Wednesday, 16 April 2014

“Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content” A Scaffolded Review

When people talk about the possibility of foreknowledge of the future they always forget the fact of the prediction of one's own voluntary movements. —Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Very few philosophers will be persuaded by this important book by Dan Hutto and Erik Myin, most obviously because it undermines what for many will be held as irrefutable: the idea that minds are necessarily dependent upon inner content. By content is meant representations of one form or another: data structures, signals etc. that are supposedly transduced, encoded, interpreted, recombined, judged, parsed or otherwise processed according to information-processing models that despite decades of fine-grained EEG, MRI, fMRI, DTI and PET research remain entirely undiscovered in the Byzantine labyrinths of the brain.
For Hutto and Myin the assumption that cognition involves content is thoroughly unjustified in all but the most ‘scaffolded’ of cases: cases in which minds are supported by socially evolved practices of linguistic representation-use. In the case of more basic minds, they argue, content is neither necessary nor logically possible.
In a philosophical landscape dominated by representationalist thinking, all of which is perilously dependent upon the assumption that cognition involves content, this book fulfils its radical intention of exposing the many ways in which the content view runs thoroughly into the sand.
There isn’t room here to detail the many incisive arguments levelled against the content view by Hutto and Myin, but suffice it to say that the majority of the book is devoted to a point-by-point critique of the principal content-dependent theories, including several that share much in common with the authors’ brand of enactivism. No doubt critics will complain that the authors overemphasise their counterarguments at the expense of a comprehensive alternative thesis. Yet, if this book were nothing more than a thorough disavowal of the doctrine of content, its contribution to the field would be significant. As it is, Hutto and Myin have, at the very least, cleared the ground and provided some vital tools for further exploration and this is both welcome and, some would say, long overdue.*
Radical as this book is though, I suspect that Hutto and Myin are either withholding a more uncompromising version of their argument or else their position falls somewhat short of full blown radicalism. Their retention of content in the case of scaffolded minds in particular concedes more than is strictly necessary to their adversaries. Perhaps they wish to offer an olive branch to soft representationalists in the hope that they might be turned. But the fact that minds can be supported by an extensive range of performative practices, procedures and artefacts is no reason to suppose that scaffold users have somehow evolved into inner content bearers. The mere suggestion that this is the case does damage to what is otherwise a strong argument against the content view. 
Undoubtedly brain states have a functional correspondence to behaviours ('covariance conditions' as the jargon goes), but this is no reason to assume that these brain states literally constitute representations, no matter what the stage of their evolutionary development. This is the conclusion that we should draw from radical enactivism and it is strange therefore that Hutto and Myin are in the least credulous of contentful representation, even in the case of scaffolded minds. Scaffolds are external resources after all and the role they play is not one in which inner states become surrogate scaffolds.
The capacity to think using contentful representations is an example of a late-developing, scaffolded, and socially supported achievement. It originates from and exists, in part, in virtue of social practices that make use of external public resources, such as pen, paper, signs, and symbols.
It may be the case that Hutto and Myin are simply being economical here with their list of publicly available resources. No doubt they wish to establish a clear distinction between the resources and social practices utilised by language users and those used by other creatures. However, in doing so, they suggest an evolutionary break where none need be imputed. So, whilst I agree that social practices are centrally implicated in the emergence of mind, I am not at all convinced that only late-developing symbolic capacities qualify for consideration as constitutive of thought — conceptual thought, yes, but not all thought. So scaffolded thought need not - indeed should not - be regarded as exclusively linguistic in origin. Even language had to evolve from more basic roots. There are many immediately available behavioural (enactive) resources and communicative capacities that creatures commonly employ that deserve serious consideration as sufficient for the emergence of mind long prior to the discovery of the various processes and procedures of symbol manipulation and language. Gestures, dance, facial expressions, mock performances—including play, vocalisations, mimicry, exaggeration, deceit, distraction, diversion, concealment, shamming, and numerous other patterns and kinds of intelligent behaviour are all important contenders for the constitution of basic thought, or at the very least intentional directedness.
Intentional directedness - as it turns out - is a major challenge, not only for Hutto and Myin’s theory but for all principled non-representationalist theories. Representationalist thinkers, in contrast, can simply invoke inner representations of future states of affairs and claim these as the causal basis of intentional action. This is a very convenient theoretical strategy, but if the mounting arguments against representationalism — of which Hutto and Myin's should be regarded as canonical — are correct, then the representationalists ploy is recklessly misconceived.
What is it then, we might ask of the radical enactivist, for an eagle to act intentionally and to anticipate future events before they unfold? The challenge here is to explain how 'nonverbals' are capable of predicting future states of affairs with a high degree of accuracy. How are they capable of tracking moving objects when obscured? Can we credit such creatures with the ability to envision future circumstances and if not, what is it about human skills that lead us to suppose that only we are possessed of the ability to visualise — certainly not our verbal skills?
Hutto and Myin evidently discern little in the way of a challenge arising as a consequence their otherwise well argued and justified rejection of inner representations. They write: ‘The simplest life forms are capable of intentionally directed responding.’ but precisely what predictive causal influences are involved here they give only the merest suggestion when they offer: ‘informationally sensitive responses to natural signs.’ They claim that this is 'austere talk' and that it avoids the assumption of 'meaning' and 'representation' that they find frequently betrayed in the work of Thomson (2007) for example. I’m not at all sure though that the policy of offloading the attribution of content onto external ‘signs’ and ‘information’ is anywhere near as  austere as is required: advantageously sensitive responses to natural stimuli would be genuinely austere but would still leave the question of intentional directedness completely untouched.
A more convincing route to resolving this question is already available to Hutto and Myin, yet it is so thoroughly partitioned off in their theory that it seems unlikely that they would be willing to reconfigure their thinking to accommodate it. The scaffolding that they claim is only involved in late developing achievements of thinking is, as we have already seen, more extensive than their thesis currently allows. If this is true, and the evidence for these capacities is widespread amongst social organisms, then we already have good reason to believe that these enactive capacities themselves might be significantly implicated in intentional directedness. I will return to this point presently.
In an earlier publication, Hutto (2008) discusses the question of intentionality directly and he argues that the 'dances' guiding the behaviour of honey bees are 'contentless' and therefore non-representational. He claims that these dances are 'Local Indexical Guides' and that the bees are 'informationally sensitive to natural signs.' His preferred terminology is presumably intended to be as neutral as possible regarding it's representational implications yet he could hardly have chosen more prototypical cases of representation than indexical guidance or informational signification. He also states that bee dances incorporate: 'two distinct aspects: one carries information about the distance of the nectar from the hive and the other carries information about the direction in which it is located.' [My emphasis] This is curious because just few pages earlier he writes: 'It is easy to be misled on this score by free and easy talk of information "being carried" by signals and states.'
Either creatures communicate with one another or they don't, and if they do, then the only resources available to mediate this communication are public representations. So, for example, indexes are representations in which one thing is used to direct attention to another thing: a pointing finger [index] or footprint are obvious instances. But, as the saying goes: 'The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.' Indexes indicate other things and other locations, but bees do not literally stand outside the hive pointing in the direction of the relevant flora. If I see a flower and point to it, there is no doubt (at least for other humans skilled in representational practices) that I indicate the flower. But if I point to the flower through the solid wall of a hive, the indexical relationship suddenly becomes significantly less obvious. So, if bees do use indexical guides, they cannot be of the direct indicative kind — even intelligent animals like dogs or chimpanzees have trouble responding appropriately to a pointing finger (Tomasello 2006). Similarly, if we examine the concept of guidance we will find that this too turns out to be a paradigm case of representation with more complexity in its simplest forms than Hutto seems prepared to acknowledge. Guidance is a performative form of exemplification in which we physically enact the relevant route or procedure: we show the way. Deliberate guidance of this kind is actually fairly rare in nature, whereas non-physically enacted guides (like maps for instance) are very rare indeed (an intentionally produced  trail would probably qualify though). Bees do not leave trails lingering on the air for one another, nor do they personally guide one another to their floral caches. So if we wish to illuminate what appears to be an extraordinarily economical yet sophisticated form of public representation exemplified in the display behaviour of bees, then we have no alternative than to explore their socially evolved capacities for representation production**. No inner representations need be imputed — no knowing that, just embedded, embodied and enactive know-how.
I suspect that Hutto's denial of the representational behaviour of bees is motivated by his eagerness to dispense with teleosemantic accounts of cognition — accounts that characterise mental states in linguistic terms. Whilst I am entirely sympathetic with his ends, I think his means are gained at the cost of an appropriately nuanced understanding of the relationships and differences between nonverbal and fully verbal representational practices. Nobody doubts that bees have the capacity to respond to their successful foraging trips by behaving in ways that lead other bees to forage similarly. What is at issue is whether the information (direction and distance) is internalised in representational form or whether there might be a less extravagant way to conceive of it. Hutto and Myin are absolutely right to pursue this latter line of enquiry, yet Hutto's ‘Indexical Guides’ seem unlikely to withstand the occamists razor when compared with the intuitive, if utterly mistaken, conceptual simplicity of inner representations. A more substantial non-representational theory of intentional directedness is urgently required.
How might this be achieved? I suggest once again that an adjusted version of Hutto and Myin's Scaffolded Minds Hypothesis is all that is necessary. Where a sharp distinction needs to be drawn though, is between organisms that are capable of producing representations (like bees and human beings) and those that are not (like viruses and trees). Representation-producing organisms provide good cause to suspect that they might be capable of anticipating some future states of affairs, i.e. of representing them in token form – as is the case with bees. Such capacities would qualify therefore as viable causal drivers towards currently unfulfilled future states of affairs. In the case of other organisms, we haven’t yet embarked upon a study of what causally influential dispositions-to-represent may be mediating their actions but this would seem to be a field rich with untapped potential. What we can say though, is that the capacity to produce representations of future states of affairs should be considered instrumental in the attribution of intentional action as opposed to mere purposeful responsiveness.
Although I have only sketched the vaguest outline here of what is a far more extensive enactive theory of intentional directedness, it is nonetheless closely consistent with the main body of Hutto and Myin’s important theoretical work. Minds are by their very nature scaffolded and without such scaffolding, mindedness would be inconceivable.
In an article for the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Tom Roberts claims that Hutto and Myin’s most radical idea is that “basic minds are not brain-bound; they are not defined by representational transactions; they are fully and constitutively world-involving.” I would challenge Roberts on this observation. The book is called 'Radicalizing Enactivism' after all, not 'Radical Enactivism'. It is a rallying cry, not a stipulation of terms; a set of tools, not an academic ornament. It's radicalism derives from the advantages it confers to those who put it to use: enacting its radicalism.
Basic minds – indeed all minds - are constituted by what they are capable of representing: of precisely the public representational transactions they are capable of engaging in. Beyond these capacities to represent their causal engagements with the world, all organisms – ourselves included – are merely evolved purposeful responders. It just so happens that humans are massively disposed to represent their causal encounters. And what we are not capable of representing we can’t claim to perceive. The same applies, it might be said, to enormously important but largely ignored or misunderstood radical theories of mind.

For further discussion of Dan Hutto's theories you may be interested to read the next post  here.

*William Ramsey’s ‘Representation Reconsidered’ (2009) is another important contribution in this regard.
** The question of the representational nature of bee dances remains controversial. Adrian Wenner in particular is critical of the evidence provided regarding bee "language". His own research favours scent carried by successful foraging bees which then triggers fellow bees to search for the same scent. Nonetheless there remains reason to suppose that a simple form of representation may be at work - at least in the direction that the dances are conducted which correlates with the direction of food sources. More evidence is required to settle the issue.


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