Core Enaction Semester 2
The series will be hosted by Dr. Marek McGann, and during this first semester we will cover chapters 1-6 of the book over six sessions, with a final 7th session dedicated to a general discussion with participants and guest speakers. Each session consists of a presentation by a guest speaker followed by questions and discussion with the participants.
February 22nd: During the first session, Dr. McGann will provide an introduction and critical reading of the first chapter, dedicated to the authors’ definitions of ‘cognitive science’ and ‘human experience’ and to an overview of how they see the dialogue between them.
March 8th: In the second session, Marek will welcome a guest speaker, Dr. Philippe Blouin, who will continue exploring the theme of the science-experience dialogue with his reading of chapter 2. The focus here will be more specifically on the phenomenological tradition and its relations to science.
March 22nd:Dr. Marieke van Vugt, leading the third session, will present chapter 3 on the computational mind and the presuppositions of the cognitivist perspective on mind. What is cognitivism and what kind of subject does it presuppose? Is this view of cognition compatible with phenomenological mind - the mind of human experience?
April 5th: With the fourth session we will enter the “I of the Storm” with Dr. Antonino Raffone, who will present chapter 4. What is the ‘self’? We tend to sense our ‘self’ as something fixed and constant, but our experience is always changing, pointing to an impermanence of this self. Here the teachings of the Abhidharma are convened in parallel with biological principles of self-organization in order to make sense of this apparent dilemma.
April 25th: Dr. Giuseppe Pagnoni will join us for our reading of chapter 5, in which enaction, the alternative paradigm to the classical cognitivist understanding of mind, is introduced. Many of the concepts brought up in Core Enaction’s first semester, Genealogy, including cybernetics, self-organization, and emergence, will come into play here.
May 3rd: Dr. Constance Kassor explores chapter 6, which further probes the enactive program’s claim that cognition is not computation but rather embodied action. The absence of a stable, unitary ‘self,’ as conceived by the new sciences of mind, is buttressed by a look at the Buddhist concept of codependent arising or groundlessness of self.
May 17th: Concluding discussion with participants and guest speakers from sessions 1-6.
Session 1 - Chapter 1: A Fundamental Circularity: In the Mind of the Reflective Scientist
In this, our first meeting, we will take some time to reflect on why we are going to spend two terms to read, learn about, and teach The Embodied Mind. After thirty years of development, why is this still a good first step in adopting an enactive approach to cognitive science? And why is it such a challenging one? We will then dive into the first chapter of the book where Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch set out the core principles of their viewpoint. On the one hand, a science of human experience should include as part of its central subject matter a rigorous and careful examination of human experience; on the other, an understanding of human experience will necessarily transform the science in which it arises. In setting out these ideas the authors bring us through a brief history of theoretical perspectives in cognitive science to the late 1980s/early 1990s. We will briefly consider how the discipline has developed since The Embodied Mind was published before turning to the more central concern of how a reflective cognitive science challenges some of our basic conceptions of the aims and practices of science. In particular, we will ask what can science be if it is to cope with a subject matter that is indeterminate and continually changing? How does an enactive perspective change what we think of what it means to understand something? To help us engage with these questions we will find support from other fields of study, particularly the anthropological and sociological fields of Science and Technology Studies. In addition, we will touch briefly on more recent enactive work where these ideas have continued to be explored in depth. We will close with a reflection on the transformation of science that is mandated by the kind of reflective practice that Varela, Thompson, and Rosch propose, and look forward to the program of work to come in the following chapters, and the coming weeks.
Some considerations of the state of cognitive science since The Embodied Mind:
- Núñez, R., Allen, M., Gao, R., Miller Rigoli, C., Relaford-Doyle, J., & Semenuks, A. (2019). What happened to cognitive science? Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0626-2
- Beller, S., Bender, A., & Medin, D. L. (2012). Should anthropology be part of cognitive science? Topics in Cognitive Science, 4(3), 342–353.
Nuancing our understanding of scientific endeavour:
- Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
- Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (2013). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton University Press.
Challenges and opportunities of an indeterminate world:
- Birhane, A. (2021). The Impossibility of Automating Ambiguity. Artificial Life, 27(1), 44–61.https://doi.org/10.1162/artl_a_00336
- De Jesus, P. (2018). Thinking through enactive agency: Sense-making, bio-semiosis and the ontologies of organismic worlds. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-018-9562-2
- van Dijk, L. (2021). Psychology in an indeterminate world. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1745691620958005. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620958005
Session 2 - Chapter 2: What Do We Mean "Human Experience"?
Although The Embodied Mind (1991) drew directly from the tradition of phenomenology, and especially from the work of Merleau-Ponty, in its effort to rehabilitate human experience in the cognitive sciences, the relationship between the enactivist approach and phenomenology was not initially without its tensions. Indeed, TEM raised a number of critiques towards phenomenology, and Husserlian phenomenology in particular. Interestingly, in their introductions to the Revised Edition (2016), the authors reappraised their initial critiques, thus opening new avenues for a dialogue between enactivism and phenomenology. After a brief crash course on the basics of Husserlian phenomenology, we will consider both these initial critiques and their reappraisals in the latest edition. Our twin aims will be to assess the ongoing relevance of phenomenology for the enactivist project, as well as to stress the unresolved tensions between these two approaches to consciousness. These tensions concern (1) the problem of the relation of theory to practice, on the one hand, and (2) the transcendental dimension of experience, on the other. We will conclude by reemphasizing the common ground between both approaches: their commitment to a non-dualist ontology, which attempts to cut the traditional mind-world dichotomy at its root.
Blouin, P. S. (2021). La phénoménologie comme manière de vivre. Bucharest: Zeta Books.
–––––– (Forthcoming). “Husserl’s Phenomenalism: A Rejoinder to the Philipse-Zahavi Debate.” Husserl Studies.
Depraz, N., Varela, F. & Vermersch, P. (2003). On Becoming Aware: A Pragmatics of Experiencing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Heidegger, M. (1966). Discourse on Thinking, trans. J. M. Anderson and E. H. Freund. New York: Harper & Row.
–––––– (1991). The Principle of Reason, trans. R. Lilly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Husserl, E. (1970). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. D. Carr. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.
–––––– (2001). Logical Investigations II, trans. J. N. Findlay. London: Routledge.
–––––– (2014). Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. D. O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard.
–––––– (1964). Le visible et l’invisible. Paris: Gallimard.
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
–––––– (2015). Waking, Dreaming, Being. New York: Columbia University Press.
Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (2016/1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience(Revised Edition). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Session 3 - Chapter 3: Symbols: The Cognitivist Hypothesis
In this talk, Marieke van Vugt will review chapter 3 of The Embodied Mind, which describes the origin and content of cognitivism. In this process, she will include a perspective that she thinks is missing from the chapter, namely the perspective of the cognitive modeller: the one who creates computational models of cognition. She will share some basics about how computational modeling of cognition works, and how that can be applied to the study of mind-wandering—a quintessentially introspective process. She will also include some practical considerations from those who practice cognitive science. Hopefully this will help to generate some discussion about what cognitive science and cognitive modeling are and how they relate to embodied approaches.
Marieke van Vugt, Maarten van der Velde, ESM-MERGE investigators (2018). “How Does Rumination Impact Cognition? A First Mechanistic Model,” in TopiCS 10(1): 175-191. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tops.12318
Marieke van Vugt, Amir Moye, Swagath Sivakumar (2019). “Computational modelling approaches to meditation research: why should we care?” in Current Opinion in Psychology 28: 49-53. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352250X18301167
Session 4 - Chapter 4: The I of the Storm
The experience of self is a pervasive aspect of human life, in the forms of I, me, mine. On the one hand, self-processes have important mental and interpersonal functions, and on the other hand, attachment to the illusory view of a fixed and intrinsically existent self provides the ground for unhealthy mental states and habits, and thus the suffering of individuals, groups, society, and the whole planet. Breaking through such self-illusion is the fundamental aim of Buddhist psychology and meditation practices, also known as “enlightenment”. This enlightened view of the self is well reflected in contemporary developments in philosophy, psychology, and the neuroscience of self-processes. In connection with Chapter 4, I will highlight in particular the convergences between the Pattern Theory of the Self proposed by the phenomenologist and cognitive scientist Shaun Gallagher and Buddhist psychology, making reference to the recent work of an international team of twelve researchers who met in Leiden for a workshop in December 2019.
Who am I?
Why do self-processes play crucial roles in human life?
Why is a wrong self-view at the root of human suffering?
What are the five aggregates in Buddhist psychology?
How can momentariness of consciousness and interdependent arising of mind-body processes be studied scientifically and phenomenologically?
What is the Pattern Theory of Self?
How can we transition from a rigid to a flexible sense of self, and what are the roles of meditation practices in all of this?
Session 5 - Chapter 5: Emergent Properties and Connectionism
Chapter 5, "Emergent Properties and Connectionism", introduces a (then) novel way of thinking about modeling cognition by borrowing the basic architecture and functional principles from biological neural networks. This approach effectively overcomes a number of critical issues associated with the view of the mind as a substrate-independent process of symbolic manipulation, and is supported by developments in the field of the nonlinear dynamics of self-organizing systems. These have provided an apt theoretical framework for investigating the emergent properties that are a signature of densely connected networks, and that do not sit well with the symbolic paradigm of classic cognitivism. The chapter ends up considering the possibility that these alternative perspectives may actually represent two levels of description: sub-symbolic/connectionist for the dynamics of the lower levels, and symbolic for the higher levels (e.g., language). We will review these topics, discussing how recent theories about sentience and cognition appear to have incorporated not only the connectionist approach, but also some core ideas of autopoiesis and enaction.
[Recommendations for further reading will be provided at the end of the lecture.]
Session 6 - Chapter 6: Selfless Minds
Chapter 6, “Selfless Minds,” draws on some important Buddhist theories, and these will be the primary focus of this talk. The twelvefold chain of codependent arising, mind and the five omnipresent mental factors, and Buddhist conceptions of self/Self (as the authors put it), will be the main topics covered. Because my academic background is primarily in Buddhist philosophy, rather than cognitive science or neuroscience, this presentation (and hopefully, our discussion that follows) will focus on the connections between models presented by Buddhist scholars and those presented by the authors.
Garfield, Jay L. Losing Ourselves: How to Live Without a Self. Princeton University Press, 2022.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Thompson, Evan. Why I Am Not A Buddhist. Yale University Press, 2020.