No ‘content’ in EcoPsych and Direct Perception

TL/DR: While a valid concern, I don’t think EcoPsych relies on ‘environmental’ content.

I share the worry with Dr. Edward Baggs, that Enactivist criticism of Ecological Psychology’s Direct Perception hints at a possible dualism -even if I think it may mostly arise from reading EcoPsych unfavourably or indeed unfavourably expressing EcoPsych.

The idea is this. Representationalists assume content is in the brain (created and/or passed on from the senses as input). Perception is simply input for the brain-processor which sends output signals to the passive body, hence Indirect Perception, what our eyes see is ultimately not what we experience, we experience what the brain creates (subject to criticism of being idealist and/or dualist, but that’s a different blog post). EcoPsych instead says, hang on,  the world is its own best model, there is absolutely no need to conceptualize the perceptual system as mere, passive, input devices, and there is no need to conceptualize the brain as a processor -we need no processing (in the traditional sense anyways). Rather, perception is active and intelligent on its own, what you are currently experiencing is unmediated by any interpretational processes, what you experience is what your perceptual system detects. Perception requires movement, perception and action are in this sense inseparable (your legs, e.g., are also a part of seeing, cue embodied theories). However, importantly, perception is action, action is perception. It’s a continuous and simultaneous loop…

Enactivism asks however, if this means that EcoPsych simply places content on the outside, as opposed to representationalists on the inside. If so, we are not really losing the dualistic consequences that believing in content brings with it.

I think one problem may arrive from reading specificity (roughly: guaranteed perception) into Direct Perception. The straightforward answer here is that this is a bit too literal a take on Direct Perception, although it comes from considerations such that if what we see is the world then why does the world look different to different people -we have access to the same information. A simple answer from EcoPsych would be that firstly we all have different capabilities that we bring to any situation, we inhabit different bodies, we can have different goals, and they all bring effects on what we attend to and why.

Another issue is that some EcoPsych’s talk about properties and effectivities, as if you can divide up organism from environment, landing us in traditional dualisms again. I do not subscribe to this way of talking specifically about the organism or the environment because I think it too easily invites dualist interpretations -but those who do still would say the affordance is primary, that we then can talk about its corresponding parts doesn’t mean that they see them as non-constitutive. Which sounds fine to me, but, I also understand how people can misread this.

As for answering the central question of -do EcoPsychs conceptualize content to be on the outside, I think a resounding ‘no’ is in order. Organisms detect structure in ambient arrays (e.g. the optic array) and they perceive/act on affordances (which necessarily is a relational aspect of the current, and continuously evolving, organism-environment system). The information itself (the structure in an ambient array) is not content, in the case of vision it is (from a specific point of observation) all of the converging photons from all angles (as a whole, continuously flowing) on that point that has bounced off of surfaces where light has been partly absorbed, reflected, etc (which is part of how light becomes structured) that then reaches the eyes. The eyes themselves have evolved to detect differences in structure to the point that was necessary for survival, and we bring an entire cultural/societal/historical as well as developmental baggage with us as we have started naming structures that we are taught from young age to reproduce. But there is no content, there is no standing-in-for the things in the environment = a wooden table is made up of wooden particles which are made up of atoms, when light strikes the top of a dark wood, photons are to a larger degree than a light wood absorbed by the material, but then of course, this becomes circular because we have already defined “dark” and “light” through the property of absorption. (It should be added here that “illusions” where dark and light can look the same, or where a blue dress can look yellow, is only a valid counter-argument if you rely on traditional optics where you discount contextual factors like general lighting conditions etcetera.)

Brain in a vat, thoughts from embodiment.

The philosophical example goes;

If you put a brain in a vat and connect all the inputs necessary, would the brain be fooled that it actually wasn’t a brain in a vat, but a normal brain in a normal world?

All kinds of fun philosophical issues follow. Embodiment however, could firstly argue that since it is only a brain, it could not function at all because brain is body -there is no separating. The argument would then be that all the inputs is a misleading assumption behind the question. We would obviously not have all the inputs (bar for a moment that input/output type stuff is difficult to maintain under this perspective). However, for argument’s sake, let’s accept both the word input (and all its assumptions) as well as that a brain is connected in such a way that it may as well have been a part of a body and in a world. This does however take the fun out of the question since we are basically saying that it already is fooled to be a normal brain in a normal world. The curiosity however is that, from an embodied perspective, you are more or less forced to clarify the example to the extent where it isn’t an exciting question.


It is only really exciting to begin with because growing up we are taught that the brain is separate from the body, we may even be taught the the mind is separate from the brain -so the example feeds off of common sensical, traditional, dualism -brain is something different from body, and/or -mind is different from brain. Embodiment doesn’t allow this separation, which forces a restatement of the question -in a way that answers it implicitly. Neat, right!?