Tag Archives: 4EA

An example of "extended cognition" for Ken Aizawa

4EA skeptic Ken Aizawa is always asking for clear examples of extended cognition that do not violate the coupling-constitution fallacy. In a recent post, he challenges the following premise from Wilson:

(e) External cognitive resources often play the same or similar functional roles in the detection and creation of meaning as do internal cognitive resources, or complement, compensate for, or enhance those roles.

Ken’s claim is that the evidence shows that external resources play only a causal role rather than a constitutive role. In other words, external resources are merely causal inputs into the cognitive system and do not themselves play a functional or constitutive role. In Clark and Chalmer’s well-known thought experiment involving a man with Alzheimer’s using a notepad to aid his impaired navigation skills, Ken famously rebutted by claiming the notepad is not literally a “a part” of the cognitive system, but rather, just a causal resource to lean on. If it were actually a part of cognitive system, Ken thinks that it would be impossible to stop a “cognitive bloat” wherein the cognitive systems gets extended into everything that cognition causally depends on. With the notepad, Ken responds that we are at best entitled to say that the notepad is causally coupled to the cognitive system, and that we cannot conclude from such coupling that the notepad is literally a part of the cognitive system rather than just an input or “resource” to lean on.

We would need a better example or a prior theoretical reason to believe that cognitive systems do in fact extend into the environment, one that outweighs the theoretical reasons for believing the orthodox story about internal representationalism. I think there are such theoretical reasons, but I also have a concrete example of extended cognition that I want to try out. It’s not based on a thought experiment, but rather, anthropological research into ancient decision-making processes. I refer, of course, to sortilege or cleromancy.


I was turned onto this example by Julian Jaynes. He called sortilege an “exopsychic decision-making process”. This is, in my mind, the first stated argument for extended cognition in the literature (1976). Does anyone have an earlier reference? He describes sortilege as follows:

Sortilege or the casting of lots differs from omens in that it is active and designed to provoke the god’s answers to specific questions in novel situations. It consisted of throwing marked sticks, stones, bones, or beans upon the ground, or picking one out of a group held in a bowl, or tossing such markers in the lap of a tunic until one fell out. Sometimes it was to answer yes or no, at other times to choose one of out a group of men, plots, or alternatives. But this simplicity – even triviality to us – should not blind us from seeing the profound psychological problem involved, as well as appreciating its remarkable historical importance. We are so used to the huge variety of games of chance, of throwing dice, roulette wheels, etc., all of them vestiges of this ancient practice of divination by lots, that we find it difficult to really appreciate the significance of this practice historically. It is a help here to realize that there was no concept of chance whatever until very recent times. Therefore, the discovery (how odd to think of it as a discovery!) of deciding an issue by throwing sticks or beans on the ground was an extremely momentous one for the future of mankind. For, because there was no chance, the result had to be caused by the gods whose intentions were being divined. (1976, p. 240)

I’m fairly confident that this example of sortilege doesn’t violate the so-called “coupling-constitution” fallacy. I think it is reasonable to first define cognition as a regulatory or coordinating process that serves to select effective neural pathways out of internal variability. In other words, cognition is about making decisions and controlling the sensorimotor system to get things done in the world. I think this is a fairly theory-neutral definition of cognition that can accommodate both representational and dynamic systems approaches to behavioral control.

With that said, I think casting lots is a clear case of “off-loading” cognitive decision making processes onto the environment. The casted lots are not just “causally coupled” to the ultimate sensorimotor decision, but rather, constitute the decision making process itself. The lots serve a functional role similar to that of internal neural-neural control. It serves as a regulatory resource that is used in novel situations to deal with complex environmental variables.  It serves the functional, constitutive role of coordinating behavior and simplifying the task parameters. As Clark would say, you could imagine that a random “casting-lots” mechanism had evolved inside a brain that would be utilized in the same way so as to regulate and coordinate behavior.

The only way to avoid the conclusion that cognitive decision making processes are “offloaded” into the environment during sortilege would be to disagree with the definition of cognition as behavior regulation. If you defined it differently, I suppose you could come up with a model of the mind wherein the casted lots serve as mere “input” into the functional system rather than genuinely playing a cognitive role.

But I think such an approach is phenomenologically flawed. If you were to get inside the minds of these ancient people, I think the lots would be experienced as a genuine behavioral authority that is external to the agent. That is, the lots would be “authorized” by the nervous system to serve a direct role in the coordination of behavior, similar to the authorization of verbal control in hypnosis. The experiential aspect would include an “absorption” into the external world such that the chance results are directly taken as significant for social control. I think it would be difficult for representational models to replicate this thrownness or absorption.


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Edward Reed on the Fundamental Mistake of Cognitive Psychology

Like always, Reed absolutely nails it.

Cognitive psychology has never outgrown its roots in behaviorism. The early cognitive psychologists actually called themselves subjective behaviorists (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960)-a concept, if not a term, that is still exploited (Baars, 1986; Mandler, 1985). Because of its roots in S-R theory, cognitive psychology has always tried to distinguish cognition from mere response, or mere sensation, or even mere perception. Cognition is somehow supposed to be more than these things.

This is a deadly strategy for anyone interested in creating a science of cognition. The emphasis on keeping cognition distinct from other aspects of an animal’s encountering its surroundings has meant that cognitivists have often studied what animals and people do when they are not in adequate contact with their environment. How do observers cope with a lack of information? How do actors cope with unpredictable changes in circumstances? Evidence about how animals are disjoint from their environment forms the basis of most modern theories of cognition. Most of cognitive psychology has become the study of how animals and people manage under unnatural conditions.

The fundamental mistake in all these theories lay in not repudiating S-R theory outright. Time and again cognitivists have ceded whole areas of study to behaviorists. This is nonsense. Darwin did not say that Creationism was right about invertebrates but that natural selection worked for vertebrates. Such arbitrary divvying up of a field of study is ridiculous. If behaviorism is wrong, then it is wrong, period. (Whether it can be used to approximate some truths is a separate issue). By disdaining to study behavior and “basic” sensory-motor processes cognitivists guaranteed their own failure.

Encountering the world: Toward an Ecological Psychology, p. 170

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A Response to Ken Aizawa: An Explanation of Extended Cognition

In his reply to Justin Fisher’s critical review of Ken Aizawa and Fred Adams’ book The Bounds of Cognition, Aizawa has this to say:

A familiar claim in the extended cognition literature is that much of the history of psychology has been marked by prejudice.  This is the prejudice—a remnant of Descartes’ enduring legacy—that cognitive processes occur only in the brain.  Cognitive psychologists simply assume that the mind is realized by the brain.  We find one or another version of this charge in Clark and  Chalmers (1998), Haugeland (1998), Rowlands (1999, 2003), and elsewhere.  Rather than supposing that cognitive processes occur only within the brain, the advocates of extended cognition propose that there are good grounds for thinking that cognitive processes span the brain, body, and environment.  The extended cognition movement should, therefore, be seen as a liberating revolution.

In this post, I want to clear up some misconceptions about what is being claimed by extended cognition (EC) theorists. Ultimately, I can only speak for myself but I want to offer my own explanation of EC’s internal theoretical commitments. Aizawa seems to imply that by denying “the mind is realized by the brain”, EC theorists are committed to the claim that cognitive processes literally occur somewhere else than in the brain. Thus, when EC theorists claim that cognitive processes “span the brain, body, and environment”, Aizawa takes this to mean that EC theorists are literally saying that there are cognitive processes going on over here (in the brain) and also over there (in the world), and not just in the brain.

Frankly, I think that there has been a great confusion on what exactly 4EA ontology is committed to in regards to the “location” of cognition, largely due to the EC theorists not making their underlying ontology and epistemological assumptions fully explicit. What has been missing in these discussions of the mind “spanning” or “extending into” the environment is the epistemological theory of direct realism. Direct realism is a counter-theory to the Cartesian idea that the primordial mind is ontological split from the objective world by means of a subject-object model, the Lockean idea that primordial cognition is the manipulation of mental Ideas which re-present sense-data to a spectorial consciousness, and the Kantian idea that the mind is always directed to “mere phenomenal appearances” rather than the objective in-itself.

Descartes simply assumed that the primordial mind is ontological separate from the objective world. Locke took up this assumption and “naturalized it” by turning the Mind Substance into the Mind Process (operating over re-presentations). Berkeley simply assumed that the stimulus available for perception was poor and inadequate for specifying the world. Kant borrowed from all these assumptions and supposed that consciousness was never directed to the in-self, but rather, to the mere phenomenal appearances or representations of the world. Gibson undercuts all these assumptions with one fell swoop by redefining the nature of perception. Indeed, he says:

Perceiving is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theater of his consciousness. It is a keeping-in-touch with the world, an experiencing of things rather than having of experiences. It involves awareness-of instead of just awareness. It may be awareness of something in the environment or something in the observer or both at once, but there is no content of awareness independent of that of which one is aware.

It is in this paragraph that we can find the meaning of the EC thesis that cognition “aint just about the brain (alone)”. On my reading, EC theory isn’t committed to the claim that brain cognition literally leaks into the world. Leaking, spanning, extending, spreading, etc. are all just metaphors for the thesis of Gibsonian direct realism, which is a general theory of intentionality, that is, a theory about how the mind relates to reality. So when Alva Noe claims that “Consciousness is not something that happens inside us…it is something we achieve”, we should understand this exactly in terms of Gibson’s claim that “perception is an achievement of the individual, not an appearance in the theater of his consciousness.” This is no radical claim. What is radical is to continue buying into the same worn-out assumptions of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Kant! As Noe says,

Human experience is a dance that unfolds in the world and with others. You are not your brain. We are not locked up in a prison of our own ideas and sensations. The phenomenon of consciousness, like that of life itself, is a world-involving dynamic process. We are already at home in the environment. We are out of our heads.


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Peter Hankins Is Skeptical of Alva Noë (plus my response)

Peter Hankins from the wonderful site Conscious Entities just posted a short review of Alva Noë’s latest book, Out of Our Heads. Peter is skeptical of Noë’s claim that we are not just our brains. My response is in the comments, which I reproduce here:

As someone very sympathetic to Noe, let me attempt a defense of his claim that the mind is “out of the head” and that it is not just the brain which is important to consciousness, but rather, the joint brain-Earth interaction.

First, in regards to agency, Noe takes his cue from Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoietic systems. Autopoietic theory says that the unicellular organism is the root of all mind because (1) we evolved from unicellular organisms and (2) our ontogenetic history starts as a unicellular organism. Accordingly, Noe defines agency in terms of the self-regulating, goal-directed autonomy demonstrated by these autopoietic systems. Organisms are said to be “structurally coupled” with the environment. While sure, this might not be agency *qua* agency insofar as it is not metacognitive, there are reasonable grounds to suppose that autonomous goal-directed behavior can support a “minimal” sense of agency. Accordingly, when Noe claims that bacteria are conscious, one must keep in mind a distinction (which he, unfortunately, does not draw) between primary consciousness and secondary consciousness (metacognition, introspection, etc). Noe’s claims become a lot less radical when you realize his theory of “enaction” is only really applicable as an explanation of primary consciousness, not secondary consciousness.

Second, in regards his claim about the brain not being sufficient for consciousness, let me explain. If we accept the basic teleological nature of organsisms, then we can say that brains evolved to react to entities in the real world (in accordance with their internal needs/interests). We can say that brains are intentionally directed towards the real world insofar as information necessary for surviving is to be found “out there”, in the world. So primary consciousness is directed at the world because this is how survival works: we seek stimulus-information for the control and guidance of behavior. This grounds Noe’s claim about the brain being necessary but not sufficient for mind in at least two ways. First, we could not imagine an organism without an environment. Organisms, by definition, evolve in environments. And whereas the environment does not need the organism to exist, the organism needs the environment to exist. Second, the brain is not sufficient for consciousness because he defines the brain’s teleological “purpose” as attending towards information in the environment. This is where Noe takes his cue from J.J. Gibson’s theory of ecological optics.

This is also the crucial point of the Ferret experiments. The experiments don’t show that the brain is not important for consciousness. What they show is that the brain evolved so as to be directed at stable environmental invariants (which lead to invariant patterns of stimulus). This is the essence of the ecological thesis that Noe defends. Take away the world, and the brain has nothing to “resonate” to, in Gibson’s terms. For this reason, the brain is not sufficient for primary consciousness. Accepting this thesis doesn’t imply that the brain is unimportant to consciousness. On the contrary, it merely seeks to demonstrate the essential purpose of the brain: to be directed towards the world, not create an inner 3D model of it. Here, Noe borrows from Rodney Brooks is accepting that “the world is its own best model.”

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Quote of the Day – Alva Noë

Perceiving how things are is a mode of exploring how things appear. How they appear is, however, an aspect of how they are. To explore appearance is thus to explore the environment, the world. To discover how things are, from how they appear, is to discover an order or pattern in their appearance. The process of perceiving, of finding out how things are, is a process of meeting the world; it is an activity of skillful exploration.

~Alva Noë, Action in Perception, p. 164

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Possible Congruence of Harman's Withdrawal Thesis with Ecological Science?

For the longest time I’ve had trouble understanding Graham Harman‘s radical thesis of withdrawal. What does it mean for two entities to “withdraw” from each other as they interact? How can we reconcile this idea with complete causal closure? Doesn’t gravity, for example, affect an apple through-and-through? It wasn’t until I read the following passage from Varela and Maturana’s interesting little book, The Tree of Knowledge (1987), that I made sense of it as a general ontological requirement.

Ontogeny is the history of structural changes in a particular living being. In this history each living being begins with an initial structure. This structure conditions the course of its interactions and restricts the structural changes that the interactions may trigger in it. At the same time, it is born in a particular place, in a medium that constitutes the ambience in which it emerges and in which it interacts. This ambience appears to have a structural dynamics of its own, operationally distinct from the living being. This is a crucial point. As observers, we have distinguished the living system as a unity from its background and have characterized it as a definite organization. We have thus distinguished two structures that are going to be considered operationally independent of each other: living being and environment. Between them there is a necessary structural congruence (or the unity disappears). In the interactions between the living being and the environment within this structural congruence, the perturbations of the environment do not determine what happens to the living being; rather, it is the structure  of the living being that determines what change occurs in it. This interaction is not instructive, for it does not determine what its effects are going to be. Therefore, we have used the expression “to trigger” an effect. In this way we refer to the fact that the changes that result from the interaction are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed sysem. The same holds true for the environment: the living being is a source of perturbations and not of instructions.

Now, at this point the reader may be thinking that all this sounds too complicated and that it is unique to living beings. To be exact, as in the case of reproduction, this is not a phenomenon unique to living beings. It takes place in all interactions. And if we do not see it in all its generality, it becomes a source of confusion. (p. 96)

Basically, Varela and Maturana are saying that we can only think about objects in terms of unities that are structurally determined in their organization. All changes in a system are changes of structure, which can be the result of intrinsic structural dynamics or triggered by interactions with everything else. Moreover, Varela and Maturana claim that this feature of structural unification undergoing change applies to  the scientific description of all interactions because otherwise we couldn’t make sense of how and why object unities breakdown (a car is the most obvious example).

While I might be mistaken, this sounds remarkable like Harman’s thesis of objects withdrawing from each other as they interact. Harman seems to claim that every object-object interaction is characterized by each object retaining some “inner core” or “subterranean essence” while nevertheless interacting or “translating” on a “sensuous” level. I’m a visual thinker, so I always had trouble conceptualizing how this process of withdrawal works. But now I think my problem was with the specific term withdrawal, which is actually a misnomer if I am understanding Harman, Varela, and Maturana right. From what I gather, a better description of object-object interaction might go as follows: when an object interacts with another object, both objects need to retain their internal structural unity during the interaction in order for it to be considered an object-object perturbation or “translation”. If there was not a retention of unified structure, we wouldn’t be able to talk about the interaction in terms of two, separately organized unities. Without a separation of unitary structure (i.e without being “operationally distinct”), the structural changes become merely changes of the state of one system rather than changes as a result of the perturbation or translation between different objects. Varela and Maturana also point out that another possibility of object-object interaction is destruction, whereby one object destroys the organization of the unity of another.

One could say that my eyes have now been opened to the relevance of object-oriented philosophy to developments in ecologically oriented cognitive science. I still have trouble with how Harman argues for his thesis, but now that I have at least “translated” it into a familiar conceptual domain, I think I can finally accept some kind of generality of withdrawal for all possible object-object interactions. There’s gotta be a better metaphor than withdrawal though. It’s far too “spooky” for my likening. I’m also not convinced that this was Heidegger’s greatest lesson. But like I said, my eyes are now open to new possibilities of relevance.


In response to my comment about Heidegger’s greatest lesson, Harman asks

Well what on earth are the other candidates?

My reply:

One of Heidegger’s greatest lessons was his distinction between the phenomenon and the semblance. In my mind, this was a realist “upgrade” to Husserl’s transcendental reduction. In his surrounding lectures and in BT, Heidegger critiques Husserl’s transcendental reduction for missing the original phenomenon to be described: our experience as embodied entities living on a physical earth, but “worlded” in terms of the categorial (i.e. socially constructed) intuition. Husserl accepted the metaphysics of the “natural attitude” but bracketed realist questions from the ultimate reduction for sake of Cartesian “certainty” and wanting to achieve “apodicticity” . Heidegger recognized the irony (and ultimate futility) of using Cartesian standards of certainty for the investigation of something as concrete as lived experience. This is why he ultimately endorsed a hermeneutic phenomenology that started from within the messy circle of lived experience, rather than from eidetically purified descriptions of transcendental correlation. By introducing the concept of “semblance” into phenomenology, Heidegger provided a means to capture by formal indication the natural attitude’s acceptance of empirical realism without suffering from internal inconsistency (since he can show that his opponents’ positions stand upon the strength of unquestioned assumptions). Husserl would have never said things like:

With circumspective interpretation, the way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself, or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of being (SZ 150).

Heidegger is talking about situations like when we see a stick in the grass as a snake or make perceptual mistakes wherein we radically misinterpret the given phenomenon. Fool’s gold is good example. Such language was phenomenological heresy for Husserl, which is why he thought Heidegger was trying to naturalize consciousness like some sort of objective anthropologist.  But by allowing realist concepts like the semblance into his methodology, Heidegger was able to account for the full spectrum of human experience, such as  when “The present-at-hand, as Dasein encounters it, can, as it were, assault Dasein’s Being; natural events, for instance, can break in upon us and destroy us” (SZ 152). Our experience with earthquakes, volcanoes, animals, etc. shows us that there is indeed an objective reality “out there”, ready to stand in our way or assist us (as with the sun, the wind, and the sea). If some hapless fool interpreted an earthquake as a simulation or dream, Heidegger would say that he was experiencing a semblance of the earthquake, not the genuine phenomenon of the earthquake as it is “in itself”. Indeed,”the fact that Reality is ontologically grounded in the Being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is” (SZ 212). Surely this is a vast improvement over Husserl’s phenomenological method and deserves attention as a philosophical methodology.


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Shifting Paradigms: An Interesting Conversation with Eric Thomson


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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