More Thoughts on Embodied/Extended Minds
by Adam Robbert
In response to my previous post, blog aficionado dmf linked to THIS very interesting talk which includes some criticisms of the extended/embodied mind hypothesis from philosopher of mind Robert Rupert. Below is an extended version of my initial response.
As I’m listening to Robert Rupert I hear him saying that, as far as defining what counts as a cognitive process goes, we should limit ourselves to that which is central to all cognitive processes (i.e., the brain inside your skull) rather than include the multiplicity of objects that might become participant in some specific cognitive act (i.e., using a pen and paper to perform some mental operation).
But by suggesting that we limit cognition to only its core processes (in the brain) we fail at understanding how that brain is already constituted by a variety of environmental factors. So, for example, Rupert discusses the interest extended mind theorists have had with the role literacy plays in the constitution of new forms of consciousness (citing the widely-held hypothesis that literate societies are in some substantial way different from pre-literate societies). If I’m hearing him right, Rupert suggests that this historical analysis is all well and good, but his interest is in how the brain is constituted internally here and now, and not as it changes as part of some historical trend. For Rupert, what is essential to the brain’s cognitive functioning doesn’t change in any significant way when brains are shifted across contexts (i.e., they tend to act the same regardless of environment).
If this is a correct reading of Rupert’s analysis, then I would say my difference with him is that I take environmental factors in cognitive activity to be influential not only at the moment of use, but as enduring features of a media-rich cognitive landscape that, because of the nature of media environments, will have an increasing impact on the minds of the people inhabiting those environments (which will tend towards a recursive increase generated by the way different media ecologies enact different sensory modalities). In this sense I don’t think we can study cognitive organization outside of the media contexts in which it is being studied, even if there are certain physical parameters brains require to operate transversally across all media environments. This doesn’t mean that I think ion channels obey different laws in sixth century China than in twenty-first century San Francisco, it means that I think the globally enacted world that appears for an observer is very sensitive to the conditions of media environments and this matters when talking about what “cognition” is.
Now, everything that I have said above is for the most part already figured in to both the enactivist paradigm and media ecology more generally. What I am interested in doing is adding a third ecological dimension to the equation: if enactivism corresponds to the material sensory-couplings of organisms and their environments; and media ecologies refer to the modes by which organisms extend those sensory couplings; then a knowledge ecology explores the ways in which an organism’s psyche is extended or transformed through the use of different concepts, ideas, ideologies, or paradigms. Thus in much the same way that, “media ecology is the study of media as environment” I would forward that knowledge ecology is the study of knowledge or mind as environment. There would then be three integral ecologies of matter, media, and mind; each folding, shaping, and re-constructing one another in increasingly subtle ways. I have come to think of this schema as parallel to Whitehead’s threefold account of the actual occasion (subject, datum, and subjective form in shorthand). In this sense my little model isn’t really a theory of cognition so much as it is a threefold of account of relations and causality based in ecological thinking; where cognition is interpreted from a much broader, cosmological perspective. Stay tuned.