Proposing an extremely embedded mind

A number of recent posts have focused on the origins and nature of consciousness. These articles have more or less favoured or disfavoured various degrees of reductionism.

We’ve seen one extreme, Markram’s proposal to generate a computer model of our entire knowledge of how the human brain functions. It seems only fair to take a look at the other end of the continuum. So today’s piece features a social science view that aims to smash once and for all the world-brain barrier.

In “The Conscious Basis of Material Engagement: Where Brain, Body and Culture Conflate,” Cambridge anthropologist Lambros Malafouris takes the “blank slate” ideology that dominates the social sciences and extends it to neuroscience, arguing that not only is the brain not the only seat of consciousness but that it’s not conscious at all without its interaction with perceived culture.

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My first reaction to Malafouris’s article was something like, “Of course he rejects cognitivism — he’s a relativist ideologue, like everyone else in the social sciences.” But that’s rather sweeping, and not really fair, since it doesn’t give him a chance to make his case. So I kept reading past the first page, and I soon discovered that, despite some of the overblown writing that plagues the social sciences, he was presenting some intriguing and challenging ideas.

Go figure — a hard relativist with something interesting to say. What’s next? A sophisticated fundamentalist? But seriously …

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Malafouris bases his analysis on the presumption that “the science of mind and the science of culture are two sides of the same coin.” From that basis, he intends to place his focus “explicitly upon the realm where cognition and materiality intersect, mutually catalyzing and constituting each other.”

I’m sorry if this concept is unclear. Remember, we’re dealing here with a social scientist, and that means putting up with an overflow of well-turned but not always explicit expressions. It goes with the non-empirical territory that language takes much of the place of data. You’ll get used to it.

Malafouris writes that his efforts have two goals: “This I do on one hand as a method toward a theory of material engagement, and on the other as a means of reclaiming cognition from the bonds of cognitivism.” If you had any doubts about his entering assumptions, phrases like “the bonds of cognitivism” quickly set you straight.

Malafouris starts right in with a section titled “Redefining the boundaries of mind: the problem with cognitivism.” He claims that representational theories were created to resolve the “huge ontological gap” between the brain and the external world. According to these theories, Malafouris writes, on the one hand, the brain internalizes the external world through symbolic representations of perception, while on the other hand it externalizes its mentations through computational symbols (e.g., language).

Disdaining “computational models” of consciousness, Malafouris claims that “it is safe to argue that the major problem with this paradigm was, and remains, that it provides a view of human cognition so purified and detached from the world that in the end it resembles a ‘brain in a vat,’ a disembodied input-output device characterized by abstract, higher-level logical operations.”

He laments that “using computational simulations as a method for gaining information about the human mind, you might learn a few things concerning the representational structures that support inferential logic and problem solving, but you will certainly also end up with a distorted picture as to how those structures relate to the environment, and probably with no picture at all as to how those structures are enacted in real-life situations and in different cultural settings.”

As an aside, Malafouris’s characterization of the problems with cognitivism is rife with assumptions, i.e., with the equally binding paradigm of his own discipline — but that’s not really our topic here, so I’ll just make this notation and move on.

Having stated his objections to the cognitivist paradigm, Malafouris comes to the questions that are most central to his efforts: “If the human mind is not the clearly demarcated information-processing device so neatly objectified in the familiar exemplar of the computer, then what is it? And, indeed, where is it? Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?”

The short answer to all three questions is that ours is an “extended mind,” that the materiality of culture is the elusive dark matter for which the cognitivists cannot account. Malafouris writes that “the relationship between the world and human cognition is not one of abstract representation or some other form of action at a distance but one of ontological inseparability.” In more direct language, cognition is the intimate interaction of the brain and the world, like table salt is the intimate interaction of sodium and chlorine. In Malafouris’s version of more direct language: “In other words, my hypothesis is that material engagement is the synergistic process by which, out of brains, bodies and things, mind emerges.”

He includes a simple-looking but actually quite helpful chart (below) to illustrate his core conception. (And yes, I have to yield to the temptation to be mischievous and point out that the chart is an externalized representation of an internal mentation.)

Malafouris recalls Bateson’s question: “Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick?” He suggests the potter’s wheel as another useful example.

The thing to note first is that in terms of cognitive topology — that is, the question of where those cognitive processes reside — no a priori hierarchy can be argued between the potter’s brain / body / wheel / clay / product / context of activity.

Malafouris points out that the potter’s craft, like many other skills, can not readily be represented solely by verbal description. “It is impossible to provide precise directions through the medium of language, especially to the uninitiated.” Instead, some kind of hands-on experience — “apprenticeship” — is needed. He considers this kind of learning an important clue to the necessity for the brain and the outside world to interact dynamically. He writes that “we should replace our view of cognition as residing inside the potter’s head, with that of cognition enacted at the potter’s wheel.

Malafouris advocates “collapsing the dividing lines between perception, cognition and action, and rejecting the methodological separation between reason and embodiment.” Further, he wishes to reverse the flow of events, to see “mental models, schemata and internal planning procedures” not as causing but as the “temporally emergent and dynamic products of situated activity.”

In other words, Malafouris hopes to switch the present viewpoint, from which we tend to view our physical artifacts and artifices (the subject matter of archaeology) as evidence of mental activity (the subject matter of neuroscience). Rather, his approach “qualifies material culture as an analytic object for cognitive science, warranting the use of methods and experimental procedures once applied to internal mental phenomena for use upon those that are external and beyond the skin.”

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Accepting his point of view in its entirety would accomplish several unstated but clearly present goals of “neuroarchaeology.” First, and most obvious, is the extension of the range of Malafouris’s chosen area of study. With this approach, archaeology becomes more of a “hard” science, as his approach would strengthen the experimental and analytic credentials of a discipline now commonly associated with interpretation and speculation. Less obviously, Malafouris extends  “blank slate” relativism to an investigation that presently is “infested” with notions of the innate, the universal, and the material.

Ignoring for a moment the virtues of Malafouris’s suggestion, it’s a clever stratagem. Neuroscience adopts the world view of the social sciences, while archaeology assumes the experimental science status of neuroscience. For a “neuroarchaeologist,” what’s not to like?

Yet, despite my cynicism about the paradigmatic assumptions that appear to underlie Malafouris’s arguments, I think that there is some merit in what he writes. After all, we all agree that mind is more than brain, and we also agree that our conscious mental processes are  inextricably bound up with the unconscious processes that constitute the vast majority of our interactions with the world outside our heads.

It seems to most people, including me, that a purely representational theory of consciousness both overstates the role of the rational mind and understates the influence on the mind of homeostatic processes and the external events that provoke them. It may well be right that the “missing” part of mind, the “dark matter” that gives our mental universe its proper mass and dimension, is that part of mind that is outside the physical boundaries of our bodies. After all, if we are confident that the composition of mind includes the rest of the body, not just the brain, what’s to say that the parts of the external world with which we interact are not, too, a necessary part of mind? If mind is “brain plus,” there’s no theoretical barrier to the idea that mind is “brain and body plus.” Blind men with sticks and potters at wheels, indeed.

However, I suspect that Malafouris’s “the more the merrier” conceptualization misses the one part of cognitivism that the “mind as culture” idea can’t wave away quite so simply. On a very basic level, the argument persists that while mind may best be characterized as a dynamic system, the presence of a functioning evolved brain is required in a way that a blind man’s stick or a potter’s wheel is not. No brain, no conscious mind — indeed, no mind at all. No stick, and the blind man has mind, even without sight. No wheel, and the potter has mind, even without his artful skill. And, despite the most fervent wishes of the absolute relativists, in its most basic form that indispensable brain is innate, universal, and entirely material.

What this suggests is that here, as in so much else, there may not be a direct, “either-or” choice. The cognitivists may be right that mind “takes place” — in the sense of our becoming aware of it — in the neuronic pathways of the brain. The culturists may be right that mind “takes place” — in the sense of its fullest functioning — in the dynamic interactions between the individual and the world.

Sorry, fellas, but I’m afraid that you both might be right.

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