Review of Mind in Life

The NDPR has an interesteing review of Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, which draws from Husserl and Mereleau Ponty, as well as biological theories of self-organization and systems theory

In Mind in Life Evan Thompson aims to assemble a framework for cognitive science that will begin to harmonize biology and phenomenology so as to help close the notorious “explanatory gap” between consciousness and nature. Thompson does not claim to close this gap completely, but to “enrich the philosophical and scientific resources we have for addressing” it (p. x). It may not yet be easy to tell how much headway has been made on the problem of the gap. But we should acknowledge what Thompson has clearly achieved: a remarkable and complex synthesis, in which phenomenology as he understands it is joined with what he calls “embodied dynamicism” in a manner that helps define an important emerging vision of the place of consciousness in nature.

The sources on which Thompson draws are primarily: certain aspects of Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s philosophies; ideas in theoretical biology on self-organization; and dynamic systems theory as applied to the brain. This superficially disparate collection is unified in a way that can provide a valuable introduction for the uninitiated, and the possibilities Thompson opens up will undoubtedly be welcomed by many who are dissatisfied with current orthodoxies in cognitive science.

Thompson labels his general view of cognition “the enactive approach.” As developed here it extends and revises the position he originally proposed, together with Eleanor Rosch and Francisco Varela, in The Embodied Mind (MIT, 1991). At its core lies a commitment to “embodied dynamicism,” a relatively recent perspective in cognitive science that he contrasts with both connectionism and earlier cognitivist theories. The “cognitive revolution” has (since its ascendancy in the 1960s and 70s) freed psychology from behaviorism, by interposing mental processes between stimulus and response. But, Thompson says, in treating these processes as computations implemented in a “skull-bound” symbol system, cognitivism sustains the behaviorist repudiation of consciousness, since it places the mind’s work in “subpersonal routines” inaccessible to the personal level of consciousness. The connectionist views that achieved prominence in the 1980s did, as Thompson sees it, offer in some respects a significantly new approach, since the “distributed subsymbolic representations” that emerge from the activity of connectionist networks do not count as “symbols in the traditional computational sense” (p. 9). And this is progress, he thinks, insofar as it paves the way for a “more dynamic conception of the relation between cognitive processes and the environment” and promises to bring the theoretical image of mental processes closer to neural reality. However, Thompson finds connectionism disappointing as well, since it retains the dubious cognitivist tendency to project onto the brain computational tasks that truly exist only in the eye of an outside observer, and it persists in estranging mind from subjectivity, while failing to situate mind in the world via sensorimotor activity.

Thus an alternative is needed: the enactive approach. According to its “embodied dynamicism,” the brain is a self-organizing system tracing “trajectories” in a “space” of states, in response to “perturbations” from the outside — trajectories characterized by a set of differential equations. (This is the dynamicism.) And what makes brains the self-organizing systems they are is their linkage of organisms’ sensory surfaces with effectors so as to produce and maintain a “sensorimotor agent.” (This is where the “embodied” part comes in.) Thompson argues that this view, unlike its competitors, can see natural cognition in terms of the “meanings that stimuli have for the animal” situated in its environment, rather than in terms of the meanings imposed by an observer, since meaning for the organism emerges from its dynamically self-organizing sensorimotor activity (p. 53). And by elaborating a biologically based conception of cognition that gives a natural place to the significance things have for an organism, the enactivist hopes to join biology to subjectivity and phenomenology, where other theories have left a yawning explanatory gap.

Read the rest here.  I don’t really have the time to comment on the review in a substantive manner, but closely related to this conversation are three ineteresting texts I’ve looked at of recent that deserve mention.  Two an edited volumes: Evolutionary Systems: Biological and Epistemological Perspectives on Selection and Self-Organization and Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.  Finally, is Dupuy’s The Mechanization of the Mind. 

4 thoughts on “Review of Mind in Life

  1. I’m anxious to check out Thompson’s book. The theme of inwardness makes me think of Hans Jonas. I was never quite happy with how he put together the argument that life inherently has an inward dimension. If you’re going to argue something like that, you want to be looking at membranes, which Jonas briefly did. But he veered quickly into metabolism (and the inwardness of substance–a curious ontological argument) and I though he could have dwelt on the membrane and how we can reasonably associate that with a subjectivity. The idea of the membrane also gives us the phenomenal, such that we could say to live is to appear. Jonas would be useful I think for contemplating zombie problems (which frankly don’t keep me up at night). Jonas argues that the study of life calls for a judicious anthropomorphism. Anyway, Thompson’s book looks pretty interesting.

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