Acting Ahead of Actuality: Emancipation from Immediacy
What we have, in the course of the evolution of ideas and general philosophical understanding, sometimes considered to be least disputable is the ‘givenness’ of the world to which we relate in some supposedly straightforward way, and also the immediacy of its emergence in our minds. For too long we have believed that our mental apparatus pictures the world (passively) as it is and mirrors it in a more or less faithful way so that even our modern interpretation of intentionality somehow incorporates such a basic supposition. Indeed, even our understanding of affordances implies a kind of immediacy of relation, without seriously questioning it.
Yet, for already some time we have advanced to the level of knowledge that instructs us that there is no way our neural system, or cognitive apparatus, can mimic the world passively and represent it faithfully the way it is independently of our minds’ active cognitive and creative endeavours. It therefore seems justified to say that only because we humans are action-oriented beings do we have the world as we know it. We may thus want to rephrase being-in-the-world with acting-in-the-world: ‘…for the passive being the whole of reality would collapse into the actual procession of the given; indeed, it must collapse into the specious present, since the objectivity of memory and anticipation is a complex interpretation put upon presented images’ (Lewis, 1929, p. 141, emphases added). However, instead of the whole of reality collapsing into the chaos of senseless sensory data, the cognitive subject intervenes by actively imposing order informed by his or her own skills and competencies in coping — reason enough to make a step towards a more general claim that the mental is underdetermined by the sensory (see e.g. Radman, 2012). That in turn pushes towards the further conclusion that there must be a kind of mental emancipation from the coupling to the sensory present.
Another ruling myth, proved vital until recently, takes for granted that the brain/mind mirrors that to which it is directed in a synchronous way. Thanks to extensive studies of anticipation and prediction in the past decades we nowadays increasingly learn that, rather than capturing ‘the given’ in actuality, our mentality is engaged in projecting what most likely is happening in the world. Taking this into account casts a doubt on the idea that the synchronicity of stimuli and their mental representation — a conviction that our image of the world is a result of a simultaneous match between the stimuli and their (immediate) internal imprint — is tenable. Accordingly, what is shaped by our minds appears not so much to be experience of the world as it is but rather as it might be. It further instructs us that ‘the whole of reality’ as it might be is generated away from the immediate access to actuality.
All of this may encourage us to talk about mental emancipation, now also with reference to the temporal. This is by no means a trivial conclusion for, even though we are not able to mentally imitate or simulate, and in such way conform to ‘the given’, we can do better than duplicate by obedience to the actual — we can envisage in our minds a living environment that is shaped by our cognitive capacities, skills, and intents, patterned by anticipations and reconfigured in terms of predictions. Our experiential world then emerges as a result of neither passive sensory mimicking nor mirroring of actuality; it appears as an outcome of our enactive capacity to acquire the world in a participatory, and also prospective, way.
The lesson from studies on prediction, of which this collection witnesses, may be taken by philosophers of mind as an invitation to explore the phenomenon from a broader perspective and see what further implications it might have for a more encompassing understanding of the life of the mind. Such an attitude may, for instance, bring us to the conclusion that reality is not merely a replica, designed in terms of immediacy, but a network of possibilities whose engaged and imaginative designer is the anticipatory mind.
Because we are as agents in constant interaction with our respective environments, we need a mental horizon that stretches beyond the actual and entails expectations to which we accommodate even before they get evidenced in the senses. By projecting our intentions, motives, and plans we meet the present from ahead. For the active beings that we are, the ability to anticipate what is to come is vital in ensuring that reactions can be prompt and adequate and our deeds timely and adjusted.
The idea of mental emancipation from the ‘given’ may be taken as a strong argument in favour of embodiment and enactment. For only where there is freeing from immediacy, sensory and temporal, can there be opportunity for agents to act away from the external or internal sensory dictate and boundness to actuality, and also a chance to use this freedom to configure possible experience in terms of predictions and expectations as messengers of the present to come.
It is clear that we can forget the past, but we cannot put a voluntary hold on anticipatory drives, neither can we, in that sense, ignore or postpone the future, which is always there in front of us, inhabited with predictions that provide a stable scenery for forthcoming actions. We thus see that Antonio Damasio is misguided when he claims that: ‘The present is never here. We are hopelessly late for consciousness’ (Damasio, 1994/2000, p. 240). What we experience as present is already richly equipped with a multitude of projections that facilitate conditions in order for consciousness not to be ‘late’. We are thus to understand the present as being invested with potentiality for devising stories of the forthcoming. Seen in such a way, the present presents itself as an after-effect of anticipations. Actuality is then instantiated by means of predictive cognitive enlightenment, present already at the very elementary levels of mentality.
The idea that the present can be taken as temporally extended brings us to a more general discussion of the extendedness of mind. There are elaborated views on the mind as being amplified, ‘augmented’ (e.g. Bates, 2018), or ‘supersized’ (Clark, 2010), but nowhere is this intent to break the boundaries of the mind as set by classical cognitivism so originally articulated as in the much discussed article by Andy Clark and David Chalmers (1998) on the extended mind hypothesis. By questioning the traditionally conceived boundaries between mind and world, they promote, as they say, the view of active externalism. From the perspective of this collection we might feel challenged to understand this idea also in the temporal sense. If we would then decide to, analogously, advocate the view of active anticipation, room may open up for further association of ideas in that we might want to talk about ‘extendedness’ of the mind in the sense of prospection and prediction.
Clark and Chalmers pose a very straightforward question: where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin? And they famously answer: ‘Cognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!’ If we were to exchange the ‘where?’-question with a ‘when?’-question, the appropriate response might be: ‘Cognitive processes ain’t (all happening) in the present!’ By claiming that the mind’s capacity to deal with external scaffolding may apply also in the temporal sense, we can allow for the conclusion that the mind is ‘extended’ not only ‘beyond skin and skull’, but also (and in a not less important sense) beyond the boundaries of actuality.
I want to thank Shaun Gallagher, Michael Kirchhoff, Mauro Maldonato, Scott Jordan, Ian Robertson, and Massimiliano Cappuccio, who in different ways assisted me in this project. My gratitude also goes to Pavo Barišić, Filip Grgić, and Srećko Kovač for collegially supporting my work.
Bates, A. (2018) Augmented Mind: AI, Humans and the Superhuman Revolution, San Diego, CA: Neocortex Ventures LLC.
Clark, A. (2010) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Clark, A. & Chalmers, D.J. (1998) The extended mind, Analysis, 58 (1), pp. 7–19.
Damasio, A. (1994/2000) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, New York: Quill.
Lewis, C.I. (1929) Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge, New York: Dover.
Radman, Z. (2012) The background: A tool of potentiality, in Radman, Z. (ed.) Knowing without Thinking: Mind, Action, Cognition, and the Phenomenon of the Background, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.