I have been reading Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin’s book Radicalizing Enactivism for a critical notice in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Enactivism is the view that cognition consists of a dynamic interaction between the subject and her environment, and not in any kind of contentful representation of that environment. I am struck by H&M’s reliance on a famous 1991 paper by the MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks, “Intelligence Without Representation.” Brooks’s paper is quite a romp—it has attracted the attention of a number of philosophers, including Andy Clark in his terrific book, Being There (1996). It’s worth a quick revisit today.
To soften his readers up for his main thesis, Brooks starts out his paper with an argument so daft that it cannot have been intended seriously, but which encapsulates an important strand of enactivist thinking. Here it is: Biological evolution has been going for a very long time, but “Man arrived in his present form [only] 2.5 million years ago.” (Actually, that’s a considerable over-estimate: homo sapiens is not more than half a million years old, if that.)
He invented agriculture a mere 19,000 years ago, writing less than 5000 years ago and “expert” knowledge only over the last few hundred years.
This suggests that problem solving behaviour, language, expert knowledge and application, and reason are all pretty simple once the essence of being and reacting are available. That essence is the ability to move around in a dynamic environment, sensing the surroundings to a degree sufficient to achieve the necessary maintenance of life and reproduction. This part of intelligence is where evolution has concentrated its time—it is much harder. (141)