I am not sure what to make of this issue.

4EA is the initialism used for a catch phrase now commonly deployed in contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind research to characterise cognition: “Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, Extended, Affective”. I think it first began as 4E, then someone thought “hang on, what about the emotions?” and added the “A”.

The following is a mash-up of some definitions I found here (from a blurb for the book “The New Science of the Mind” by M Rowlands) and here (from Gary Williams’ blog “Minds and Brains”):

  1. Embodied means “partly made up of extra-neural bodily structures and processes”; emphasises the lived body as the starting point for philosophical investigation of cognition
  2. Embedded means “designed to function in tandem with the environment”; refers to the fact that the neural system is embedded or nested within a organized body and environment and cannot be analyzed independent of its behavior within both a physical environment and a social-cultural milieu
  3. Enacted means “constituted in part by action”; refers to the way in which action-control is not a matter of sensing-modeling-planning-acting, but rather, regulating the  intrinsic behavioral dynamics of autopoiesis (emergent self-organization) so as to effectively utilize resources in the environment
  4. Extended means “located in the environment”; refers to how the cognitive system actively offloads tasks onto external environmental props so as to free up limited cognitive resources (e.g. using a notepad as external memory storage).
  5. Affective refers to how the intrinsic behavioral dynamics of emergent self-organization are driven by an emotional attunement or affectivity that valences stimuli in terms of meaningful salience thresholds e.g. good/bad, inviting/threatening, etc. Such affectivity is grounded by what Damasio calls “background feelings” and what Ratcliffe calls “feelings of being-in-the-world” or “ways of finding oneself”.

The 4EA paradigm appears to be a snappy encapsulation of the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (sharply distinct from the earlier traditions of Descartes and Kant), for whom consciousness and the senses are always “in the world”, actively exploring and participating, rather than being merely passive and aloof spectators. Since awakening from my Cartesian/Kantian slumber after reading M-P’s “Phenomenology of Perception”, I have no problem with the first 3 “E”s (and the “A”).

However, I am a bit ambivalent about the 4th “E” (Extended), though I am having trouble pinpointing the exact source of my unease.

The Extended Mind thesis or the “Hypothesis of Extended Cognition” (HEC) has been the source of much debate in recent years, in scholarly philosophical works as well as more popular accounts. For the case for HEC see, for example:

  1. The seminal paper by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, the Extended Mind
  2. The book by Andy Clark, “Supersizing The Mind”, which is reviewed here
  3. The paper by Andy Clark, Re-Inventing Ourselves: The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing, and Mind
  4. The book, “Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë, reviewed here

For the case against (or at least not quite as enthusiastically in favour) see:

  1. A review of the book Bounds of Cognition by Frederick Adams and Kenneth Aizawa; and
  2. this modest proposal by Lynne Rudder Baker

My lack of enthusiasm for HEC cannot be because I feel the mind must be only “in the head”. In my view, mind (or “cognition”) is not physical and cannot be spatially located anywhere, so I feel no reason to deny that cognition can sometimes “leak” out into the environment (for example by utilising external props such as notebooks). And my disquiet is not because I insist that consciousness and thought must be purely biological entities, strictly connected with living tissue. I am quite open to the idea that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of complex physical systems, whether “living” or not. After all, since living and non-living things are both ultimately composed of the same “stuff” (molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles and forces), why not? I came to this view even before I learned about the experiment with a spiny lobster, in which one of the lobster’s brain neurons (which had been damaged, preventing it from carrying out the creature’s natural rhythmic chewing function) was replaced by a (non-biological) silicon chip, restoring normal functionality. I realise that is a long way from replicating a human brain with non-living hardware, but still…

What am I missing?

Although I realise that analogies can sometimes be misleading (although seductive) if pushed too far, I cannot help but think about the question of the body and what constitutes it. If I have a transplanted kidney or liver is it truly part of “my” body? What about a synthetic heart valve? What about a heart-lung or dialysis machine for the period of time they are operating? What about an artificial limb? A cochlear implant? A pair of spectacles, a walking cane? What about a wheelchair? See here for a phenomenological-style account of a wheelchair user’s point of view about the wheelchair coming to be seen as a body part, and how offence can be taken when others touch it without permission or otherwise treat it as an “object”. If I can concede that a person can reconstitute their body schema to incorporate a wheelchair, why should I be so precious as to resist the idea that a notebook (or a computer or the internet) can constitute part of my mind? For studies of how the brain can be rewired through experience to encorporate new body schemas see here for a fascinating account of tool use by macaque monkeys and the Rubber Hand illusion.

If Daniel Dennett’s suggestion that the self is an illusion and that we are all zombies wasn’t enough, the HEC proponents seem to be suggesting we are all cyborgs!

Feedback welcome, as always…

Now for a poem: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I’d like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Richard Brautigan

Reprinted in The Pill versus The Springhill Mine
Disaster, copyright 1968 by Richard Brautigan.

About middleeuropeanmelancholy

64 year old Australian born male. Into travel, poetry, philosophy, music, popular physics, mathematics (especially topology)...
This entry was posted in Philosophy, The Body, The Mind. Bookmark the permalink.

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