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Noe on the Origins of Cognitive Science

Posted May 04 2009 3:52pm

Ken Aizawa brought to my attention some claims made by Alva Noe in his new book, entitled Out of Our Heads.  It's a book for the general public, so we shouldn't expect too much scholarly rigor.  Nevertheless, there is no reason why it should be as sloppy as it is (on this issue). 

A section entitled "Christopher Columbus and the Brain" contains the following remarkable passage:

"For Hubel and Wiesel, ... cells were understood to be specialized in order to be able to "stand for" and thus represent features.  This application of information theory to the brain was not new when Hubel and Wiesel set to work...  Rafael Lorente de No had represented neural relations as networks already in the thirties, and his treatment had a direct influence on the work of Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, and through them, John von Neumann.  (Walter Freeman, the neuroscientist, likes to say that in a way Lorente de No is the godfather of the computer)" (p. 156).

In these few sentences, Noe switches from talking about the idea that the brain processes representations to the idea that information theory (presumably in Shannon's sense, since he cites Shannon right after this passage) is being applied to the brain to the idea of neural networks to the invention of modern computers, as if all of these were just about the same thing, or at least as if you could go directly from one to the others. 

As far as I'm concerned, they are all different things.  For starters, Shannon's notion of information is not representational (it's not even semantic).  To be sure, McCulloch put all these ideas together (more or less) in a theory of the mind/brain, but it's fallacious to conflate them and anachronistic to project them back onto Lorente de No.

For the record, Lorente de No did offer evidence that the activity of "chains of neurons" play a function in cognitive processes, and McCulloch knew about that.  But as Ken Aizawa reminded me, the guy who did the real work on the theory of closed loops of nervous activity is Pitts, who started working on this well before meeting McCulloch and without knowing about Lorente de No.

I know of no evidence that Lorente de No talked about neural networks, or that his putative talk of neural networks influenced McCulloch and Pitts.  Instead, there is the influence of the Rashevsky biophysics group with which Pitts was working.  All those guys (primarily Rashevsky, Housholder, and Landahl) were talking about and writing about "neuron networks" or "nerve-fiber networks" (since the 1930s, yes).

Bottom line, as far as I can tell:  Lorente de No seems to have played a role in convincing McCulloch that closed loops of nervous activity are functionally important, but does not seem to have played a role in starting the theory of neural networks or in convincing anyone to "represent neural relations as networks", whatever that means.

Oh, and in case you were still wondering:  No, there is no meaningful sense in which Lorente de No is the godfather of the computer (with all due respect to Walter Freeman).

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