Thursday, 29 January 2015

In the blog post The Extended Breath, Paul Thagard makes a parodic attack on the 4 E’s of contemporary cognitive science and philosophy of mind [embedded, embodied, extended and enactive] by soliciting us to consider, not the conceptualisation of mind as an extended phenomenon, but rather, the breath.

Although challenging all the E’s as one is always going to be overly ambitious, as a piece of parody Thagard’s post is certainly effective. The ridiculousness of his claim, and the apparent ridiculousness of the philosophical position it apparently extolls emerge quite brilliantly as the writing proceeds.

Thagard contends that he will “show that breathing is extended and therefore should not be identified with lung functioning”. Reflecting upon the work of his ‘peers’, Noe, Thompson and Chemero; he declares - with more than a little comedic prowess - that he “heartily endorses this exciting new approach to cognitive science and looks forward to future developments in theories such as digestion and sexual reproduction, all of which extend into the world in ways too indelicate to report here”. Indeed, Thagard even has a new catchy phrase for his extended breath hypothesis. Having taken inspiration from the often mischaracterised German philosopher Martin Heidgger, and his concept of being-in-the-world, Thagard refers to his extended breath hypothesis simply as ‘breathing-in-the-world’. The hyphenated structure of the phrase - as is the case with Heidegger - meaning to illustrate the necessary relationships between terms. But is this article accurate at hitting more than just our funny bones; does it hit its other intended target?

Some of the attendant comments are illustrative here. Certain commenters, reminding me of when an acquaintance sent me this ‘careful’ piece of journalism by ‘America’s Finest News Source’, seem to think that the piece is genuinely effective. Others, of course, sympathise with its true intentions. 

However, amongst the sheep and the slaughter there is a shepherd to be found (I guess that makes me a dog). In fact, the inspiration for this post comes from that shepherd; commenter ‘Marek’ (a link to his comment can be found here). He seems to think that Thagard’s attack makes a criticism that is both banal, and not actually the position of enactivists, such as the ones earlier mentioned. 

Marek indicates that breathing is not properly conceived as an enactive process in the same way that cognition is, and thus, the analogy fails. Breathing, properly defined as ‘osmotic diffusion across pulmonary membranes’ is a genuine possibility of the lung-in-the-vat, contends Marek; and that, with even our current technologies lungs are quite capable of breathing without being connected to any ‘body’(as can be witnessed here).  

What Marek does not say, but I suspect he is implying, is that there are some obvious discrepancies that emerge when you make the contrast between the possibility of the genuine breathing lung-in-the-vat, and the impossibility of the genuine thinking brain-in-the-vat [as argued for by Evan Thompson here]. In this article Thompson makes what some call the definitive case for why the ‘minimal requirements for consciousness include a living body, and not just neuronal processes in the skull’. Ultimately, what these descrepencies amount to is the following: though a lung-in-a-vat can breath like a regular lung without being embodied, a brain-in-a-vat cannot think like a regular brain unless that vat constitutes something that is “an embodied agent in the world” i.e. a body. 

If this is the proper conception of the enactivist position then the only target that Thagard is hitting, besides our collective humeri, is one bound by twine, often used to fend off crows and sometimes goes by theWorzel    

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