Tag Archives: embodied cognition

Book Notice: Radicalizing Enactivism, by Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin

Hutto and Myin’s Radicalizing Enactivism is a great little book that’s short and to the point. Their master argument is fairly simple though it’s implications are profound. They argue that cognitive science’s tacit reliance on notions of information “content” is incompatible with explanatory naturalism (the “Hard Problem of Content”), and the only solution is to abandon the idea that basic minds essentially involve content. If they are right, Hutto and Myin’s critique would collapse the vehicle/content distinction because if there is no content, there is nothing for the vehicle to carry; there is only the actual, physical activity of the vehicle.

I agree almost entirely with their critique and believe the Hard Problem of Content is indeed hard and spells disaster for most analytic philosophy of mind as well as contemporary cognitive science. My only complaint is that their Radical Enactive Cognition account is not radical enough, hard as that may be to believe. Hutto and Myin try to distance themselves from Type A physicalism and lean towards a softer Type B, “gappy” materialism of some kind, but in the end their position is ontologically equivalent to Type A physicalism and their only recourse against this slippery slope is seemingly practical: their position is already hard to sell, and making it more radical would make it even more difficult, even though I believe this is the logical outcome of their argument. Overall, philosophers would do well to grapple with the deep, fundamental issues raised in Hutto and Myin’s book. 5/5

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Are Bacteria Capable of Caring?

At a conference on consciousness I went to recently, I suggested that bacteria are capable of care, but that rocks aren’t. Several people disagreed with me vehemently on this point. They said that it’s an obvious anthropomorphization to say that bacteria care. Their argument was that bacteria are just fully mechanical biochemical systems. To say a bacteria is capable of care is to speak metaphorically or something, but it can’t be literally true.

I don’t know about this. It seems to me true that bacteria are capable of caring but rocks aren’t. And you can’t just say bacteria are biochemical machines, because under the right description, so are humans. And moreover, seen through the lens of physics, humans are really no different from any other physical system, including rocks and bacteria. It’s all just fermions and bosons at the bottom anyway. So the argument that bacteria can’t care because they are mechanical or fully physical doesn’t work because under the right description humans look the same as bacteria and we all agree it’s appropriate to say humans care.

So the difference between the bacteria and the rock is not going to be a matter of being a physical system obeying physical law. Where I think the difference lies is in the way in which the bacteria’s physical matter is organized. It is at the level of organization that we see differences between rocks and bacteria. Bacteria, like all lifeforms, are balanced at the edge of thermodynamic disequilibrium. They are unstable in their organization, always ready to break down, but somehow they keep going (until death at least). Their unstability is characteristically stable, like a whirlpool in a river.

Moreover, there is something unique about the activities of the bacteria compared to other mechanical systems. The activities of the bacteria are continuously involved in producing the physical structures that constitute the bacteria. When the bacteria digests nutrients, it takes that matter and processes it in order to rebuild the membrane which distinguishes it from the environment. So the bacteria is continuously self-producing itself by always taking in nutrients to maintain the construction of the membrane which defines it against the environment. Theorists have called this kind of dynamic organization autopoietic. Whether or not autopoiesis alone is sufficient to define life against nonlife (some think you will need to also add notions of adaptivity), it is uncontroversial that organic lifeforms have a unique kind of organizational structure in virtue of something like autopoiesis.

But why should we think such an organizational structure warrants the claim that bacteria care about things? Well, I admit that such a gloss is taking advantage of metaphors to some extent, and all metaphors are in some sense literally false. But I still think it’s true to say bacteria care about things but rocks and other inorganic entities don’t. Imagine that you take some sugar and you place it in front of a rolling boulder or a moving bacteria. On one level of description, we could talk about the rock encountering the sugar in its pathway in input/output computational terms. The lump of sugar is an input into the system, the rock “computes” its response, and then generates an output, which is a slightly different change in behavior.

Similarly, we could use the same input/output description to talk about the bacteria encountering the lump. The sugar is an input into the system, the bacteria “computes” its response, and the output is a new set of behaviors. But just because we can apply this abstract characterization to both systems, that doesn’t mean that the rock and the bacteria are doing the same thing when they encounter the sugar. The difference, I think, is in the way the two entities “experience” the sugar. I don’t think the rock is really quite experiencing the sugar in the same way because I think the bacteria is on the look out for sugar. It is attuned for sugar, as opposed to other nutrients. It desires sugar. It seeks out sugar. It’s perception is valenced. It lives in a small lifeworld where all that matters is finding nutrients. None of this is true of the rock.  If the rock sees the world through a valence at all, it valences everything equally. It has no preferences. No affectivity. As Heidegger said,

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing. (History of the Concept of Time, p. 255)

I think this is a very insightful remark from Heidegger. He recognizes that there is something unique about the organizational structure of a bacteria when compared to a rock. When I say a rock “cares” about the world, I am really referencing Heidegger’s technical notion of “affectivity”. I talked about this a lot in my Master’s Thesis. The key idea is about the bacteria “finding itself”. This kind of self-reflexive organizational structure is I think a nontechnical precursor to the concept of autopoiesis. Pretty speculative, but bear with me. The idea is that rocks and stones don’t see the world as ready-to-hand. That is, they don’t see the world in terms of what it affords the possibility of doing. In other words, it is appropriate to think of bacteria as organized with respect to the future. This is a potentially mystifying claim, but it’s not that complex. From the perspective of physics, it’s still all just fermions and bosons obeying the laws of physics. But when dealing with lifeforms, the concept of valence is necessarily tied into the concept of a creature lacking something. The bacteria lacks the nutrients necessary to construct its membrane, so it seeks it out. Lack in organisms is always defined with respect to the future, what some ecological psychogists have called prospectivity. This type of absential, future-oriented organization is what Terrence Deacon has called ententional phenomena in his new book Incomplete Nature. I haven’t finished the book yet, but what I have read so far is quite brilliant.

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Response to Fred Adams' latest critique of "Embodied Cognition"

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.

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