Monday, August 26, 2013

The Representation Problem

Having finished Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, I discovered that much of my discontent with the author's approach had be well articulated by John A. Sloboda in the Preface to his own book, The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music. Indeed, the account of Patel's book that I wrote for began by enumerating the way Sloboda felt that the "scientific" study of music had deliberately overlooked valuable input from practicing musicians. As a result, I realized that Sloboda's book (whose Preface was written in July of 1983) might deserve a closer read, even if it predated so many of the recent insights from neuroscience.

As I leafed through my copy of this book, I realized that I had already read it once. Furthermore, I could tell from the paucity of marginal annotations that I had not read it with much sympathy or depth. Having returned to the first chapter of the book, entitled "Music as a Cognitive Skill," I now remember why I was so unsympathetic.

This book was written at a time when the study of cognition was, for the most part, reduced to the premise that thought was based on mental representations. The "cognitive program" was thus one of figuring out the nature of those representations and then understanding how they were formed and subsequently used. My piece included the following observation:
In other words, every time science comes up with a new way of looking at the physical world, there is a rush to seek out the value of that point of view in our efforts to understand both mind and music.
In this particular case the relevant perspective of science was that of symbolic representation, which has pretty much been the bread and butter of mathematics once mathematics extended its capacity beyond mere calculation. The very concept of a mental representation has its roots in those techniques that have represented the processes of logical reading in terms of symbol structures. Drawing upon the terminology of this discipline of mathematical logic, Marvin Minsky claimed that the premise of cognitive psychology was that thought was "propositional."

As an alternative, Minsky suggested that the nature of mind was dispositional, rather than propositional. In other words evidence of such mental concepts as "understanding" or "remembering" are not grounded in the presence of symbolic representations but in an individual's disposition to action, which is as likely to be unconscious as based on conscious motives. My past reading of Minsky remain with me, even to the point where I am "disposed" to consider the "spectrum of emotional dispositions" that "drive" a particular act of performing a piece of music.

It is understandable that Minsky's should be a "minority option" among those seeking a scientific approach to the nature of mind. The nice thing about symbolic propositions is that one can develop a variety of calculi for describing them and analyzing their properties. As I have said in the past, those symbolic constructs are "noun-based." Dispositions, on the other hand, are "verb-based." Not only do we have an impoverished toolbox for studying them; but also they did to defy analysis for the simple reason that they cannot "hold still" while we are trying to analyze them.

I concluded my piece about Patel's book by suggesting that progress will only come with a paradigm shift. To be more specific, we need to be more scientific in dealing with that verb-based worldview. This will require a major departure from what is currently recognized as "normal science."

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