Comments on ENSO Seminar “Radical Embodiment and Real Cognition”

Over at 4e Cognition Group Anthony Chemero has given a talk (YouTube link) about a couple of interesting new directions that he and his students are working on for their dissertations and a paper. The main impetus is to explain “higher order cognition” through a rECS-able perspective.

The first turn is through Gui Sanches de Oliveira’s Artifactualism approach to models, essentially giving a thorough and solid argument for that scientific models are foremost tools, not accurate representations of the world. If it works, we use the model to predict, explain, plan, experiment, etc. It reminds me of the futile path that scientists often are found on: Focusing on finding The Truth, or finding objectivity. But the world seems to me to contain none, but even if it does, it doesn’t matter, at least not nearly as much as if the proposed model can be used in any applied setting. It reminds me of Nancy Cartwright’s arguments about truth and explanation, how far away those two concepts are from each other -and opting for truth takes us further away from a functioning tool. This is a really important step. Artifactualism rightfully criticizes the assumption that thoughts are for representing the world accurately, and replaces it with that cognition is for toolmaking. “Explicit, occurrent thoughts are tools, instruments, or artifacts that some agents create and use. Of course, models can meet formal definitions of representations, but that is not what they are for…”.

The second turn is through Vicente Raja Galian’s attempt at defining brain activity through resonance and oscillators. In his case, TALONs as resonant networks of neurons that resonate to certain ecological information and not others, that can continue to oscillate in the absence of the initial resonate -and that can be set in oscillatory motion at a later point in time (again without the initial resonate, through Ed Large’s work). The brain here, is driven by everything else (not the opposite way around). Oscillators, and non-linear oscillators, can act as filters and produce patterns not in the original driver.

Then, we take a turn into what Chemero refers to as slave/master systems, and while those words seem very culturally loaded, they make the point that slave systems wander (drift) in absence of a master system. E.g. circadian rythms stay in tune when we are regularly exposed to sunlight, but when deprived, our rhythms start to drift. An idea connected to that when we do try and use TALONs to think about things, or the past, but because it is not what they (and as a whole, the brain) is for, we just don’t seem to be very good at it. Marek McGann adds “‘Memories’ are constructed on the fly, and confabulation is rife, because it is not retrieval of things, but it is temporary toolmaking”.

Ultimately these initial steps in making more concrete the idea of ‘resonance’, seems very promising. An interesting aspect of resonance, is that it exists on all scales, it doesn’t matter if we look at the behavioral or neural scale, which makes them analyzable by methods like fractals. It makes it an empirically testable theory. Also, with resonant networks, they no longer have to contain content -Anthony Chemero suggests tool-making which will have to be defined further for me to understand if representational content hasn’t just been replaced by Gibsonian tool content. And don’t get me wrong, that would be a wonderful first step in better characterizing what humans do, but I am also currently on a quest for a non-content description of neural activity -and resonance seems to fit that description.

A non-content brain. 2/2

There is some misreading of Ecological Psychology due to the way direct perception and information detection are spoken about. Direct perception seems to carry with it a connotation of specificity (guarantee), that the world is in the specific way it is seen, we cannot be wrong and we have all of it available at once. There is an explicit rejection of the poverty of the stimulus. But pause here a second, because this is what information detection is about.

First, the production of photons exist regardless of my existence. They will bounce around on surfaces, be partly absorbed/reflected depending on surface makeup, and create structure (if we were to put an observer somewhere in this space). In this instance, it would be most appropriate to simply refer to this as the optic array, or structured light. It is not that this structure carries content, it simply is structured (and continuously re-restructured) in a manner specific, and guaranteed, by the surfaces around it and the medium(s) by which it came to any specific point.

Second, for a very long time, organisms have grown to be able to detect such structures. I cannot remember the organism, I think it’s a deep water fish, but a precursor to our eyes was sensitive only to ‘light’ or nothing. Since, eyes seemed to catch on as an important way (in an evolutionary sense) to keep developing, which in our case meant becoming more and more sensitive to the structure that light carries with it. There is no reason to believe that at once, in any given slice of time, that we can perceive all of the structures that light carries with it. ‘We see what we see’ and if we want to see more, we have to explore whatever we are trying to see by moving, to literally detect structure that may be occluded to us from one vantage point (like “illusions”), or, we simply have not looked at something for enough time that we have yet to learn to discriminate between smaller differences in structure in the optic array. I can, in the end, come to the same or a different conclusion about what I saw, depending on the history with which I came into the situation, but also depending on which parts of the array I was detecting, or trying to detect, at the time.

Third, we see and hear and detect pressure and other things at the location at which that information is available (but as you might expect, we do not necessarily detect it, but, we have the possibility to). The firing of cells in the eye that propagate to the brain, never held content, and was always in a ‘language neutral’, ‘symbol neutral’, non-content “signal”.

However. Vicente Raja Galian pointed out that so far, I have yet to assign any function to the brain, and it seems appropriate that we should since it is a curious structure and we have kept it evolutionarily. Keeping a biological structure does not entail function or even importance (in the strictest interpretation of the word), but it seems to me to be a very valid point. So far, I am having issues arguing against that the brain is for ‘where’ (on/in the body) and ‘in what order’. Something is detected at the foot as intense pressure, I look down and see a dog biting it, this (in a sense) creates a loop where whatever signals are propagated back from the retina together with the pressure of the foot are happening simultaneously. There is simultaneous increased firing from two directions into the brain. Solely by being simultaneous in a close (geographically) space, intertwines the two. Experience does not happen in the brain, it happens in the relationship between body and environment, but one thing happening before, after or simultaneously, may come to be through having a space within a body where the ‘where and when’ co-exists. Because a lot of neural propagation going on in the body, in one way or another, travels to one collected structure, the brain. No content is needed, all we need to “know” is where and when, which is simply (although plastic) a matter of bodily geography.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that the brain is for drawn-ness and repulsion, but that currently requires more thought and explication before I feel comfortable laying it out publically.

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.)

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

An ecological note on the Müller-Lyer illusion

The Müller-Lyer illusion

Are one of the lines longer, shorter or the same length as the other one?

Traditional psychology holds that perception is flawed, we see illusions because the underlying perceptual aspects of our experience need to be embellished, corrected, interpreted, etc, by our brain. While doing this we make mistakes. It is often posited as one of the major issues for ecological psychology to explain because it seems to invite cognition. After all, if all the information is detectable out in the environment, then why would we perceive the top line as shorter and the bottom one as longer?

Perceptual illusions in real life (not on paper or a screen) can quite easily be dealt with. We could argue that the we have not sampled enough of the available information in the ambient optic array, so we do that by locomotion and change of viewing angle. When we do, very many illusions are simply dispelled (Kennedy & Portal, 1990, or Michaels & Corello, 1981). In fact Michaels and Corello explains this very well; if we are in a desert, looking for water and see a mirage (which may or may not be water), it is right of us to investigate if it is or not, not doing so would be the wrong action to take. In the same way, they exemplify, could we be fooled by a hologram until we reach out to try and touch it.
Besides this point, the illusions that aren’t able to be dispelled by simply exploring, are always images or videos on a screen or paper. Making them in part unexplorable. As for the Müller-Lyer illusion, it is at the same time simple but abstract forms. All the information given is what is there, but even looking at it now, knowing they are the same length, I still perceive them as different lengths. A solution that has been suggested elsewhere (lost the reference sorry) is that the top figure shows an enclosing space, if we were to reach our hand in, we would be more constrained than the bottom figure. The information is specifying a smaller versus a larger space.
Another assumption of traditional psychology is that (visual) perception works with the simplest aspects, lines, points, and that then there is a constructive process cognitively that puts things together into more and more complex constructions of what we perceive (into the full 3d-experience of the world). For a traditionalist then, there is no doubt it is an illusion, the lines are the same length, we perceive them to be different -our brain is playing tricks with us. From an ecological standpoint, it is impossible not to see the four end lines, you can’t not perceive them when perceiving the end of the lines. Therefore, they matter.
It is fully possible that we actually don’t perceive the “simplest” form and construct it, in fact, this is what ecological psychology says we don’t do. The example comes from the Planimeter (Runeson). A mechanical, simple, device that can measure the area of irregular patches without knowing length, width or doing any computations. (For its full explanation, see here.) It thus measures a “higher order” thing, sqaure cm (or inch) without the “simpler” concepts. It is fully possible to conceive of the idea that we then simply cannot ignore the four end lines -they are not individual lines, they are a form that is important, in it’s whole, to our perception of it. For this reason, it may just be so that the question “Are one of the lines shorter, longer or the same length as the other?” a silly question to ask. Because our perceptual system does not work on simple structure and construction, it is forcing us to do something that we simply don’t do, and therefore do it poorly.
(Which unfortunately is not too uncommon in the traditional psychological literature.)

Is it an impossibility to “see” the Big Bang?

Even if we theorise there to be a universe contracting and expanding, or a Big Bang, it might be impossible to actually “see” it. The reason would be found in Ecological Psychology.

Only when Ambient Light has structure does it specify the environment. There has to be differences in different directions, for it to contain any information. Perfect symmetry, maximum entropy, is theorised to be a whole bunch of homogeniety in layout, distance between particles, etc. If we have a medium that is perfectly evenly distributed, we do not have difference. So how could we ever “see” it?

A tiny example of logical abstraction being unequal to EcoPsy

I had issues coming up with a title for this because it is only a tiny example I use when speaking with undergraduates (usually first-years) about the inadequacy of logic to account for human behaviour. I link it to Gigerenzer’s arguments on this matter.

If this example may be useful for you to use, awesome, otherwise; you can always use it to tire people out and make something easy more of a burden (for no reason at all, which is always a fun pastime).

Imagine a round pillar with four plaques in each cardinal direction, you are to read all four. You may choose to either; walk one cardinal direction clockwise for the entire procedure, or; three cardinal directions counter-clockwise for the entire procedure. However, regardless of which one you choose you would read the plaques, gaining the same information, in the same order. Logically, abstracted from the procedure, you walk away with the same information. Ecologically, obviously, they are different because movement is different. The larger the pillar, the larger the difference.

The point here can then be elaborated further upon depending on the exact idea you are wanting to teach. I find it quite useful for undergraduates, as for postgraduates however, the example is often too basic and Gigerenzer’s ‘Wason four-card task argument’ I find more useful.

If you have any fun techniques or examples you use to teach these ideas, please enrich the comment field!

Ecological Psychology and Locke(d) Doors

A point of entry in the free will debate concerns Locke’s example (no reference I’m afraid, I’ve lost it) of a person entering a room, closing the door behind hier [ɪə]. In situation A hie [i:] just makes a decision to stay or leave, in situation B hie is unaware of the door locking behind hier. Now, my own take on this example is that it neatly shows subjective and objective ‘knowledge’ [and its impact on considering free will existent or not]. Hie makes a decision based on free will in the first case and hie only believes hie does in the second. From a subjective perspective there is free will, from an objective there isn’t.

Ecological Psychology does not like this at all. EcoPsy would probably decide that in both cases there is free will because perception, belonging to the observer, does not include the information that the door is locked. Or? EcoPsy is positioned with embodied, embedded and often extended cognition, including dynamicism. This would entail that movement and active exploration is an important aspect of being human. Therefore, the decision to stay in the room can either be classified as free will in both cases or defined a non-decision. The reason for the latter would be that, at that point in time, the perceiver has not actively explored the environment enough to be able to make the decision to begin with. Even a half-arsed exploration of hies [i:z] environment allows perception of which options are available. As I see it, the original example assumes naivité and passivity on part of the observer, and this is unfair.

The most important point however is that the original example also defines decision-making in a strict computational manner; at one point in time, without temporal perspective, in a very strict fashion. It does not take into consideration how we explore, find out and perceive in the real world -how decisions unfold over time and do not boil down to single points in time. In my perspective, there are several more philosophical examples that are conundrums simply because of the distinct connectionist/computationalist ignorance of temporal flow.

Ecological Psychology and Everyday Conflicts

EP has given me a few thoughts about some issues I’ve had in philosophy. The first one being that of seeing the world in one’s subjective sense compared to an objective sense. This is often up for debate when discussing anything involving the question; what really happened? Because, as everyone will assure you of, their own subjective version of a story is the, at least more so, correct one. As many have found though, “truth” (considered using “truthiness” here… again… pass for now… again…), is often found somewhere in between the two accounts. So why is this important when involving EP and philosophy?

Well, roughly, social constructionism (SC) will tell you that both versions are correct and will, practically, end in some form of compromise (good) or further polarisation (not so good) of the two parties. There is no use in deciding which is more correct or delving deeper into the actual accounts, just that each version is correct in their own right because that was the experience of each of the two parties.

Critical realism (CR) will state that there was a reality to the situation but both accounts are skewed in each party’s own favour -so it would be necessary to try and extract an objective version out of the two subjective versions. Doing this, in my perspective, rather entails creating a third subjective perspective -more so than one being objective (however a side-note in my argument because it becomes important to define subjective and objective and what they entail and why I would define the third perspective as subjective rather than objective. However. As with much in philosophy, definitions aren’t clear cut and will most probably be a long and pointless discussion with exceptions to the rule).

Instead, what insight can EP give us into the practical application of philosophy in our lives? EP would focus on the perspective of each of the two accounts and validate both, like SC. However, with the addition of each perspective being unique, relying on the mechanisms of perception, there is some ground to actually state that they are both valid (unlike SC, which demands validity outright). The consequence here is that with EP one is allowed to reconcile the two perspectives on the same level as they are stated -CR here needs to abstract the two subjective versions to one objective version. I believe then, that due to the non-existence of an objective/subjective dichotomy -one is forced by EP to acknowledge the experience of both parties and look at cause and effect between the two accounts through the process of the situation as it unfolded. The to and fro, if you will. One is not forced to do this, if guided by either SC or CR. SC is too egalitarian and naive in its supposition and has a hard time consolidating two very different perspectives, especially when they are very specific. CR on the other hand entails the assumption that neither account holds the “correct” version as there is an objective version that is superior.

My conclusion then, is that EP doubles back into philosophy and gains us a fuller account of ‘what really happened’, gives more information about how a specific situation unfolded, and in turn, gives you more leads to use when attempting to resolve the dispute.

A first note; CR, I find, is used most often in everyday life and also most often works decently well. EP gives you an extra edge in all parts of the process however.

A secondary note; it is quite fun (and easy) to define, in any type of dispute in real life, what philosophical backdrop people use when resolving, maintaining or escalating a conflict. Every philosophical perspective has its merits and flaws and de-escalating a conflict can be quite an easy task if you can identify and practically use to your advantage the specific perspective taken by other parties. Add pedagogy and conflict de-escalation/resolution is within reach.

A last note; positivism is not brought up simply because at that level of abstraction (even further than CR), it is of even less help (than for example CR) -although, as has been written, each perspective has its merits and flaws, and are usable situationally.

A second last note; I miss teaching (and research, although I have available many journals), won’t this summer vacation ever end?

Ecological Psychology and Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor (OR) isn’t usually applied between competing theories, but there are known examples of this also; some astrophysics mathematical equation was found by an American and was simpler (and accurate enough) than one by a Russian and so the former was/is used. Apologies for the lack of reference and specificity in the example. OR is also not an irrefutable principle of logic, or so Wikipedia says.

Ecological Psychology (EP), with both less assumptions and simpler rules guiding scientific discovery should be supported by the principle when comparing to computational theories. Even within EP, a goal is to try and find the most simple heuristic or rule-governed process for a given behaviour, maintaining the principle.

It should be said that OR has obvious issues, the foremost perhaps being that it does not guarantee truth (considered using “truthiness” here.. pass for now..) or correctness. It just says that the simpler explanation is more often the likely case.

Accepting that computationalism doesn’t really provide an explanation of the human condition, or at least that it does a worse job than EP, then we can be (at the very least, temporarily) justified to rely on EP based on this logical principle instead of computationalism.