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

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From Brainbound to Enactive: a Primer on Contemporary Theories in Philosophy of Mind

There are may views regarding the extent to which consciousness and its correlative cognitive functions, e.g. thought, perception, imagination are embodied.

In this essay, I will explore the traditional brainbound view as well as a competing approach to the understanding of consciousness and its cognitive processes known as the enactive view.

If we were to place these views on a continuum, with fully brainbound views trending to the right, then we would place the many opposing embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended views at the far left, which is characterized by the term “radical embodiment.”

In order to fully understand the implications of the brainbound view, I will briefly describe the well-known Brain in a Vat thought experiment, then draw from the work of Dorothée Legrand to show how this thought experiment, if taken seriously, reasonably leads us to favor the enactive view.

After bridging the brainbound theory and enactive perspectives by way of Legrand, I will further explain the explore the enactive view itself. As I will show, the enactive view is one of consciousness as life-regulating force.

On the enactive view, causal-functional brain/body coupling and an agent’s dynamic interaction with their environment are what determine the embodied agent’s ability to maintain a state of significant existence: a form of aliveness I will explore in the final portion of this piece.

The Brainbound View

The traditional view of consciousness is that cognitive functions occur and exist entirely in the brain, hence the term brainbound.

There are good reasons to question whether the body is even necessary to the presence of cognitive processes since it is clear that many people who have lost the use of body parts as in cases of paralysis, or who have lost entire limbs as in case of amputation, continue to live entirely full and phenomenally-rich mental lives.

Such evidence clearly indicates that at some level, certain body parts are not necessary to a continued state of significant existence in the way that a functioning brain is. Some even attempt to validate brainbound views of consciousness by pointing to instances of phantom limb sensation, in which an amputee reports the feeling of excruciating pain emanating from a limb that no longer exists.

In this context, the brainbound view asks its critics, “How could such experiences of pain be possible, if they do not occur entirely within the domain of the brain?”

In testing the limits of the brainbound view, its adherents often point to the well-known thought experiment of the Brain in a Vat, where “the image is 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, or about whatever the mad scientist running this experiment wants to feed it” (Gallagher 147).

Supposedly, this thought experiment, along with observable evidence from cases of phantom limb pain and the accompanying neuroscience, show that all the necessary elements to leading a phenomenally-rich mental life are present in the brain alone.

As summed up by Jesse Prinz (2009), for adherents of the brainbound view, “the bottom line is there is no serious reason at this time to suppose that the correlates of consciousness will include anything outside the head.”

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Tomorrow is Another Day

This is my tribute to my maternal grandmother (Oma), Annemarie Beck Nordstrom, from her funeral on December 28, 2018.

Opa and Oma
Opa and Oma

Born March 10, 1940 in what was then Yugoslavia, Oma’s family was taken to a concentration camp during World War II. Her father Hans was fluent in 24 languages, and served as a linguist in the Civil Service prior to the War. Their family spent 7 years in the camp before being liberated by the Red Cross, well after the War ended.

Oma immigrated to the United States in 1956, and later met my Opa, Nels Nordstrom. Before long, they started a family, and Oma became a US citizen.

She was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known, as well as one of my best friends. 

“London Bridge is Down.” This is the phrase that will be broadcast from the United Kingdom, over the BBC, and heard the world over when Queen Elizabeth II passes away. At her current age of 92, her passing will mark a monumental event for every citizen of her Empire, nearly every one of whom has never known a day without her reign.

It’s a comparison I like to make: my Oma and the Queen.

We spent many days together this past summer, surveying the health of her backyard kingdom. Enjoying the warmth and sunlight, we sat together on the back porch; often me reading a yoga book, Oma lounging with her feet up in the special chair I eventually came to refer to as her Throne.

Oma would turn to me and deliver her daily report on the resident tree squirrels as they haggled over birdseed and leapt to avoid Polly and Toodles, our two dogs who stood guard, resolute at the side of their sovereign.

She sometimes commented on her thinning hair, and that all she had left were “5 hair” to cover her head. And so at the height of Summer, as the Sun beamed down on us, I suggested she start a collection of elegant, wide-brimmed hats to protect her scalp and face from the Sun’s amber waves. A collection, of course, modeled after the Queen’s.

Fun with OmaIn many ways, my relationship with Oma was a prime example of the continuity of life: that due to circumstance, fortune, choice, age, and our complimentary stages of life, we were often exactly what and whom the other one needed.

Whether it was a partner for family game night, someone to gossip with over brunch, or a friend to exchange a grin and a wink with over our own acknowledged foibles, Oma and I were confederates from beginning to end.

When I was young she took me to Panda Express so that I could have chow mein, and when she was old I took her to Pizza Ranch so that she could have bread. When I was young I’d make us watch Disney’s Robinhood, and when she was old she’d make us watch Swamp People. When I was young, she saw me start to walk and of course fall, and when she was old I saw her stop walking and sometimes fall.

It’s one of the things that I value most: that we were there to see and to witness, for our good days and the bad.

Oma and I shared many inside jokes, including that she’d outlived yet another person each time we’d hear of a celebrity’s passing. The intent wasn’t to disparage the celebrity, or to revel in their passing. Instead, the humor was in pointing out just how resilient (and down right hard to kill) she was. Nothing could take down my Oma.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search For Meaning that a person can get used to almost anything, that nearly any degree of suffering can come to feel normal. He wrote these words in reference to his experience as a Jewish prisoner during WWII, and to a type of suffering Oma had also learned a bit about early in life.

But I think the same can be said–that it can become normal–about magnificent feats of service and handiwork done for others.

Oma’s life was so full of service, that to me, it just felt normal. I was awakened many times–almost daily–this past year by the sound of her sewing machine motoring away in the work room above my head. It was the sound of business as usual: that regardless of how stiff her back, swollen her feet, sore her fingers, short her breath, or sour her mood, Oma was still hard at work, in the service of others.

The thousands of hours spent creating clothes, Halloween costumes, drapes and curtains, wedding quilts, Christmas sweaters, winter blankets, doilies, beanies for pre-mature babies, place mats, cross-stitch…always for others.

Yet despite her great works, a handful of times she mentioned having little to show for herself after a lifetime. While the heirs of some made time to squabble over worldly possessions left behind by their parents and grandparents, Oma noted to me—in jest and with a sly smile—that she had little to leave behind for my sister and I to fight over. No royal artifacts, no family estate, no Crown Jewels.

“Well you’d better get to work,” I replied. “There’s still time!”

But she wasn’t wrong. Whether by hook or by crook, most of us spend day after day of our adult lives working to build up our own personal wealth. But not Oma. My entire life, Oma spent her days enriching the lives of others, not by crook, but by crochet hook.

Many of us here have received at least one, if not a handful of Oma’s great masterworks over our lives. Even Dove, my new puppy, is the beneficiary of Oma’s love and the recipient of her comfort, through a blanket she finished sewing just days before she passed.

A friend of mine once commented on a blanket Oma had crocheted entirely by hand, remarking that the spacing and evenness of the yarn was so phenomenal, that the blanket itself was like a piece of fine jewelry. Until then, I don’t think I’d ever taken the time to truly appreciate the flawless creation my Oma had brought into existence, one flick of the wrist at a time.

But my friend was right. The next time I saw Oma, I told her what an amazing job she’d done on this blanket in particular. She just clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and waved away the compliment. “You can have it,” she said.

Who knows how many blankets of equal caliber Oma had produced by that time? Certainly, they were without number. And just like that, at the dictate of the Queen, the jewel was mine. For her, it was perfectly normal. Both the creative act and the decision to give without reservation were something she’d become accustomed to.

This is what she leaves us. A legacy of love and service, and a generosity with time and talent. Nothing too fabulous, or extravagant as an Empire, but priceless just the same.

Oma had many phrases that as a family we came to associate with her. Maxims that she’d repeat time and time again. One that has stuck with me for my entire life is that “Tomorrow is another day.”

When I was a young boy and I didn’t want to go to sleep because there were video games to play and books to read, she would come in and tell me, “Tomorrow is another day.” And when I was a young man growing up gay in the Mormon church, and I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, I would tell myself, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Thank you all for being here today. I know we all have had a special relationship or friendship with Oma, and we all have something that she’s left with us and that we can take with us. Tomorrow is another day.

With Oma in Loveland

The Modern Relevance of Yoga Anatomy

Yoga Anatomy Second Edition
Learn more with Yoga Anatomy, by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

It’s important to understand the metaphorical nature of the language used in yoga philosophy and anatomy. It can be easy to let concepts like chakras, prana, etc. obscure the greater truths that they’re used to illustrate, but remember that wisdom from a different time, language, and culture is still wisdom.

The purpose of yoga anatomy isn’t to articulate a 100% scientifically descriptive discourse by appropriating Indian mysticism. Rather, its purpose is to articulate a holistic perspective of the body/mind and its inner workings that can be understood from within the greater context of Yoga.

Acknowledging this distinction allows the truth of both science and yoga to do their jobs without one negating the validity of the other.

Just as understanding the Scientific workings of the body need not diminish one’s awe of Nature, the pre-modern imagery of the Yogic explanation need not be misinterpreted as supernatural justification for natural phenomena.

I’ve found that when it’s not immediately clear to me how a yogic explanation of the body can be scientifically translated, the answer is to practice more asana. Eventually, the truth becomes clear. Indeed, such clarity is part of the power of yoga asana.

For Reference