Sensorimotor theory and enactivism


The sensorimotor theory of perceptual consciousness offers a form of enactivism in that it stresses patterns of interaction instead of any alleged internal representations of the environment. But how does it relate to forms of enactivism stressing the continuity between life and mind (and more particularly autopoiesis, autonomy, and valence)? We shall distinguish sensorimotor enactivism, which stresses perceptual capacities themselves, from autopoietic enactivism, which claims a necessary connection between experience and autopoietic processes or associated background capacities. We show how autopoiesis, autonomous agency, and affective dimensions of experience may fit into sensorimotor enactivism, and we identify differences between this interpretation and autopoietic enactivism. By discussing artificial consciousness we further sharpen the distinction between sensorimotor enactivism and autopoietic enactivism. We argue that sensorimotor enactivism forms a strong default position for an enactive account of perceptual consciousness. 1 SENSORIMOTOR THEORY Sensorimotor theory makes a constitutive claim: perceptual consciousness is constituted by the exercise of sensorimotor capacitie [9]. In this paper we discuss how the theory relates to forms of enactivism stressing the continuity between life and mind, and more particularly autopoiesis, autonomy, and valence (e.g., [11]). We shall distinguish sensorimotor enactivism from autopoietic enactivism and we discuss whether, given a focus on capacities, there are reasons to embrace autopoietic enactivism. 1.1. Perceptual capacities Perceptual consciousness, sensorimotor theory claims, lies in the exercise of perceptual capacities, not in any internal representation or dualistic ‘je ne sais quoi’ that may be thought to accompany them. A perceptual capacity should be understood as the capacity for being attuned to aspects of an obtaining sensorimotor situation, that is as having mastery of the current sensorimotor dependencies linking possible actions and resulting changes in sensory input. Note that patterns of sensorimotor dependencies can be defined at various levels of abstraction. For example, some patterns are already present at short timescales, concerning immediate sensory consequences of movement, while others are only actualized in the extended exploration of objects [6]. It is often far from evident which patterns we engage with, as can be seen for example in [10] analysis of some patterns relevant to color vision. Note also that capacities develop and change gradually over time. To explain which sensorimotor dependencies we are attuned to, we must therefore consider the history of our sensorimotor interactions. 1 Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception, Université Paris Descartes, France. Email :; Biases in action as well as bodily and environmental constraints create biases in the occurring sensorimotor dependencies, thereby affecting the sensorimotor dependencies that an agent, be it biological or artifical, has the opportunity to become attuned to. 1.2. Conscious experience Sensorimotor theory claims that the particular quality of experience, e.g. what makes an experience the experience of red, lies in particular patterns of sensorimotor engagement. But a further question can be asked about the conditions under which we can we speak of conscious experience at all. Merely having a perceptual capacity doesn’t imply consciousness (as an example, take the sensorimotor capacity of a missile guidance system). Consciousness additionally requires that the sensitivity to the environment should potentially be useable in (rational) planning, thought, and in the case of typical human adults, verbal report [9, 8]. In humans, verbal report and the acting out of plans based on our experience expresses conscious experience. However, intuitively at least, adding a capacity for verbal report or planning to a machine doesn’t suffice for us to be willing to ascribe consciousness to the machine, certainly not as long as the range of capacities remains severely restricted. It would seem that something more is required before we would speak of conscious experience; what could this be? Could it be simply more perceptual capacities, or do we need non-perceptual capacities such as the self-producing capacities of living organisms that (unlike planning, thought, or speech) do not express the perceptual capacities. In the next section we shall introduce autopoiesis, and two kinds of enactivism making different claims about which are the relevant capacities for speaking of conscious experience. 2 LIFE-MIND CONTINUITY: AUTOPOIESIS IN TWO KINDS OF ENACTIVISM Within a broadly enactive approach, mental phenomena are considered to be an aspect of our lives as biological organisms (e.g. [4, 11, 12]) To understand human mental phenomena is to understand the way our living bodies engage with the environment. 2.1. Autopoiesis A central concept in many enactive theories is autopoiesis [5]. Living organisms are spontaneously active, self-maintaining and self-producing systems, and it has been proposed that we should understand our phenomenology in light of this self-creating or ‘autopoietic’ organization. More particularly, an organism lives under precarious conditions – without its activity, its organization breaks down – the organism must adapt to the environment in order to continue its autopoietic organization [2, 3]. The more sophisticated forms of human mental life, including our most advanced perceptual capacities, may be considered as extending our basic adaptive autopoietic activity. 2.2. Sensorimotor enactivism and autopoietic enactivism Autopoiesis can be considered as a kind of interaction with the environment, but how does it relate to consciousness? In particular: which (interactive) properties of a system are relevant for the ascription of consciousness. We distinguish two mutually exclusive kinds of enactivism, which we define as follows: Sensorimotor enactivism puts only perceptual capacities center-stage, by claiming that perceptual consciousness can be understood without further appeal to factors outside the domain of perceptual interactions. Autopoietic processes are then only relevant for perceptual experience in so far as they impact on the perceptual capacities themselves. Autopoietic enactivism puts autopoietic processes centerstage, potentially relegating perceptual capacities to a secondary role. More specifically, autopoietic enactivism claims that there is a necessary connection between conscious experience and autopoietic processes or associated background capacities. On this view, to explain perceptual consciousness we have to appeal to factors outside the domain of recognizably perceptual interactions. Which of these enactivisms forms the best framework for understanding consciousness? A good way to proceed for answering this question, we suggest, is to take sensorimotor enactivism as the default position, to investigate what if anything is missing. After all, sensorimotor enactivism appeals to a more restricted range of processes compared to autopoietic enactivism, so that we may ask what the latter has to offer that the former hasn’t. 3 AUTONOMOUS AGENCY, AFFECTIVE EXPERIENCE, AND ARTIFICIAL

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@inproceedings{Degenaar2014SensorimotorTA, title={Sensorimotor theory and enactivism}, author={Jan Degenaar and Kevin N. O’Regan}, year={2014} }