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Motor ontology: the representational reality of goals, actions and selves

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The representational dynamics of the brain is a subsymbolic process, and it has to be conceived as an "agent-free" type of dynamical self-organization. However, in generating a coherent internal world-model, the brain decomposes target space in a certain way. In doing so, it defines an "ontology": to have an ontology is to interpret a world. In this paper we argue that the brain, viewed as a representational system aimed at interpreting the world, possesses an ontology too. It decomposes target space in a way that exhibits certain invariances, which in turn are functionally significant. A challenge for empirical research is to determine which are the functional regularities guiding this decomposition process. What are the explicit and implicit assumptions about the structure of reality, which at the same time shape the causal profile of the brain's motor output and the representational deep structure of the conscious mind arising from it (its "phenomenal output")? How do they constrain high-level phenomena like conscious experience, the emergence of a first-person perspective, or social cognition? By reviewing a series of neuroscientific results, we focus on the contribution the motor system makes to this process. As it turns out, the motor system constructs goals, actions, and intending selves as basic constituents of the world it interprets. It does so by assigning a single, unified causal role to them. Empirical evidence now clearly shows how the brain actually codes movements and action goals in terms of multimodal representations of organism-object relations. Under a representationalist analysis, this process can be interpreted as an internal representation of the intentionality relation itself. We try to show how such a more complex form of representational content, once it is in place, can later function as the building block for social cognition and a for more complex, consciously experienced representation of the first-person perspective as well. The motor system may therefore play a decisive role in understanding how the functional ontology of the human brain could be gradually extended into the subjective and social domains.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-09-01

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