Friday, July 31, 2009

Overview: Where All of This Is Headed

It may take a while for me to get to the end of my argument. Therefore, so as to not keep readers waiting indefinitely, I’d like to give a general overview of where my reasoning is headed (at least right now; this is all subject to change as I work through it). I’ll keep updating this post with live links as I write up each part. Below is the basic sequence, with indications of which pieces I think should be straightforward and uncontroversial; which will take some work to explain; and which are potentially contentious claims that I will have to argue strenuously for. (See "This is Not a Thesis" for more on why I intend much of what I say not to be controversial.)

1. Philosophers Say the Darnedest Things
[full text; see also my clarifications]

Philosophical discussions of mental life (for which representationalism is the dominant paradigm) tend to focus on the abstract rather than the concrete.
There are a variety of other ways to describe what I mean here — e.g., these discussions tend to reason from the particular to the general, or to look for shared, common factors that lie beneath the details of everyday experience. Use whichever one makes the most sense to you. However you want to explain what distinguishes philosophical discussions about mental life (about representations, phenomenal qualities, etc. and how they interact) from less philosophical sorts of discussions of behavior and experience (about specific, physical human bodies, their environments, and how they interact) is fine with me.
(This is an elementary observation — I don’t expect it to be controversial.)

2. The Allure of the Abstract
[full text]

There are a variety of compelling reasons why these discussions go that way.
I have some ideas about what these reasons are but am also very open to other suggestions — anything other than “That’s the only way we could possibly explain mental life.” Anyone who believes that, please share any evidence and arguments you have for it… provided they’re not couched in the very language whose use you’re trying to justify (that’s cheating).
(It doesn’t matter too much which reasons you agree with, if any. This section mainly serves as preparation for future arguments and as an attempt to avoid trivializing the appeal of the kind of thinking that I’ll later argue against.)

3. Representationalists Are from Mars, Non-Representationalists Are from… well, Earth [3a, 3b, 3c, 3d]
Representationalism and Non-representationalism don’t just give us different answers to the same questions; they raise fundamentally different questions. (Which helps explain why to people on each side, the opposing point of view can seem so darn silly.)
This is probably the most critical piece for me to get across. I will attempt to demonstrate how these two approaches carry conflicting assumptions about what would count as an explanation of intentionality, consciousness, knowledge, or any other aspect of mental life.
(This one definitely needs a lot of explaining. I'm expecting that getting my point across will require many different examples — which I'll do in Part 4.)

4. It Takes a System…
[Intro: 4a
Wittgenstein: 4b-i, 4b-ii(a), 4b-ii(b), 4b-ii(c), 4b-ii(d), 4b-iii, 4b-iv
More to come]

Non-representational perspectives on mental life seem to crop up more frequently in systems-centered approaches to behavior and experience. I’ll give a variety of examples — not only in sources familiar to philosophers, but also in other disciplines. Here I’ll draw on some of my non-philosophical training, bringing in systems-based approaches to human movement, nervous system development, and group dynamics (in addition to some philosophy and robotics, and even a quick nod to Buddhist teachings). I hope to clarify how these are relevant to the issues philosophers are concerned with, and at the same time proceed in a completely different way.
(I think the biggest risk here is that representationalists will come away thinking I've missed the point, that these alternative approaches don't address the most important issues in understanding mental life. I'll try to dispel that in Part 6.)

5. You Can’t Get There from Here [Not yet posted]
Non-representationalism is unsuited to answering the types of questions that are raised within a representationalist model. When advocates of embodied cognitive science engage in the standard philosophy of mind debates, it’s not surprising that either their claims end up sounding extreme (Noë, perhaps?) or they fail to push their arguments to their logical conclusions and fall back on representations (Clark). The playing field is far from level.
(I'm not sure how people will react to this. Fans of representations may happily agree with me here. I may be annoying allies more than opponents… though that will quickly change when we come to Part 6.)

6. The Conjuring Trick, Revealed [Not yet posted]
Representationalism is deeply flawed.
This is the part where I will attempt to demonstrate that representationalism, as it currently stands, is fundamentally untenable — even incoherent. I won't just argue that it's wrong; I want to clearly illustrate that the methods representationalists use could not possibly achieve the goals they are aiming to achieve. I think this becomes clear once you really understand Wittgenstein's later works, but few people seem to (not a big surprise, given his indirect, enigmatic writing style). I'll try again here, without the aphorisms. (And hopefully with some help from sympathetic co-writers who understand what I'm talking about.) I'll bring in the idea of empty questions, as explained by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons. I will attempt to show that the the questions lying at the core of conventional, representational philosophy of mind — the ones that seem to be deepest, and most profound — are actually just empty. It's time to let them go and just move on.
(I suppose it goes without saying that this part will be contentious! My aim is still that my conclusions be self-evident once I'm done, but I know that's very wishful thinking.)

7. Philosophical Throwdown
If there are enough people reading this blog by the time I get to this point, I think it would be fun to host a debate here between representationalists (of any stripe, even those sympathetic to mainstream embodied cognitive science) and me and any other radicals.

8. Conclusion

By this point, the revolution will have been successful and all philosophers, theorists, and scientists worldwide will have fully embraced radical embodied cognitive science. (We'll have to rename it "conventional embodied cognitive science.")
Okay, maybe not... But no matter how these ideas get received, a natural next step is to ask, for those of us who do adhere to the radical viewpoint, what are the best ways to go about applying it? I look forward to the day when there is sufficient support for these ideas to begin putting them to widespread practical use. Until that time, I will stick to the task of trying to promote basic understanding of this approach — one blog post at a time.

This Is Not a Thesis

“If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.” (Philosophical Investigations, section 128)

“Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything.—Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.” (Philosophical Investigations, section 126)

At least to start out, this blog is mainly going to be a series of observations designed to shed light on the relationship and contrast between radical embodied cognitive science and representational approaches. These aren’t arguments in the traditional sense; I’m not putting forth contestable claims and trying to persuade everyone that they’re correct. What I’m aiming to do is clear away confusion, bringing attention to facts and phenomena that “lie open to view,” as soon as we start noticing them. Later I’ll build on these observations and make a case, advocating for the superiority of the radical embodied perspective. But until then, my main points will be ones that I take to be obviously true — verging on mundane — once you understand them. If you find yourself disagreeing, that probably means I haven’t been clear, so it sounds like I’m making a more dramatic or contentious statement than I intend to be making. You may very well take issue with the particular examples or terminology I use, which is fine; there’s no problem with substituting other ones.

In this way, I humbly aspire to do philosophy in the sense that (the later) Wittgenstein understood it, which may be quite different from what other philosophers and readers of philosophy are accustomed to. At some point I will go into much greater detail about Wittgenstein’s work (which I think is sadly misunderstood), but that is a topic for another post, if not an entirely different blog.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Part 2: The Allure of the Abstract

“It's all very well in practice, but it will never work in theory.”
—French proverb

My last two posts have focused on the tendency for philosophers to explain mental life by means of abstract theoretical analysis (which can also be described as reasoning from the particular to the general... and sticking with the general for quite a long time). The next question I'd like to address is, Why? Exactly what is the appeal of that type of explanation?

This is a big question. Developing a thoroughly satisfying answer would require a good deal of historical analysis, and many more words than I plan to use here. Moreover, I’m not the best person to give an answer, since I don’t find that type of thinking appealing. (I believe that early exposure to Wittgenstein served as a sort of inoculation.) Still, I do have some speculations that I'll share here. Anyone who has additional ideas, please chime in with comments!

Certainly there are powerful, compelling reasons why philosophers talk about the mind the way they do. I think it will be instructive to step back and consider what those reasons are, where they come from, and what assumptions might come along with them.

So here goes.
Again, the question is:
Exactly what is the appeal of abstract, theoretical (i.e., philosophical) discussion for explaining our mental lives?

I'll start off with a relatively trivial (though not irrelevant) answer:

1. Everybody's doing it.
Since nearly all the dialogue in the field is couched in these sort of abstract terms, newcomers need to learn to talk that way in order to participate. To practice philosophy of mind, you have to speak philosopher. One could argue that if you're not speaking in this way, you're not doing philosophy at all. (In which case, shame on you — leave the academy at once.)

This type of discussion is self-perpetuating: the nature of the discussion constrains the type of questions that get asked, and vice versa. When you're speaking about theoretical constructs, you think up questions like "How can something inside your head be about something in the outside world?" or "What does it mean to have a concept?" In turn, these sorts of questions invite particular types of answers — answers couched in philosophical language.

More substantive answers might include:
2. It seems to be getting at something deeper, giving a better or clearer view of what's happening in our mental lives. Wittenstein spoke to this in his Philosophical Investigations:

“[Questions as to the essence of language, of propositions, of thought] see in the essence, not something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement, but something that lies beneath the surface. Something that lies within, which we see when we look into the thing, and which an analysis digs out.” (Section 92)

When doing philosophy, it often sounds like we're unearthing something profound and imporant that lies underneath the reality we can easily observe. An analogy in medicine might be a CT scan or MRI; just as those tools give us a clearer view into the causes of a person's symptoms, philosophy seems to give us tools to look beneath the surface and discover the root causes of our behavior and experience.

3. It appears obvious that there must be shared, underlying factors driving particular behaviors and experiences. How else can we explain how a person can do things like use the same word (say, dog) in so many different ways, in so many different contexts? It seems as though that individual must have some general something (concept, representation, mental entity, etc.) that then gets applied in specific situations. Similarly, we need to be able to explain how different people, with quite divergent life histories, can come to act and respond in the same sorts of ways. If you can use and respond to the word dog in all the same ways as I do, it seems as though we must share the same concept, representation, or whatever. Otherwise we couldn't possibly understand each other. (Or so it seems.)

4. The particular details of unique, everyday circumstances just get in the way.
If the goal is to dig deeper to pinpoint common factors that stay the same across different situations and different people, the last thing we want to focus on are idiosyncratic features of particular events. It's natural to want to factor those out, to see what's left. To take another medical example, say you want to figure out what factors contribute to developing bipolar disorder. You don't want to do a case history of one individual, charting everything that happened over his or her lifespan. Instead, you want to look at as many different cases as you can, to find the common underlying causes — maybe particular genes, or neurotransmitter levels, or other types of risk factors. Why focus on the unique peculiarities of Mary Smith's life history, much less the specific experiences preceding her last manic episode? Just give us aggregate data on serotonin. Why focus on the the specific interactions I'm having with the slobbering animal at my feet? We want to understand the eternal concept DOG.

More thoughts, anyone?

Part 1b: Heading Off Objections

In my last post I raised the issue of the specialized, abstracted ways in which philosophers of mind tend to describe and analyze mental life. This will be crucial to some of the arguments I want to develop. There’s a risk here that it will seem as though I’m constructing a straw man, criticizing a caricature that doesn’t faithfully depict the way philosophers actually talk. There’s also a risk that my argument will seem like a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction against complex vocabulary or sentence construction.

This post is an effort to head-off those types of objections by giving specific examples of what I mean by abstract, technical, specialized philosophical language. All that matters for the sake of my arguments is that it is markedly different, and in some sense removed, from concrete or empirical data — whether objective (observable phenomena and behavior) or subjective (direct experience).

I’ll give just a couple of examples (the first good ones I found on a random search), but there are countless others throughout the field. My point applies to any discussion that sounds even remotely like what follows, or that is based on conclusions drawn from this sort of analysis.

The following examples are taken from Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, by Jerry Fodor (1998).

"Since content supervenes on purely nomic relations — that is, on certain lawful relations among properties — and since lawful relations can presumably hold among properties that are, de facto, uninstantiated, the metaphysical conditions for content can in principle can be met entirely counterfactually: no actual tokens of DOG have actually to be caused by dogs for the counterfactuals that its content supervenes on to be in place."

My point is not that this is complex, rich with philosophical jargon, or difficult for non-philosophers to understand — though of course it is — but that what’s being described here are abstract entities and categories (DOG, tokens, properties) and how those relate to one another. DOG is not a living, panting cocker spaniel sitting at Fodor’s feet; it is a theoretical construct.

Fodor describes such theoretical constructs as interacting or relating to each other in a variety of ways, such as “instantiating,” “supervening on,” or being “constitutive of” on one another. Here are two other examples:

"So we have it, by assumption, that 'dog' and DOG mean dog because 'dog' expresses DOG, and DOG tokens fall under a law according to which they reliably are (or would be) among the effects of instantiated doghood.

"[C]oncepts are constituents of mental states. Thus, for example, believing that cats are animals is a paradigmatic mental sate, and the concept ANIMAL is a constituent of the belief that cats are animals."

These next quotes are by David Chalmers, in “The Content and Epistemology of Phenomenal Belief” (2003).

“I take concepts to be mental entities on a par with beliefs: they are constituents of beliefs (and other propositional attitudes) in a manner loosely analogous to the way in which words are constituents of sentences. Like beliefs, concepts are tokens rather than types in the first instance. But they also fall under types, some of which I explore in what follows.”

Again, the entities being discussed here are abstract. (Which is not to say that nobody imagines these abstract entities will correspond to physical entities. But so far, we’re operating in pure theory.)

“I look at a red apple, and visually experience its color…” (So far so good! A little oddly phrased, but still pretty well grounded in the reality of people, apples, and colors.) “…This experience instantiates a phenomenal quality R, which we might call phenomenal redness.” (And then *poof!* we’re back in theory-land.)

Note: Lest it still seem as though I am critiquing an outdated, minority viewpoint, please read the post "This Means You Too, Andy Clark."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Part 1a: Philosophers Say the Darnedest Things

(Irreverent Reflections on Philosophical Dialogue: The Bare Beginnings of an Argument)

Start talking about human thought with the average Philosopher of mind (let’s call him Pom), and something peculiar happens. Say you’re discussing the topic of belief. Presuming that you yourself are not a philosopher, you’re likely to relate this topic to an actual situation in your real life. You might ask Pom how he would explain your belief that the mug in front of you is filled with coffee. (Naturally, this discussion is taking place at a café.) What will Pom say?

First let’s look at what Pom is probably not going to say. He is unlikely to talk much about specific situations that are relevant to you as an individual, such as your past history talking about and interacting with liquids and coffee shops and mugs and coffee. He is also unlikely to discuss the details of your present situation — the fact that you recently stood at the counter asking your friendly neighborhood barista for an extra-hot venti misto, subsequently handed said barista several dollars, and for the past fifteen minutes have been enjoying the steamy liquid you received in return.

In other words, facts related to your direct experience will not play any substantial role in the discussion. To the extent that Pom discusses events or states inside your brain, he probably will not attempt to link them together with your experiences in a coherent causal story (e.g., exactly how particular experiences have been leading to specific changes in your brain, and then how those changes translate into specific future responses and behaviors).

Instead, something rather surprising happens. Somehow Pom makes a shift from discussing reality to reasoning about abstract theoretical entities. Rather than explaining why right here, right now, you are having very particular thoughts about or reactions to a particular mug filled with dark brown liquid, Pom begins to explain how you — as a generic PERSON (for his purposes you’re essentially exchangeable with anyone, even perhaps a sophisticated machine) — are related to the general concept COFFEE. You come to understand that something in your head has a peculiar relationship not just with any old cup of joe, but with all the coffees that ever have been and ever could be.

Now, at this point you have to be pretty excited. This is profound stuff. You’ve probably never thought about it before, but as Pom keeps talking, you start to see that yes, it is quite remarkable that something inside you can be “about” something on the outside world. And indeed, it is wondrous that you can talk about objects that are not right in front of you, or speak a sentence that nobody in the history of the world has ever uttered before.

As Pom continues, you grow increasingly impressed by his mastery of the technical vocabulary that one appears to need to discuss the beliefs of even an ordinary person such as yourself. There are vehicles and formal properties and rules (Oh my!). You probably won’t leave the conversation with a better understanding of your own beliefs, but you’ll have had a glimpse into a fascinating, complex, and sophisticated way of talking about mental life.

The question is: How does that way of talking — that uniquely philosophical way of talking — relate to actual ordinary human experiences?

This is a question that I take quite seriously, and one that I believe I am entitled to ask. Most philosophy of mind discussions take place at least one step removed from reality (i.e., concrete or empirical data). But there is still an assumption that this specialized, more abstract language helps to explain what’s happening with our ordinary experience. (Mind you, we could also imagine the alternative — a philosopher might say, “Oh, no, the analyses we do don’t actually have any explanatory value for real human thinking or beliefs or intentions or whatnot, but they’re jolly good fun to play around with.” In this sense philosophizing might be more like creating a collaborative work of fiction. But I expect few philosophers are operating with that perspective.)

It may be obvious by now how I am inclined to answer the question: I think that when it comes to understanding the mind, most abstracted philosophical analysis fails miserably at the very tasks for which it is presumed to be necessary. However, that’s something I will have to demonstrate — and demonstrate quite carefully, since I’m arguing for a radical minority viewpoint.

For now, I’ll stick with making one key point:
[MAIN POINT OF THIS POST]: Philosophical discussions of mental life typically involve technical analyses of abstract ideas, often using specialized terminology — or at least common words (like concept, representation, properties, and even about) used in very specialized ways. Because this is the prevailing approach to the philosophy of mind, it generally seems to those within the field as quite a natural way to proceed, and perhaps the only useful way to proceed. It is worth taking a step back and reminding ourselves that ultimately, the value of this type of discussion is dependent on its ability to explain (or at help to explain) real-life human experience and behavior.

Of course, I’ve done nothing so far to explain why there’s anything wrong with the prevailing, abstract approach. And in fact, before I do that, I’d like to explore the various reasons why it seems so compelling. I will do that very soon. First, though, I should give some concrete examples of what I mean by technical, abstract philosophical analyses, lest it seem as though I am setting up a straw man. That will be the subject of my next post.

Why am I writing this blog?

When I first considered going to philosophy graduate school, I began by trying to identify philosophers who had viewpoints similar to my own. In particular, I looked for anyone who was actively arguing against representationalism (the idea that cognition is best described, or can only be adequately described, with reference to mental representations or representational states). There was very little to choose from. The most straightforward argument of this sort that I could find was an unpublished draft article by a professor who specializes in Buddhist philosophy. I quite liked the article and contacted the professor, who encouraged my interest but informed me that it placed me on the “lunatic fringe” of the field.

Five years later the situation has improved a bit. This past spring Alva Noë (one of the other professors I had tracked down earlier) published Out of Our Heads, which puts forward the argument that consciousness does not reside solely in the human brain — or even the human body. In it Noë makes the bold claim, “We are not world representers. We have no need for that idea.” Later this year comes the publication of Anthony Chemero’s Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. He draws the term radical embodied cognition from Andy Clark, who defines it as the position that “[e]mbodied cognition is best studied by means of noncomputational and nonrepresentational ideas and explanatory schemes.” In his unpublished draft, Chemero cites a few dozen publications as exemplifying this point of view, and adds that there are many others as well.

And yet, despite the increased visibility of non-representational arguments (Noë’s book in particular has received a great deal of attention), they still linger uncomfortably on the edge of the lunatic fringe. Andy Clark himself, one of the best-known advocates of embodied cognition, takes pains to distance himself from the radical viewpoint. In his recent book Supersizing the Mind, he talks freely about representations as essential parts of our cognitive landscape.

It is clear from the strong reactions on both sides of the argument that there is a deep division here. I had a direct experience of this at a Philosophy of Mind discussion I organized to discuss Out of Our Heads. Only one other participant (a non-philosopher friend of mine) agreed with me that Noë’s claims made perfect sense. The discussion was dominated by various arguments about why he couldn’t possibly be right, interspersed with contrarian comments from me and my friend — at least one of which was met by audible gasps.

The fact is that from the perspective of mainstream philosophy of mind and cognitive science, arguments against representationalism simply do not make sense. There are good reasons — or at least, powerful reasons — behind this, and one of my goals will be to explain what those are. This is the defensive argument: we’re not crazy; you just think we are, and I’ll tell you why. I will also be going on the offensive. I don’t simply believe that radical embodied cognitive science deserves some respect and some space at the philosophical table. I believe that the conventional representational point of view is deeply, fundamentally flawed, and that the field is in dire need of a radically different alternative. My mission is to demonstrate that. I hope it works.

Help Wanted

I'm not going to worry about perfecting every argument before I post it -- this is a blog after all -- so I could use some help here from readers to keep me sharp. Those generally sympathetic to REC, help me make a strong case. If I'm not doing justice to a particular idea, let me know and help me to do better. Everyone else, please point out those points of my arguments that you don't find convincing. Force me to be clear and persuasive.

Thank you!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Be Radical?

My reasons for the title "Radical Embodied Cognition":
1 - Embodied Cognition was already taken
2 - My views are outside the mainstream of embodied cognition anyhow
3 - I'm in the process of reading the pre-publication version of Anthony Chemero's Radical Embodied Cognitive Science and identify very closely with the "radical" viewpoint as he describes it
4 - I'm hoping that the publication of that book will popularize the term so that anyone coming to this blog will have at least a vague sense of my philosohpical orientation

Should Anthony Chemero happen to want this blogspot address, he is welcome to it. In the meantime, I will set out on my own in presenting an unapologetically non-representational, fully embodied theory of mind.

(Note: I believe the term radical embodied cognition was originally coined by Andy Clark, but he doesn't actually believe in it and so is very unlikely to go around blogging about it.)