Autonomy and Enactivism

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I have finished the last revision of journal paper entitle “Autonomy and Enactivism“. It explores the conceptual tension between the concept of autonomy (self-organized closure of neural activity) and the sensorimotor constitution of cognition. I have long witnesses a generalized confusion, whose roots I explore in the paper, between two major schools of enactivism (the cognitive science paradigm that focuses on sensorimotor coupling and self-organized dynamics of brain, body and environment). On the one hand what I have called “sensorimotor enactivism”, a school that has gained momentum thanks to the work of Alva Noë and Kevin O’Regan on sensorimotor contingencies. On the other hand what I have called “autonomist enactivism” with a particular focus on biological embodiment and the self-organized nature of brain and body. The gap between both schools has being growing recently, partly motivated by the lack of a clear notion of sensorimotorly constituted neurodynamic autonomy. Building upon the work I have been doing with my colleagues (Di Paolo, Buhrman, Santos, Aguilera and Bedia) during the last years I hope to have contributed to the compatibility and mutual reinforcement between both schools of thought. It is a long paper, and the contribution does not limit to a historical or contingent dispute between schools of thought: the reconciliation demands to develope a theory of sensorimotor autonomous agency and touches upon foundational aspects of cognitive science, from the emergence of norms to the epistemology of mechanistic explanations.

ABSTRACT: The concept of “autonomy”, once at the core of the original enactivist proposal in The Embodied Mind (Varela et al. 1991), is nowadays ignored or neglected by some of the most prominent contemporary enactivists approaches. Theories of autonomy, however, come to fill a theoretical gap that sensorimotor accounts of cognition cannot ignore: they provide a naturalized account of normativity and the resources to ground the identity of a cognitive subject in its specific mode of organization. There are, however, good reasons for the contemporary neglect of autonomy as a relevant concept for enactivism. On the one hand, the concept of autonomy has too often been assimilated into autopoiesis (or basic autonomy in the molecular or biological realm) and the implications are not always clear for a dynamical sensorimotor approach to cognitive science. On the other hand, the foundational enactivist proposal displays a metaphysical tension between the concept of operational closure (autonomy), deployed as constitutive, and that of structural coupling (sensorimotor dynamics); making it hard to reconcile with the claim that experience is sensorimotorly constituted. This tension is particularly apparent when Varela et al. propose Bittorio (a 1D cellular automata) as a model of the operational closure of the nervous system as it fails to satisfy the required conditions for a sensorimotor constitution of experience. It is, however, possible to solve these problems by re-considering autonomy at the level of sensorimotor neurodynamics. Two recent robotic simulation models are used for this task, illustrating the notion of strong sensorimotor dependency of neurodynamic patterns, and their networked intertwinment. The concept of habit is proposed as an enactivist building block for cognitive theorizing, re-conceptualizing mental life as a habit ecology, tied within an agent’s behaviour generating mechanism in coordination with its environment. Norms can be naturalized in terms of dynamic, interactively self-sustaining, coherentism. This conception of autonomous sensorimotor agency is put in contrast with those enactive approaches that reject autonomy or neglect the theoretical resources it has to offer for the project of naturalizing minds.
KEYWORDS: Autonomy; enactivism; operational closure of the nervous system; sensorimotor constitution of experience; mental life; habit; sensorimotor autonomous agency; autonomist sensorimotor enactivism.

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