Abstractions and Scaling Up

TLDR: Abstract words and concepts are inseparable from specific instances, confusing it’s usage.

It seems that often in discussions about whether or not a certain phenomena ‘scales up’, or if we engage in abstractions of things, the concepts we talk about take on a life of their own. For example, I see a curious indent in the wall, turns out they are called power outlets and I can charge my laptop if I have a compatible prong. Here, some try and convince us that we have created a new concept, and for every instance we see of this new thing, we add it to the concept or we extract central features and then we go about talking ‘abstractly’ about some kind of general ‘power outlet’ -it has gained its own level of existence. I urge everyone to think differently about this: To deny the assumption that we are creating something new. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me denying that we just created some kind of outer worldly, non-physical, concept. But I think mainstream cognitive science would disagree with denying that we are creating an abstraction. In one sense, it is a mundane counter-argument: we see the first power outlet, representation in the brain created, we see another one, another representation, and/or we start creating a representation that is slightly less specific and only picks out the shared features of the first two. Any way you slice it, this is the work representations do for mainstream psychologists. But what do you do if you don’t believe in representations?

Taking a page out of Gibson’s 79’ bible, I would argue that ‘scaling up’ or ‘abstraction’ is simply a pole of attention. We can take any pole of attention that we are aware of, we can say the word ‘ball’ and just kind of mean a ball in general, we can say or take any pole of attention we want. However. Describing something from different perspectives (poles of attention) is just that. It doesn’t entail an ontological difference in the world. Same with abstraction, I can choose any pole of attention to make things seem general or specific in any which way, I can call a less featureful ball an abstraction that can be applied to the next ball I haven’t seen. But all that is going on is that you are seeing a couple of aspects in a new thing that also are true for another thing -you are not ontologically creating an overarching concept.
If you think we are, I need to be convinced it is not non-physical (enter contemporary cognition and representations and similarity hierarchies). I currently think it may be indefensible. It seems to me that we (EcoPsych/DynSys) wouldn’t need to accept an ontological shift, it is enough to describe it as a shift in the pole of attention, and we can be taught by others or by our own experience of the world to take on a pole of attention we haven’t before, or didn’t know existed, or didn’t want to, or anything else. It does not necessarily mean we have to accept a new ontological status of an utterance. I think most mundane arguments about abstraction and higher level (cognitive) faculties disappear, but not all.

Emergence. Then how in the world do we deal with things that ultimately do seem to create a new ‘level’ of functioning. A termite mound is not concerned with it’s shape, hell, not even termites are, but because of extraneous factors guiding the drop-off of pheromone induced dirt, all of those small lawful actions create a temperature regulated multi-story apartment building. Here, it is difficult to argue that the mound is just a pole of attention, since it clearly comes with new properties that aren’t written into its creation. I think this is a very different thing to talk about. Compare a termite mound to the word ‘honor’. Honor seems more non-physical, seems more like an abstraction, but as soon as you have to apply the word, you are forced to apply it to a specific situation. It is almost an asymmetry, the more abstract a word seems to be, the more specific an example needs to be to understand it -and multiple specific examples can be even more illuminating.

Ultimately, I may just have a problem with the way in which the term abstract is used. Colloquially it means ‘more general’ or ‘less specific’, applied it is necessarily always a specific instance. It seems to me to imply a separate thing with an ontological status (like a general concept), inviting representations. Perhaps it only invites, which saves its usage somewhat, but to me it just seems confusing.

First conference talk and proceedings publication!

Going to CogSci17 in London this summer for my first research presentation, the paper is to be published in the proceedings (and can be found here). Here’s the abstract:

The actualization of affordances can often be accomplished in numerous, equifinal ways. For instance, an individual could discard an item in a rubbish bin by walking over and dropping it, or by throwing it from a distance. The aim of the current study was to investigate the behavioral dynamics associated with such metastability using a ball-to-bin transportation task. Using time-interval between sequential ball-presentation as a control parameter, participants transported balls from a pickup location to a drop-off bin 9m away. A high degree of variability in task-actualization was expected and found, and the Cusp Catatrophe model was used to understand how this behavioral variability emerged as a function of hard (time interval) and soft (e.g. motivation) task dynamic constraints. Simulations demonstrated that this two parameter state manifold could capture the wide range of participant behaviors, and explain how these behaviors naturally emerge in an under-constrained task context.

Keywords: affordances, dynamic systems, cusp catastrophe, dynamic modeling, simulations, constraints

(3/4) Cognitive Psychology in Crisis: Ameliorating the Shortcomings of Representationalism. EcoPsy and rECS.

After a few more e-mails to a few people, I received my feedback. It was mostly general structuring issues and broader aspects of the thesis. Valuable and informative comments overall, so no change in posting the last two chapters as planned.
This chapter is to me a bit of an anti-climax. It mainly contains definitions and concepts, explanations and examples. So, if you already know your way around Gibson’s Ecological Psychology, Chemero’s radical Embodied Cognitive Science, van Gelder’s Watt Governor example for Dynamic Systems Theory and Wilson and Golonka’s four-point task analysis, there is not too much to gain from this chapter. You can find the whole 21 page chapter here. One thing of importance however, is that in this chapter I attempt to ontologically and epistemologically define affordances, something I have not seen in the literature before. However, I have already posted my ontological query here. The last section in this chapter does bring up a novel area of interest to EcoPsy however. It is called “Electronic Sports and Computer Resistance” and brings in the curious aspect of affordance/information from depictions. I have written about this in a previous blog post also, but have extended and reworked it a bit. So the following is a summary of that section;
Gibson, Chemero and Wilson discuss if affordances actually exist when perceiving depictions. This is quite curious because it is not intuitively simple to decide whether depictions actually afford something, or inform of something. Wilson is currently intellectualising about this, so we will have to wait to see what comes out of that. The official understanding (most likely to change) is that depictions do not afford us anything. This in turn impacts computer-screen research if you wish to stick to EcoPsy because the broad genres of computer gaming and on-screen research rely on it. If we immerse ourselves in virtual environments, are we dealing with affordances? Virtual affordances? Not affordances at all? Information? Virtual information? Do virtual environments inform us and not afford us? Does a virtual environment offer virtual affordances to virtual agents? This could easily be a point of criticism against EcoPsy in a philosophy-journal, but there’s no fun in that, is there? Instead I attempt to define virtual affordances and virtual environments as separate concepts, at least until their possible integration depending on the work of Wilson. The simplest core concept here is the verbal notation virtual which should be seen as a working definition.
I am going to try and summarize and post the last chapter, my thesis experiment, as soon as possible. If not today, then probably during the weekend seeing as Midsummer’s Eve is upon Sweden tomorrow! So, Happy Midsummer’s Eve and don’t forget to dance around the Midsummer Pole pretending you are a frog.