Perception, Consciousness, and Skilful Interaction
According to the sensorimotor approach, perceptual experience should not be identified with neural activity, as it standardly is, but instead with bodily skill-driven interactive encounters with the outside environment.
The central motivation for this understanding is that it makes perception and consciousness more intelligible. In particular, it helps explain the phenomenal character of conscious experiences — for example the character of perception as opposed to thought, vision as opposed to other perceptual modalities, and one colour as opposed to another — by appealing to our implicit mastery of regularities present in our bodily interactions with the environment. And, according to some proponents of the sensorimotor approach, it helps account in a related fashion for the very existence of consciousness.
The sensorimotor approach is associated in particular with an influential paper by Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noë (2001), later work by those authors and others (e.g. Noë, 2004; 2012; Hurley and Noë, 2003; O’Regan, Myin and Noë, 2005; O’Regan, 2011), and earlier work by Susan Hurley (1998). It can be situated amongst a large network of theoretical ancestors and cousins, bearing in particular a close relation to Gibsonian ecological psychology (e.g. Gibson, 1979) and enactivist cognitive science (e.g. Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 1991; Thompson, 2007; Stewart, Gapenne and Di Paolo, 2014).
This special issue showcases a selection of the work currently being done to develop the approach.
Dave Ward’s paper discusses the work of Susan Hurley, whose two-level interdependence account offers a philosophically and empirically motivated proposal concerning the essential interdependence of perception and agency, both construed as depending on sensorimotor interactions. Hurley’s work, as Ward comments, deserves attention from all those interested in sensorimotor accounts, and this paper offers an insightful exegesis which will be useful for readers familiar with Hurley’s work as well as those seeking an accessible entry point.
Kevin O’Regan’s paper outlines the sensorimotor approach as he currently formulates it, marking a progression from both his earlier collaboration with Alva Noë and his more recent book. The paper summarizes some of the recent scientific evidence that has given support to the theory and introduces some conceptual apparatuses — scientifically-tractable notions of ‘self’ and ‘mental manipulation’ — that O’Regan proposes allow us to account naturalistically for the character and existence of consciousness, as well as to entertain the realistic possibility of conscious robots.
Alva Noë, in his contribution, cashes out his ‘actionist’ version of the sensorimotor approach as ‘sensorimotor integrationism’. Noë here underlines the need to consider phenomenal qualities not as ‘atoms’ but as irreducibly embedded in a web of expectations driven by features of our mental lives such as emotion and self-narrative as well as sensorimotor skills. In an interesting divergence from O’Regan’s version of the approach, Noë makes clear that his account rules out the possibility of machine consciousness, and is to be understood as pre-supposing the existence of consciousness rather than explaining it.
The next section of the special issue picks up this thread. Contributions by Julian Kiverstein and Erik Myin both use the sensorimotor approach, broadly construed, to help account for the existence of consciousness while avoiding the problem of the explanatory gap.
Kiverstein’s paper sets out to rectify what he claims is the basic inability of classical cognitive science to satisfyingly explain why perception and other cognitive processes sometimes take place consciously. His solution is to replace the classical view, in which cognitive processes are paradigmatically unconscious, with a dynamical embodied view in which cognition implicates consciousness by its very nature.
The next contribution considers the slogan, much beloved of sensorimotor theorists, that perception is a kind of doing. The idea has previously been used by sensorimotor theorists to emphasize the vital exploratory role played by bodily movements such as eye movements (e.g. O’Regan, 1992; Noë, 2002), as a way to avoid conceiving of experience as a Cartesian theatre or ‘ghost in the machine’ (e.g. Degenaar and O’Regan, 2015a,b), and to suggest in philosophically motivated ways that being perceptually directed towards the world requires agency (e.g. Beaton, 2016).
Myin’s paper offers a further reason for conceiving of perceiving as doing, arguing that it offers the best way to cash out a response to the explanatory gap that takes lived experience and the physical processes that attend it to be different perspectives one can take on a single activity, rather than different entities. Myin further proposes that one’s perceptual attunement to the world should be accounted for by appeal to one’s history of embodied interactions and not internal representation.
The next section of the special issue considers how the sensorimotor skills exercised in perception could be implemented in a human or artificial agent. Papers by Anthony Chemero and Martin Flament-Fultot further address the fraught relationship between the sensorimotor approach and representationalism, the thesis that perception depends on content-bearing neural states.
Chemero offers a revised rendering of the sensorimotor approach which he takes to be more in line with its anti-intellectualist forebears such as Merleau-Ponty. To this end, Chemero suggests that perception does not involve sensorimotor knowledge, as the approach frequently claims, but sensorimotor ‘empathy’ (or ‘feeling-into’). He proposes that this notion can be operationalized, without internal representation, with reference instead to synergies found in complex systems.
In a similar spirit, Flament-Fultot seeks to excise the sensorimotor approach of representationalism by offering a purely non-representational approach to implementing the sensorimotor knowledge perceivers use to achieve perceptual presence (including the presence in absence, for example, of the hidden back side of a tomato). After examining the possibility of a predictive coding implementation of sensorimotor knowledge, which he argues is not compelling, Flament-Fultot proposes like Chemero to appeal to ‘coordinative structures’ or synergies.
A paper by Alexander Maye and Andreas K. Engel summarizes some of the progress the authors have made implementing mastery of sensorimotor regularities in artificial agents. In addition to illustrating some ways in which perception as construed by the sensorimotor approach is apt for being implemented in a robot control architecture, the authors, endorsing a sensorimotor account of consciousness, argue that such robots may actually be conscious.
The final section of the special issue returns to a key issue touched upon earlier in the volume by Noë’s and O’Regan’s contributions: the argued need for the sensorimotor approach to explain how the character of our experience is shaped by the social environment we are embedded in.
Martin Weichold argues that human minds are not divided into distinct ‘basic’ and ‘enculturated’ components, and that the enculturated mind is instead a transformed version of the basic mind. His suggestion is that a sensorimotor account therefore cannot account for human experience at all unless it accounts for enculturated minds. To this end, Weichold offers a sensorimotor account of enculturated emotions such as resentment, appealing to implicit mastery of what he calls ‘sociocultural contingencies’.
Ezequiel Di Paolo, making a related point, observes that the sensorimotor approach typically concerns itself with interactions between a solitary perceiver and an object, implying that social skill-driven encounters with other subjects are no more than a secondary consideration. Di Paolo turns things around, arguing that social interactions with other subjects are essential for perceiving objects with a detached attitude, i.e. beyond their immediate instrumental uses. To this end, Di Paolo suggests enriching the sensorimotor approach by appeal to the enactive notion of participatory sense-making (e.g. De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007).
The guest editors would like to thank the authors for their contributions, and Kevin O’Regan, Lucia Foglia, Frank Schumann, and the anonymous referees for their assistance putting together the special issue. Thanks also to all those who attended our ASSC satellite workshop, ‘The Sensorimotor Theory of Perception and Consciousness: Developments and Open Questions’, in Paris, July 2015, upon which this special issue is partly based. We gratefully acknowledge the ERC (Advanced Grant 323674 ‘FEEL’) for financing the editorial work.
Beaton, M. (2016) Sensorimotor direct realism: How we enact our world, Constructivist Foundations, 11 (2), pp. 265–276.
Degenaar, J. & O’Regan, J.K. (2015a) Sensorimotor theory of consciousness, Scholarpedia, 10 (5), p. 4952.
Degenaar, J. & O’Regan, J.K. (2015b) Sensorimotor theory and enactivism, Topoi, [Online], http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11245-015-9338-z.
De Jaegher, H. & Di Paolo, E. (2007) Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (4), pp. 485–507.
Gibson, J.J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Hurley, S. (1998) Consciousness in Action, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hurley, S. & Noë, A. (2003) Neural plasticity and consciousness, Biology and Philosophy, 18, pp. 131–168.
Noë, A. (2002) Is the visual world a grand illusion?, in Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion? Special Issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9 (5–6), pp. 1–12.
Noë, A. (2004) Action in Perception, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Noë, A. (2012) Varieties of Presence, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
O’Regan, J.K. (1992) Solving the ‘real’ mysteries of visual perception: The world as an outside memory, Canadian Journal of Psychology, 46 (3), pp. 461–488.
O’Regan, J.K. (2011) Why Red Doesn’t Sound Like a Bell: Understanding the Feel of Consciousness, New York: Oxford University Press.
O’Regan, J.K. & Noë, A. (2001) A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 (5), pp. 883–917.
O’Regan, J.K., Myin, E. & Noë, A. (2005) Skill, corporality and alerting capacity in an account of sensory consciousness, Progress in Brain Research, 150, pp. 55–68.
Stewart, J., Gapenne, O. & Paolo, E.A.D. (eds.) (2014) Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Thompson, E. (2007) Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch, E. (1991) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.