Monday, 7 December 2015

Embodiments of Mind

I have often mentioned on this blog that our actions are embodied. Sometimes I have also claimed that our thoughts are embodied in our actions, as I believe they are. There is nothing unusual about such turns of phrase. They are commonplace in ordinary language and serve very well to describe the relationship between our many skills and the ways these can be applied to the world.

In the last twenty years or so, a new breed of theorist has emerged, a breed who see themselves neither as immaterial minds pulling the strings of material bodies, nor as brains locked away in skulls, but rather as minds interwoven into the very fabric of the body. These Embodied Mind theorists come in several varieties, but their principal claim is that the brain is not the locus of mind, but rather the body as a whole. Whilst I think this view is a vast improvement on that of mind/body dualism, I think it is mistaken to suggest that the mind is dispersed throughout the body, or throughout anything for that matter.

To be a minded creature is to be in possession of a range of abilities, all of which can be performed and are thus communicable in principle. The possession of abilities is nothing like the possession of scars or dentures or artificial hips. Abilities are not bodily things we can point to or examine with a scanner, no matter how sophisticated or precise. Abilities are more like potentialities than actualities. My hand has the potential to dissolve in acid, but this potential is not to be found instantiated, manifested or embodied in my hand. Potentialities only become manifest in the process of actualisation. Abilities are actualised in actions, not in the body of the possessor of those abilities.

To develop a new ability—to learn something—is to be capable of demonstrating it, and to be capable of demonstrating an ability is also to able to use it to envisage goals, to form expectations and to anticipate outcomes. Such predictive capacities are the embodiment of intelligence and are by no means limited to our fellow human beings. But what does it mean to use the word "embodiment" in this ordinary way and what light might this usage shed upon the theory of the Embodied Mind?

Firstly, it should be obvious that my thoughts of swimming are not embodied in my sitting down whilst thinking of swimming. Nor are my thoughts of dancing or of laughing or casting my eye over Rodin's "Le Penseur". My posture and furrowed brow might well be taken to be the embodiment of my thinking, but not my thoughts. I can only embody my thoughts if I enunciate or enact them. It makes no sense to say that I am the embodiment of my thinking. When I act, my thoughts are embodied in the act, not in my body. But when I do not act, my thoughts are not embodied in my inactivity.

When we say that Hitler was the embodiment of evil, we do not mean that evil took bodily form in Hitler (though we might be sorely tempted to think so). We mean that Hitler represents evil, that he was the personification of evil. In ordinary language, to embody something is to represent it, not to contain it or to instantiate it or to be it. A red thing does not embody redness. We reserve the concept of embodiment for symbols, not for things that actually instantiate the relevant property. When we say that an act was the embodiment of goodness, we mean that the act could be taken as a representative symbol of the concept of goodness, not that goodness has taken earthly form. Likewise, when we say that a person is the embodiment of innocence, this is an attribution, not an attribute that we should expect to find instantiated in their corporeal frame. You will not find any more truth in the body of someone who speaks truths than in the body of someone who speaks lies.

In a recent discussion with a neuroscientist and advocate of the Embodied Mind, he wrote: "Badness, in a very absolute way, is neither embodied nor enacted, badness is in the eye of the social beholder." But this conceals a confusion. Either our concepts are socially negotiated or they are not. If they are, then they cannot be the private possessions of individuals and cannot therefore be in the eye of the beholder, even if the beholder is acknowledged to be a social creature. 

This same Embodied Mind advocate claimed that physiological sensations of guilt etc. are "100% instantiated in emotional somatic markers in the body." Putting aside the question of what emotional somatic markers might actually be, let's imagine that my young son unwittingly does something widely regarded as bad. If everyone agrees and tells him so but he does not accept this, then according to our advocate of the Embodied Mind, my son's action cannot be bad because he will not have the requisite embodied markers of guilt. Something is very obviously wrong with this conception of wrongdoing because the criterion for the determination of guilt or innocence etc. is taken to be a personal possession (or lack of) rather than a publicly negotiated rule or convention. Our concepts are not private possessions. My son cannot choose to define his conceptual world by fiat but must accept social codes that are instantiated in public practices, not inscribed in the bodies of individuals. Our abilities to use concepts are not instantiated in us. We are not the embodiments of our minds, our actions are.

Embodied Mind theories have emerged in opposition to various forms of Cartesian dualism. As commendable as this opposition is, it comes at a price, the price of coherence. To suggest that our minds are to be found distributed throughout our bodies is to suggest that our minds are somehow contained in the body in the way that we might mistakenly take the potential for my hand to dissolve in acid to be instantiated in my hand. Philosopher, Peter Hacker, identifies this as transcendentalism:

One tempting misconception is transcendentalism, i.e., the fallacious reification of powers, according to which they are conceived as occult entities mysteriously contained within the possessor of the power.

In their reification of the mind, embodied theories fail to recognise and to clarify that the mind is neither a thing nor a non-thing. Abilities are not to be found by examining the configurations of a body, no matter how finely or precisely. Abilities are to be found in their performance. We are not the embodiments of our minds, our actions are.


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