Biology


I have suggested the image of a square soap bubble to help in understanding how one can appear to be discrete, autonomous, separate, and yet be part of all that exists, unified with world and all that happens within it.  I find it helpful. The bubble is discrete, separate, has a distinct identity, yet at the same time, no part of it has an independent existence.

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Here is Maturana on a similar theme:

Systems as composite entities have a dual existence, namely, they exist as singularities that operate as simple unities in the domain in which they arise as totalities, and at the same time they exist as composite entities in the domain of the operation of their components.  The relation between these two domains is not causal; these two domains do not intersect, nor do the phenomena which pertain to one occur in the other” (2002, Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 9:5–34)

 

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Let’s define an anti-embodied cognitive science.

We start, not by disagreeing with the enactivists, but by agreeing with them up to, but excluding agency.  Let’s discard the assumption that the lived body is the locus of experience.  That should get the party started.

Then we wait for someone to cry foul.  We take their argument, whatever it is, and we examine its agential commitments, and associated mentalese. There is no test one can do to distinguish between the tumblebot and the goldfish without presuming some locus of agency.  There will be many domains of relative autonomy though.

Take whatever ‘mind’ is offered, and call it the P-world.  The domain of present experience.  Identify the P-world in a variety of ways: Umwelt, milieu, consciousness.  The P-bomb is, of course, that the P-world does not exist.  It is a construct that allows the discussion of a world.

What’s the endgame?  Do we no longer draw the boundary at the species?  Is this the way to realize that we are the natural world?  We are the world we see.

The search for agency within the enactive movement is nothing more or less than an attempt to find a basis for “we”.  It is a search for that with which one identifies.  The mistake of trying to ground it in a “we” made up of individual human animals is a problem.  Agency lies wherever you shine the light.  The agency of a dyad is real.

Furthermore, once one has chosen to identify a given domain as agentive, one creates a blindspot.  Behind that, we must explain with non-observable constructs, like the shallow tinker toys of mechanistic psychology.

Chomsky claims of late that recursion is the one formal property that singles out human language from sophisticated social signaling more generally.*   I think he may have a point. It is not that recursion is that great per se.  As we are well aware, we don’t make unlimited use of it – nothing that requires such an awesomely creative tool.  With center embedding, we get lost after about the third recursive element.

But recursion is a sign that we are free of the restrictions of the meat.  Animal “syntaxes” are, in fact, more akin to prosodic structures, with parts made out of the coordinative affordances of the vocal tract.  They do not have recursion, as it would make no sense to have a unit like the syllable inside another syllable, or a foot inside a foot.  These units are performative, and deeply engrained in the meat.

The recent work of Stan Dehaene, Liz Spelke and Susan Carey suggests something similar.  There, language is seen as a fluid vehicle for passing meaning around between domains of organization that have long phylogenetic histories, and that are, thus, special-purpose.  The emerging notion I am developing of the P-domain may help here.

*This has given rise to some discomfort with the claim that has recently arisen that the Amazonian Piraha tribe speak a non-recursive language – the jury is still out on that one.

The myth of the bacterium, I claim, provides us with a decent way of talking about the origin of subjective experience.  But this language needs to be wielded carefully.

From Weber and Varela:

The key here is to realize that because there is an individuality that finds itself produced by itself it is ipso facto a locus of sensation and agency, a living impulse always already in relation with its world.

Now that leaves much to be desired.  It uses the term ‘sensation’, which is not only mentalistic, it is positively Victorian!  It uses the term agency, and that argument is being made, it is not to be assumed.  The deep connection between self-production and subjectivity is not made at all.  My exegesis of the myth will hopefully help to restate that a bit more helpfully.

Sometimes, when we dream, but are close to waking, a bodily process, like a full bladder, or indigestion, makes itself obvious in the dream.  When recounted, it has a narrative form.  Here, we see the construction, from the raw, non-linguistic material of the P-world, a story, an autobiography.  We might attend more closely to that border in individuals, and take note of how they each individually understand their own bodies to work.  What does the spleen mean to X, the heart to Y?  This is akin to trying to map from the observer’s story about glucose and metabolisms, to the cell’s story about a direction.

We can use linear time warping, via high speed cameras or time lapse, to perceive events at timescales that are at some remove from that established by our metabolism.  Watching drops into water, or watching plants fight and unfold, we recognize that events as salient as any we could see are going on all around us all the time.

But what if we explore non-linear time-warping.  We could look at the world through non-linear functions.  Start with periodic ones, and you are looking at loops. That’s cool and interesting. But once we break into non-periodic functions, the whole world becomes strange and different.  What do we see?  We will see more clearly that the simple things and events that we recognize are as much a function of the perceiver (the function) as they are of the world.  That should help us to develop a better sense of perspective for how we usually see things.

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