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The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience Paperback – Nov 13 1992
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One of the main difficulties of the science of the mind is to explain how consciousness is possible without there being a transcendental Self that is the receptacle for all experience or a transcendental "I" that accompanies all experience. The Embodied Mind blends insights from cognitive neuroscience and the Buddhist theory of mind to show how consciousness is possible without any self at all! The book is tremendously helpful in sparing us the illusion that there is a "mind's 'I'."(Owen Flanagan, Class of 1919 Professor, Wellesley College)
Our concern is to open a space of possibilities in which the circulation between cognitive science and human experience can be fully appreciated and to foster the transformative possibilities of human experience in a scientific culture.(the authors)
The Embodied Mind is a thoroughly original integration of cognitive science, continental philosophy, and Buddhist thought, and in its transpersonal dimension, rather beautiful.(Gordon G. Globus, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Philosophy, University of California, Irvine)
An important book with wideranging implications for the construction of subjectivity in the Western tradition. Moreover, it is engagingly written, presenting difficult ideas and complex research programs with grace, lucidity, and style.(N. Katherine Hayles American Book Review)
About the Author
Francisco Varela is Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique and Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology, CREA, at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.
Eleanor Rosch is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
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The writers of this book, which was first published in 1991, were a "dream team" of philosopher, psychologist, and neuroscientist (the late, great Francisco Varela). They wrote for a professional audience. An interested layperson having some familiarity with philosophy of mind issues can keep up, but only with much effort; I had to stop several times to look up a term or research an important concept. But it's worth the effort. You will review a wide variety of interesting ideas and be shown how they relate to one other, including neural networks, societies of mind, object-relations psychoanalysis, adaptive resource theory, multi-chromatic vision, evolutionary drift, nihilism, the delusion of "self", and much more.
And you will also read about Buddhism. The authors introduce Buddhist concepts every second or third chapter, noting the parallels between ancient thought and modern science (and the failures of western philosophy). Yes, this does remind one of Capra`s Tao of Physics, although the conceptual juxtapositions aren't as forced. The two biggest problems that cognitive science present for western thought involve the failure to integrate and account for subjective experience, and an increasing sense of social groundlessness as science and history reveal the world to be mostly "relative". Varela and his team believe that these problems lie at the root of a major social crisis that is now being felt in the developed world, i.e. a growing sense of nihilism. When despair and confusion become prevalent and our enemies are at the gates, can the new dark ages be far behind?
The response to this gathering storm, the authors argue, can be found in the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition. However, this isn't your father's Buddhism. Varela and company have cleaned it of any supernatural accretions such as hungry ghosts, cosmic nirvana and reincarnation. And although karma is discussed, its definition is narrowed so that it could appear in any graduate textbook on psychology without objection.
The Buddhism presented in this book appears to be fully compatible with our modern scientific viewpoint. Through awareness meditation techniques, subjective experience can be grasped and integrated in a way consistent with empiricism. And in that grasping, we can learn to stop grasping. (Love those eastern paradoxes). Instead of fighting the relativity introduced over time by Einstein, quantum physics, psychoanalysis, evolution, complexity theory and cognitive research, we can learn to embrace the end of grounding. Our science can be enriched through "embodiment", expanding science's conceptual boundaries so as to embrace subjective experience without losing precision and explanatory power. And we ourselves can learn to give up the unsustainable concept of "self" and become more open-hearted and compassionate (those words are used more than once by the authors). We can work with our everyday experiences in ways that are "liberating and transformative".
I've read some professional reviews of this book, most notably by the famous neuro-philosopher Daniel Dennett. They focus on the many technical and research-oriented discussions, and generally ignore the chapters on liberation and compassion. There is so much here regarding the techniques and directions of cognitive research that one can easily ignore the hub and concentrate on the spokes.
The cognitive field appears to have responded to these spokes, i.e. to the need to take "embodiment" and subjective experience more seriously. Neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman have discussed the need to conceptualize consciousness in light of the overall human body and its "stay alive" dynamics. Even arch-representationalist Dennett became interested in "hetrophenomenology", which seeks to document a person's subjective feelings and impressions, though not without a certain distance and skepticism.
But getting back to the axis of this book - i.e. saving the world - I will now attempt to go where better minds than my own have feared to tread. First off, one can sense a truly good intent on the part of these authors. They pictured a bridge between eastern and western ideas that could allegedly convey our half-civilized, half-atavistic species toward a more mature state of collective mind and individual being. They honestly felt that brain research had reached the point where it had something earthshaking to say to humankind, once catalyzed through the wisdom of the east. They wrote this book with a sincere sense of hope and purpose. Books like this are rare, especially in the cognitive science field.
Unfortunately, science and critical thought are not compatible with the Buddhist notions presented in this book, however denuded of supernaturalism. The authors call Buddhism a "case study" regarding the positive social effects of embracing groundlessness. Unfortunately, they don't provide a citation to that case study. I'm sure that awareness meditation, the annihilation of self, and the cessation of grasping desire have helped many people to live better lives. But as to whether it works on the scale of a particular culture, or nation, or for humankind as a whole - can we answer that question? And even if we can, what would the side-effects be? Less innovation and economic wealth? Or extreme exploitation by a cabal of charlatans, as happened with Communism? We won't be fooled again? Although Buddhism is not a religion in the same sense as Christianity and Islam, Varela and company still urge a leap of faith upon the reader.
I would recommend this book to anyone even vaguely interested in the issues of the mind - but be ready for a long, tough slog. Despite all the cold technical jargon and talk of emptiness, a sincere human warmth and idealism eventually comes forth. It's kind of like listening to John Lennon's Imagine - except that these authors couldn't expect nearly the payday (and possessions) that Lennon got for his Utopian formula.
The authors of this book are attempting to do many things all at once: to chart a middle path between objectivism and subjectivism, find a solution to the problem of nihilism that attends the collapse of objectivism and belief in a unified self, combine the insights of modern neuroscience with the insights of what they call the mindfulness/meditation traditions of Buddhism, and to present their own embodied/enactive research program and contrast it with other research programs in cognitive science. The authors are fairly successful in all of their tasks, although I think they are more successful in some than in others.
I am not going to try to outline the whole book. I am simply going to point out why I think this book is a really important work even for those who are not necessarily interested in the philosophy of mind. I think the authors of this book are grappling with what I consider to be the most important philosophical problems at our current historical moment. These are problems relating to realism and anti-realism in the philosophy of science, reductionism and anti-reductionism, foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, nihilism, and our understanding of our own identity in light of developments in modern neuroscience. I am a graduate student in philosophy and these are the questions that are lighting up the academy at the moment, and they are the questions along which dividing lines are being drawn. You are either a realist or an anti-realist (witness the new "speculative realism" that is gaining momentum in Continental philosophy), a reductionist or an anti-reductionist, you either believe in meaning or you believe in the semantic apocalypse (a term I have stolen from R. Scott Bakker's interesting book Neuropath). Battle lines are being drawn and it is (apparently) necessary to choose a side.
These debates are not confined within the academy. These are pressing questions that non-philosophers are interested in as well. What room is there for traditional religious belief in the light of modern science? What is the status of our everyday self-understanding in the light of modern science? This book is primarily a book on the philosophy of mind, but it is grappling in a profound way with all of these wider questions, and, I think, the authors chart precisely the path that needs to be followed in dealing with these questions. They are following the advice of the Buddhists and charting a middle path between all the positions and their anti-positions.
I will just give one example of how they do this. The notion that there is a self-identical self that underlies all of our various acts of cognition and all of our experience is currently under attack from neuroscience. This has led to a really strong reaction, especially from philosophers, who have attempted to temper neurosciences claims, or question its methods. In my opinion, philosophy (at least Continental philosophy) has tended to adopt a fairly reactionary standpoint in relation to neuroscience. The problem I see with this stance is that it cuts off insights flowing from neuroscience since neuroscience is often treated as if it was the enemy rather than a possible source of new insights. I do not think that is a viable path though the fear may be legitimate. The fear is that neuroscience is going to reduce the self out of existence along with a lot of other things like meaning. This fear is beautifully illustrated in the novel Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker which I already referenced. If you want to know why so many philosophers are so afraid of neuroscience I would definitely recommend reading R. Scott Bakker's book. R. Scott Bakker essentially takes the reductionist argument to its logical conclusion and the world he creates is a nightmare.
So, the tendency has been to try to defend some irreducible realm (first-person experience, meaning, self-identity) from the reductionist tendencies of neuroscience. I think that is a losing battle. The authors of this book choose a different path. Rather than rejecting the insights of neuroscience, they combine them with the insights of Buddhism. Buddhism has been proclaiming the illusion of self-identity for a long time but, according to the Buddhists, the insight into the selflessness of all existence does not lead to nihilism. It leads to enlightenment. So what constitutes the difference? Why does one view lead to the nightmare world of the psychopath, and the other lead to enlightenment? Well, to simplify the thesis of the authors a great deal, the neuroscientist does not take groundlessness far enough. The reductionist is treating the self as an object like any other object but has not achieved the insight into the groundlessness of the object itself.
The phenomenologists and objectivists are just adopting two sides of the same coin. The phenomenologist attempts to rescue the self from reduction by having the subject constitute the object, while the objectivist reduces the self out of existence in favor of the object. The embodied/enactive approach outlined in this book adopts the middle path by treating the self and object as codependently arising. The authors give a very interesting example of the coevolution of the wasp and the flower in order to illustrate the codependent origination of cognition and object. Neither is ground for the other. This calls for some really fundamental alterations in the dominant research program in cognitive science. The standard research program in cognitive science tends to be "How does the mind represent a pre-given world?" From the embodied/enactive approach there is no pre-given world that cognition has to represent. The authors of the book analyze in detail the phenomena of color vision and conclude that there is not really anything that corresponds to our color distinctions in the real world. These are distinctions that we construct in our effort to get along in the world. The subject and object are interdependent. This rescues the relative truth in both standpoints.
Obviously a lot more could be said. This is, clearly, a very inadequate summary of the authors approach. I genuinely believe, however, that the authors research program in this book is not only the best available research program for cognitive science (in full disclosure: philosophy of mind and cognitive science are not my areas of expertise), I also think the authors outline the only possible path in relation to the problems of realism/anti-realism, reductionism/anti-reductionism, and nihilism, that are the current focus of so much philosophical debate. That is why I think this book is such an important book even if philosophy of mind is not your primary interest.
For example, Varela continuously states the 'groundlessness' of being to the point where it seems to be the core of his philosophical fixation. But then when turning to the subject of ethics, he seems to not notice the contradiction between the negation of any 'ground', and the the subtle, though necessary act of POSITING which Buddhism engages in assuming that "compassion" spontaneously emerges in the 'enlightened mind'.
The naivete in this view is astounding in light of modern attachment research and developmental psychology. Varela, appears to be too tendentiously 'stuck' on groundlessness to notice the problem.
The problem is the act of positing. At one moment he says there is no ground and no referent, YET, he is obviously relying upon a referent by positing a 'middle way', and claiming that 'compassion arises spontaneuously in the enlightened mind'.
A simple issue being ignored is the FUNDAMENTAL relational quality - and purpose - of human emotion. As attachment research shows, without an 'other' - a caregiver, mother, or some other human being - emotions don't develop and neither does the self. Varela ignores this because his purposes are different. Just like any other human being, he has needs, and his needs are more evolved - sophisticated - as philosophical notions. But nevertheless, they are needs: need to control the anxieties, fears and apprehension of meaninglessness.
While I completely agree with the non-linear approach and the validity of 'dependent emergence", the fact remains, if we want any ASSOCIATION with the world outside of ourselves, we are inevitably dependent on the REALITY of the other. In other words, for the human self and the human mind interested in a meaningful relation with others, you need to:
a) acknowledge the reality of the other
b) moor your cognitive processes to an appreciation of the other
Even the Buddha had a mother, and without a mother who provided a "working model" for compassionate awareness, the Buddha wouldn't have been the Buddha.
There is something tendentious in Varelas narrative which in my mind only confirms my own beliefs in the human predicament: how desperately we need the "other" to give our lives meaning and purpose. You cannot escape the other; you can try to hide from it and introduce its impact sideways by claiming "compassion arises spontaneously", but it just doesn't. As any psychotherapist knows, compassion emerges only in relation with an other. For those souls unfortunate enough to enter life without a compassionate face/voice reflecting and constructing compassion in the recesses of your heart, it'll require a relationship, a KNOWING with an other, for it's vitality to enter your being.
So, in that sense, I disagree with the notion of groundlessness. While I agree that behind all our associations is a dissociation - a "blankness" and an "emptiness" behind all that is; if we seek association, we can only find meaning in the properties that emerge from the associations.
Even the earth, where our lives unfold, was once a jagged rock floating in the infinite emptiness of space before gravitational forces compelled it into a spheroid. The earth exists because of its associations with the objects around it. Likewise, we exist, because of the associations that preceded our evolution.
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