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Review of "The Happiness of Pursuit"

By Shimon Edelman
Basic Books, 2011
Review by Robin Luke Varghese on Jul 31st 2012
The Happiness of Pursuit

"The mind is a computer" is an oft-quoted metaphor in the discourses about the theories of mind. Now this has become literally true, says Shimon Edelman in his new book The Happiness of Pursuit. He takes up this literal- turned- metaphor as the foundational thesis to begin with. He offers a picture of mind according to which it is the bundle of computations carried out by the brain by its operations on the various representational inputs. That is the way in which the mind emerges, engages and interacts with the world all through the evolutionary journey. Edelman proposes that a neuro-computational understanding of the nature of mind would allow us to know more about ourselves, which might serve as a stepping stone to 'Good Life'.

Looking into the famous metaphor regarding life, that 'life is journey' can aid us in having a better understanding of the picture that Edelman draws out. Our minds wander across various terrains and its reaching any point is insignificant, meanwhile the voyage happens to be more consequent. The wandering of the mind in search of the new destinations is the driving force of life; this urge is not completely undetermined rather statistically determined by its manipulations of the representations which it receives and which it produces. This is the key idea that this book provides us about life. Edelman expands this idea by providing the conceptual tool box which contains all the necessary tools to support this cognitive capacity of the brain. As the book progresses, he unearths the various elements such as the representational capacity, memory, forethought etc. which are contained in this toolbox.

Perception and action are the two means by which we interact with the world and thus happens to be the building blocks of mind in Edelman's opinion. The goal of perceptual computation is to recover from the numerical data, the useful representations that arise from measurements which the five senses perform on the environment. The brain computes and decides the signals which need to be transmitted to the muscles of the motor organs. Actions are related to perceptions and acting on those perceptions require computations from the part of the brain. This brings into the picture, an agent who is responsible for the initiation of action and such actions are determined by the values, goals and motives that the agent possesses. These factors according to Edelman are the dynamic arrays of numbers expressed by the activities of various cliques of neurons in the sense that they are statistically determined factors of representations realized by the activities of neurons.

Forethought, which is our capacity to predict future events by looking into the past emerges out of the statistical nature of the mind which is crucial in all our day to day engagements. Memory plays the role of connecting the various episodes of life by seeking the recurring patterns that run through the space of possible perceptions, motivations and actions. Edelman argues that episodic memory is mind's personal space-time machine. The episodic memory thus is a perfect vehicle for scouting for and harvesting happiness.

Individual minds are computationally entangled with those of others through linguistic engagement. His picturing of the relation between the evolution of language in the course of life is and its relation to the cognitive computations which underlies mind goes well with the basic notion from where he started the book: that cognitive processes are computationally distributed .This distribution helps mind to reach out by itself to the outside world.

Edelman's conception of the self is that it is a product of the brain's virtual reality engine. This virtual self is computed and put in charge of the situation purely for reasons of good governance, that is efficient and purposeful control of the body which is the brain's life supporting system. The notable idea that is expressed here about the self is that it is partly a virtual construction and partly a distributed entity. The latter can be best understood as the network of cause and effect that transcends the boundary between the individual and the environment which includes the society and the material world.  Happiness according to Edelman depends both on the individual's station in the external world and on the states of one's inner world or self. Here, the author explains the relation between pursuit and happiness in relation to the anticipation of future. Human mind, likes to wander from one place to another. This happens in waking life as well as in dreaming and is supported by the brain. The restlessness of the mind which is the driving force of the human mind in its pursuit is a side effect of the capacity of forethought which is supplied by the representative capacities which are realized in memory.

Thus reading this book becomes a 'pursuit of happiness' as it gives its reader the happiness of the reading experience. This book aims a wider audience which is evident from the way in which the subject matter is being dealt with. The subject matter of this book is of interest to all those who are interested in knowing themselves. Edelman has taken special care to make the computational view on cognitive systems like the human mind less difficult to digest to a general readership. He has purposefully avoided even a single line of formalization which is akin to  the usual way of talking about computation for attracting readers from all walks of life. While avoiding any attempt for formalization, Edelman's has incorporated much of the examples from literary works as well as from both historical accounts and recent evidences from cognitive science to support the points he wanted to assert. The book in a nutshell provides an enjoyable reading experience of a generally not so enjoyable subject matter.


© 2012 Robin Luke Varghese


Robin Luke Varghese, Research Student, Department of Philosophy, University of Hyderabad