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John McNamara was professor of psychology at McGill University from 1969 to 1996. He was an open and generous man with a sparkle in his eyes and a love of humor, music and friendship. He was an active Catholic (at one time a priest); however, his friendship spanned all races, religions, and social positions. He was religious not only in his philosophy, but also in his actions. His home was often a refuge for the needy from all over the world. He was an important figure in the study of the mind. Early in his career he made a significant contribution to the practical and theoretical aspects of language learning, working on bilingualism first in Ireland and then in Canada.
His extensive knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and linguistics was a major contributing factor to the depth of his contributions. He was a scientist, rich in ideas, and persistent in investigating controversial ideas. His accomplishment was recognized by the Canadian Psychological Association, which elected him a Fellow, and more generally recognized when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In every way, John McNamara had the style of a 19th-century intellectual.
He wrote on an unusually wide variety of topics, from the nature of free will to the decline of Freudian psychoanalysis. He did not shy away from controversy and engaged in productive and civic debates with scholars such as philosopher Mario Bunge and linguist Noam Chomsky. Finally, he is one of the very few philosophers who is not so difficult to read. He wrote with style and wit, and much of his work was addressed to an educated public rather than just for a small group of fellow scientists.
After his untimely death in 1996, his colleagues and friends took it upon themselves to sponsor an annual memorial lecture. Given the breadth of his interests, it was decided that the lectures would cover a wide range of topics etc.
Since 1996, we have given annual lectures by eminent scholars in cognitive psychology, especially in the development of language and thought, as well as in linguistics, palliative care, paleontology, and philosophy, many of whom were students or close collaborators of McNamara.
One can find in his writings McNamara's belief (unfashionable at the time he wrote) that the mind of a child is extraordinarily rich and complex. He began his book Names for Things in 1982 by noting that psychologists routinely ignore the difficulty of learning a language at the cost of not being able to explain it. He repeatedly argued that explaining how a child learns and understands language requires a psychology that includes concepts such as intentionality, reference, and truth. This means that psychology and philosophy are more connected than many are willing to accept. It also means that a complete theory of the mind is unlikely to be found in fields such as biology and computer science, which ignore the problem of reference, which McNamara considered the most important property of our mental life. The numerous relationships between psychology and philosophy, especially the place of logic in psychology, were explored in his 1985 book The Boundary Dispute: The Place of Logic in Psychology and in his 1994 book (edited by Gonzalo Reyes) The Logical Foundations of Cognition.
McNamara was extremely dedicated to teaching. During the last few years of his life, he taught courses in the history of psychology and modern psychological theory. Courses that used to be considered "dry" came to life when he taught them. One of his students wrote: “There were many points on which I disagreed with Professor McNamara. However, by making me think and argue about these issues, he helped me understand what my own truth in psychology was and start thinking for myself.”
He was also an excellent graduate supervisor, encouraging his students to explore a variety of topics, including language learning, the history of psychology, the "language" of vision, and the beliefs of scientists in various disciplines regarding free will.
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A psychological perspective does not come from the assumption that people are fundamentally irrational. Rather, it emphasizes a different logic: a logic that responds to the challenges with which we have evolved. For most of our evolution, we have faced an environment that is very different from today's business world. We have developed a number of cognitive mechanisms to cope with adverse conditions in which resources are limited.
These mechanisms include a number of simplifying and reassurance mental shortcuts (heuristics) that help us make quick decisions when it would be unwise to pause for a full analysis. While these ways of thinking are not the same as rigorous logic or formally rational reasoning, they are well suited to quick, intuitive judgments and actions. However, these advanced ways of thinking also create some serious pitfalls.
As decision makers, none of us have endless resources or time to devote to collecting and analyzing information. In addition, we all have significant limitations in terms of the complexity we can handle. Thus, even if we make a conscious effort to make decisions according to a formally rational process, we often have to make simplifying assumptions and accept limitations on the availability of information and the thoroughness of our analysis.
As noted above, we constantly use heuristics as a way to reduce the complexity of decision-making: for example, to associate a particular brand with quality, rather than doing a detailed assessment of the merits of various cereal stores or clothing stores.
How a problem is framed can have a significant impact on how you make decisions. Medical decisions may depend on whether outcomes are judged in terms of the likelihood of death or survival of patients. Financial decisions can depend on whether you see yourself as a loser or a winner. When we are in an advantageous position, we tend not to take risks; in the event of a loss, we tend to take risks to avoid or recover losses. Perhaps you know people who know how to use this to their advantage; they influence by formulating their choice so that others choose the option they like best.
Attempts to understand the mind and its workings go back at least to the ancient Greeks, when philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle tried to explain the nature of human knowledge. The study of the mind remained the prerogative of philosophy until the nineteenth century, when experimental psychology arose. Wilhelm Wundt and his students initiated laboratory methods for a more systematic study of mental operations. However, after a few decades, behaviorism reigned in experimental psychology - a point of view that actually denied the existence of the mind. According to behaviorists such as J. B. Watson, psychology should limit itself to the study of the relationship between observed stimuli and observed behavioral responses. Talk of consciousness and mental representations has been excluded from respectable scientific discussion.
Behaviorism dominated the psychological scene in the 1950s, especially in North America. Around 1956, the intellectual landscape began to change dramatically. George Miller has summarized numerous studies that have shown that the ability of human thinking is limited, for example, short-term memory is limited to about seven elements. He suggested that the limitations of memory could be overcome by recoding information into fragments, mental representations requiring mental procedures to encode and decode information. At that time, primitive computers only existed for a few years, but pioneers such as John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, and Herbert Simon founded the field of artificial intelligence. In addition, Noam Chomsky rejected behaviorist assumptions about language as a learned habit and proposed instead to explain understanding of language in terms of mental grammars consisting of rules.
Cognitive science brings together theoretical ideas, but we must appreciate the diversity of perspectives and methods that researchers in various fields use to study the mind and intelligence. Although today cognitive psychologists often engage in theorizing and computer simulations, their main method is experimentation with human participants. People are brought into the laboratory, often students who meet the requirements of the course, so that different kinds of thinking can be studied under controlled conditions. For example, psychologists have experimentally explored the types of errors people make in deductive reasoning, the ways people form and apply concepts, the speed at which people think in mental images, and the ability of people to solve problems with analogies. Our conclusions about how the mind works should not be based solely on "common sense" and introspection, as they can give a false picture of mental operations, many of which are not consciously available.
Psychological experiments that carefully approach mental operations from different perspectives are critical to making cognitive science scientific. Experimentation is also the methodology used by experimental philosophy. While theory without experiment is empty, experiment without theory is blind. To answer crucial questions about the nature of the mind, psychological experiments must be interpreted within a theoretical framework that postulates mental representations and procedures. One of the best ways to develop theoretical foundations is to build and test computational models that are analogous to mental operations. To complement psychological experiments in deductive reasoning, concept formation, mental imagery, and similar problem solving, researchers have developed computational models that mimic aspects of human activity.
Designing, building, and experimenting with computational models is a central technique in artificial intelligence (AI), the branch of computer science concerned with intelligent systems. Ideally, in cognitive science, computational models and psychological experiments go hand in hand, but many important AI works have explored the power of different approaches to knowledge representation in relative isolation from experimental psychology.
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