December 3, 2008

Cognition isn't all that it's cracked up to be

If I had my usual set of facilities about me, I would defer grumbling about Kevin Carey's article in the Washington Monthly because I had work to do. But though Carey elides fairly important topics such as real trends in faculty pay, adjunctification, and trends in state support for public higher education, the real reason tonight (or probably early this morning by the time this is done) that I'm deferring grumbling about it is because I don't have my usual set of facilities about me, in either the archaic sense of cognitive apparatus or equipment (in this case, access to a website I need to get several tasks done). Because Michael Bérubé's entry today shows that he has more patience with Peter Singer than I do, I can't even explain what irks me about Singer's position vis-a-vis cognitive capacity of people with Down syndrome. I can assure you that I know several adults with Down syndrome who would be more trusted at this moment to make sound judgments about important matters than I would be.

Part of this well-grounded feeling of inferiority comes from a specific medical condition that were I to have any authority at all in the area would probably be attributed to a rhinovirus or retrovirus. At this point in a head cold, I'm usually less miserable than seriously underslept and overstimulated, and after about 43.5 years on this earth, I know that unless I'm mistaken, this is a temporary set of circumstances. Well, not the underslept or overstimulated part, but the unusual combinations of ideas that appear in my head. Yeah, yeah, I know some of you believers in "brain-based learning" would point to V.S. Ramachandran's work on synaesthesia to argue that my brain probably just has interesting connections building up. Me, I think it's the result of congestion and a lack of willpower in commanding my brain to make sense. But what do I know? If I'm right that I am not making sense, then the last sentence is ... oh, shoot. I'm sure Bertrand Russell would find a way to delegitimize that last passage.

I consider myself lucky to be past the point in this illness where I am physically miserable and have to force myself by sheer dint of moral rectitude to stop feeling sorry for myself, damnagit, I have friends who are chronically in pain or are in life-threatening conditions. No, instead I am in the mildly entertaining or at least distracting condition of having the delusion that if I am seriously lucky I could put together a set of words or at least word-like things that might be in the stream-of consciousness style that is almost but not quite entirely unlike what James Joyce might have written on a bad day when he had felt like the entire Everglades had invaded his left sinuses.

(Kids, don't try this destruction of a good Douglas Adams construction at home: your friends will run screaming from the room, never to speak with you again. I should note that I am alone in this room.)

Nonetheless, I suspect that despite this short lapse in my usual blogging style and restraint, I might still be considered human enough to have rights in Peter Singer's firmament. So that's one flaw in his argument, the essentializing of human capacity. If I have rights when I have my full faculties, but for ten days out of a year, I'm making about as much sense as an iguana with a bad temper, the contingency of rights on cognition is something that is hard to see as consistent or useful. I could have been euthanized four days ago when I was a fairly useless lump on a bed, but tomorrow and definitely by Thursday I'm one of the protected cognitive classes? Even in my current condition, that makes about as much sense as a cabbage being elected president. (Then again, that could explain our 13th president, a Mr. James Buchanan.)

In addition to essentializing human capacity, it has a remarkably crude view of cognition and human understanding. While I may be attracted to the work of Dr. Ramachandran because it fits my own experiences, most cognitive psychologists I know think that our mind is much more complicated and subtle than even the most sophisticated models today. That's okay: a model is not supposed to be as complex as reality, and the work I'm aware of (I'm not a psychologist!) gives tentalizing clues about a modular mind rather than a detailed framework. But those clues are enough to cast doubt on cognition as a unidimensional construct. If it is so, it is plausibly unidimensional only under fairly strong assumptions without convincing evidence. Listen to this article
Posted in Personal on December 3, 2008 12:19 AM |