Fred Adams has a new article out online in Phenomenology and the Cognitive sciences entitled “Embodied Cognition”. Adams is renowned for being skeptical of the 4E movement in philosophy of mind (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted). He wrote a book with Ken Aizawa called “The Bounds of Cognition” that challenges the core claims of embodied cognition. However, given his familiarity with the literature, I am very puzzled by the paper. He starts off the paper talking about Varela and Gallagher as exemplars of the embodied cognition thesis, but then spends most of the paper talking about how to reduce sentential belief-symbols to literal simulations of motor output. He writes as if sentential comprehension is the main explanatory target of EC theorists when they say “cognition is embodied”.
Anyone who has read Varela and Maturana’s work on autopoiesis would be very confused about this formulation of the problems that embodied cognition sets out to study. Varela says, for instance, that “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system.” Varela thinks that even the unicellular organism “cognizes” in virtue of its emergent self-organization of autopoiesis. This is the actual claim of embodied dynamic systems approaches to cognition, a far cry from the thesis that:
In the embodiment literature, we find the empirical step consisting of empirical correlations between certain kinds of cognitive processing and sentence comprehension and certain kinds of perceptual/motor performance.
Gibson was never concerned with “sentence comprehension”. While an admirable explanandum, Gibson thought we need to first better understand the more basic cognitive processes before we attempt to theorize about higher cognitive processes. He was almost always concerned with the cognition that we share with our animal cousins, not sentence comprehension or symbolic cognition. Many EC theorists actually propose a dual-level or dual-process model of reasoning wherein there exists a primordial, nonsymbolic level of cognitive processing shared by all animals (online processing) and a evolutionary recent and sententially grounded level of rational, serial processing (offline processing). I don’t know of any serious theorist proposing these two levels of distinctions who makes the absurd claim that offline processing must be explained strictly in terms of online processing. Once external representations are taken up and integrated with the functioning of the cognitive system, there is no reason to suppose that the mechanism is only that of “simulation”. For example, Gibbs claims that representational (propositional) reasoning depends heavily upon analogical reason, which needs to be analyzed at the appropriate level of abstraction, not that of neurons firing. In all likelihood, it will require different explanatory tools and and terminology to explain both offline processing and online processing. Most EC theorists would simply emphasize the importance of recognizing that propositional reasoning comes after or “out of” online processing on both the phylogenetic and ontogenetic scales.
Accordingly, there seems to be a strange disconnect between Adams’ picture of EC and what the majority of serious theoreticians (that I know of) are proposing. The more I think about it, the more I think that this is a result of a widespread misunderstanding of what EC is, particularly in respect to the original formulations of Merleau-Ponty and Gibson. Some EC critics think that when we say “cognition is embodied” we are claiming that their conception of “cognition” is embodied. In actuality, we are trying to redefine what we mean by “cognition” and move away from definitions of cognition focused on sentential understanding. This is why Evan Thompson follows Varela in saying that all lifeforms exhibit cognition. Cognition is no longer manipulation of symbols, but regulation and coordination of emergent autonomous animacy/agency. This forces us to think about representations in terms of control and coordination of intrinsic movement rather than in terms of mirroring or “belief-formation”. Cognition is not sentence comprehension nor mastery of propositional concepts. We need to come up with a different concept to capture such higher-level processes.
I follow Julian Jaynes in making a distinction between what we can call cognition and narrative-consciousness. Narrative-consciousness enables the type of sentential mastery and understanding that Adams spent most of his time in the paper talking about. Giving the unique representational medium of sentential symbols, I see no reason why there cannot be an abstract analysis of such narrative mastery in terms that do not reduce to “sensori-motor simulation”. Which isn’t to say that we can make no progress on learning about the underlying functional circuitry which enables offline processing. Researching into resting state connectivity and anti-correlated functional networks is now opening up new vistas in understanding the neural distinction between online and offline processing.
This brings me to my next point: the misunderstanding of “meaning” and “affordances”. Adams follows Glenberg and Kaschak in defining affordances as “a set of actions available to the animal.” In this view, Adams seem to suggest that affordances are those cognitive systems which enable and support interaction between animal and environment. But this is exactly wrong. Affordances are not within the animal and they do not “arise” or “emerge” out of the interaction or “relation” between the animal and the environment. Affordances are real and objective. Meaning is external to the animal. For example, the ground affords support to all animals whether or not any particular one of them utilizes it for support. The affordance-property of support is embedded into the actual nature of the ground. What it really is determines what it means for the animal.
Accordingly, meaning is not generated by the interaction by the animal and environment, it is sought out and utilized. I get the feeling many EC supporters make this mistake as well. Meaning is external to the animal and needs to be found and used. For animals with the appropriate bodily capacities then, the process of finding the affordances can be decoupled from the process of using the resource. I therefore have problems with Zwaan and Madden, who Adams quote as saying “…there are no clear demarcations between perception, action, and cognition.”
I think this is stated poorly. For many higher animals, there is a clear distinction between the processing of detecting affordance-information (what Gibson calls “stimulus” or “ecological” information) and the utilization of that information for means of adaptive behavior. The is the distinction that Gibson makes between exploratory behavior and performatory behavior. However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the input-output model of perception is therefore right. The fact that the physical stimulus does not equate with the informational stimulus supports that idea that perception is but a perturbation upon an intrinsic dynamic network not a specific input which is mechanically read-off and used to send specific commands. As the frame-problem indicates, any concept of the cognitive system which understands the input to be “raw” or “meaningless” is bound to fail to produce functional specificity across widely changing environment demands. For embodied cognition, the given is already valenced in terms of what kind of information the animal is seeking in accordance with its internal dynamics and regulatory demands. The is the only way to avoid the input-out model. Doing so also allows us to escape from the Myth of the Raw Input, otherwise known as the Myth of the Given.