Seminar #54: Shallow and deep embodiment: Reasons for embracing enactivism
Here are details of an Alergic / Life and Mind talk by Ezequiel Di Paolo (CCNR/Informatics, University of Sussex), which will be held next week.
Date: Wednesday 21st Oct
Shallow and deep embodiment: Reasons for embracing enactivism
Ezequiel Di Paolo
Research in cognitive science today (as in most areas of psychology, neuroscience and AI) is done within a functionalist framework. This generally takes the form of a computational/representational view of cognition as something performed in the head, informed by the world and for actions in the world, but in itself, decoupled from the world.
Over the last two decades the computational, skull-bound view of the mind has been challenged from various different angles (from autonomous robotics to sensorimotor theories of perception to cognitive linguistics). These challenges are often described as embodied because they show the non-trivial (constitutive and not merely informative) role played by bodily structures and their situatedness in the world.
In so far as such challenges concentrate on providing alternative working mechanisms for cognition, they remain susceptible to being re-interpreted in functionalist terms and so they are bound to inherit the blind-spots of functionalism, among others: a lack of a definition or grounding for terms like identity, autonomy, agency, value, meaning, cognition, and even sociality.
In contrast to this shallow sense of embodiment, a deeper sense is provided by the enactive approach to life and mind. For this approach, the starting point is a re-thinking of the problems of cognitive science in terms of continuities between life and mind. The approach embraces the traditional “how does it work?” question but puts the foundational emphasis on a different one: “what is it to be a mindful system?”
I will introduce this approach and show how its alternative starting point forces us to address the blind-spots of functionalism and how its naturalistic view of the embodied mind cannot ultimately be captured in functionalist terms. This is due to the key role played by the notion of precariousness.
Rather than being a weakness, the non-functionalism of enactivism leads to a scientific program where at least we can formulate questions such as “How can we build robots that are truly mindful?” more clearly and, as I will show with some examples, we can advance a considerable way towards answering them.