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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