Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Return to Blogging – Thoughts on the Myth of the Given: Hybrid Holism and Cognitive Spinning

My first semester as a PhD student at Wash U is finally over. Although I haven’t been blogging much this semester, I have still been writing a lot for my classes. I just didn’t have the intellectual stamina to complete all my work for classes and also come up with topics to blog on and then formulate my ideas into posts. I’m not even sure that I will have a chance to blog much over Winter break since I will be visiting with family. But I will at least put down some of my thoughts on the Myth of the Given, inspired by reading a chapter on Locke and Rorty in Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide. 

The Myth of the Given, as I understand it, is the idea that the world is “given” to perceiving subjects in some kind of “raw”, “objective”  form. The Myth is that this raw sensory data counts as a secure epistemic foundation upon which to build the complete cognitive edifice. The logical positivists conceived of this raw form as sense-data, out of which we could supposedly construct our knowledge of material objects. When Quine rejected logical positivism in his Two Dogmas, he replaced the metaphor of a hierarchy founded on individual sense-data for a holistic web of belief, with the mind making contact with the world only at the fringes of the web. Rather than the raw sense-form being the unit of significance, Quine argued that the unit of significance was the whole of science. By rejecting atomistic foundationalism, Quine and the holists attempted to solve the mind-body dualism by supposing the mind connects to the world through the totality of science.

But this form of holism quickly collapses into the problematic view that our beliefs are “spinning in the frictionless void”, unconnected at any actual point to the world. How can we reconcile holism with the current paradigm of embodied cognitive science? Embodied cognition theory seems to endorse a quasi-foundationalism whereby the groundfloor of our beliefs is the basic foundation of sensorimotor knowledge, which is certainly foundational with respect to higher forms of cognition. But modern cognitive science also recognizes the limited capacity for the brain to wire itself independently of sensory input along the lines of genetic recipes, giving rise to innate modules, faculties, and schemas for dealing with the world and learning in an efficient, uniquely human fashion.

Thinking of the tension between frictionless holism and foundational atomism, I was led to the idea of Hybrid Holism.

Thesis of Hybrid Holism: the foundationalism-holism dualism is a false dichotomy. Although there is a foundation, some beliefs can still “spin”.

As I see it, the thesis of embodied cognition supports a mild form of foundationalism. Sensorimotor knowledge is the foundation upon which we construct higher-order beliefs. Lakoff and Johnson’s work on embodied metaphor amply illustrates the ways in which our beliefs about abstract things are grounded and structured by our lower sensorimotor concepts. Embodied cognition theory supports the metaphor of a cognitive hierarchy, starting from the bottom with low-order sensorimotor concepts and going higher up the hierarchy as conceptual abstraction increases.

So that makes up the foundationalism of Hybrid Holism. But when you get sufficiently abstract in your conceptual frameworks, there arises the phenomenon of beliefs spinning in the void. This spinning is likely unique to humans. I propose it is the result of our having learning an awesomely abstract symbolic form of communication. When humans master language, they have the ability to spin in various ways, including the capacity to confabulate stories on flimsy evidence, spout post-hoc rationalizations, and believe in the most absurd things imaginable on the basis of hearsay, superstition, flim-flam, hucksterism, naivety, etc.  Language lets us spin looser and looser.

This concept of linguistic spinning is supported by Iain McGilchrist’s theory of left-hemispheric lateralization put forth in his magisterial book The Master and His Emissary. One of McGilchrist’s hypotheses is that as humans have cognitively transitioned into modernity, the left-hemisphere has becomes increasingly isolated or encapsulated from it’s more perceptive and embodied right-hemisphere neighbor. A consistent finding in the neuroscientific literature is that the the left and right hemispheres have different attentional styles. The right hemisphere’s attention is more widely spread out, looking for novelty, being open to new experience, looking at the wider context, etc., whereas the left-hemisphere is more analytically focused on the narrow and familiar, looking at the trees instead of the forest. McGilchrist provides compelling evidence that the cognitive features distinctive of human modernity can be analyzed in terms of the hyper-linguistic left-hemisphere growing increasingly absorbed into the frictionless web of belief, the so-called “space of reasons”.

This was one of Sellars’ main points: the inferential flow in the logical space of reasons never flows from an raw foundation to a secure construction. Propositions can only be inferred from other propositions. The web of propositions is interlinked so strongly that we cannot separate it at its sensory joints. This is one of the defining features of propositional thought. We thus have the “holism” in our Hybrid Holism. Hybrid Holism says that there are foundations in the cognitive architecture, but also the capacity to build up spinning linguistic modules. We start off as embodied sensorimotor primates, but we have the capacity to partially detach our left-hemisphere from the secure bodily foundation. Perhaps this spinning could explain the phenomenon of people claiming to have “really” astral projected, or really traveled outside their bodies. I speculate that the degree of phenomenological separation in out-of-body experiences is directly proportional to the degree of cognitive spin. The less friction in your web, the more easily it is to detach yourself from sensorimotor foundations and hallucinate. We could also possibly explain other cognitive disorders with the spin model, such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, with each alter being understood as a spinning narrative complex, isolated from other complexes, with each spinning complex have tendencies to reattach itself and assert cognitive control. This is of course just a useful metaphor. I take the idea of “spinning” to be a helpful standin until implementation models can be constructed. But I don’t think it would be difficult to translate talk of spin into some kind of neurophysiological disconnection, be it in isolated signal pathways or strongly looping feedback circuits in the neocortex.

In conclusion, Hybrid Holism is the idea that there is something right to both foundationalism and holism. Foundationalism seems to fit with the thesis of embodied cognition, which says that sensorimotor knowledge is the foundation of higher-order concepts. But the logic of propositional thought and the problems with the Myth of the Given seems to support a kind of Quinean holism. But holism cannot escape the problem of the completely frictionless void. Saying the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science is essentially giving up on the mind-body problem. So embodied cognition reasserts itself in the form of Hybrid Holism, which says that although there are multiple embodied foundations for cognition, cognition is also capable of detaching itself and spinning freely in its linguistic web. On the mild side, this gives rise to basic human ingenuity. On the extreme side, we have pathological disconnection and hallucinatory experiences. But when working normally, cognitive spin allows humans to look to the clouds for inspiration and guidance. Spin allows us to reflect on our moral duties and contemplate philosophical topics such as the existence of God, the origin of our species, why is there something rather than nothing, etc. Spin allows us to take the “view from nowhere”, as Nagel put it, giving us an ironical perspective and the capacity to experience absurdity at our primate lives. But spin, good or bad, is essentially what you make of it. It can take you down to great despair, but also lift you up the great heights. Our sheer degree of spin is what sets us apart from nonhuman animals. It is a contingent gift of evolutionary history. Let’s use it wisely and with great care, not wasting it on frivolous activities.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology