Shifting Paradigms: An Interesting Conversation with Eric Thomson

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Eric Thomson and I are currently having a stimulating conversation over at his blog neurochannels. It seems that we got ourselves into a debate about some of the very fundamental issues of the mind sciences, including the nature of perceptual stimuli, representationalism, behaviorism, computationalism, constitutive conditions of consciousness, dreaming, hallucinations, etc. I find this interesting because it represents a Kuhnian “crisis of foundations”. Eric does an excellent job of representing the classic computational paradigm currently dominant in neuroscientific circles. I attempt to represent the underdog 4EA theorists, who say that instead of the mind being a wet computer, the mind is embodied through our bodily  interaction with the  world, embedded in the social milieu, enactive rather than computational, extended into the artificially modified props that we use on a daily basis (clothes, computers, cooking, etc.), and radically affective in being grounded through the bodily aesthetics of emotional processing.

Eric is quick to point out that 4EA approaches seem unable to account for states like dreaming, hallucination, etc. i.e. states where there is experience, but it isn’t grounded in embodied motor movements. My reply would be that we need to explain higher-order phenomena like dreaming from the ground-up. This means that the subpersonal behaviorial loops emphasized in 4EA theories become the “substrate” or “foundation” for more complex experiential phenomena, such as dreaming or illusions. If it wasn’t for the experiential substrate of subpersonal processing, there could be no basis for thought itself! For “who” would the thoughts be relevant to? A ghost? Without a body, thoughts remain groundless.

Talking to Eric has made me realize that 4EA theorists need to do a better job emphasizing that we are not denying complex phenomena such as dreaming or propositional thought. On the contrary, we are trying to explain them as grounded by the sensorimotor substrate. 4EA skeptics seem to think that embodiment theory requires we explain dreaming and thought in terms of behaviorism, as if we somehow just forgot about the failures of behaviorism. While some 4EA theorists might be this reductionistic, I don’t think embodiment theory entails any such flat ontology. Instead, 4EA theorists should be willing to talk about, as Andy Clark does, dynamic on-the-fly online processing and “offline” processing. How the latter get cashed out remains a significant problem, but we shouldn’t be scared of using terms like “construction” or “scaffold”. As long as we realize that the low-level sensorimotor experiences themselves aren’t constructions “in the head”, we should have no philosophical difficulty explaining how it is only the the high-level states which become constructed “internally” by means of some sort of virtual workspace.I think George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work on inner-outer container schemas are really relevant on precisely this issue of internal construction. Metaphor theory provides the conceptual bridge to cross from body to mind, from online to offline.

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1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

One response to “Shifting Paradigms: An Interesting Conversation with Eric Thomson

  1. The back and forth was fun this weekend. I have a couple of comments.

    First, no need to smoke the Lakoff. We can drill holes in rat brains, implant electrodes, and record the activity in their sensory systems, and monitor how accurately the neuronal populations track stimuli. Brains are literally inside skulls, nervous systems literally process information coming in from the world. This is true in leeches, much less other animals. None of this is metaphorical or in need of conceptual assistance from Lakoff and crew.

    Also, I am not defending a classical computational paradigm. Classical computation involves symbols and such. I am not sure such things exist in brains, especially when it comes to consciousness (i.e., perceptual awareness). I am taking a much more dull approach, pretty much that of the flat-footed biologist/neuroscientist.

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