Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Tangle of cognition: A brain requires a body. A body requires a habitat. A Mind requires their interaction.

There is, in the words of Louise Barrett, a “burgeoning literature on 4-E cognition” (Barrett 2016 p. 14), and this approach may be an enormous help in shifting cognitive science in a direction which embraces a wider, non anthropocentric premise. Cognitive Science would be well served to focus its multi-disciplinary hydra-head on the viewpoint that the body is in relationship with its environment, and (in an archaic but appropriate sense): thence commeth cognition.

A way of connecting some of the various ways of thinking about the Big Questions of cognition (Why? How? Where? What For? and Who?) is through so-called  “4-E Cognition”. Apparently 4-E as a theory has not taken off as a specific label for a project by any one group of scientists (Fred Cummins, Yet it seems to be just the ticket to combine some of the big issues around cognition, taking a philosophical point of view.

The four Es are: Embodied, Embedded, Enactive, Extended. According to Louise Barrett in the article “Why brains are not computers, why behaviorism is not Satanism, and why dolphins are not aquatic apes”, commonalities among these approaches include the idea that cognitive processes emerge from the animal’s physical relationship with its environment. The particular morphology of an animal, including connected sensory and motor capabilities (and a brain), allow specific types of interaction with the world (the world/environment/habitat outside of its body) that induces behaviors that are both adaptive and flexible. (Barrett 2016. p.14)

Keep in mind that there is still no solid, definitive, all purpose, agreed-upon definition of what a cognitive process is, or even a decent definition of the term “Cognition” itself (Cummins pers. com.).
It could be argued that there are more Es—Environmental, Ecological and Emergent come to mind—but the point is not which Es are in a 4-E Theory, but together they might be considered an integral aspect for an overall theory of cognition by cognitive researchers.

E theories hold that cognition is not exclusively internal, and not exclusively human. This, on many levels, is provocative. One recent narrowing of the broader concern that has become a hot topic centers around the term Embodiment.

However key the issue of Embodiment is (and I do not suggest it is in any way un-important), it seems to me to have become the easiest thing for theorists to “get their teeth into”. There is too much argument about accepting the basic fact that without an entity there would be no cognition. A corporal body, and the logically following point that such body is in space with other objects, and in fact, interacts with, and has relationships with other bodies, objects, odors, sounds, smells, and sights, is something required for cognition. Denying that premise does not serve the ultimate goal of designing a Theory of Everything Cognitive. (Feel free to comment on my assumption that a T.E.C. is either desirable or realizable. Also, at this point, I expect an attack that the foregoing is unsophisticated or that it simplifies the issue. However one feels about the term, Embodiment may or may not be the deep, confusing, perpetually obfuscated concept beloved of phenomenologists. It might be quite simple.)

Elucidating (explicating, entertaining, emoting about….) embodiment seems pedantic at a certain level. Let’s accept, in the same way David Chalmers begs the community to accept that experience is a fundamental law of the universe (Chalmers 1995), that a body is required for cognition and get on with more nuanced details. For once and for all, can we set aside the foundational error Descartes lumbered us with—that there is a duality between mind and body. Please.

The relevant issue to be explored is that of embedding research in a cultural milieu that considers the whole animal within its context.  I am asking that, in order to move forward on the really interesting and important questions, we might take as given that a body is required for cognition. The extension, distribution, social/cultural, or other important aspects of a Theory of Everything Cognitive are additional points which will, no doubt, continue to be disputed. 

“The promise of 4-E thinking for humans lies in its explicit recognition of the historical, sociocultural nature of human psychology—the fact that we develop in a socially and culturally rich milieu that reflects the contingent nature of developmental and historical events, as well as those that occurred in our more distant evolutionary past…(Barrett 2016. p.20-21)

That humans (and non-human animals) should not be studied out of their physical context, and that cognition itself is derived from what emerges out of the contact of the organism with its environment are two vitally important points to explore. And those points should be explored using all the different tools available to the variety of scholarly and scientific thought traditions which make up the discipline of Cognitive Science. There is no better discipline than one which perpetually re-invents itself as it draws on the variety of scientific and philosophic traditions thus far created by that very thing we are endeavoring to understand: human cognition.

 (1) Apologies for the obvious western prejudice of that statement. Of course there were and are questioning minds in non-European traditions. The challenge to scholars is the dearth of eastern texts accessible to students trained in western thought patterns (Markus Schlosser, pers. com.).

Barrett, L. 2016. Why brains are not computers, why behaviorism is not Satanism, and why dolphins are not aquatic apes. Behavior Analyst. 39: 9-23.

Chalmers, D. 1995. Facing up to the problems of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2, 3: 200-219.

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