Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wheeler on "Generic Memory"

So, what of this "coarse grained", supposedly locationally-neutral theory of memory?  Wheeler writes,
Rupert sees this sort of response coming, and so develops his memory-oriented critique further by arguing that any attempt to fix a generic kind that would subsume internal and extended systems would need to be so devoid of detail (in order to subsume all the different profiles) that it would fail to earn its explanatory keep. But this seems wrong. Indeed, it's important to note that we would surely not intuitively withdraw the epithet 'memory' from an internally located system which did not exhibit the generation effect, but which continued to achieve (something like) the selective storage and context-sensitive retrieval of information, so why should we withdraw that epithet from an extended system with a similar profile? But if that's right, why think that exhibiting the generation effect is a defining dimension of memory, rather than an accidental feature? This gives us some reason to think that there must be a generic account of what memory is that covers both cases, and that has explanatory bite. (Wheeler, 2010, p. 31).
Again, it seems to me that there is a lot going on.  Adams and Aizawa have challenged the "generic mental categories move" from as early as our first "Bounds of Cognition" paper.  We note in Bounds how the generic category of memory has decreased in significance in psychology, being replaced by more specific types of memory, such as procedural and declarative memory.  This category is losing its "explanatory bite" even though the term hangs on.  Wheeler is, I think, right, to claim that "we would surely not intuitively withdraw the epithet 'memory' from an internally located system which did not exhibit the generation effect".  But, we also don't withdraw the epithet 'memory' from the hardware in a standard personal computer, because it does not exhibit the generation effect.  But, the generic category of memory that indifferently includes both the computer hardware and the brain's wetware does not seem to be a single scientifically interesting kind.

To return to the case mentioned by Justin Fisher, one might think that there is a category of flying that consists of things the move through the atmosphere.  And, surely we want to say that insects, birds, jet planes, helicopters, and rockets fly.  We would not want to withhold the "flies" epithet from them.  Nevertheless, the loose category of things that move through the atmosphere is of pretty limited interest to the entomologist studying insect flight, the ornithologist studying bird flight, the aeronautical engineer, and the rocket scientist.

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