Overview

My research tends to be situated in interdisciplinary debates and geared toward using the tension of these intellectual interfaces to clarify our understanding of the ideas, assumptions and phenomena involved. The technicality of the different debates sometimes obscures the bigger picture, so here I want to provide a more general overview of how I see the pieces fitting together.

Motivation

My research is motivated by the realization that there is an urgent need to effect a complete overhaul of the natural sciences of life, mind and sociality, which for far too long have been dominated by all kinds of reductionist and eliminative paradigms, including behaviorism and neo-Darwinian functionalism. The biggest problem I see with these paradigms is that they fail to address the complexities that our world is currently facing, especially as it is hurtling at breakneck speed from one social-economical-environmental crisis to another, and, as our world is increasingly globalized, toward ever increasing scales of disaster.

In contrast to popular opinion of the traditional scientific elite, I do not believe that the phenomenon of life is reducible to a sum of independent units, no matter whether they are conceived as atoms, genes, neurons, brains, or even individual persons. Some factors may indeed be controlled in relative isolation, but these successes cannot be generalized. Rather, life is distributed across a whole network of complex systems spanning various biological, developmental, environmental, technological, and socio-cultural domains (Froese and Di Paolo, 2011). In order to do justice to this complexity we need to take seriously the notion of emergence, i.e. the appearance of novel irreducible phenomena on the basis of nonlinear interactions.

Even more importantly, the distributed dynamics of life cannot be conceived apart from each person’s own lived experience of actually ‘being there’, i.e. of finding yourself embodied as a first-person perspective who is always already engaging within a meaningful situation (for example: your are reading this text right now), and who is always already part of an open-ended lifeworld shared with other persons and living creatures (Froese, 2011). Any science or philosophy that fails to properly acknowledge the whole extent of this existential situation as a phenomenon that exists in its own right only serves to obscure the bigger picture. If research is going to continue to play an essential role in shaping our future for the better, it cannot fail to take this situation as its starting point and as the point to which it must always return.

Life

The Neo-Darwinian synthesis of natural selection and molecular genetics, popularized as the idea of the ‘selfish gene’, is celebrated as biology’s greatest triumph, but it is also its greatest failure. The very subject of life as such, the living organism, was denied its own autonomous reality and had effectively been banished from acceptable scientific discourse. We are still suffering from the fallout of this monstrous development. The organism, if it is considered in current mainstream biology at all, is conceived as essentially a passive information processor, which is externally controlled by evolutionary, environmental and genetic forces.

This impoverished notion of the organism has serious implications, because it is impossible to build a valid notion of agency on these shaky foundations. There is no conceptual room that could allow for the fact that organisms can behave as individuals according to their own goals or, even more importantly, the fact that human beings can take responsibility for their actions. The demand for a proper science of agency is not a demand for radical individualism: agency requires both autonomy and constraints. This is not the place to discuss the ethical consequences of the current state of affairs in biology, although it is remarkable that the idea of a passive information processor resembles the capitalist ideal of the human, namely the person as a passive consumer of external stimuli.

A different biological starting point is to conceive of organisms as essentially active and autonomous beings that exist in their own right. They are active and autonomous in two related senses, namely that they are continually creating their own material conditions of existence, and that they are interacting with their environment so as to realize their own goals (Froese, Virgo and Izquierdo, 2007). From this starting point many debates in biology and cognitive science can be approached from an alternative perspective (Froese and Di Paolo, 2011).

For instance, it highlights the fact that the role of adaptive behavior has been completely omitted in the ongoing controversy surrounding the origin of life. Many apparently insurmountable problems, such as early catalytic selectivity and efficiency, become more tractable if we allow for the possibility that the first forms of life had the capacity to interact with their environment and thus to change their situation for the better (Froese, Ikegami and Virgo, 2012). But the implications of a properly defined concept of the organism are not confined to biology alone. The notion of biological autonomy helps to explain why there is a fundamental impasse in current approaches to robotics and AI (Froese and Ziemke, 2009), and its conceptual influence percolates all the way up to considerations of human cognition (Froese and Di Paolo, 2011). Life is minded, and mind is grounded in life.

Sorting out these biological foundations becomes especially relevant when we realize that we do not experience our own body, which is also a living organism after all, as merely an external machine devoid of inner significance. This mechanistic view was Descartes’ contribution to the foundation of modern science, and it is still the majority view, although it is utter nonsense from a phenomenological perspective. On the contrary, we live in and through our living body in a purposeful and meaningful way, and so biology cannot be divorced from the study of meaning, i.e. biosemiotics. Our embodied mind and our minded body are two sides of the same existential coin, united in the phenomenon of life (Froese, 2011).

Mind

The impoverished concept of life found in biology has its absurd complement in cognitive science. The popular Computational Theory of Mind holds that mind is literally nothing but a computer that happens to be implemented in an organic machine. The implied reduction of a person to a robot may fit the human ideal promoted by the military-industrial complex, which funds a lot of this research, but it makes little sense otherwise. Although lots of people play the role of a robot, mostly forced by economic necessity, this is not the only social game humans can play. Indeed, it is the open-ended potential to juggle many different roles and invent new ones on the fly that is truly remarkable, and this human potential is much better addressed when conceiving mind as situated and embodied in biological autonomy.

The concept of the embodied mind goes further than the trivial observation that the content of our experience is shaped by the sense organs of our body. Even a metaphysical mind-body dualist like Descartes could admit that much. The point is rather that our everyday mind is an activity of the living body, such that the structures of the mind cannot be conceived independently of their embodiment. This certainly includes the brain, but the rest of the body, too. There are many ways of supporting this claim. Indeed, the insight that the body is a tool for transforming the mind is an ancient one. Traditional Eastern culture devised many forms of mind-body practices for this purpose, and much traditional culture of the Americas made effective use of botanical compounds. However, in our modern scientific context these ancient traditions are generally viewed with great suspicion, so it is easier to make the point with something that we are more familiar with – technology.

The role of technology in shaping our mind has been widely underappreciated, which is another legacy of a dualist and mechanicist science of life and mind. But when we view the mind as embodied and the living body as situated, then the influence of tools can no longer be ignored. This has the unfortunate effect of considerably complicating the remit of cognitive science, but it also offers us a new method: to use the open-ended potential of technology to devise new human-computer interfaces and to test their effects on the user’s lived experience (Froese, Suzuki, Ogai and Ikegami, in press). In this manner we can start to map out the essential parameters of the embodied mind by studying new exemplars of ‘mind-as-it-could-be’.

One methodological challenge of this research is to properly take the first-person perspective into account. If other scientists want to replicate the findings they need to be trained in the appropriate methods of becoming aware (Froese, Gould and Seth, 2011), and they also need to have access to the relevant hardware in order to induce the appropriate changes in embodiment. My colleagues and I have been working to address this challenge by designing a minimalist sensory substitution interface that can be made widely available as a research platform, the so-called Enactive Torch (Froese and Spiers, 2007). This hand-held device consists of one distance sensor and one vibro-tactile output, and is designed such that one can point at objects and tell their distance by the strength of vibration in the hand. In a systematic study of the effects of using this device to find your way while blindfolded, we found that participants start perceiving objects at a distance from their body, rather than only the vibrations on their skin (Froese, McGann, Bigge, Spiers and Seth, 2012). In other words, the bodily, situated and technologically-mediated activity of exploring and interacting with the environment partially constitutes their first-person experience of that environment.

Sociality

So far the focus of this discussion has been on the life and mind of an isolated individual, but the independence of that individual is only an idealized abstraction. Already in the case of simple living organisms it is not easy to determine where the processes of constitution are located, and the cellular boundary is not a reliable guide (Virgo, Egbert and Froese, 2011). The ‘outer’ boundary of the living is better thought of as a kind of two-way interface across which the process of living is unfolding, and whose purpose is not primarily self-containment but rather regulation of interaction. And, as we have seen, technology can extend and modulate this biological interface. But perhaps the most important way of going beyond isolated individuals is to consider how they are embedded within social processes.

Social processes are both a burden and a blessing. They are a burden because an interaction with other agents can easily take on an autonomous organization of its own, i.e. when the interaction dynamics become self-sustaining, and thereby place constraints on the abilities of the interactors. Agent-based models enable us to study in detail how the dynamics of the interaction process can work against the goals of the individuals (Froese and Di Paolo, 2010). But the constraints imposed by these interaction dynamics can also help to collectively organize the embodiment of the individuals in a beneficial way (Froese and Fuchs, 2012).

Social interaction allows agents to distribute the cognitive load of their behavior, and even enable behavior that would have been impossible to generate for isolated agents (De Jaegher and Froese, 2009). It is therefore likely that this kind of mutual bootstrapping plays an essential role in crossing the developmental ‘cognitive gap’ from lower-level behavior to higher-level cognition (Froese and Di Paolo, 2009). For instance, different scientific and phenomenological sources of evidence suggest that our capacity for detached social cognition about others, e.g. understanding others by reasoning about their mental states, is grounded in our pre-reflective skills for immediate interaction and embodied attunement (Froese and Gallagher, in press).

These ideas stand in stark contrast to the common belief in cognitive science that individual agency is fundamentally independent from interaction with others. It is typically argued that social interaction can at most serve to provide additional input for an information-processing mind that is locked inside the head. But this simplistic idea is unacceptable. Our capacities and actions cannot be divorced from the socio-cultural context in which they are acquired and realized. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the myth of the absolutely self-determined individual. The fact that I am an agent indeed makes me responsible for my actions, but this ‘I’ is a process that spans brain, body, and environmental interactions, as well as being shaped by prevalent socio-cultural conditions (Torrance and Froese, 2011). We all participate in the world in the strongest sense of the word.

Culture

I am a firm supporter of the life-mind continuity thesis, which holds that mind is prefigured in life and that life continues to ground higher-level cognition, and I have suggested that the life-mind continuity is an essentially social phenomenon (Froese and Di Paolo, 2009). And yet it also cannot be denied that the human mind is qualitatively different from the animal mind.

For instance, in contrast to other animals we are born to become experts at abstraction and symbolic thinking (Froese, Ikegami and Beaton, 2012). But in contrast to most cognitive scientists, who unfortunately tend to generalize these abilities as the essential foundation of all behavior and cognition (i.e. symbol manipulation or information-processing), I treat the specificities of the human mind as an outcome of a socio-cultural process (Froese, 2012). The human mind is an enculturated mind. And I suspect that it is also the process of enculturation that is responsible for shaping the animal consciousness with which we are born into another one of our remarkable traits, namely self-awareness.

Much more clearly needs to be said here. Accordingly, I am currently expanding my research into the areas of psychopathology, archeology, anthropology and sociology in order to get a better understanding of the various possible ways of being human and the conditions of their origin.

Tom Froese

Tokyo, May 2, 2012

References

De Jaegher, H. & Froese, T. (2009). On the role of social interaction in individual agency. Adaptive Behavior, 17(5): 444-460

Froese, T. (2011). Breathing new life into cognitive science. Avant. The Journal of the Philosophical-Interdisciplinary Vanguard, 2(1): 113-129

Froese, T. (2012). From adaptive behavior to human cognition: a review of Enaction. Adaptive Behavior, 20(3): 209-221

Froese, T. & Di Paolo, E. A. (2009). Sociality and the life-mind continuity thesis. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8(4): 439-463

Froese, T. & Di Paolo, E. A. (2010). Modeling social interaction as perceptual crossing: An investigation into the dynamics of the interaction process. Connection Science, 22(1): 43-68

Froese, T. & Di Paolo, E. A. (2011). The Enactive Approach: Theoretical Sketches From Cell to Society. Pragmatics & Cognition, 19(1): 1-36

Froese, T. & Fuchs, T. (2012). The extended body: a case study in the neurophenomenology of social interaction. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(2): 205-235

Froese, T. & Gallagher, S. (in press). Getting IT together: Integrating developmental, phenomenological, enactive, and dynamical approaches to social interaction. Interaction Studies, forthcoming

Froese, T., Ikegami, T. & Beaton, M. (2012). Non-Human Primates Cannot Decontextualize and Objectify the Actions of Their Conspecifics. In: T. C. Scott-Phillips, M. Tamariz, E. A. Cartmill & J. R. Hurford (eds.). The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 9th International Conference (EvoLang9), Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, pp. 126-133

Froese, T., Ikegami, T. & Virgo, N. (2012). The Behavior-Based Hypercycle: From Parasitic Reaction to Symbiotic Behavior. In: C. Adami et al. (eds.). Artificial Life XIII: Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in press

Froese, T., McGann, M., Bigge, W., Spiers, A. & Seth, A. K. (in press). The Enactive Torch: A New Tool for the Science of Perception. IEEE Transactions on Haptics, forthcoming

Froese, T. & Spiers, A. (2007). Toward a Phenomenological Pragmatics of Enactive Perception. Enactive/07: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Enactive Interfaces, Grenoble, France: Association ACROE, pp. 105-108

Froese, T., Suzuki, K., Ogai, Y. & Ikegami, T. (in press). Using human-computer interfaces to investigate ‘mind-as-it-could-be’ from the first-person perspective. Cognitive Computation, forthcoming

Froese, T., Virgo, N. & Izquierdo, E. (2007). Autonomy: a review and a reappraisal. In: F. Almeida e Costa, L. M. Rocha, E. Costa, I. Harvey & A. Coutinho (eds.). Advances in Artificial Life: 9th European Conference, ECAL 2007, Berlin, Germany: Springer Verlag, pp. 455-464

Froese, T. & Ziemke, T. (2009). Enactive Artificial Intelligence: Investigating the systemic organization of life and mind. Artificial Intelligence, 173(3-4): 466-500

Torrance, S. & Froese, T. (2011). An inter-enactive approach to agency: Participatory sense-making, dynamics, and sociality. Humana.Mente, 15: 21-53

Virgo, N., Egbert, M. & Froese, T. (2011). The Role of the Spatial Boundary in Autopoiesis. In: G. Kampis, I. Karsai & E. Szathm_ary (eds.). Advances in Artificial Life: Darwin Meets von Neumann. 10th European Conference, ECAL 2009, Berlin, Germany: Springer Verlag, pp. 240-247

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