Uttal’s Immeasurable Mind

I’ve just finished William Uttal’s latest book, The Immeasurable Mind, a short but wide-ranging survey of the problems encountered by the discipline of psychology in its attempts to be considered as a ‘science’.

I was of course reading as an outsider to psychology – but given how frequently and substantially linguistics makes contact with psychology, many of Uttal’s points are equally relevant to linguistics too.

Although I do have some quibbles about some aspects of the book, I’ll just briefly run through his three arguments which I found most interesting.

One point which he makes repeatedly is that mental processes are ‘inaccessible’ – they cannot be directly observed, or measured. Human behaviour can be observed and measured, but behaviour is only an indirect indicator of what’s going on in the mind. Cognitive faculties and processes must be either simply postulated or else at best inferred, but they are not concretely observable. In linguistics perhaps even more than in psychology, what we too often deal with are,

“intangible, immeasurable, imprecisely defined, inferred hypothetical constructs, whose existence is private to the individual.” (p246)

I’m not sure if I want to take up the position that investigating intangible and immeasurable constructs (such as ‘mind’, or ‘grammar’) necessarily mean that the investigation is, or must be, non-scientific, but it must surely be beneficial to keep constantly aware that having to infer the primitive objects which your discipline deals with is much less of a satisfactory state of affairs than being able to observe and measure them.

The second point was related to the use of “folk terminology.” Although again it isn’t necessarily a problem that words in everyday use can be given a technical meaning, Uttal’s point is that technical terms need to have clear definitions, if imprecision is not to beget imprecision:

“[‘Folk’ terminology] is useful because of a general, albeit imprecise, commonsense agreement that, while useful in our daily lives, does not serve science well. “(p77)

He also quotes the philosopher Quine: “the less a science has advanced, the more its terminology tends to rest on an uncritical assumption of mutual understanding.” (p77). One of the things which I have found most frustrating of all in linguistics (if not specifically phonology) is the belief that as long as we all know what we mean by some fundamental term or other, it doesn’t really matter that nobody is able to define it conceptually, or point it out on a spectrogram, or specify its concrete, physical properties. Clearly, we can’t all know what we all mean, if we don’t have a point of reference by which to judge whether or not someone’s use or understanding of a term matches everybody else’s.

The third point of interest was the discussion in chapter 3 of the role of mathematics in psychology. Uttal argues that even if there was a way to quantify human brain processes, they are too complex to be mathematically tractable, or to be amenable to computational simulations. Linguistics too could benefit from taking on board his argument that “the mere insertion of a few equations does not a science make,” p144 – it’s not a particularly original point, but it’s always useful to bear in mind. Using an equals sign, he continues, “does not always imply quantitative equality and precision but instead a general trend:” when suffering from too many word-equations given in terms of hopelessly undefined pseudo-variables, it is particularly refreshing to be reassured on this point.

(eg:

SF = S0 + D

where SF is the final state of language acquisition, S0 is the initial state, and D is further data from the environment – to pluck an example from thin air! There is absolutely no way of quantifying any of those things that look like they could be variables, and who could possibly say that adding S0 and D is better than multiplying them, or whether it shouldn’t be one to the power of the other.)

However, as I say, I did have a couple of quibbles with The Immeasurable Mind. A couple of years ago I read Uttal’s 2001 publication, The New Phrenology: The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain, and found it very stimulating – although it makes some very controversial and potentially deeply unwelcome points, the arguments are carefully set out and hard-hitting throughout.

In The Immeasurable Mind, however, there are places where it’s quite clunky and reads as if it hasn’t gone through the complete editing process. Chapter-internal sections don’t always relate transparently to each other, unfamiliar terms aren’t always clarified on your first encounter with them, and a couple of footnotes sound unnecessarily hasty and apologetic.

I could also have wished for some slightly more concrete exemplification of what were the particular targets of some of his criticisms. For example, a splendid paragraph on page 63 runs as follows.

“The result of this perennial search for a way to describe the mechanisms of the mind is that psychology has always been seeking models or metaphors for the mind from whatever was the popular and tangible physical theory of the time. The outcome of this need was that totally irrelevant physical processes became metaphors for the mind. These metaphors appeared to make tangible the intangible; their purpose was to provide a concrete, connotative equivalent for mind as a surrogate for an elusive, denotative definition of it. Unfortunately, the conceptual aide – the metaphor – was often reified and became more of a reality than what was originally intended. What had originally been a conceptual aide often became the driving force behind a particular kind of experimental strategy. The dividing line between conceptual aide and paradigmatic approach was just too delicate not to be subsequently breached.”

The next paragraph, ideally, would have provided an example of just this kind of reification to ram the point home – but none is forthcoming, and instead the discussion moves on to another section of the argument (namely, that experimental techniques are too liable to become the foundation of a theoretical approach in psychology – an argument which is, this time, supported by the example of fMRI giving rise to a resurgence in the idea that separate components of the mind can be identified in the brain, and an argument which I have a lot of sympathy for). What he may have had in mind was the metaphor of a digital computer and computational processes for the mind and mental processes respectively – or the metaphor of ‘cognitive architecture’, perhaps. This is a point which I find extremely interesting, and demanding of careful thought among the psychology and linguistics disciplines at large – so a little bit of extra detail wouldn’t have gone wrong here.

But I wouldn’t want these objections to rise above the status of minor niggles in a book which I’m otherwise very glad to have available. Challenges to dominant academic orthodoxies are almost always valuable – if they can be resisted that’s all to the good, and if not, surely the most scientific thing to do is to accept them and refine our principles, assumptions, and methods. Either way, the state of ongoing robust discussion which Uttal’s publications should provoke can only be beneficial.

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