The Myth of Perception-Cognition-Action

It is a singular characteristic of our time that the Sentient Person is presumed to be well described as a system with inputs and outputs.  The inputs are typically associated with the process of perception, whereby the state of the world is considered to be found out.  The outputs are action, done volitionally by an agent.  Inbetween sits something of a spook.  Some think of it as Mind. Some like to pretend it is metaphysically innocuous, and they call it a Cognitive System.

The Perception-Cognition-Action view of the person is not any kind of scientifically established fact.  It is, rather, a pre-philosophical commitment to a singular cut between subject and object.  Because rarely questioned, it amounts to a quasi-religious foundation upon which many of the human sciences are built.  What psychology would we have left if we abandoned this belief?

That this viewpoint is optional is already evident from the 1896 article by John Dewey, “The reflex arc concept in psychology“, where he bemoans the emerging consensus of the relation between the psychological subject and the nervous system, critiquing just this input-output architecture.  But the view of the subject sitting between input and output is much older, and found fullest expression in an Enlightenment view of the human person, who bears full moral responsibility for all her actions, twinned with Cartesian metaphysics, in which a subject is described who sits at a remove from an alien world, as nicely illustrated in the film Being John Malkovich.  We have built our societies upon this notion, structuring the legal systems, the concept of human rights, and a baseline ethical consensus upon it.  It will not be abandoned easily, nor should it be.

If pressed, we can see weaknesses in the picture.  The stereoscopic dual identification of the person with the body, on the one hand, and with the notional domain of mind (seat of free will, agency, experience) on the other, leads to some border issues.  The question of just where the person begins and ends comes to the fore in vexed issues such as abortion and euthanasia or voluntary end of life.  Let us not get involved in the opposing sides here, but let us acknowledge that there is much friction at the edges, where the edges define the border between the person and everything else.  The notion of insanity, and indeed the dustbin that is the domain of mental health, points to another signal failure of the prevailing consensus view of the person.  In extremis, we will strip the lunatic’s corporeal body of moral responsibility, sundering the link between personal mind and personal body we insist upon for the rest of us.

To see beyond the perception-cognition-action structure requires training we do not find easily in our schools and universities.  One could hold the view that this is reserved for the mystics, who perceive their one-ness with everything.  That is not terribly egalitarian, and it is also simply wrong.  There are uncountable pointers towards alternative ways of understanding one’s self and one’s place in the grander scheme of things, but they lie distributed among diverse traditions.  The profound truths about embodied participation in cosmogenesis recur in Christian, Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Scientific, Philosophical traditions and beyond, for they are present and available to every sentient being.  Some study may help to shift old habits of thought, but there is no need to follow this path or that, for the truths, such as there are for sentient beings, must necessarily be right here, right now.

The Stone Pharisee’s contribution here will be to speak plainly, without undue referencing or detail.  The credo provides some pointers.