Spontaneous Cognition and Epistemic Agency in the Cognitive Niche
Frontiers in Psychology
According to Thomas Metzinger, many human cognitive processes in the waking state are spontaneous and are deprived of the experience of epistemic agency. He considers mind wandering as a paradigm example of our recurring loss of epistemic agency. I will enrich this view by extending the scope of the concept of epistemic agency to include cases of depressive rumination and creative cognition, which are additional types of spontaneous cognition. Like mind wandering, they are characterized by
... e phenomenal and functional properties that give rise to varying degrees of epistemic agency. The main claim of this paper will be that the experience of being an epistemic agent within a certain time frame is a relational phenomenon that emerges from the organism's capacity to interact with its cognitive niche. To explore this relation, I develop a new framework that integrates phenomenological considerations on epistemic agency with a functional account of the reciprocal coupling of the embodied organism with its cognitive niche. This account rests upon dynamical accounts of strong embodied and embedded cognition and recent work on cognitive niche construction. Importantly, epistemic agency and organism-niche coupling are gradual phenomena ranging from weak to strong realizations. The emerging framework will be employed to analyze mind wandering, depressive rumination, and creative cognition as well as their commonalities and differences. Mind wandering and depressive rumination are cases of weak epistemic agency and organism-niche coupling. However, there are also important phenomenological, functional, and neuronal differences. In contrast, creative cognition is a case of strong epistemic agency and organism-niche coupling. By providing a phenomenological and functional analysis of these distinct types of spontaneous cognition, we can gain a better understanding of the importance of organism-niche interaction for the realization of epistemic agency.