Perception versus Representation

cartesian mind

The world is it’s own best model…why? We can put the answer in another slogan that [AI researcher] Brooks would probably like: Perception is cheap, representation expensive. Such a slogan might surprise many AI workers, who are acutely aware of how difficult pattern recognition can be. But the point is that good enough perception is cheaper than good enough representation-where that means “good enough” to avoid serious errors. The trouble with representation is that, to be good enough, it must be relatively complete and relatively up to date, both of which are costly in a dynamic environment. Perception, by contrast, can remain happily ad hoc, dealing with concrete questions only as they arise. To take a homely example, it would be silly, for most purposes, to try and keep track of what shelf everything in the refrigerator is currently on, if and when you want something, just look.

This quotation is from chapter nine of John Haugeland’s essays in the metaphysics of the mind, Having Thought. In the chapter, Haugeland argues against the “interrelationist” account of the mind and the body, which accepts the premise:

that the mental, or at any rate the cognitive”, has some essential feature, such as intentionality or normativity, and then argue that this feature is impossible except through participation in some supra-individual network of relations.

interrelationist arguments are holistic in the specific sense that they take cognitive phenomena to be members of some class phenomena, each of which has its relevant character only by virtue of its determinate relations to the others-that relevant character being, in effect, nothing other than its “place” in the larger pattern or whole.

As a competing theoretical framework, Haugeland offer’s what he calls the “intimacy of the mind’s embodiment and embeddedness in the world…[with the] term “intimacy” suggesting more than just necessary interrelation or interdependence but a kind of commingling or integralness.”

This embodiment relates to my earlier entry on the MIT Cog project, which is following the general thesis outlined by Haugeland, which is that intelligence does not depend on a “furniture of information” or “complex symbol structure that are, in many respects, just like the contents of the traditional Cartesian mind.”, but rather, on the “concrete details of the agent’s embodiment and worldly situation”.

This embodied and embedded approach to perception has probably been most controversially put forward by psychologist James J. Gibson. Haugeland quotes him as follows:

the words animal and environment make an inseparable pair. Each term implies the other. No animal could exist without an environment surrounding it. Equally, although not so obvious, an environment implies an animal(or at least an organism) to be surrounded. This means that the surface of the earth, millions of years before life developed on it, was not an environment, properly speaking.

Thus, in this sense, Haugeland says that we can understand animals(including humans) as “perceivers” if we consider than “inseparably related to an environment, which is itself understood in terms appropriate to that animal”.

So for humans, in order to understand perception, we must understand our complexly relative relationship to the environment, which necessarily implies our dynamic socialization schemas. Furthermore, Gibson claims that in order to understand this perception of the environment, we must take into account the affordances of the environment, or what it offers to the animal. Thus, “the central question for the theory of affordances is not whether they exist and are real but whether information is available in ambient light for perceiving them”.

This perception of affordances puts the first quotation of this post in context. The world is it’s own best model and our perception of it is in relative(embodied and embedded) terms with the environment.


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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

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