Endorsing the Radical Embodiment Theory of Mind

In the previous chapter, I presented the idea of a continuum upon which various competing theories in philosophy of mind might be situated relative to one another. Brainbound views that hold consciousness and its cognitive processes as entirely contained within the confines of the skull may be placed on the continuum as trending toward the right, while more enactive, embodied, embedded, and extended views would find their placement trending toward the left side of the continuum, which is characterized by the term radical embodiment.

In this chapter, I’ll return to the continuum of views, this time with the extended body and extended mind as primary points of inquiry within the domain.

I’ll begin by briefly reviewing the oft-cited brain-in-a-vat thought experiment, as well as Dorothée Legrand’s 2010 critique, which skillfully bridges the gap between brainbound and enactive theories by demonstrating the reality of consciousness as an embodied phenomenon.

After turning away from the disembodied mind, I’ll explore two dimensions of embodied experience: body image and body schema. I’ll then move further to the left side of the continuum of theories by presenting two ways in which humans have come to alter their body image and body schema by extending their selves through the utilization of assistive and augmentative devices.

Finally, I will explore the extended mind by presenting two related but distinct theories as presented by Andrew Clark and David J. Chalmers (2010), and Richard Menary (2010). Known respectively as active externalism and cognitive integration, these extended mind theories illustrate the ways in which humans extend their cognitive processes beyond even the boundaries of their physical bodies.

In sum, I’ll show how the mind and body might clearly be conceived of as not only embodied, but as extended beyond the bounds of both skull and skin.

Establishing Embodiment: Brain-In-A-Vat Revisited

We begin our understanding of embodiment not by immediately diving in at its corresponding point on the continuum of theories, but rather by taking one step to the right in the direction of entirely brainbound views. That is to say, we start first with a thought experiment used to illustrate the possibility of disembodied consciousness, then see where it leads.

The brain-in-a-vat thought experiment is often relied upon as the paradigmatic demonstration of the theoretical possibility of a disembodied mind. As hinted by its name, the brain-in-a-vat evokes the image of “a brain floating around in a vat of chemicals, kept alive by artificial nourishment, and kept informed by various electrodes that carry information about the world” (Gallagher et al. 2012).

The aim of the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment is to show that the body is theoretically unnecessary to experience. It does so (its proponents claim) by arguing that the mental states and accompanying neural correlates generated as a result of experience in the world can be produced in the brain through the right kind of external stimulation, such as being coupled with a computer programed to deliver artificial sensory input via electrodes implanted in the appropriate centers of the brain.

But does the thought experiment hit its mark? We have already established as part of the thought experiment’s staging that in order for a disembodied brain to maintain viability, it would require much more than a physical connection to an external computer.

As stated in The Phenomenological Mind, “What is possible for the brain-in-a-vat is only possible if it is provided with a properly balanced nutrition, a properly balanced mix of hormones and neurotransmitters, and a complex stream of sensory information, properly adjusted for the temporal differentiations that are in fact involved in intermodal binding” (Gallagher et al. 2012).

In other words, and as I argued in the previous chapter, the vat itself plays a necessary role to the brain’s continued functioning as a biological organism, just as one’s real body does for one’s brain through respiration, circulation, digestion, etc.

Legrand (2010), in an earnest investigation of all the thought experiment truly entails, argues that for it to succeed in creating a truly phenomenally-rich life in parity with embodied experience, “the brain-in-a-vat-connected-to-a-computer” would necessarily implement four bodily dimensions which are irreducible to one another. According to Legrand, “Their biological implementation could not be replaced by just any artificial device but it could be replaced by artificial devices able to play a role equivalent to the role usually played by the biological body.”

Put another way, after thorough investigation and charitable interpretation, the vat and all its constituent parts may not be biologically equivalent to a body, but they must be functionally equivalent to a body. Hence Legrand’s transition in nomenclature to “the brain-in-a-vat-which-turns-out-to-be-necessarily-embodied.”

All this is to say that the brain-in-a-vat accomplishes precisely the opposite of what it aims for. It does not show the possibility of disembodied consciousness, it shows the de facto reality of consciousness as necessarily embodied. To quote once more from The Phenomenological Mind, “It just is an empirical fact that we are indeed embodied, that our perceptions and actions depend on the fact that we have bodies, and that cognition is shaped by our bodily experience” (Gallagher et al. 2012).

Embodied Dimensions: Body Image and Body Schema

With the understanding that embodiment is necessarily part of the human experience now established, let us extend our comprehension by exploring various dynamics of the embodied experience. Two concepts in philosophy of mind that are particularly useful for contextualizing embodied experience are body image and body schema.

Let’s now define these concepts and provide a handful of casual (i.e. noncontroversial) examples, followed by an elucidation of the ways in which humans have come to extend their embodied existence through the utilization of assistive and augmentative devices as applied to the body image and body schema.

A body image is “composed of a system of experiences, attitudes, and beliefs where the object of such intentional states is one’s own body” (Gallagher et. al 2012). There are many ways in which humans have come to affect their phenomenological experience as embodied beings by altering their body image.

Examples of casual body image alterations include gaining or losing weight, changing hair color and style, adding or removing clothing and jewelry, and even permanent body modifications such as tattoos. These alterations can affect the way we see ourselves, the ease with which we navigate our environments, and even the ways in which others perceive, interact with, and respond to us.

According to Gallagher et al., the body schema includes two components: “(1) the close-to-automatic system of processes that constantly regulates posture and movement to serve intentional action; and (2) our pre-reflective and non-objectifying body awareness.” What sets the body schema apart from the body image is that the body schema is not comprised of perceptions, beliefs, or feelings. Rather, the body schema is the set of biological processes that are largely nonconscious.

In the words of Husserl, the body schema comprises the “embodied capabilities for action that correlate with the affordances of the world.” In short, it is the feeling of I can that arises from an understanding of the relation of one’s body and its capabilities to the world and one’s environment.

Respiration is just one casual example of a biological process that comprises the body schema. Although I’m capable of varying levels of awareness of my breathing when I choose to be, respiration itself is a non-cognitive interaction between my body and the environment. Further, it is because of respiration (and the body schema as a whole), that I’m capable of varying degrees of engagement with the world. I can hike up the mountain because of the embodied capabilities for action that make up my body schema.

Also in this chapter:

  • Extending the Body
    • Assistive Devices
    • Augmentative Devices
  • The Extended Mind
    • Active Externalism
    • Cognitive Integration

End of Sample

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