Restarting the Cognition Futures Reading Group, April 21
Brief notes from Week One of our 2022 installment of CFRG
We restarted the Cognition Futures Reading Group (CFRG) this past week (April 21) by examining the quest for tractable approaches to neurophenomenology and a motivating critique of methodological sophistication in contemporary Cognitive Science. Amanda Nelson served as our guide through the week’s readings. The attendees were: Amanda Nelson, Jesse Parent, and Bradly Alicea
Kristian Martiny questions if Cognitive Science has embraced embodiment enough, and suggests that according to Varela’s own standards, the dis-embodying influence of traditional Cognitive Science efforts fall short. He also mentions the challenges of interweaving first and third person perspectives, suggesting the audiovisual medium as one that may contribute to methodological shortcomings of interviews and other approaches.
As a note, we wonder how Yann LeCun’s quest for unsupervised learning and the current aims of first-person video footage processing mixed with XR at Meta will play out.
Then we began looking at On Becoming Aware, by Natalie Depraz, Francisco Varela, and Pierre Vermersch, with Amanda Nelson guiding us through the book’s Introduction. Our discussion covered standard criticisms of their work, in addition to motivating discussion in future sessions.
Discussion points & noted concepts
- Cybernetics and the relevance of third-order cybernetics, or an approach to cybernetic regulation that takes the active participation of an observer into account.
- Review of the 4 Es in (embodied, embedded, enactive, and externalized) CogSci. How are they talked about? What do they mean specifically? Remarks about niche construction, offloading, Andy Clark’s examples of notebook / amnesia
- What empirical methods allow us to probe first person experience, and what methods allow us to observe interactions between a system state and observers of that system? How do we integrate these methods from across a wide variety of Cognitive Science subfields and analytical scales?
- Do Depraz, Varela, and Vermersch address potential or preemptive critiques of their approach in a comprehensive manner?
- Implementation possibilities. For example, how can we model or experimentally test the 4Es, or integrate experiences via third-order cybernetics into computational agents?
Below are select quotes from the reading materials
Varela’s Radical Proposal: How to Embody and Open Up Cognitive Science
Kristian Moltke Martiny, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Context • The scientific landscape of cognitive science is today influenced, as are other areas of science, by the open science movement, which is seen, for instance, in the recently launched Open MIND project. > Problem • More than 25 years ago Varela introduced the idea of opening up cognitive science. He called for a radical transformation of values, training and ways to conduct cognitive science. Yet, his radical proposal has been neglected in the discussions in cognitive science. > Method • I describe Varela’s proposal by revisiting his philosophical arguments, his embodied and enactive view of cognition, and the methods he proposed as an alternative, namely the neurophenomenological and the second-person method. > Results • I show how cognitive scientists neglect Varela’s proposal, because as scientists we are part of a scientific tradition and community that has not developed a research practice that enables us to integrate his proposal. I discuss different attempts to integrate the proposal into the research practice of cognitive science using the phenomenological interview, and argue for an even more radical approach. > Implications • If we, as cognitive scientists, do not develop “how” we do cognitive science and change the scientific community we are embedded in, we will not be able to open up cognitive science and fully address the experiential, embodied and enactive aspects of cognition. Varela’s radical proposal for how to do so is therefore as important today as ever. > Key words • Cognitive science, embodying the mind, enaction, phenomenological interview, intersubjective validation
Martiny on Varela’s Neurophenomenology
Varela introduced the research method of neurophenomenology as a way to tackle the so-called “hard” problem of consciousness in cognitive science. The idea was to develop methodological sophistication. he development of more and more sophisticated technologies, techniques and methods of the empirical disciplines within cognitive science (e.g., brain imaging), requires more fine-grained descriptions of corresponding experience in order for scientists to make sense of, for example, the neural recordings of such experience. We therefore need to develop more and more sophisticated ways of drawing phenomenological discriminations and descriptions of the phenomena we aim to study. According to Varela, a mutual constraint should exist between first-person and third-person methods in validating both subjective reports and empirical data.
However, I have argued that these attempts are not radical enough, according to Varela’s own standards, and that his radical proposal to embody cognition has been neglected due to the disembodying nature of cognitive science, its tradition, values, community, and research practice. he point being, that if we, as cognitive scientists, do not develop “how” we do cognitive science and change the scientific community we are embedded in, we will not be able to open up cognitive science and fully address the embodied and enactive aspects of cognition.
On Becoming Aware
Setting the table
What are we up to? In this book we seek the sources and means for a disciplined practical approach to exploring human experience. Since that’s already quite a program, please be patient while we explain what we mean.
An expected critique
Don’t you know that contemporary philosophers have shown that experience is not something that can be “explored”?[…]
The skeptical reader will no doubt want to raise perhaps the most fundamental objection to our inquiry, namely: “How do you know that by exploring experience with a method you are not, in fact, deforming or even creating what you claim to ‘experience’? Experience being what it is, what is the possible meaning of your so-called ‘examination’ of it?”