Among the many ideas that go by the name of “enactivism” there is the idea that by “cognition” we should understand what is more commonly taken to be behavior. For clarity, label such forms of enactivism “enactivismb.” This terminology requires some care in evaluating enactivistb claims. There is a genu-ine risk of enactivist and non-enactivist cognitive scientists talking past one another. So, for example, when enactivistsb write that “cognition does not require representations” they are not necessarily denying what cognitivists claim when they write that “cognition requires representations.” This paper will draw attention to instances of some of these unnecessary confusions.
The concept of “autonomy,” once at the core of the original enactivist proposal in The Embodied Mind (Varela et al. in The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991), is nowadays ignored or neglected by some of the most prominent contemporary enactivists approaches. Theories of autonomy, however, come to fill a theoretical gap that sensorimotor accounts of cognition cannot ignore: they provide a naturalized account of normativity and the resources to ground the identity of a cognitive subject in its specific mode of organization. There are, however, good reasons for the contemporary neglect of autonomy as a relevant concept for enactivism. On the one hand, the concept of autonomy has too often been assimilated into autopoiesis (or basic autonomy in the molecular or biological realm) and the implications are not always clear for a dynamical sensorimotor approach to cognitive science. On the other hand, the foundational enactivist proposal displays a metaphysical tension between the concept of operational closure (autonomy), deployed as constitutive, and that of structural coupling (sensorimotor dynamics); making it hard to reconcile with the claim that experience is sensorimotorly constituted. This tension is particularly apparent when Varela et al. propose Bittorio (a 1D cellular automata) as a model of the operational closure of the nervous system as it fails to satisfy the required conditions for a sensorimotor constitution of experience. It is, however, possible to solve these problems by re-considering autonomy at the level of sensorimotor neurodynamics. Two recent robotic simulation models are used for this task, illustrating the notion of strong sensorimotor dependency of neurodynamic patterns, and their networked intertwinement. The concept of habit is proposed as an enactivist building block for cognitive theorizing, re-conceptualizing mental life as a habit ecology, tied within an agent’s behaviour generating mechanism in coordination with its environment. Norms can be naturalized in terms of dynamic, interactively self-sustaining, coherentism. This conception of autonomous sensorimotor agency is put in contrast with those enactive approaches that reject autonomy or neglect the theoretical resources it has to offer for the project of naturalizing minds.
Connections among Varela’s theory of enactive cognition, his evolutionary theory of natural drift, and his concept of autopoiesis are made clear. Two questions are posed in relation to Varela’s conception of perception, and the tension that exists in his thought between the formal level of organization and the Jonasian notion of the organism.
Modern psychology has, to all intents and purposes, become synonymous with cognitive psychology, with an emphasis on the idea that the brain is a form of computer, whose job is to take in sensory input, process information, and produce motor output. This places the brain at a remove from both the body and environment and denies the intimate connection that exists between them. As a result, a great injustice is done to both human and nonhuman animals: On the one hand, we fail to recognize the distinctive nature of nonhuman cognition, and on the other hand, we continue to promote a somewhat misleading view of human psychological capacities. Here, I suggest a more mutualistic, embodied, enactive view might allow us to ask more interesting questions about how animals of all kinds come to know their worlds, in ways that avoid the (inevitable) anthropocentric baggage of the cognitivist viewpoint.
Context: Direct realism is a non-reductive, anti-representationalist theory of perception lying at the heart of mainstream analytic philosophy, where it is currently generating a lot of interest. For all that, it is widely held to be both controversial and anti-scientific. On the other hand, the sensorimotor theory of perception (which is a specific development of Gibsonian approaches to perception) initially generated a lot of interest within enactive philosophy of cognitive science, but has arguably not yet delivered on its initial promise. Problem: I aim to show that the sensorimotor theory and direct realism complement each other, and that the result is a philosophically radical, but fully scientifically realised, theory of perception. Method: The article uses (non-reductive) philosophical analysis and discussion. It also draws on empirical evidence from the relevant cognitive sciences. Results: Direct realism can be augmented by sensorimotor theory to become a scientifically tractable alternative to the mainstream, representationalist research programme within cognitive science. Implications: The article aims to further clarify the philosophical importance of the sensorimotor approach to perception. It also aims to show that the apparently radical claim that we perceive objects themselves is amenable to normal scientific study. Constructivist content: Objects are analysed as a kind of collaboration between the world and the perceiver. On this account, we can never perceive outside the categories of our own understanding, but we do perceive genuinely outside our own heads. Thus, the approach here is not exactly constructivism, though it shares many goals and results with constructivism.
Ten years ago, a group of researchers, led by Francisco Varela, were proposing an alternative vision of the immune system main behavior and function. I was part of this group. This new vision saw the immune system not as behaving distinctively with self and non-self or according to any dichotomy imposed a priori and from outside (the self-recognition vision), but rather as behaving in a unique way. From this indifferent behavior, any external impact would progressively been treated in two different ways, reactive and tolerant, but now, consequently and from inside the system (the self-assertion view). This paper will recall, through a very artificial simulation, the difference existing between these two visions. Also at that time, we believed that, from an engineering perspective, this new vision, emphasizing more the adaptability and the need for endogenous constraints than the recognition and the defensive ability, although less obvious to accept than the classical defensive one, should be more beneficial. These last ten years proved that we haven’t been convincing enough, and in this paper I resume the crusade.
Excerpt: Describing language in the light of the enactive paradigm is a most challenging issue: language is to be reconsidered in terms of sensorimotor interactions with an environment in which both the individual and the environment are modified, in which not one,but several individuals are involved – an experience that is, all in one, that of the speaker and hearer at the instant of uttering or thinking; that of the child developing into an adult through social intercourse; that of the tribe turning to a full-fledged civilization; and that of the linguist interfering with his object of scrutiny by linguistic means. As a selection has to be made, this chapter will primarily focus on the immediate experience of languaging, and secondarily broach more general subjects like acquisition and evolution.
In this paper, we argue for a theoretical separation of the free-energy principle from Helmholtzian accounts of the predictive brain. The free-energy principle is a theoretical framework capturing the imperative for biological self-organization in information-theoretic terms. The free-energy principle has typically been connected with a Bayesian theory of predictive coding, and the latter is often taken to support a Helmholtzian theory of perception as unconscious inference. If our interpretation is right, however, a Helmholtzian view of perception is incompatible with Bayesian predictive coding under the free-energy principle. We argue that the free energy principle and the ecological and enactive approach to mind and life make for a much happier marriage of ideas. We make our argument based on three points. First we argue that the free energy principle applies to the whole animal–environment system, and not only to the brain. Second, we show that active inference, as understood by the free-energy principle, is incompatible with unconscious inference understood as analagous to scientific hypothesis-testing, the main tenet of a Helmholtzian view of perception. Third, we argue that the notion of inference at work in Bayesian predictive coding under the free-energy principle is too weak to support a Helmholtzian theory of perception. Taken together these points imply that the free energy principle is best understood in ecological and enactive terms set out in this paper.
Theories of brain function have evolved through multiple stages. The first proposition was that brain networks support a set of reflex responses, with current sensory inputs producing immediate motor outputs. The behaviorist paradigm suggested that actions can always be explained as a response to immediate external cues. In response to these views, the cognitive paradigm argued that behavior cannot be understood simply as input–output functions because the hidden layers of brain generate unpredictability. The central processing was termed “cognition.” Here we propose a neuroscience-based model of cognition. Our core hypothesis is that cognition depends on internal models of the animal and its world, where internally generated sequences can serve to perform “what if” scenarios and anticipate the possible consequences of alternative actions without actually testing them, and aid in the decisions of overt actions. We support our hypotheses by several examples of recent experimental findings and show how externally guided cell assembly sequences become internalized to support cognitive functions.