Departments

Cognitive psychology 2/5

Before I attempt a reasoned argument I want to sketch three broad points of general discomfort with cognitive psychology.

1. It is difficult to pay sustained attention to cognitive psychology without feeling that the point of many experiments is not the paper, but the press release. The relationship between science and the media is generally discussed as if newsmen trawled scientific publications with a view to finding stories with headline appeal. But this is not how it works; institutions (with what degree of involvement from researchers I do not know) push press releases to sites like EurekAlert!; journalists may check up on them to add human interest, but the transition between experiment and news item takes place inside the institution. As a regime of incentives, this strikes me as perverse.

2. Cognitive psychology is based on the model of the brain as a computer; but this is a trivial statement, nearly a tautology. It implies that a computer is a kind of machine, another something like a clock or a car; a sophisticated machine, certainly, but just a machine; just a machine, and the brain just another example. But this is not what a computer is. The history of computers is not a history of invention; it is a history of discovery. We did not invent computers; we discovered computation. Computation is an aspect of nature, something like emission or gravity, a property of all sufficient systems. If something is not a computer, it is less than a computer. So of course the brain is a computer; and—?

3. Cognitive psychology and ethicism in psychology are roughly coeval. The obvious suspicion is to ask whether we discovered cognitive psychology because it was the only psychology we could discover ethically? Psychologists cannot do harm, so they find no harm in the mind; psychologists cannot deceive, so they find biases, but no gullibility; psychologists must have volunteer consent, so they find the mind sociable and cooperative.