Thursday, 30 May 2019

Extended Consciousness and Predictive Processing

This post is by Michael D. Kirchhoff and Julian Kiverstein. They present their recent book, Extended Consciousness and Predictive Processing: a Third Way.

Kirchhoff is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He has edited a special issue of Synthese on Predictive Brains and Embodied, Enactive Cognition. His research spans across topics in philosophy of mind and cognition, philosophy of neuroscience, and theoretical biology. He is currently a member of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project exploring the explanatory basis of minds in skillful performance.

Julian Kiverstein is Senior Researcher in Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. He has published extensively on philosophy of 4e cognition and phenomenologically-inspired philosophy of mind. He is currently a member of an interdisciplinary project investigating changes in lived experience of patients being treated with deep brain stimulation for obsessive compulsive disorder.

In our book we defend the thesis of the extended consciousness: the view that a person’s conscious mental life, in addition to nonconscious standing states like beliefs, can be constituted by processes that extend beyond the boundary separating the brain from the body and the rest of the world. We defend the thesis of extended consciousness by weaving together predictive processing and third-wave extended mind.

Predictive processing provides a probabilistic and prediction-driven framework within which to make sense of the processes and mechanisms that explain consciousness. We provide a novel perspective on predictive processing staking out our own position within the debate surrounding the extended mind. 

We take the mind to be constituted diachronically, and as having a boundary that is neither fixed nor stable but fragile and hard-won, and always open to negotiation. This framing of predictive processing leads us to defend the following theses about the explanatory and metaphysical basis of consciousness:

  1. Predictive processing casts agents as generative models of their environment. A generative model is a probabilistic structure that generates predictions about the causes of sensory stimuli. The ongoing tuning and maintenance of the generative model by active inference entails the dynamic entanglement of the agent and environment.
  2. There is no single, fixed and permanent boundary separating the inner conscious mind from the outside world. The boundary separating conscious beings from the outside world is fluid and actively constructed through embodied activity.
  3. The predictive processes that lead to conscious experience do not only unfold within the individual but are mediated and permeated by cultural practice. The individual agent is thus better thought of as locus of coordination where the process of coordination is partly driven by cultural practices. Cultural practices are thus part of the constitutive basis of some forms of conscious experience.
  4. Adopting this third-wave perspective on predictive processing has as a consequence a new metaphysics of the constitution of conscious experience as diachronic, not synchronic. The generative model has a deep temporal structure that is necessary for phenomenal consciousness. We show how it follows from diachronic constitution that the agent and the wider cultural niche cannot be cleanly unplugged from one another in a way that would allow for a purely neural explanation of consciousness.
What are the implication of the arguments of our book for the philosophy of psychiatry and imperfect cognitions, more generally? In predictive processing, perceptual experience is sometimes described as controlled hallucination. The implication of this view of conscious experience is that the boundaries between perceiving, fantasising, imagining and full-blown hallucinating is not a fixed and sharp boundary. But what is doing the work of controlling and constraining the processes of inference? 

We would argue this work can be distributed across the brain, body, world boundary, and that practices can do part of the work of orchestrating the self-organising process of constructing perceptual experience. This raises the intriguing possibility we hope to explore in future work that imperfections in predictive processing can arise due to the contributions of factors external to individual nervous systems.

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