Very cool essay - philosophy and neuroscience have been examining the implications of embodied mind, but I have seen little work, until now, about how embodied (embedded) mind might have shaped human evolution.
Turner addresses an interesting issue in cognitive science - something that Antonio Damasio has taken some flack for proposing - in that if humans have embodied cognition, embodied mind, so do other mammals, maybe all mammals. And maybe other species as well.
The question for some is how this impacts the notion of human exceptionalism? For others, the question is how this might change the ways we relate with all of the other species on the planet?
Turner, Mark. (June 23, 2011). The Embodied Mind and the Origins of Human Culture. Cognition and Culture: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue, pp. 13-27, Ana Margarida Abrantes, Peter Hanenberg, eds., Frankfurt & Berlin, 2011. Available at SSRN.
Download and read the whole article as a PDF.
Mark TurnerCase Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science
COGNITION AND CULTURE: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY DIALOGUE, pp. 13-27, Ana Margarida Abrantes, Peter Hanenberg, eds., Frankfurt & Berlin, 2011
The notion of the transcendent disembodied mind has almost disappeared from contemporary cognitive science. But research on the embodied mind faces a central problem: presumably, all mammals have embodied minds, but only cognitively modern human beings have robust culture. An embodied mind is evidently insufficient: A community of embodied minds need not have robust culture. In fact, almost no communities of embodied minds have anything approaching robust culture. How then do we explain the origins and development of culture? Pointing to embodied minds does not point us to an answer. Nor can we look to other species for clues to the origin and nature of culture, given that there are no good animal models for human culture. This article explores an example of rapid cultural innovation during the last many decades, one that is now powerfully influential world-wide. It proposes an explanation for the origin of human culture.
Forty years ago, before the term “cognitive science” came into existence, there was a view broadly held—in logic, philosophy, artificial intelligence, neurobiology—that reason, inference, and some kinds of understanding are transcendent, independent of any incidental platform: computer, brain, whatever. According to this formalist view, thought must be computational, and computation can be described formally, and therefore, the core of human thought must in principle be independent of the physical device that performs the labor. On this view, logical operations as such are independent of hardware.
Today, this previously-attractive notion of the transcendent disembodied mind has almost disappeared from cognitive science. Since brains are built to drive bodies, it is not a surprise that the nature of the body informs the nature of thought. Consider a body evolved for locomotion in an environment that includes a gravity vector. Such a scenario provides a severe constraint, an embodiment constraint, running across insects, fish, mammals.
In retrospect, it is astonishing how far the scientific Zeitgeist has swung. A new generation arrives, and enthusiasm sets off in a different direction.
The Central Problem
If minds are embodied, we face a central problem, the one I want to discuss today.Presumably, mammals all have embodied minds.All mammals have basic mammalian bodies and basic mammalian brains. Presumably, all mammals, to the extent that they have minds at all, have embodied minds, with mental operations for driving their mammalian bodies.
But evidently, an embodied mind is only the beginning:All mammals have embodied minds, but only cognitively modernAn embodied mind is evidently insufficient: A community of embodied minds need not have robust culture. In fact, almost no communities of embodied minds have anything approaching robust culture. How then do we explain the origins and development of culture? Pointing to embodied minds does not point us to an answer.
human beings have robust culture.
The Human Mind is Not Built To See Into The Human Mind
There is a second problem in attempting to account for the existence of culture. Commonsense notions—easy hypotheses, widely found in café philosophy, ready to hand, hypotheses readily available to aspiring cognitive scientists—have proved again and again to be comprehensively wrong. The hardest task in cognitive science is to see past everyday ideas to a well-digested, well-cogitated hypothesis. Hypotheses in cognitive science are a dime a dozen if one takes them from the surrounding culture, including the surrounding academic culture, but intelligent hypotheses have proved to be few and far between. The challenge in cognitive science is to have a good idea, to form a hypothesis worthy of being checked against available data. Checking a misconceived hypothesis against so-called data is what we used to call GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out,” for a variety of reasons, most prominently that data are themselves not conception neutral. If one categorizes data according to unrefined notions—e.g., here is syllogistic reasoning, here is social reasoning, and they are opposed—then correlations across events in the data merely echo the facile conceptions used to organize them. One can do a lot of statistical analysis on such so-called data sets, and show various levels of significance, without actually doing any science. Successful cognitive scientists have needed instead to train themselves to do mental backflips: they are trying to use human powers of mind to explain human powers of mind, and this has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. It’s not just that our minds are not designed to look into themselves with accuracy. It’s that our minds are designed not to look into themselves. Almost all the heavy lifting in human thought and action appears to be done in the backstage of the mind, in ways that feeble consciousness is powerless to see, much less conduct. What we see in consciousness is not thought but the smallest tip of the iceberg—usually a simple, compressed product of thought, something to keep us going.
The human brain has perhaps 10 to 100 billion (1011) neurons. The average number of synaptic connections per neuron is perhaps ten thousand (104). The total number of connections in the brain is therefore maybe ten trillion to a quadrillion (1014-1015). 1015 connections are about ten thousand times as many stars as astronomers think might be in the entire Milky Way galaxy (1011). Ten thousand Milky Ways, inside your head. All those connections, inside your head, in a system weighing about 1.4 kilograms, working, working, working. The timing and phases of firing in neuronal groups, the suites of neuronal development in the brain, the electrochemical effect of neurotransmitters on receptors, the scope and mechanisms of neurobiological plasticity—all going on, in ways we cannot even begin to see directly. The only time we are likely even to sense that our mental system is so complicated is when something goes wrong—as when someone’s language degrades because of stroke, or our field of vision starts to swim because of food poisoning.
Let’s take some examples.