive book The Structure of Thinking: a process-oriented account of mind, Laura Weed argues that syntactically based sentience is quixotic. Weed is hardly the only thinker to make the case against strong Artificial Intelligence (AI) - John Searle with his Chinese Room argument is the best known opponent of AI - but her arguments represent some of the clearest and most compelling thinking on the subject of thought, and why you simply cannot get semantics out of syntax - no matter how powerful or elaborate the computer.

Weed identifies two types of thinking: x-type thinking and y-type thinking. Xtype thinking is rooted inxperience and involves object-positing - that is, picking out features of our experience and marking them as objects that subsist over time. Xtype thinking is inherently 'intentional' - it is about something - hence it is by its nature semantic. This type of thinking is grounded in the way sensory apparatus and neural networks process information from the environment (or even information arising from within the organism itself). That is, our neurological 'circuitry' has evolved to detect and interpret information in ways that organize what would otherwise be, in William James' memorable phrase, “a blooming, buzzing confusion” so that our experiential field consists of more or less stable objects within a world we can control and manipulate. Following thinkers like William James and the Gestalt psychologists, Weed marshals an impressive body of empirical research to show how this perceptual aspect of thought cannot be reduced to computation.

Y-type thinking, on the other hand, consists of formal systems such as predicate calculus, propositional logic, mathematics, or any pure syntactical system meant to represent some aspect of the world (or indeed the entire world). Y-type thinking allows us to generalize our experience, make inferences, and organize, categorize and structure our experience. However, by itself, y-type thinking is empty; one could say it is all computation and no content. Nevertheless, analytic philosophers and many cognitive scientists hope to distill the essential patterns of thought into type y syntactic forms. This has led to numerous advances in logic, linguistics and computer science, but it is based on a rather dubious assumption: that propositions bear an isomorphic relationship to the world - in other words that there is a one-to-one correspondence between propostions and world. But this is an extremely static account of human thinking capacity. Human thought combines both x and y type thinking. And true knowledge - in the pragmatic sense that it gets results - is a combination of xtype experiences embedded in a y-type syntactical format. Of course, both x-type and y-type processes are interactive and interdependent, with one another and with the world. This is an account of human thinking as a highly active process, with a two-way relationship between experience and world. In short, it is an account that can do justice to the complexity of thought as traditional reductive approaches cannot.

Weed argues that, ever since Plato, philosophers have tended to regard our abstractions, concepts and formal systems as if they were real things, even postulating that they occupy an intelligible sphere of their own where they exist as eternal ideals. This view is mistaken according to Weed, and she argues for Aristotle's notion that the essence or 'form' of an object is not something that exists in an ethereal plane, but rather something the human mind, in an act of perception, admixes with its experiences to generate intelligible objects of thought. Ironically, as Weed's text makes clear, seemingly opposed schools of thought - dualists like Plato and materialists like Daniel Dennett (and other proponents of strong AI) - have shared the common assumption that the essence of thought didn't necessarily depend on the contingencies of a material substrate. That is, for Plato the soul could subsist without the body, and for Dennett the algorithm of thought could, in principle, be run on a computer someday. Weed seeks a middle course, one that brings the ethereal forms of Plato down to earth while exposing the inadequacy of the reductive materialists' viewpoint to account for the richness of consciousness.

Science has perennially struggled to give an objective or third person account of first person subjectivity. The third person language of science, inevitably, leaves little room for concepts such as 'agency' , 'qualia' , 'free will' and the like. But Weed articulates an ontological framework that goes a long way to bridging the 'explanatory gap' - the apparent conundrum of how that three-and- a-half pound gelatinous blob which we call the brain (presumably) causes consciousness. Weed proposes an enhanced notion of causation - or what she dubs 'kausation' - as a way of overcoming the deficiencies that attend the conventional understandings of causation in science and philosophy. Kausation is an inextricable part of x-type thinking; of object-positing. Kausation is part of the observation process itself, and it essentially refers to the fact that objects in the real world impinge upon our awareness. Weed writes:

“Kausation is part of the object-positing process ... It is the way in which some aspect of someone's world impinges on his or her consciousness, when the knower focuses on it, or pays attention to it. 'Impingement' differs from efficient causation in that it is a two way, conscious, active, and judgmental relationship.”

Weed's view is Realist in some sense, as she argues that reality is mind independent. But there is a touch of Idealism at work in the sense that kausation requires a point of view and hence kausation is minddependent. The notion of kausation, however, allows for a reciprocal relationship between experience and the world, something entirely lacking in efficient causation, which is essentially a one-way affair. In other words, consciousness is no longer a 'causally' inert epiphenomenon.

Weed's book is a sustained and perceptive deconstruction of the Cartesian outlook, particularly as it continues to inform - or infect - the materialism that claims to have left Descartes behind. Weed is hardly alone in debunking Cartesianism. The problem with many a project that has debunked Descartes' Cogito is that all that seems to be left over is the notion that 'man is a machine', a soulless automaton. Weed's contribution is to show that many anti-Cartesians have let Cartesian assumptions in through the back door. Hence, Weed opens up a promising new way of approaching the philosophy of mind that excises more than one Cartesian ghost.

I began this review with a poem by Emily Dickinson. Her words are appropriate for a number of reasons. First, in the ontology Weed presents, the sharp distinction between inner and outer is overcome. There is no need for cumbersome 'sense-data' or representations, as our experience is reality. Second, dualism (most versions of which tend to be inflationary) and reductive materialism (which is deflationary) are revealed as false choices - the fact that 'kausation' requires both 'a point of view' and a reciprocal relationship between experience and the world preserves concepts like 'agency' while eliminating the dreaded homunculus. Third, a syntactical engine, no matter how complex, cannot give rise to semantics. But we are, as Dickinson's lines intimate, creatures whose self-understanding is suffused with a rich semantical texture. As Aristotle noted more than 2,000 years ago, metaphor (the life blood of poetry) is one of humanity's most remarkable capacities, for it allows featherless bipeds like ourselves to express truths that go beyond any formal or notational system. Such truths do not exist in some ethereal Platonic realm, but neither are they to be found in the syntactical calculus of the reductive materialist. We must look at human experience as a complex and dynamic interaction between an organism and the world. Science attempts to describe our experience objectively; such descriptions are inherently prosaic, and only part of the story. The Structure of Thinking is a powerfully argued reminder that we are not complex algorithms running on networks of neurons, we are creatures with 'a point of view'. At times, we are even poets, and that is a good thing for, as Voltaire said, “poetry can say more than prose, and in less words.”


Among his many other virtues, Scott O'Reilly is a contributor to the book The Philosophy of Robert Ettinger (Upublish/Ria University Press 2003).

The Structure of Thinking: a process-oriented account of mind by Laura E. Weed (Imprint Academic 2003) £25.00/$40.00.

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