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.

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.