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Archive for the ‘Pre-event Discussion’ Category

Varela, Thompson and Rosch vs. (?!) Noë and O’Regan

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

I’ve finally got round to working through Varela, Thompson and Rosch, The Embodied Mind (VTR) in detail for the first time.

I find it interesting that Ezequiel has said that he finds Noë and O’Regan’s brand of enactivism (N&O) to be interesting, but in need of more theory. Whereas my reaction, on reading VTR, is similar, but opposite!

I find talk of ‘structural coupling’, ‘operational closure’, etc. to be intriguing, but not natural to me, so I have very little idea how to make it mathematical, and useful; whereas talk of ‘perception as action’, in the N&O sense, is very natural to me, and I do have ideas about how to make it mathematical and useful – indeed, making that aspect of enaction mathematical seems to be the main thrust of Kevin O’Regan’s research work at the moment.

I’ve (just!) said this to Ezequiel and he says that part of the problem is that VTR is mainly a manifesto, and that I should look elsewhere “say, in the BBS paper on the enactive theory of colours, on later work on life and mind continuity, the work on long-range neural synchrony in perception and epilepsy, etc” for more theory.

But I think Ezequiel still downplays the significance of N&O’s variety of enactivism. The question here is about how broad ranging these two, self-styled brands of enactivism are. VTR are certainly trying to link (at least) sciences of mind, evolutionary and developmental biology and mindfulness practices. But how broad ranging is N&O’s work? I hope it is OK to quote Ezequiel, in an off the cuff comment, as saying that it is “an account of sensorimotor factors influencing perceptual experience”. For me, it is much more than that. It is an account of the essential nature of perceptual experience, from both the first and third person. (I tried to say something about how one account can be both first- and third-person in my thesis, and in Qualia and Introspection in JCS.)

I do think a lot of what N&O and VTR say is compatible – and the spirit of what they both say perhaps even more so. But there are points where they seem to me to disagree quite fundamentally. One such is hinted at in the Summer School discussion question I settled on (‘what does experience correspond to?’). Others might be disagreements over the import of J.J. Gibson’s work; or over the relation between experience and understanding; or possibly even over whether there is a self – of course not construed as an essential, intrinsic thing, but at least construed as a process.