The challenge of embodiment

By Graham HarrisGraham Harris v3

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have long argued for a middle way – too often in the history of ideas we end up in polarising debates around extreme positions. One pertinent debate is that between philosophical realists (who believe that reality exists independently of observers) and idealists (who think that reality is mentally constructed). So is there a middle way here also – an “entre deux” between the Scylla of realism and the Charybdis of idealism? Well, yes there is, and it arises out of ideas developed around the problem of complexity, reflexivity and 2nd order cybernetics.

The idea of human cognition as being embodied and enacted was first raised in “The Embodied Mind: cognitive science and the human experience”, the classical text of Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991, revised 2016) but Maturana and Varela sowed the intellectual seeds in earlier work. This idea has now become something of a growth industry in intellectual circles, but there is no denying that it represents a significant challenge to the received view in many disciplines. [For a splendid and up to date editorial review of the state of play in embodiment and enactivism see the paper by Vörös, Froese and Riegler (2016) “Epistemological Odyssey: Introduction to Special Issue on the Diversity of Enactivism and Neurophenomenology”, Constructivist Foundations, 11(2), 189-204, 15 March 2016. (Hereinafter VFR, 2016)]

What do we mean by “embodied”? Varela et al. (2016) wrote “”By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context.” (loc. 4341 of the Kindle version)

Embodiment and enactivism is now often referred to as the 4Es approach – the view of the mind as being extended, embedded, embodied and enacted. From the embodied perspective the mind is not an information processing machine like a computer that constructs representations of the outside world (see e.g. “The empty brain” by Robert Epstein;; but there is, instead, a “dynamic interplay between the sensorimotor capacities of the organism and its environment” (VFR, 2016). There is constant reflexive co-construction of the world and our ideas about it so that epistemologically we can sail a middle path between Scylla and Charybdis “right on the razor’s edge” (Maturana and Varela (1987), “The tree of knowledge”).

Embodiment recognises that the mind and the body are one, that we think and act in metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson (1999) “Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought”), and that action is perception and perception is action. If (VFR 2016) we recalibrate our approach to cognition we can solve the chicken and egg problem of their either being a world out there with pre-given properties or it is just the cognitive system that is projecting its own world.

This cuts straight through the usual realist assumptions – especially cognitivism that is rife with physics envy – and also the idea of Cartesian dualism: that somehow the brain and its reasoning are separate from the real world – and from the body. Instead there is constitutive reflexivity underlying all our epistemic practices; we cannot “step outside” to obtain Nagel’s (1986) “The view from nowhere”.  This is therefore a direct challenge to many received theoretical and practical approaches in cognition, computation, AI, robotics and machine learning.

As soon as I write statements like these the scientists – the cognitivists, realists and rationalists of this world – get up in arms and take this to be a direct, relativist attack on the entire scientific enterprise. As I previously wrote, militant materialism and realism is now proving to be counter productive – the world is moving on. Somehow we have to reconcile the first person phenomenological approach and the third person scientific approach. It is no use trying to ignore the problem and wish it away. This is particularly true for complex, reflexive, 2nd order, living systems: life itself.

Nevertheless VFR 2016 document how, over time, the real razor’s edge of embodiment and enactivism has been watered down in various ways and the debate has gone back to dealing with the old realist versus idealist debate of Scylla and Charybdis. Realism keeps making a comeback – physics envy again! Few attempts have actually been made to try to find a reconciliation and a way forward (Varela tried with neuro-phenomenology).

One thing that probably scares people is that an acceptance of embodiment and enactivism does directly lead to the conclusion that there is no basic epistemological ground we can stand on. Our world is truly groundless. Varela et al (1991) viewed the drive towards realism in science as a form of Cartesian anxiety – a craving for, and a construction of, a ground; any ground.

The acceptance of embodiment and enaction is more than that even. It implies that the problem is more that one of concepts, thought processes and approaches; it is also one of lived experience and of ethics. “How do we think?” must be reflexively enjoined to “how do we live?” and “who are we?”.

This remains a challenge summarized by Thompson (2007) in “Mind in life: biology, phenomenology and the sciences of the mind” as “the central idea of the embodied approach is that cognition is the exercise skillful know-how in situated and embodied action”? (p. 11). There are many situations in complex and existential, system-level problems where we would like to be able to do this better. It’s not as though we are being wildly successful using the present, predominantly realist, materialist and Cartesian approach to science and policy development when we address large-scale challenges.

Embodiment and enaction call for a more open and pluralistic approach to cognition, modeling and to science – even our ethical stance. As I have written before there is no universal and “true” model in complex situations. We need a much broader debate about the “(im)plausibility of the value free ideal of science, the nature of objectivity, the role of the observer and reflexivity and sociality in scientific knowledge” (VFR 2016).

Over the years I have written many times that we humans are good at perceiving and acting on some things and at some scales – but poor at others. We come with built in biases. As primates who live for up to 10 decades and are generally a bit less that 2 metres tall we can more easily understand phenomena at (for us) convenient scales. Some empirical realism and a “physics approach” works well, but no wonder we have such trouble with quantum physics and cosmology. Some aspects of ecology and environmental science come naturally but others – like remembering and acting upon long term and large-scale change – give us problems (see e.g. Schama (1995) “Landscape and memory”.)

We need to expand the ambit of science to include the circularity between first and third person approaches across scales and think more carefully about how we address some of our more complex and large-scale problems. Embodiment does not replace realism: it adds to what presently “counts as scientific reasoning and practice” (VFR 2016).

In a middle way phenomenology stops science drifting off into yet more naive realism and rationalism, while science stops phenomenology and idealism becoming too transcendental and mystical. Our epistemology needs to be broadened – both extremes can be constrained into a groundless acceptance of bounded realism and the important role of cognition, embodiment and enaction. There is but one world, but there are many ways of knowing.

This has led Varela et al. (2016) to argue that the Eastern religions such as Buddhism are more in touch with a groundless and reflexive lived worldview than most Western traditions. There is a reflexive way forward. We just have to remember, as Noë (2015) pointed out in “Strange tools: art and human nature”, that art, music, literature, science and other cultural pursuits are “strange tools” indeed. They are philosophical objects: by engaging in them we study the world and ourselves; changing both in the process.

The titles of the final two chapters of Varela et al. (2016) are “The middle way” and “Laying down a path through walking”. They stress the important link between cognitive architecture and the kinds of mindfullness/awareness that can lead to progress despite the lack of a ground. They also stress the importance of this philosophy in counteracting the kinds of nihilism that the (currently widespread) “catastrophe thinking” brings to existential problems of global proportions.

There is a middle way and it is one that we should explore. It focuses our energies away from a limited, self regarding, competitive “economic” outlook to an ethical and compassionate “other regarding” planetary view. It will lead to us to new places we never expected to find, and that is a message of hope.

I would encourage everyone with an interest in this topic to read the canonical texts and, especially, to read the recent editorial in the on-line journal “Constructivist Foundations” for a more complete summary and full set of references.

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