“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”  ~ Anais Nin

What are we that we should see such?


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.

So much blood and ink has been spilt trying to bridge the gap between something called mind and something called world. The gap I seek to bridge is instead between something called experience and something called language. This we can do. And with that the game is won.

So I started working on a sketch today that links two ideas, and the combination is surprising.

On the one hand we have O’Regan and Noe’s take on sensorimotor correspondences.  This is actually not far from a lot of Gibsonian work within Ecological Psychology.  The basic idea is that in perceiving, we are skillfully engaging with the world, and that practiced and tuned action gives rise to a corresponding characteristic change in the sensory array.  Gibsonians would say this is the basis of direct perception.  Enaction-heads would say this is skillful coping, or some such.

On the other hand, we have the peculiar issue of sensorimotor synchronization, perhaps best illustrated by a group of people dancing or beating drums together.  In the scientific literature, this has withered to a laboratory situation in which people tap in time to a metronome. (The horror, the horror.)  This is a singularly human achievement, the very odd animal counterexample notwithstanding (yes, Snowball, I’m looking at you and the Gelada baboons).  A fuller account of the basis for sensorimotor synchronization would help us enormously.  It may underpin a burgeoning theory of memes; it speaks to Gibson’s intuition that the nervous system displays resonant properties; it fits with a range of specific situations, from air guitar to stuttering.  All can be described, in some fuzzy essence, with a conceptually simple model in which two processes enter into a coupled form of synergy which looks like resonance within and among coupled systems with many degrees of freedom.


Dehaene has an interesting article in on his work in studying brain activity related to consciousness experience, or rather brain activity associated with the ability to report on the nature of brief stimuli presented visually. He uses language in an infuriating way typical of neuroscience:

We can see a lot of cortical activation created by a subliminal word. It enters the visual parts of the cortex, and travels through the visual areas of the ventral face of the brain.

Now, If I have a basin of water, and I tap the side, waves propagate through the basin, but my tap is not propagating, and there is an important distinction between the wave pattern and the tap. Yet neuroscientists talk as if stimuli were being passed around in the brain. An important insight of the enactive tradition is to clearly separate between the tap and the waves, or between a perturbation to the dynamics of the organism and the effect of that perturbation.

In this article, the consequences of transparency in public life are considered. It appears that money revels the collective nature of the system. Lawfulness appears in behavior, but that lawfulness requires us to posit a limited sort of an individual. Essentially selfish, but with a limited notion of self. Revealing our collective side, once again. Brains drive those smaller units, as they generate P-worlds. Consensus will be of our common nature, and not of that which is first person.

The set of things generally acknowledged to be real is getting bigger. That’s gotta be a plus.

In considering the function of the nervous system, a basic fact seems to have gotten lost in the latter half of the 20th century, with the advent of cognitivism. Thus I’m encouraged to find, in a lecture from 1884, the following simple truth:

If the doctrine of evolution be true, all nervous centres must be of sensori-motor constitution.

The closely related pairs of perception/action and sensory/motor coordination (or constitution, if you will) are the bedrock out of which subjective experience arises. It is not wrong to say that brains give rise to minds, it is just wholly misleading. The bedrock itself is very real, but not directly knowable. Out of it arises both the phenomenal world, and ultimately, the subject/object split, that allows us to spin tales about ourselves and a world, and the relation between the two. Within those worlds, we find brains. They are part of the world revealed by Mind.

Some more thoughts on this nice article (how nice that a lecture from 1884 is available, and easily at that!):

Some years ago, I asked the question: ” Of what ‘substance’ can the organ of mind be composed, unless of processes representing movements and impressions? And how can the convolutions differ from the inferior centres, except as parts representing more intricate co-ordinations of impressions and movements in time and space than they do ?

Of course the concepts and language available to me are at some remove from this gem. But he here alludes to the elaboration (I have called it ‘mediation’ elsewhere) of the perception/action relation that gives rise to phenomenal time and space. I suspect the author would not go so far as to say that this relation gives rise to time and space, and yet, if we are careful with our words, that is what I contend. The caveat that needs to be applied is the usual one of keeping the reality of phenomenal experience directly in our sights. The P/A relationship gives rise to phenomenal space and time. Our linguistic abilities, broadly construed, allow us to compare measurements, which in turn allow us to infer a reference scale, which we then mistakenly take as an objective standard. We must always work from the phenomenal to the domain of interpersonal coordination, which in science is the simple act of measurement.

The Croonian Lectures on Evolution and Dissolution of the Nervous System, J. Hughlings Jackson, British Medical Journal, Apr. 12, 1884, 703–707.

I’m watching Evan Thompson on Neuroscience and Free Will (Part 2 here), and he is merrily talking about reconciling or aligning a third person point of view (give to us through instruments such as imaging, eeg, etc) and the phenomenological “side”. Underlying the images etc is neural activity; however, they do not record it directly. Rather, the signals presented to us are highly mediated and at some remove from the raw neural activity of an individual. Furthermore, what neural activity is to the signals we record, experience is to self-report. It is not a direct read-out of experience, and we need to better understand how the self-report arises, just as we need to know how an fMRI signal is related to neural activity. He expects his audience to get the distinction.

I waffle on about experience, and am stuck, mute, dumb when I am asked what that is. How could you possibly point to it? Sometimes we talk of the theatre where stuff happens. But that isn’t it, because a theatre is another thing. Likewise, we cannot picture or imagine an Umwelt without presupposing another Umwelt.

I think immediate experience is understandable as the experiential counterpart to the Perception/Action relation. But given that nobody seems to agree on what the word experience refers to, might one not simply turn things around, and call the P/A relation the P-world, and see what gives then?

With wonder, I have stumbled upon the work of Jakob von Uexküll, who died in 1944.  His work is hard to find, out of print or never even translated into English.  One article is available (I have scanned it in below.  Enjoy!).  It is a translation of a 1934 original, and it appeared in the obscure journal Semiotica in 1992, almost 60 years later!  It is called “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, and my copy tells me that it was originally published in English in “Instinctive Behavior”, trans by Claire H. Schiller in 1957.  It is the most charming academic article I have ever come across.  The discussion is helped along by no less than 53 figures, most of which are slightly fanciful attempts to depict the subjective experience of non-human animals, ranging from the humble paramecium up to the dog chasing a stick.  Each of these is an Umwelt, and they are amazingly close to my notion of the P-world!  In fact, von Uexküll even calls them “phenomenal worlds” that arise from the unification of a “perceptual world” and an “effector world”, or from the unification of perception and action.  How good is that!

But it gets better.  He pegs and discusses the subject/object distinction in many places.  He produces an early cybernetic model showing the reciprocal relations between subjective experience and environment, and says “the subject and the object are dovetailed into one another, to constitue a systematic whole”.  His beautiful description of the Umwelt of a tick has been reproduced in Andy Clark’s “Being There”.  He points out how each animal encounters an entirely subjective form of space and time, and how the activity of the animal is related to the experience of time.  “Without a living subject, there can be no time”. Mind you, he makes the questionable assumption that there is something like a quantum of experience that in humans is about 1/18 sec, and that is modality independent.  But that is more than compensated for by his delightful Fig 14 showing a snail held atop a large rubber ball carried by water.

This ought to sound familiar: “As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence.”

Where I speak of a “phenomenal bubble”, he says “We may therefore picture all the animals around us, be they beetles, butterfliesm flies, mosquitoes or dragonflies that people a meadow, enclosed within soap bubbles, which confine their visual space and contain all that is visible to them….Only when this fact is clearly grasped shall we recognize the soap bubble which encloses each of us as well.  Then we shall also see all our fellow men in their individual soap bubbles, which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs.  There is no space independent of subjects.  If we still cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication”.

He has a view of nervous system activity appropriate to his time.  He considers central organization, and the relative independence of reflex arcs, when he says: “when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal”.  That’s a nice quote for later use in discussing agency!

Long before Gibson’s theory of affordances, we see von Uexküll saying: “How do we manage to see sitting in a chair, drinking in a cup, climbing in a ladder, none of which are given perceptually?  In all the objects that we have learned to use, we see the function which we perform with them as surely as we see their shape or color.”

There are limitations.  He reminds me of Dennett in his ability to drive a whole wagonful of arguments up to the edge of a cliff, but he then refuses to jump off.  Thus, at one point toward the end we read: “…Thus we ultimately reach the conclusion that each subject lives in a world composed of subjective realities alone, and that even the Umwelten themselves represent only subjective realities… Whoever denies the existence of subjective realities, has failed to recognize the foundations of his own Umwelt.”  And yet earlier, he commits just this error when he says: “The Umwelt of any animal that we wish to investigate is only a section carved out of the environment which we see spread around it-and this environment is nothing but our own human world.”  Aarghh, how did he not notice that error?

He comes across as a well meaning pantheist at the very end: “And yet all these diverse Umwelten are harbored and borne by the One that remains forever barred to all Umwelten.  Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge, the subject – Nature.”

Thomas Nagel does not cite him.  Hang your head in shame, Thomas!

Here’s the article, in two scans: [Part 1] [

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