Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism

I’ve been fascinated by the development of the enactive paradigm since I read The Embodied Mind back in college at UCF, where I studied cognitive science with Prof. Mason Cash and Prof. Shaun Gallagher. I feel fortunate that I was able to study cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in a program where the phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were taken seriously, since traditional approaches to cognition still tend to rely heavily on computational metaphors for mind and see the development of artificial intelligence as the most effective research program. The enactive paradigm is fundamentally opposed to such metaphors, and to the idea that mind can be understood independently of living systems.

Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) is perhaps the foremost researcher associated with Enactivism. He studied very closely with Francisco Varela as a graduate student, and even before that as a child at the Lindisfarne Association (started by his father, William Irwin Thompson), where Varela often lectured. I had the opportunity to meet E. Thompson earlier this year when he lectured about his upcoming book on neuroscience and meditation at the CIIS Consciousness Forum. I asked him then what his empirical and phenomenological research implies about the ontology of consciousness, a question he answered by giving an autobiographical account of his personal spiritual development. Having grown up at Lindisfarne surrounded not only by new paradigm scientists, but new age mystics, he said he was more inclined early in his life to believe that consciousness was indeed basic to, if not constitutive of, reality. Since becoming an academic philosopher and immersing himself in the neurophysiological and biological sciences, he has stepped back a bit from this ontologization, and is now inclined to believe that life, rather than consciousness, is basic to at least our knowledge of reality (as per his “strong continuity thesis”). I continue to follow his work very closely and will probably reference enactivism quite a bit in my dissertation on the ontology of imagination. Having studied and internalized the perspectives of Whitehead, Schelling, and other cosmologically-inclined thinkers since initially encountering the paradigm in college, I think enactivism, though epistemologically and methodologically robust, remains ambiguously afloat in murky metaphysical waters. What lies beneath the surface of the co-constituted umwelt of organism and environment? Meaningless chemical reactions and thermodynamic gradients? Is the emergence of sense-making autopoiesis possible in the universe as it is depicted by scientific materialism? Kant certainly didn’t think so, but he was still living in a Newtonian universe. Have systems theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity made his comment about the impossibility of a “Newton of the grass-blade” passé ? These are the kinds of questions I’m left wondering about…

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