This is a letter to Greg Hickok in response to some recent tweet exchanges that immediately seemed to raise issues that are not resolvable in 140 character snippets. I'm including Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka from Leeds, and Marek McGann from Limerick in the distribution, as I believe we might all have interesting perspectives on the issues at stake.
Let's start with this heartfelt tweet from Greg, which I hope represents common ground among all of us:
I wonder how much the pace of science would quicken if we could just understand what the fuck each other are trying to say. (Origin: @GregoryHickok)
I might have some reservations about the use of "pace", which suggests a simple linear progressive course from ignorance into certainty, to be delivered by science, but the sentiment that we are talking past each other, and that this is not in any of our interests, motivates this reply.
Then, to start the discussion, here is a sequence of three further tweets (concatenated) by Greg which triggered this response:
Embody: 'To give a concrete form to what is abstract' (OED). In the brain, concrete form = neural codes (firing patterns, etc). An embodied mental concept then just means a concept defined by neural codes. Embodied cognition therefore targets the same question as standard cognitive neuroscience: how does the brain code information?
And one further attempt by Greg to nail down two opposing (or complementary?) positions:
Fair to lump embodiment in two broad camps? 'Psychological': cog grounded in sens-motor. 'Physical': cog+sens-mot grounded in body/envirnmnt
I bristled. I objected. I complained that Greg was misappropriating the word "embodied":
OED a terrible source from which to work here. Your nonce definition demands faith in a computational orthodoxy many reject. (Source: @fcummins)
Where should we start then? (@GregoryHickok)
By not misappropriating the term "embodied"? CogSci has not been helped by Camp A's dismissal of Camp B (for many As and Bs) (@fcummins)
To which Greg replies:
Ok, I'm listening. What is your version of embodied? (@GregoryHickock)
This is where the tweet-format breaks down, because that is rather a big question. It is also a question I have no intention of answering, because it presupposes further common ground that is not, in fact, present. This yawning abyss needs to be acknowledged before we could usefully approach an answer. Otherwise, we are indeed incapable of understanding what the fuck we are hearing from each other.
Important qualification: There are not two camps here, with Greg in one and Andrew-Sabrina-Marek-Fred in the other. I do not speak for Andrew-Sabrina-Marek, and my views here are my own. I am not confident they would garner assent from anyone else. That (and the good natured tone of twitter exchanges among us) will allow me to perhaps overstate my case in the interests of drawing attention to the missing common ground that must be acknowledged if things are to improve. And I will undoubtedly make unwarranted assumptions about Greg's position and commitments too, for which I will happily accept vilification and rebuke. And if my tone degenerates into incoherent ranting towards the end, I ask for good-natured indulgence. I love the challenge set by the first tweet, and I think we all need to learn how to argue, with due acknowledgement of the chasms that can separate us.
At issue here is not a disagreement over how we understand the mechanisms of the cognitive system that give rise to human behaviour. It is not a matter of negotiating the degree to which such explanations need to appeal to properties of the non-brain body in addition to the computational properties of the brain. The disagreement is much more serious and fundamental than that.
There is not, nor is there likely to be, agreement that the brain is best understood as a computational machine. Likewise there is no agreement that there *is* a cognitive system. There is no agreement that the physiological activity of the brain is properly understood in representational terms. There is no agreement that the brain is the locus, or origin, of phenomenal experience, or consciousness. This is a lot of disagreement. So much, that a premature jump to accounts of what "embodiment" might mean will get nowhere.
I don't want to convince Greg, or the whole of cognitive neuroscience that their enterprise is fundamentally unsound. I do believe that the orthodox interpretation of the brain, and the causal accounts of human behaviour that result, are tragically wrong, and that alternatives are necessary. But here is perhaps the biggest bone of contention of all: I do not believe that there exists, could exist, or should exist, a final fixed account of what a person is, how experience unfolds for them, or what it is like to be a person. These, I firmly believe, should be negotiated. Putative answers are not of the nature of "facts" in inorganic sciences, and will never admit of subsumption under laws comparable in rigour and predictive power to the laws of mechanics.
And so the representational, computational, information processing, cognitivist approach to brains and to people has its place. It is hopelessly wrong, but that is not the problem. The problem is the authority granted to models, findings, pronouncements arising from such views. Science does not give us certainty here. It gives us the means to negotiate and approach local consensus, for some issues, some of the time.
What I do find lamentable is the failure of folk in the representational camp (role played by Greg here) to even acknowledge that their position is open to question. To assume that it is OK to appeal to representations and information processing and perceptual inputs, and the whole grab bag of psychological concepts that, from where I and many others are standing, appear to be worse than untrustworthy.
That sentience might be a property of living forms, rather than brains, is a well articulated position of some venerability. Philosophical arguments extend back at least to Kant, and recently Thompson's Mind in Life, building as it does on people like Jonas, Husserl, Varela, Maturana, and many many others, provides a well fleshed out account. This is not a single voice. Relating mind to life is going on all over the place. The most significant developments in biological philosophy that address the question of how "life" is to be understood all feed into the discussion here. Terrence Deacon's "Incomplete Nature", and Stuart Kaufmann's "Investigations" are some relevant works. I could list dozens of others, but all I want to establish is that there is more than one game in town and the wilful neglect of the grounded, reasoned, position of others that the rationalist, cognitivist camp regularly engages in speaks only of their lack of knowledge of the territory. We in the mind and life camp are well aware of the arguments, successes, failures, weaknesses and strengths of the cogitivist position. Why do we repeatedly run into a failure of that camp to acknowledge other positions? Some of the founders are well known for their appalling arrogance here. Fodor, in 2001, says:
[The Computational Theory of Mind] is, in my view, by far the best theory of cognition that we’ve got; indeed, the only one we’ve got that’s worth the bother of a serious discussion.... its central idea---that intentional processes are syntactic operations defined on mental representations---is strikingly elegant.
That phrase "the only one we've got that's worth the bother of a serious discussion" rankles me. It is dismissive and ignorant. Chomsky argues regularly in similar vein, and has recently been called publicly to task for it by Christina Behme. This is rank, ignorant, fundamentalism.
The 1991 book The Embodied Mind (Varela, Thompson, Rosch) is a landmark work that introduced some of these concerns into cognitive science. It also represents the first principled introduction of the term Embodiment into such fundamental discussions. The term has been dragged through many ditches since, and used and misused in so many ways that any suggestion that there is an agreed interpretation of the term is ridiculous. To illustrate my point, I need only point out how Greg felt that embodiment could be subsumed within his view of how brains relate to experience and behaviour (I hate the word "mind").
Is it necessary to argue here the shortcomings of the contemporary cognitivist view? Is it necessary to decry it as a crypto-religious solipsistic Cartesian approach, bound inseparably to a cultural-historical view of the human that valorises individual agency and autonomy to the point of shutting the person off from their world? To my jaundiced eye, all computational accounts we currently have fall woefully short of providing plausible accounts of either experience or behaviour. They lean on a magical notion of representation that is a theological construct, yet they are not aware of their theological commitments.
The issues at stake are not small. They extend to more than a single word. But I hope this response can serve to lay down a marker, so that Greg, and anyone else belonging to the Church of Cognitivism, does not feel free to misappropriate terms from reasoned approaches to cognition they do not even acknowledge. I am happy to elaborate on any of the points above, but I feel this tweet has now reached its character limit.
Cognitive Science Programme
UCD School of Computer Science and Informatics