06 abril 2021

Surfing Uncertainty

By Bruno Costelini

Oceanographer and PhD candidate in Law at Durham University


The matter of human consciousness is one of the utmost intriguing philosophical questions that remains to be solved. How can an aggregate of molecules reach a level of complexity at which it starts thinking about itself, contemplating its own existence, and its own internal mechanisms that allow for that contemplation? The issue has perplexed us since time immemorial, and is far from trivial or esoteric, as it is at the root of who we are and how we act on our brief existences in this planet.


Physiologists have taken their stab at answering by cutting pieces of brain tissue and putting them under a microscope, by looking at brain activity in real time through electroencephalogram (EEG) machines, and most recently by associating with computer scientists to create simulations and even artificially duplicating brains to create working replicas of the human mind. But all to little avail, so far.


The answer still remains in the hands of philosophers, i.e., informed observers who speculate on the mechanisms in a purely theoretical, and even mathematical way. The tradition is large, dating back to the Greeks, but more recently to Descartes and Locke, to remain in the Western philosophical realm. Contemporarily, one trend has surged, which may have succeeded in hitting the nail closer to the head (pun intended).


Andy Clark’s book ‘Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind’ (Oxford University Press, 2016) is a major contribution to this trend. Clark is a Professor of Cognitive Philosopher at the University of Sussex, who has worked extensively in figuring out how the mind connects with its surrounding environment to make sense of it, and of itself. He proposes the key is in word: prediction.


In an uncertain world, where things happen all the time that we cannot control, the one thing the brain has developed for is to try and foresee those happenings and to shape our action in response to them. Hence, from trivial actions such as lifting an arm, to complex ones such as major life decisions like getting married, all our brain is doing is calculating how the environment will behave, either through its physical laws (gravity, for instance) or biological ones, such as ensuring the success of our genetic dispersion. Clark uses a nice oceanic metaphor to explain this:


A skilled surfer stays ‘in the pocket’: close to, yet just ahead of the place where the wave is breaking. This provides power and, when the wave breaks, it does not catch her. The brain’s task is not dissimilar. By constantly attempting to predict the incoming sensory signal we become able […] to learn about the world around us and to engage that world in thought and action. Successful, world-engaging prediction is not easy. […] But get it right, and active agents can both know and behaviourally engage their worlds, safely riding wave upon wave of sensory stimulation.[1]


Now, beyond the surf, what does all this have to do with the sea or with any of our most pressing concerns here as ocean scientists and lawyers? Well, it just happens Science and the Law are both highly elaborate social structures developed by a multiplicity of brains in conjunction, and over time, to help us reduce the complexity of the surrounding environment and to allow for better, optimized calculations and actions. If all our brains (and bodies) do is predict the world around us and act accordingly, it is no surprise that at some point in our development that need for such collective acts as the Law and Science should arise.


This is not exactly news, as any social scientist from the past few decades will have noticed through either system or functional approaches, organic metaphors for social institutions are common enough. But to actually connect that philosophical theory, and to put prediction at the centre of it all, not only makes sense in terms of being a clever way to understand the workings of the human mind and social institutions. The self-awareness that comes from it may in fact improve those same predictions.


When Descartes turned all his attention to the human mind, he risked driving the philosophical tradition to an overtly anthropocentric path, where self-absorption and self-importance could have reigned. Thankfully at about the same time (the early 17th century) Copernicus and other astronomers and scientists were coming up with some neat observations that took Earth out of the centre stage, showing us our utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things.


What Clark’s theory and the various other recent findings from Cognitive Science teach us is the need to keep balancing our act. Neither Science nor the Law can provide definitive answers to any of our individual or societal issues. But they are key elements in our constant struggle to predict and react to our environments, both as individuals and as a collective. Ignore one or the other, and we risk making worst predictions, and then taking bad decisions.

[1] Andy Clark, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind, Oxford University Press, 2016.

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