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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A Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

The invention of the idea of a theory—a systematic set of logically related propositions that attempt to explain the phenomena of some domain—was perhaps the greatest single achievement of Greek civilization.

– John Searle

Ryan Holiday recently published a piece about Why You Should Study Philosophy. It’s a good read, and Holiday makes a number of insightful points about the value of inviting big ideas into one’s life.

Philosophers through the ages have had a lot to say about the widest possible range of topics, spanning from the broadest generalities to the oddest particularities. They’ve mused on how to live a good life and the sorts of endeavors that are worth pursuing; they’ve argued about how to discern right from wrong and what it means to be a moral person; and they’ve postulated innumerable theories about the nature of reality and the origins of human consciousness.

And these don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the painstakingly researched esoteric minutia the philosophers of today dedicate their lives to litigating, one peer-reviewed journal submission at a time. Truly, there exists no lack of rigorously interrogated philosophical scholarship regarding just about any specific domain of inquiry today.

Studying philosophy has long been more than a pastime of mine, to the extent that I’ve devoted years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to doing so in the form of pursuing a Philosophy degree. And one realization I’ve come to as a student of the discipline is that studying philosophy is quite different from doing philosophy.

Just as reading a chemistry textbook is quite different from spending time in a laboratory, studying the latest anthology of contemporary problems in philosophy of mind is quite different from spending time methodically formulating one’s own beliefs into a coherent framework by following a predetermined recipe for rational thinking.

In spite of the preponderance of philosophical literature available today, these are troubling times for knowledge creation and the recognition of true facts, with practices of thoughtless information consumption and pseudointellectualism running wild. Even trusted news sources walk the line on a regular basis between sensationalism and blatant disinformation.

The Washington Post, for instance, recently ran the following headline: ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. Despite the Lovecraftian mental images this headline may evoke, the “horns” referenced in the article turn out to be what are more accurately (but less sensationally) known as bone spurs: a phenomenon commonly linked to poor posture. Further, a day after its publication, WaPo prepended the following update to the article:

Update 6/25: After publication of this story, concerns were raised about an undisclosed business venture of one of the researchers, who works as a chiropractor. This story has been updated to reflect questions about a possible conflict of interest involving his business. The journal that published the main study in question said it was investigating the concerns. The researchers say they are making minor changes to their paper, but stand by their work.

This is only the most recent case of flagrant sensationalism and click-bait reporting to come across my newsfeed, but more extreme and potentially harmful stories have abounded for years. During the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the US, we saw false reports of the Pope endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton spread like wildfire across social media. We also saw verified reports of Macedonian troll farms employing disinformation artists working full time to corrupt the flow of factual information from reputable sources to the screens and eyeballs of would-be voters.

I’ve written about the telos of fake news myself, and danah boyd, Founder and President of Data & Society has taken note as well. According to DataSociety.net, the organization is a nonprofit “research institute that advances public understanding of the social implications of data-centric technologies and automation.”

In April 2019, boyd gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference in which she enumerated the vulnerabilities of social media and the news media. She discussed concerns over “data voids” and both sides-ism, and she presented a clear case regarding the dangers of epistemological fragmentation that emerge when knowledge (or its absence) is weaponized.

All this is to say that the trouble is twofold: while trust in the information economy has gradually eroded on the one hand, our ability as individuals to sift through and make sense of the onslaught of dis/information has simultaneously become an increasingly difficult and rarely-exercised skill.

In light of this rather bleak state of affairs, I propose the adoption of the following model: a Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry. It is my belief that if we arm ourselves with a more robust framework for discussing, debating, deciphering, and deconstructing today’s never ending waterfall of digitally distributed information, we might have a better shot at coming to a higher number of valid conclusions about the world. Indeed, this is the very purpose of philosophy in its most pragmatic sense: to make our ideas clear, not to muddy the waters.

Standard Method of Philosophical Inquiry

  1. Define…
  2. Explore…
  3. Initialize…
  4. Engage…

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