"Aesthetic Experience, Affect and Dis/interestedness:
Insights from the Predictive Processing Framework"
In recent years, a new theory known as Predictive Processing (PP) has taken hold in the sciences of mind and life. Originally conceived as a general theory of brain function, PP has proven to have enormous explanatory reach and is now increasingly seen as a potential unifying principle underlying “perception, action, reason, attention, emotion, learning” (Clark 2015) and even, according to the advocates of its most general formulation, life and sentience as such (Friston 2013). More recently, PP has been at the centre of a fruitful dialogue between philosophers, art historians, psychologists and cognitive scientists interested in the arts and aesthetics. A growing literature is pointing to ways in which PP may unify different art forms under a common analytical framework, and offer a fresh take on vexed questions in aesthetics such as the nature of aesthetic pleasure, the role of affect in aesthetic experience, and the cognitive value of art. In this talk, I will present the PP story about aesthetics and highlight the many important implications it could have for our understanding of the relationship between aesthetic experience, affect, and (dis)interestedness.
A brief summary of the PP picture of cognition will be in order. The core assumption of PP is that agents like us come to have a grip on their environment by embodying (i.e. instantiating in their brain structures and dynamics) a probabilistic model of their world, and constantly testing this model against the incoming sensory stimulations. The model is partly shaped by natural selection and partly by experience, and defines what an agent expects to perceive, the sets of “priors” that it uses to formulate predictions about the incoming sensory stimulations. When a prediction fails to explain a certain pattern of stimulations, a “prediction error” is generated. This prediction error is then used to recruit new and better guesses and, if all goes well, an explanation is found and the agent experiences a progressive reduction in prediction error as the model that it embodies becomes tuned to the statistical regularities of its environment. In this way, by constantly minimising the divergence between what it predicts and what it receives from the senses, the agent maintains a viable exchange with its world. PP has a complex story to tell about how this process of prediction error minimization is implemented hierarchically in the brain, but we won’t need to go into it. Suffice to notice that to reduce prediction error is for the agent an existential imperative. For PP proponents, the agent is a “self-evidencing” creature, an embodied model of its world constantly searching for evidence for its own validity (Hohwy 2016). To minimise prediction error means therefore to maximise the evidence for the model that the agent is embodying, i.e. the evidence for the agent’s own existence. Given this existential imperative, PP proponents have often claimed that cognition is intrinsically affective. In particular, an increase in prediction error will be marked by negative affect, and, by contrast, a reduction in prediction error will be marked by a pleasurable affective response. In other words, in PP affect signals whether the organism is making progress or regress in predicting its environment, which in the long run translates in proper functioning of the processes of life (Van de Cruys 2017). The PP story about art stems naturally from these theoretical premises. According to the advocates of this story, successful artworks provide us with just this kind of experience: a pleasurable reduction in prediction error. They do so by first violating some predictions of our probabilistic model and then allowing us to accommodate this violation, making us experience repeated cycles of prediction error minimization that are lived as an intellectual and existential conquest. This intuition has already been fruitfully applied to the study of several artforms, including visual art (Van de Cruys & Wagemans 2011), music (Koelsh et al. 2019), literature (Kukkonen 2020), cinema (Miller et al. forth) and games (Andersen & Roepstorff forth.), and could well lead to the development of a new major approach to art and aesthetics.
For what interests us here, the PP account of cognition and its more recent applications to the arts suggest an articulated picture of the interrelations between affect, interest and aesthetic experience. On the one hand, the PP story seems to confirm the constitutive role played by affect in aesthetic experience, and, contemporarily, to refute the idea of a disinterested engagement with the arts. According to PP, cognition is always intrinsically affective and deeply interested, courtesy our existence as biological agents. As an (extensible) model of its environment, the agent is always searching for self-confirmation, and the arts provide exemplary instances of just this kind of experience. On the other hand, however, to see our engagement with the arts as existentially interested in such fashion is not to deny its gratuitousness and its character of activity done “for its own sake”. Quite on the contrary, in light of PP, cognition on the whole acquires the traits of an intrinsically-motivated activity, whose sole aim is to perpetuate itself. The arts would then be particularly refined instances of the need of each cognitive agent to perpetuate its own activity as a thinking and living creature.
In the talk, I will examine these complex and apparently contradictory implications suggested by the PP story about aesthetics. The upshot will be a picture that reconcile some long-standing intuitions about art, affect and interest and reformulates the philosophical discussion on these topics in a way that makes it amenable to inform and be informed by the acquisitions of cutting-edge cognitive science.