This is the abstract of a talk prepared for the International interdisciplinary seminar on new robotics, evolution and embodied cognition (IISREEC).12th to 15th November 2002, Lisbon, Portugal
Abstract: Dynamics, embodiment and situatedness are widely advertised as having radical implications for the sciences of the mind. Sceptics, however, have pointed out that the most radical such implications seem confined to a small class of cases. These are cases involving the dense, time-pressured, coupled unfolding of a behavior, typically regulated by an ongoing perceptual link with some external goings-on. For example, reaching for a visually presented object, returning a tennis serve, and so on. But such cases, the sceptic insists, are cognitively marginal. The proper explanatory targets for the sciences of genuinely mental activity, they suggest, involve thought and reason that targets distal, absent, highly abstract, or even impossible, states of affairs. Good explanatory frameworks for the highly coupled cases look less promising, it is claimed, in these more rarified arenas.
I examine this argument and find it less compelling than I once believed. In particular, it is flawed by a conflation of two distinct properties. The first is the property of disengagement (reason operating in the absence of itıs ultimate target, as when we think of that which is not close to hand). The second is disembodiment (reason operating without the kinds of dense perceptually-saturated couplings that most obviously reward treatment in dynamical and situated terms). I shall argue that high-level reason is embodied even when (and indeed most strongly when) it is disengaged. The most obvious examples being when we use real-world models, diagrams and other concrete external symbols to create conditions of (what I shall call) surrogate situatedness. In such cases, we reason about what is not at hand by means of dense looping interactions with a variety of stable external structures that stand in for absent states of affairs.
A good hard look at surrogate situatedness turns the standard skeptical challenge on its head. But it raises important residual questions concerning what really matters about these new approaches (in particular, it undermines a certain view of the role of simple temporal constraints). And it helps focus what I see as a major challenge for the future, viz, how to conceptualize the role of symbols (both internal and external) in dynamical cognitive processes.