Reflections on ‘Radical Enactivism and Ecological Psychology: friends or foes?’

Target article: Zahidi, K., Eemeren, J.V. (2018) Radical Enactivism and Ecological Psychology: friends or foes? (OPC on “Perception-Action Mutuality Obviates Mental Construction” by Martin Fultot et al.)

The article compares some core aspects of Enactivism (REC version) with Ecological Psychology (on the basis that Fultot et al. reflects it), they find disagreement and puts forth a decision between two aspects of EP -one amenable to REC, the other not. The one that isn’t is thankfully not a position held by EP, which makes it seem like the two are compatible (at least on these points). See below for extracts. Finally: The below is an attempt at understanding each other better, I like Enactivism, I think we can mutually benefit each other -but we need to know each other’s positions better. Also, I am not a representative of the entire discipline, nor do I claim to know it. But, this is a beginning to a discussion across fields so we can benefit from each other! (I hope if I mischaracterize Enactivism that you will help me too!)


p. 1 “The first thesis essentially says that all forms of basic cognition are “concrete spatio-temporally extended patterns of dynamic interaction between organisms and their environment ” (Hutto & Myin 2013: 5).”
If you take this quote out of its context of an Enactivism paper, you would need to be citing Gibson (1966, 1979) here and Chemero (2009), as it is a very close definition to how the concept of Affordances is used in EP. I.e. it being a relation within and/or between organisms and environments (this language can be tightened up though if you want, like niche and habitat (Baggs & Chemero, 2018). This is good news, because if it is a central tenet then there is hope we have amenable approaches.

p. 2 “Sensorimotor contingencies are the lawful ways in which sensory stimulation changes as the organism moves or acts in the environment . In perception the organism exploits these sensorimotor contingencies to find its way around the environment.”
I do not know the definition of sensory stimulation in Enactivism, if they mean the traditional behaviorist/representationalist sense that stimulation is the basis of perception, then I disagree. I believe this leads to a path down needing representations/content etc in the brain to build up whatever it is that we “see”. Due to Direct Perception, I cannot accept that. If they mean sensory stimulation the way that Gibson (1979) does, then the next point of issue is the exact definition of sensorimotor contingencies (SMCs) in general. Are SMCs the change in perspective? The change in perspective plus the change in layout that this brings with it? The change in all of the above plus the new changes in action that it also brings with it? The EP way of bringing about lawfulness is through specificity which can be found in Gibson (1979), Turvey, Solomon and Burton (1990), Stoffregen and Bardy (2001) and Chemero (2009) (and there are more…). Specificity is a debated term, what is included, what isn’t, but as a basic definition we need (in the case of vision) light that bounces off a bunch of stuff in the world, making it structured in different directions, this structure is referred to both as an ambient optic array, and information. Information here is not content. Never content. Ever. But with our visual perceptual system (which includes the entire body, not just the eyes) we have evolved to detect differences and changes in this structure. Information is argued by some to imply necessarily an animal, some don’t, yet others argue it doesn’t really matter if it does or not… For all that I can tell, the quoted sentence doesn’t contradict specificity…

p. 2 “However, from a REC point of view that interaction is always embodied interaction. It is the embodied nature of the organism that grounds the kind of interactions that are possible. Note however that the “body” referred to in the Embodiment Thesis is not our common-sense notion of body but rather the body engaged in non-linear and far-reaching sensorimotor interactions while engaging with certain salient features of the environment . In this interaction the physical body ànd brain areas are in play. ”
Gibson (1966, 1979) you cannot be disembodied. Some of the initial research in EP was driven by the idea that due to the definition of affordances, then our perception-action cycles must bear on aspects of our body in conjunction with aspects of the environment when we enact or perceive affordances. See Warren (1984) for an easy example. Lastly, for EP the brain surely does something, I won’t deny it is a curious structure that does something, but I definitely do not hold a modular view of the brain (see e.g. Anderson’s book After Phrenology about the specificity of brain regions). Now, this last point doesn’t necessarily contradict to Anderson, in that the brain does specific things, however, this to me (in both Anderson and REC) invites too easily the concept of representations if viewed strictly, or content if viewed loosely, as something in the brain, and that the brain does. That is not acceptable from an EP standpoint for very many different reasons. So, it does depend on what is actually meant by interaction, and what is supposed that the brain does, which isn’t explicitly stated in this quote.

p. 2 “All interactions are made possible by previous interactions between the organism and its environment (and recall that the history of interactions may extend beyond the organism’s life-time). ”
Question for Enactivists, I like the idea, if it doesn’t invite nativist arguments. How is it brought about across generations? (I can think of candidate answers but do not wish to speculate.)

p. 2 “The answer is that the interactions affect and change the neural and non-neural body of the organism. In the neural machinery the past experience is sedimented, and in order to explain current interactions this “sediment” is called upon.”
Another question, is REC ok with content either outside of or inside of the body, in whatever shape it takes? Ecological Psychology is not, for either, this to me hints at a real divide if content is assumed anywhere in the system on behalf of REC.

p. 2-3 “There is thus no danger that by invoking neural structure in enactivist explanation, representations slip back in by the back door.”
I want to apologize if I am reading REC unfavorably, but even though it is insisted upon that representations are not accepted in REC, it does seem like REC wants to talk about content without talking about representations. Is that true? Is that possible? If so, it hints again at a divide.

p. 3 “If the net of perception is so widely cast and is constituted by certain types of behavior by which organisms adapt to conditions in their environment, and if it is its aim to find in all these different kinds of behavior a kind of common structure as the essence of perception thus conceived, then it is unsurprising that perception does not depend on neural structure. One may wonder whether trying to find a communal structure to such a diverse set of behaviors is going to result in something genuinely explanatory.”
Firstly, ‘the essence of perception’ is not something that exists, it sounds representational/computational to me. A communal structure is slightly unclear what exactly is meant, I took it to mean that structure does things, but EP wouldn’t say that a structure does things. In fact, the way it is written makes me think it is referring to a fallacy not in EP but in representional/computational psychology due to the assumption of content. Structure, in EP, is of course implicated, but it is not the driver, it is not the controller -because there isn’t one.

p. 3 “Arguably, these are the phenomena for which REC invokes neural structure to explain them .”
This may be our currently dividing aspect, it’s not that neural structure is not involved, I of course think the brain is active, but I do not want to assign function to the brain if I don’t need to. So far, I haven’t come across any behavior, concept, situation, event, that I need to invoke content/representations/computation for. Maybe I will, and then that would be ok in certain forms, but I am going to try to explain things without the brain first, and if I can’t well then it may just be that ‘the brain does it’.

p. 4 “There is, at this point no reason to assume that the meaning of objects is in some way perceived by the organism . But EP makes the further assumption that the meaning is actually perceived through the perception of affordances. The way affordances are perceived is through the invariants in the optical array. The latter (as well as the ambient light at a convergence point) is said to contain (as in “content”) information about objects and their lay-out in the environment.”
Meaning is perceived in EP along with the relation between environment and organism, it is inherent in the term affordances. Since affordances (and the quote of Fultot) insists that ‘behavioral implications’ are what are important to the organism (for whatever reason, based on whatever past, current, and future that the organism is currently acting on). Content, it is never assumed in EP, there is no place for it. If some piece of writing seems to invite this idea, rest assured it is a misreading (or that it is really hard with the language we have at our disposal to say it in a different way that sounds better). Again, information is structure in an energy array, like the optic array in vision, which we can detect if we have perceptual systems sensitive to light (although it is deeper than this). Starting with Gibson (1966) is a good idea and then reading and noticing changes to his 1979 book. But there is a host of theorizing since then up until now also as a previous comment to a quote says (viz. specificity).

p. 4 “The use of the word “about” seems to indicate that information is a semantic notion and thus that information has semantic content.”
This made me think that perhaps the above, and this, hints at that this is a problem in philosophy -I’m a psychologist and I will throw around the word about or for interchangeably, in philosophy it seems to be a thing. Information does not have semantic content (however, see Michaels & Carello’s, 1981, about information about vs for). Content is not a concept in EP.

p. 4 “That Fultot et al. take this semantic road is far from clear, however, we suspect they do (cf. their complaint in § 51 that REC “doesn’t even tolerate content”).”
Fultot, just like me, aren’t representative of the entire field, although I of course understand that their article is the focus of Zahidi and Eemeren’s OPC. This statement, if true, doesn’t generalize to EP in general.

p. 4 “One way to do this is to interpret EP information as co-variance of worldly lay-out in relation to a convergence point and optical structure at that certain point .”
In comparison the the above quote, this one is closer to what you’d find in Gibson and authors after.

p. 4 “In other words, while the meaning of the objects is something objective (which we can, from a third-person perspective, describe), that meaning is not given in perception to the organism, it is something the organism enacts.”
Nothing is objective, objective and subjective doesn’t really exist. There is a commonly used Gibson quote that says that affordances cut across the subjective objective divide, it is both, or neither (1979). I take EP to include and couch behavior in culture, customs, norms, societies, groups, families, histories, futures… the list can be made long. We live in nested spatio-temporal scales. Of course, you can use words as if there is perspective such that, but in the reality of things, it is just a “pole of attention” (1979) and not some, actual, real, perspective that exists in the world. I think EP can give REC something here if my assumptions of REC aren’t too misguided.

p. 5 “For example, in order to avoid falling back on some “impoverished stimulus”-type of psychology, some ecological psychologists like Michael Turvey have swayed in the opposite direction, postulating ultra-information-richness of the media (light, air, …) around us. (cf. A. Chemero 2009: 106-107).”
“Ultra” richness is misleading, it just has a certain richness. EP does not say we perceive light as such when we go about our daily business, but, imagine the number of photons in certain cubic area -yeah it is super ultra amazing rich! But the point is that, we take it so for granted that we don’t realize that this is the norm. Impoverished stimulus is not. Light is incredibly dense, the pure physics of it checks out…

p. 5 “Here, the structure of the optical array determines completely the (behavioral) meaning of the object: there is no ambiguity possible . However, Rob Withagen and Anthony Chemero (2009) have challenged this view on evolutionary grounds.”
This is not exactly true, see Stoffregen and Bardy (2001) in their concept of the global array, and also see the reponses to their article (contained in the same pdf that the link directs to). The global array is a contested concept along with specificity, but it should give some insight into where the debate is. Also, there is ambiguity possible -but not in the traditional sense that would open up for arguing about impoverished stimulus- and also not only for evolutionary reasons, but for reasons you’ll find in Eleanor Gibson’s absolutely stunning theory of development within Ecological Psychology (e.g. Gibson & Pick, 2003). It really is a game-changer.

p. 5 “It merely allows for information available through the optic array to not fully specify affordances . That doesn’t imply a need for it to be supplemented through some type of mental construction. The organism can find out the affordances of the object by interacting with it . When the available (optic) invariant co-varies only moderately with the affordances, so to say, the history of interaction, c.q. learning history, explains the organism’s improved adjustment to its situation .”
Not fully specifying affordances gets tricky technically, other authors including myself, are skeptical about this, because it depends on where you think the consequence might “pop up” if we allow a 1-1-1 specificity (see Turvey, et al. 1990 above). As an example, finding out by interacting is a way of exploring the world for invariants -sometimes other invariants than the ones we first paid attention to that happened to be nonspecifying. See Stoffregen and Bardy (2001) for this, link further up. Finally, see Eleanor Gibson’s developmental theory, it does an excellent job of explaining learning history through differentiation.

p. 5 “With respect to the use of semantic notions, we have argued that these can be banned from EP without loss of explanatory power.”
This is good news because we don’t have anything called “semantic information” or “semantic notion” in our theory =D.