Tuesday 15 February 2011

Chemero (2009), Chapter 1: Hegelian Arguments in Cognitive Science

The basic thesis of RECS is that cognitive science should give up on representations (the radical bit) and focus on explaining the embodiment of cognition in a complex, perceiving-acting dynamical system. Chemero spends Chapter 1 heading off the likely initial line of resistance to this thesis; namely, the argument that 'your thesis got ruled out in the 80s by [insert name here]'. Chemero labels arguments of this type 'Hegelian' and makes a case that a) they're mostly a sign of the immaturity of modern cognitive science, but most importantly b) they don't really need to convince anyone to stop trying to develop a radical, embodied cognitive science (and that the rest of the book is therefore still worth a read). I basically agree with this analysis; in fact, we started this blog to try and address the immaturity issue in (a) (in favour of some form of (b)). So we're off to a good start!

Chemero begins by laying out a typical discussion between cognitive scientists:
Imagine the scene: An academic conference. Two cognitive scientists, casual but friendly acquaintances, are chatting in a hotel bar.

‘‘So, what are you working on now?’’
‘‘I’ve been doing some stuff with [insert one of: ecological psychology, connectionist networks, dynamical modeling, embodied cognition, situated robotics, etc.].’’
‘‘But [insert name(s) here] already showed that that approach is hopeless. The paper was published in ... ’’
‘‘Yeah, yeah. I’ve read that one. I don’t buy it at all. [Reinsert name(s) here] doesn’t really get it. You see...’’

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken part in a conversation like this. In fact, nearly everyone working in cognitive science is working on an approach that someone else has shown to be hopeless, usually by an argument that is more or less purely philosophical.

Chemero, 2009, pp 3
This sort of thing really is common; if I had a dollar for every conversation like this I've had, I wouldn't be so worried about the research funding climate in the UK just now. We are often told our programme of research in cognitive science are doomed to failure if it doesn't include something someone thinks is essential to cognition (such as representations). We also tend to simply ignore the argument, however, or at least not find it compelling, because our approach might not think representations (for example) are indeed necessary features of a cognitive system; not having them is therefore not a problem.

These arguments do not ever hinge on empirical results; they are rationalist. They also don't even tend to show up in other sciences but are rampant (although still unconvincing) in cognitive science. Why are these two things true? 

Chemero lays out four examples of these arguments:
  1. Hegel's argument that there couldn't be a planet between Mars and Jupiter, because that would violate a specific mathematical progression he thought dictated the location of the planets;
  2. Behe's creationist argument that biological systems are irreducibly complex, and thus couldn't have evolved;
  3. Chomsky's argument that children acquire a grammar without enough reinforcement or information (the poverty of stimulus argument)
  4. Fodor & Pylyshyn rejecting connectionist networks as models of cognitive systems because these networks are neither systematic nor representational in the manner of human cognition
These arguments all have the same basic flavour: on the basis of some claims for which there might not be any evidence (e.g. Hegel's claim that the distance between planets must follow an a priori mathematical progression) you simply rule out a competing hypothesis. These are not empirical claims; they aren't based on data, but on a theoretical assumption. Astronomy ignored Hegel and found asteroids; biology ignores Behe and continues the job of collecting empirical evidence for evolution. But cognitive science gives these sorts of arguments (Hegelian arguments) a lot of weight. 

Why? One option is that the topic of cognitive science is about different sort of stuff, and such arguments are thus applicable. Chemero rules this out on the basis that even digestion has been victim of Hegelian arguments against the hypothesis that we take nutrition on board from our food. This happened, though, in Medieval times when it was still early days and there was a competing theory around (that the atoms in our body are all copies of the atoms from Adam and allowing food to become part of us makes no sense). The point is that it was early days, in the same way as it is for cognitive science. These arguments are a symptom of the field's immaturity. 

Kuhn and immaturity
Chemero means this in the technical, Kuhnian sense. For Kuhn, a science at any given moment is in one of three phases: it is immature, it is engaged in normal science, or it is in crisis/revolution. Normal science, with it's well established and broadly accepted theoretical framework, simply doesn't find Hegelian arguments compelling because there are data on the issue which everyone agrees is valid. Immature sciences don't have this framework; it has, by definition, lots of competing theories vying for space and grant money. Arguments which are effectively incommensurable with each other will therefore be common as they try and kill each other off. This incommensurability, of course, makes them unconvincing to people in the other camp.

So the problem is merely one of the state of the art - cognitive science is young, therefore there are Hegelian arguments ruling out alternative theories left, right and centre. But they aren't a problem and no-one attempting a rethink of cognition should be concerned: these arguments are unconvincing, and the whole competing theories thing is actually a fairly healthy sign of a science in transition. The only reason to stop doing any of these is as the data roll in to decide things one way or another: in the meantime, we should embrace the parallel streams as a marketplace of ideas.

Some thoughts
Personally I'm a little concerned that cognitive science is still in this phase; the 'cognitive revolution' was 50 years ago and it's not like psychology hasn't been busy. If we can't agree on the basic questions of our discipline, we won't make a lot of progress. But given that we are clearly still in this stage (see: every conversation we have with Ken Aizawa :), Chemero's right that nothing should just get thrown out just yet on the basis of 'well, you don't include what I think is a necessary condition for cognition' - what's necessary is still up for grabs and thus a competitive marketplace of ideas might just be the price we have to pay before we settle on a theory.

So with that out of the way, Chemero can now throw his idea out into the marketplace. Chapter 2 will lay out what his idea is, and situate it historically so it seems a little less left-field.

Chemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, MIT Press e-book


  1. Thanks, Andrew, for spending so much time on this. It is much appreciated. I promise to break my lifetime of blog silence to weigh in from time to time. Weighing in here, I think this is a fair summary of the chapter.

    I'd like to point to something that maybe isn't as clear as it could be in the chapter. Here it is: EVERYONE makes Hegelian arguments. The folks on our (eco/dynamic) side are just as prone to do so as the opposition. And a priori arguments that computational psychology is bound to fail because it can can never account for X should be just as unconvincing as a priori arguments that only computational psych can account for X. These are all bad arguments, even if you happen to agree with the conclusions.

    Why, it is fair to ask, did I fail to bring up Hegelian arguments made by dynamics types or Gibsonians in the chapter? The answer, I suppose, is that I knew that I would be pissing Turvey and Shaw enough in later chapters.

  2. Glad you'll be around for this, Tony. I'm enjoying the process of reading and taking notes this way; it's really helped me wrap my head around the book. The first few chapters will be straight forward, I think, but I have lots to say about the later chapters :)

    These types of arguments are a real problem, though. I've always had trouble even conveying the basic ideas of ecological psychology to cognitive people, because this incommensurability just gets in the way. I do tend to think eco-psych people tend to be more informed about the broader lay of the land: until I worked with Geoff, my training was all pretty standard cognitive type research. I find I know more about their arguments than they do about mine, which is useful but frustrating.

  3. Excellent review. I am forced to delve my notes to see if I can find something to add.

    One odd thing about this chapter worth emphasizing is that it makes absolutely no argument for RECS, nor even explain what it is! This is not problematic in the long run, because the entire book is working towards those goals. Chapter 1 is simply "clearing a space" into which the later arguments can fall unimpeded.

    However, a book that really caries an arc through 200 pages is rare these days... This traditional style of book writing will likely be a bit off-putting for some readers, particularly the experimental psychology crowd that will be expecting either hard hitting data or vicious intellectual arguments from the start. Being part of that group, it left me wanting more, and I was unsure whether in a good way or a bad way. It did work well though, and felt more and more appropriate as the reading continued.

  4. Hi Eric

    Thanks for stopping by! If you have anything you feel like adding as we go, please feel free.

    I've been enjoying re-reading this in enough detail to blog, for the reason you say - everything set up early on gets used. It's certainly more a philosophical book than an empirical one, though.

  5. I tend to find it a little difficult to catch on to his mathematical examples, but I do enjoy such a summary on the first chapter of this book. I think probably the basis of all these Hegelian arguments is just the fact that everyone wants their own theory, and everyone also wants to be right. I also find this amusing how he says about them being around because of immaturity (to which everyone at each others throats for one scrap of meat really is an immature thing). Everything should be analyzed until there is some form of solid base to the theory (like the example of a planet between mars). until it is properly assessed that it's clearly not right, we really don't have the right to rule out or rule in a certain theory.

    though going from the first chapter to the second had me wanting to drop out of school and join the circus, it seems to be progressing much better throughout the chapters with elaborating on the mathematical representations. However, the first chapter is definitely a baseline for the entire book, giving an overview of everything. Everything in the later chapters always seem to be capable of being traced back to the first, which is probably my favorite plus for Chemero's book.

    Christin Ricketts :)

  6. I'm an undergrad reading Chemero's book for a class on Advance Behaviorism and Conditioning. This first chapter hit home in the section about the conversation between two cognitive scientists. Although I have never been in this conversation I see this type of talk when certain authors discuss "the fall of behaviorism" (mainly my Ev. Psych book by Cartwright) Too many times I have seen Chomsky's review of Verbal Behavior mentioned as one of the major contributions to psychology turning its back on behaviorism. His claims in the review didn't destroy the fundamentals of behaviorist ideologies and Chomsky had no empirical data supporting the POTS claims. His arguments were based on a misunderstanding of Skinner (or so Skinner says and I believe him). Its disappointing that authors to this day cite Chomsky's review as a reason that behaviorism approach was shown to be "hopeless" due to such an argument like Chomsky's which Chemero cites as a Hegelian arguments.

  7. This chapter was a task for me to grasp at the beginning, as it was discussed things got better. I agree that everyone has a theory and everyone wants to be right, yet everyone is right in their own way about their theories. We have all these to solve for different things. Some are better than others.

  8. Alex, you might enjoy this blog, Child's Play. I'm not as in awe of Dye as she is of herself, but she does work in a language lab that's trying to really tackle the Chomsky-dominance of the field with good, modern, learning style research. You'd have a lot on common re: Chomsky :)

  9. Andrew, Alex,
    Have you seen the stuff coming out of Michael Goldstein's lab at Cornell (http://babylab.psych.cornell.edu/). It is really great stuff that supports Skinner's approach vs. Chomsky. Michael is showing reinforcement shaping pre-language in "micro-genetic" interactions and longitudinally in parent-infant interactions!

  10. I knew Michael a little at IU, and yes, his stuff is excellent. The babbling work was great, really top quality.

  11. I think that is is interesting how cognitive science is so young whenever everyone should have considered it as a science whenever people founded the first science. Our minds are a science in their own. Since cognitive science is so young I agree with Chemero that many ideas cannot be thrown out in the first several years of the discovery of this science because the investigation should be thoroughly thought through and disproved before it needs to be rejected.
    I found that Hegel's planet argument is peculiar because he believes math is the cause and reasoning of everything. I understand that the planets have a specific rotation, but I think if it was thrown off a little the universe wouldn't blow up... I do have a bias against math though because I do not like to think it has a say in everything. I'm going to stick to my cognitive thinking & take in as much information as possible on others opinions on these matters [=
    -Kasey Kowalski

  12. I think that is is interesting how cognitive science is so young whenever everyone should have considered it as a science whenever people founded the first science.
    Well, to be fair, people have been trying to tackle this problem for a long time - you can always count on the Ancient Greeks to have had a good swing at your problem first :)

    I found that Hegel's planet argument is peculiar because he believes math is the cause and reasoning of everything. I understand that the planets have a specific rotation, but I think if it was thrown off a little the universe wouldn't blow up
    It does sound odd, doesn't it - this idea of mathematical necessity, that somehow doing some maths could that something simply must be true. Again, though, in fairness, good maths can take you a long way so long as you remember, as you say, the universe isn't actually made out of it :)

  13. I definitely agree with Andrew's comment. Initially one of my fellow classmates found it difficult to correlate the math in the planet argument, with the thought of cognitive thinking. I think this was due in large part to the fact that math would be expected to be used in more of a straight forward situation, where as cognitive thinking requires a bit more depth.