Tag Archives: Gibson

A crude theory of perception: thoughts on affordances, information, and the explanatory role of representations

Perception is the reaction to meaningful information, inside or outside the body. The most basic information is information specific to affordances. An affordance is a part of reality which, in virtue of its objective structure, offers itself as affording the possibility of some reaction (usually fitness-enhancing, but not necessarily so). A reaction can be understood at multiple levels of complexity and mechanism. Sucrose, in virtue of its objective structure, affords the possibility of maintaining metabolic equilibrium to a bacteria cell. Water, in virtue of its objective structure, affords the possibility of stable ground for the water strider. Water, in virtue of its objective structure, does not afford the possibility of a stable ground for a human being unless it is frozen. An affordance then is, as J.J. Gibson said, both subjective and objective at the same time. Objective, because what something affords is directly related to its objective structure; subjective, because what something affords depends on how the organism reacts to it (e.g. human vs. water strider)

The objective structure of a proximal stimulus can only be considered informationally meaningful if that stimulus is structured so as to be specific to an affordance property. If a human is walking on the beach towards the ocean, the ocean will have the affordance property it has regardless of whether the human is there to perceive information specific to it. The “success” or meaningfulness of the human’s perception of the ocean is determined by whether the proximal stimulus contains information specific to that affordance property. A possible affordance property might be “getting you wet”, which is usually not useful, but can be extremely useful if you are suddenly caught on fire. Under normal viewing conditions, the objective structure of the ambient array of light in front of the human contains information specific to the ocean’s affordance properties in virtue of its reflective spectra off the water and through the airspace. But if the beach was shrouded in a very thick fog, the ambient optic array would stimulate the human’s senses, but the stimulus wouldn’t be meaningful because it only conveys useless information about the ocean, even though that information is potentially there for the taking if the fog was cleared. An extreme version of “meaningless stimulus without perception” is the Ganzfeld effect. On these grounds, we can recreate, without appealing to any kind of representational theory, the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities i.e. the distinction between mere sensory transduction of meaningless stimuli and meaningful perception.

Note too how perception is most basically “looking ahead” to the future since the affordance property specifies the possibility of a future reaction. This can be seen in how higher animals can “scan” the environment for information specific to affordances, but restrain themselves from acting on that information until the moment is right. This requires inhibition of basic action schemas either learned or hardwired genetically as instinctual. In humans, the “range” of futural cognition is uniquely enhanced by our technology of symbols and linguistic metaphor. For instance, a human can look at a flat sheet of colored paper stuck to a refrigerator and meaningfully think about a wedding to attend one year in the future. A scientist can start a project and think about consequences ten years down the road. Humans can use metaphors like “down the road” because we have advanced spatial analogs which allow us to consciously link disparate bits of neural information specific to sensorimotor pathways into a more cohesive, narratological whole so as to assert “top-down” control by a globally distributed executive function sensitive to social-cultural information.

This is the function which enables humans to effortlessly “time travel” by inserting distant events into the present thought stream or simulating future scenarios through conscious imagination. We can study the book in our heads of what we have done and what we will do, rehearse speech acts for a future occasion, think in our heads what we should have said to that one person, and use external symbolic graphs to radically extend our cognitive powers. Reading and writing, for example, has utterly changed the cognitive powers of humans. Math, scientific methodology, and computer theory have also catapulted humans into the next level of technological sophistication. In the last few decades, we have seen how the rise of the personal computer, internet, and cellphone has radically changed how humans cope in this world. We are as Andy Clark said, natural born cyborgs. Born into a social-linguistic milieu rich in tradition and preinstalled with wonderful learning mechanisms that soak up useful information like sponges, newborn humans effortlessly adapt to the affordances of the most simple environmental elements (like the ground) to the most advanced (the affordance of a book, or a website).

So although representations are not necessary at the basic level of behavioral reaction shared by the unicellulars (bacteria reacting to sucrose by devouring it and using it metabolically), the addition of the central nervous system allows for the storage of affordance information into representational maps. A representational map is a distributed pattern of brain activity which allows for the storage of informational patterns which can be utilized independently of the stimulus event which first brought you into contact with that information. For example, when a bird is looking right at a food cache, it does not need its representational memory to be able to get at the food; it simply looks at the cache and then reacts by means of a motor program for getting at the food sparked by a recognition sequence. However, when the cache is not in sight and the bird is hungry, how does the bird get itself to the location of the cache? By means of a re-presentation of the cache’s spatial location which was originally stored in the brain’s memory upon first caching the food. By accessing stored memory-based information about a place even when not actually at that place, the bird is utilizing representations to boost the cognitive prowess of its nonrepresentational affordance-reaction programs. Representations are thus a form of brain-based cognitive enhancement which allow for the reaction to information which is stored within the brain itself, rather than just contained in the external proximal stimulus data. By developing the capacity to react to information stored within itself, the brain gains the capacity to organize reactions into more complicated sequence of steps, delaying and modifying reactions and allowing for the storage of information for later retrieval and the capacity to better predict events farther into the future (like the bird predicting food will be at its cache even though it is miles away).


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

Tyler Burge begs the question against nonrepresentationalism

There is an interesting article by Tyler Burge in the NY Times philosophy blog called “A Real Science of Mind” that I happen to disgree with vehemently. He basically claims that representationalism is the only game in town when it comes to explaining visual perception. In fact, he doesn’t even hint at the fact that representationalism is but one theory, and one supported by philosophically ambiguous explanations of what it means to actually “represent” something. Indeed, he says:

Explanation in perceptual psychology is a sub-type of task-focused explanation.  What makes it distinctively psychological is that it uses notions like representational accuracy, a specific type of correlation…Why are explanations in terms of representational accuracy needed?  They explain perceptual constanciesVisual perception is getting the environment right — seeing it, representing it accurately…Perceptual psychology explains how perceptual states that represent environmental properties are formed.

Now, it seems to me that Burge has massively begged the question against nonrepresentational explanations of low-level visual perception.

In  making this claim, I put myself in a precarious position. One of the main points of Burge’s article is that vision science is a highly developed and “mathematically rigorous” science. Burge is insistent that vision science is on solid explanatory ground and I have no intention of challenging the mountain of empirical evidence gathered by orthodox representational visual science. No, the question is not about the facts, but rather, about the interpretation of the facts. It is my claim that representationalism is but one way of interpreting the empirical facts gathered by orthodox visual science.

My claim goes as follows: talk about the visual creature “accurately representing” the environment can be replaced, without losing any explanatory power, by talk of “discriminating information” in the environment. Some would say this is merely a matter of semantics, and in a way they would be right. But when it comes to philosophical explanations of visual perception, semantics are of the utmost importance. But why bother with this semantic triviality between “representation” and “discrimination”? Aren’t they the same thing? In a way, yes. But, as William Ramsey has argued in his important book Representation Reconsidered, this theoretical equivalency is actually the result of orthodox visual science moving away from classic forms of representationalism. For when a visual scientist claims that the organism “accurately” represents a feature of the environment in perception, all the explanatory work is being done by the neural workhorse that is the brain. And, naturally, this explanation is ultimately cashed out in physiological terms, against Burge’s claim that visual science is truly representational.

It is my contention that talk of “differentiation” or “discrimination” is just as psychological as talk of “representation”, but discrimination is more ontologically coherent. Take the example of a hungry primate perceiving a juicy red strawberry. Orthodox visual science would say that in successfully perceiving the strawberry the primate must have accurately represented the red strawberry as a red strawberry, (and not, say, as a purple poisonberry). This is the classic representationalist explanation. On my view, it would be more philosophically parsimonious to say that in successfully perceiving the strawberry, the primate discriminated the strawberry from out of the ambient array of energy surrounding the strawberry. Another way of putting it would be that in perceiving the red strawberry the primate attended to the information specific to the features of the strawberry that were relevant to its internal needs, namely, hunger.

On this account, the primate can be said to perceive the red strawberry as nutritious, not as a strawberry. Notice how this is starkly different from the representationalist interpretation. For the representationalist, the primate’s perception of the strawberry is cashed out in terms of how accurately the internal representation is in comparison to the objective features of the strawberry. If the primate represents the strawberry as being red, and the strawberry really is red, then the primate’s perception of the strawberry is said to be “accurate”, and thus successful. It is then said that the brain consults the representation when forming its intentions to act. Orthodox visual theory is thus committed to what some philosophers have called the sense-represent-planact model. The primate receives proximal sense-data, tries to form an accurate representation of distal stimulus, consults the representation to form a plan, and then executes a motor command to pluck the strawberry and bring it into its mouth.

On my interpretation, we can eliminate the “represent” and “plan” stages and replace it with a sensorimotor model. On this account, the task of the brain is to discriminate the meaningful information already in the environment by attending to it. Neurally speaking, the discrimination supervenes upon the neural patterns of activity. So how is this different from the representationalist story? Because unlike Burge, I think the behavioral nature of discriminatory perception is actually a plus, not a downside (and of course, behavioral explanations are a kind of psychological explanation unless we beg the question against behaviorism). So we shouldn’t expect visual neuroscience to engage in representational theorization when the proper explanatory level of description is behavioral, not representational. I have never seen a representational theory that avoided the homunculus problem without merely collapsing into descriptions of the behavior of  neurons.

And for good reason. Although Burge claims that representation is well understood by visual science, he is only half-right. Representation is well understood if by that we mean that we understand the neural underpinning and physiological correlations of the representation. But as William Ramsey has argued, this is precisely the point. Orthodox visual science has never actually successfully explained how a representation actually functions as a representation, as opposed to being a merely physiological mediator in a long chain of neural activity that ultimately leads to effective motor behavior.

So while Burge is perfectly right to say that “neuralbabble” is nonexplanatory on the psychological level, I believe he is mistaken when he claims that representationalism offers a philosophically rigorous interpretative framework that explains the phenomena at hand. Burge recognizes this when he talks about “generic representations” that apply so widely to any causal correlation as to no longer being explanatorily useful in cognitive science. To make representation explanatorily worthwhile, he introduces the notion of “accuracy”. But as I attempted to explain above, there is an alternative interpretation of accuracy available that focuses on the accurate perception of an affordance. But, crucially, the accurate perception of an affordance is entirely different than the accurate representation of an objective feature. This is because the affordance is more directly tied into the motivational circuits and can thus undercut the “represent” and “plan” stages of the sense-represent-plan-act model and jump right into the scientifically respectable arena of “sensation” and “action”. Hence, sensorimotor models of visual perception. The notion of accurately representing objective features of the environment is replaced by the accurate discrimination of information specific to invariant properties of objects which are themselves specific to affordances (opportunities for behavior). Perceiving the strawberry then becomes a matter of attending to those features of the strawberry which either past experience or innate knowledge has taught to be relevant to homeostatic needs.

Hence, we can account for the normative or “psychological” component of perception (its possible success or failure) in terms of how well the organism is capable of detecting information specific to properties that are themselves specific to affordances. And this offers us a path towards a “real science of mind”. Why? Because affordance perception is directly tied into those sensorimotor causal pathways that have been so successfully studied by orthodox visual science. And it does this without invoking a notion of one thing somehow “standing in for” something else.

Now, my representational critics will respond by saying that the discrimination of information specific to affordances is no more understood than is the notion of accurately representing the environment. Point well taken. But it is my contention that orthodox visual science has been talking about discrimination all along. So I really don’t see myself as being a “revolutionary”. I contend that we could go into almost every single visual science article and change “represents” with “discriminates” without losing any explanatory value. In fact, I think this semantical change would actually enhance the explanatory power of visual science precisely because “discrimination” is more ontologically tractable insofar as it doesn’t make a sharp distinction between the “merely mechanical” sensation of a bacterium and the “cognitive” perceptual capacities of “representing creatures”. One could say that my theory offers a “flat ontology” wherein all lifeforms are said to share in the capacity for discrimination of information and reactivity in direct response to that discrimination. Accordingly, my interpretation is immediately amenable with the advances being made in evolutionary biology.

Moreover, and most importantly for my purposes, the rejection of representationalism for an explanation of basic visual perception would leave room for those phenomena that truly deserve a representational explanation: human symbolic cognition. Indeed, in rejecting representationalism for the explanation of basic visual perception I do not reject all representational explanations like Anthony Chemero does. I thus think, following Clark and Toribio, that some phenomena are “representation hungry”, while others aren’t. Following Gibson, I do not think that basic visual perception as shared by most animals on this planet is representation hungry. What I do think absolutely requires a representational explanation is the symbolic and linguistic cognition of humans. For the referential system that is language absolutely requires an explanation of how one thing (a linguistic symbol) could “stand in for” something else. For example, the word “strawberry” cognitively stands in for a real strawberry. Now, I’m not claiming to have a complete theory worked out about symbolic cognition. But I think significant progress in the mind sciences would be made if we all recognized this demarcation between the nonrepresentational, sensorimotor cognition we share with nonhuman animals and the representational, symbolic cognition seemingly unique to humans.


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Skeptical about Chemero's interpretation of Gibson

Chemero makes a curious statement about Gibson in a recent paper:

The claim that the cognitive system is not in the head at all, that cognition is to be explained entirely in terms of the interactions of whole animals and their environments, may seem like an automatic nonstarter and an idea so crazy that no one would have held it. That is not so. Skinnerian behaviorists still make claims like this (Hineline 2006), and the later work of Gibson (1979) can be interpreted as making claims like this. In both cases, the claim is that all of the explanatory work can be done by carefully studying the ways active animals interact with the environment. In the Skinnerian case, one focuses on the subtle ways that animal behavior is shaped by environmental outcomes, and claims that reinforcement learning can account for the whole gamut of behavior.In the Gibsonian case, one focuses on the breathtaking amount of information available to a perceiver, especially one that is moving, and claims that this information is sufficient for perception of the environment without the addition of information stored in the brain. Note that neither Gibson nor Skinnerians claim that the brain is not importantly involved in cognition; rather they claim that psychologists can do all their explanatory work without referring to the brain.

First claim: ecological information in the environment is sufficient for perception of the environment.

This sounds weirdly put to me. I think a better way of stating Gibson’s claim would this: the discrimination of ecological information from the environment is sufficient for the control of action in that environment. The point is not that “cognition ain’t going on in the head”, but rather, that the brain doesn’t need to build an internal model of the environment in order to successfully navigate it. If we define cognition as the “coordination of motor control”, then it seems metaphysically plausible that this is taking place inside the head, without violating the spirit of Gibsonian psychology.

Second claim: Gibson thought that psychology can be complete without referring to the brain.

I’d like to see some solid textual evidence supporting this interpretation. I do not recall Gibson ever saying such a ridiculous thing. If we want to give a complete account of how information is discriminated then we are going to have start talking about the brain. Gibson never talked about the brain only because so much more conceptual work needed to be done. It is only after we have laid down the basic foundation of affordance theory that we should investigate the brain, otherwise we might be prone to improperly determine the computational task. Gibson was against cognitivist theories only because he thought they were positing unnecessary steps in the computational process. For example, we don’t need to compute information about depth from a 2D picture because the information specific for depth is already available in the ambient optic array.

However, if we redefine cognitive computation in terms of controlling action-perception cycles, then there is a real sense in which the brain is computing information. Rather than doing the computation in terms of discrete mental representations and internal, lingua-form models (that get experienced as a rich picture of the external world),  the computation of information is done in terms of sensorimotor connectivity. On Edward Reed’s selectionist account and Robbins’ subtractionist account, Gibson’s affordance theory actually makes empirical predictions about how variable neural activity is coordinated so as to produce functionally specific responses to changing environmental demands. Gibsonian information theory actually predicts that the brain will seek out invariances in the environment so as to “select” the most functionally advantageous course of action from out of the “virtual phasespace” of the neural population dynamics. This approach turns out to endorse a theoretically deep model of decision-making and attention-control at the prereflective level. Moreover, such a selectionist account is self-consciously compatible with evolutionary biology and developmental systems theory insofar as the emphasis is on plasticity and adaptation.

So, far from being a psychological theory that completes itself without referencing the brain, Gibsonian theory actually provides a radical new approach to understanding small and large scale brain dynamics. Once we have done the hard theoretical work of determining what kind of affordance information is available in the environment, we must then look into the brain and determine how the discrimination of such information allows for the coordination of neural dynamics in such a way as to bring about functionally specific, adaptive behavior in response to changing environmental demands.


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On the Direct Perception of a Property

The debate between direct perception and indirect perception has been going on for quite some time. Indirect theorists often point out that anatomical facts such as afferent and efferent nerves undoubtedly indicate that perception is indirect because simple anatomy tells us that the stimulus has to first be transduced and shuttled through the various nervous channels before being cognitively processed and transformed into a genuine “perception”. But if we are going to make  theoretical progress , we must realize that anatomical facts will not settle this debate.

Direct theorists have never denied that the perceptual process can be  artificially decomposed into anatomical facts. Both sides can agree that a stimulus must pass through various nervous channels; it does not get a free pass straight to the mind, the stimulus must be mediated by the brain. But what is the nature of this stimulus? Theorists on both sides rarely make their definition of stimulus explicit. It is assumed that everyone knows what everyone else means when they talk about the perceptual stimulus. This is a mistake. The issue is much more complicated that it first seems.

Indirect theorists often start their psychologizing from the perspective of neuroanatomy and physiology. They first zoom in on the retina very close and attempt to build a psychological model of vision beginning with meaningless physical intensities as proposed in the physical sciences. It is usually assumed that any psychological theory of visual perception must explain how the brain interprets this raw physical data (“sense-data”) and converts it into a meaningful percept. Sometimes this transition from meaninglessness to meaning is talked about in terms of the generation of true beliefs or true representations. But the essential question is always, How do you go from raw physical data to meaningful perception when the meaningless physical intensities are highly ambiguous and often irrelevant?

Direct theorists also make a distinction between meaningless sensation and meaningful perception, but reject the idea that the perceptual stimulus is meaningless. The classic example is the Ganzfeld experiments. 20th century vision scientists discovered that if the physical stimulus is undifferentiated, meaningful perception fails to occur even though the visual system is being stimulated. Direct theorists thus make a distinction between sensory stimulation and stimulus information. Imagine standing in an open field on a bright, cloudless day. When you orient yourself such that the sky fills your entire visual field, your sensory receptors are being stimulated but there is no meaningful perception occurring because there is no meaningful information to be differentiated from the stimulus because the stimulus is entirely homogeneous and undifferentiated. In other words, the undifferentiated sky contains no stimulus information, although it is stimulating.

Now here is the important point. The facts associated with sensory stimulation are facts of an anatomical or physiological nature. But they are not psychological facts. We cannot decide between an indirect theory and a direct theory on the basis of these physiological facts. We must focus on the perception of meaningful stimulus information.

Indirect theorists explain meaningful stimulus information with a mix of association psychology and computational representationalism. Meaningful percepts are generated whenever the cognitive system makes certain inferences (associations) from the raw stimulus with the premises either innate or learned in experience. Classic cognitive science talks about explicit symbol systems and generalized intelligence, but modern computational stories have become more and more complex. But almost all of them assume that the quintessential problem for visual perception is turning meaningless data into meaningful perceptions. This is nothing less than the mind/body problem applied to visual science.

But direct theorists reject this approach altogether. Although direct theorists admit that stimulation is sometimes meaningless (such as when we are looking at the undifferentiated sky or in a snow storm), they emphatically insist that, under normal circumstances, the immediate terrestrial environment is differentiated and highly organized. The differential structure of the ambient energy fields surrounding an organism is informationally rich. But not in the Shannon cybernetics sense of information (which was never meant to be a psychological theory). The environment is informationally rich insofar as it contains information specific to affordances.

Direct theorists claim that the ambient energy fields are filled to the brim with redundant information specific to affordance properties. Affordance properties are real, objective facts about the environment. I thus disagree with Chemero and side with Reed on the ontological status of affordances. On my view, affordances are real properties of the environment that persist through time. The fact that the ground will afford my locomotion upon it is a fact that is independent of whether I actually utilize the ground for the purpose of locomoting. But it would be a mistake to think that this fact about the world is a molecular or local fact. The fact that the ground surface supports locomotion is a molar fact.

If we look at the ground on the timescale of millions of years, the ground is but a ceaseless flow of energy, ever shifting and changing. On the ecological timescale, however, the ground is stratified, ossified, and stabilized. And since our perceptual systems are tuned into this ecological scale, we do not perceive the molecular flux of the ambient energy fields. The ground is perceived as a continuous rigid surface with the property of “supportability”. This is an affordance-property. The detection of such properties by the nervous system is highly useful. We can expect that evolved systems would be optimally tuned to detect these properties because they are facts about the environment most relevant to survival.

We can cash this out psychologically in terms of how the perceptual systems seek information specific to these affordance properties. The affordance-property of supportability is a persisting fact about the ground surface. Under normal evolutionary conditions, the perception of this affordance-property is done so as to coordinate the motor system  and enable successful navigation through the terrestrial environment.

Take Herbert Simon’s example of an ant crawling along the beach surface. On first blush, its locomotive pathway seems highly complex and difficult to explain.The indirect theorist would attempt to explain its locomotive patterns in terms of internal control wherein the motor sysem is totally in charge of directing where to place each leg.  However, the direct theorist would explain its locomotive patterns by saying that the ant is merely following the contours of the sand. Rather than the ant controlling itself from within, the environment is guiding the ant. Put another way, the ant is using the affordance-properties of the beach to coordinate and regulate its behavior. The pathway looks complex only because the sand surface is complex, but the psychological control is actually quite simple.

On the neural level, we can say that there is a intrinsic flexibility and variability in the nervous system, otherwise the system would never be able to handle the complexity and novelty of the ever changing environment. However, the persisting affordance properties of the environment are sought out and detected so as to help coordinate motor behavior. Rather than the perceptual stimulus being a raw mechanical instruction, the perceptual stimulus helps “select” or “trigger” useful patterns of neural activity from the intrinsic variability. Faced with the same tasks and problems over a developmental life cycle, certain patterns are going to be burnt in that help the animal cope with the environment. But it would be a mistake to decompose the task of action-coordination into purely internal neural circuity. The affordance theory recognizes how animals use both internal and external means of coordinating behavior. The neural system readily uses information specific to affordances to regulate behavior. This means that some behavior control is “external”. The problem then is not, How does the brain generate meaning from meaningless data? Rather, the problem is, How does the brain seek out meaningful information and then use it to regulate and coordinate its autonomous behavior?

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Response to Fred Adams' latest critique of "Embodied Cognition"

Fred Adams has a new article out online in Phenomenology and the Cognitive sciences entitled “Embodied Cognition”. Adams is renowned for being skeptical of the 4E movement in philosophy of mind (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted). He wrote a book with Ken Aizawa called “The Bounds of Cognition” that challenges the core claims of embodied cognition. However, given his familiarity with the literature, I am very puzzled by the paper. He starts off the paper talking about Varela and Gallagher as exemplars of the embodied cognition thesis, but then spends most of the paper talking about how to reduce sentential belief-symbols to literal simulations of motor output. He writes as if sentential comprehension is the main explanatory target of EC theorists when they say “cognition is embodied”.

Anyone who has read Varela and Maturana’s work on autopoiesis would be very confused about this formulation of the problems that embodied cognition sets out to study. Varela says, for instance, that “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition. This statement is valid for all organisms, with and without a nervous system.” Varela thinks that even the unicellular organism “cognizes” in virtue of its emergent self-organization of autopoiesis. This is the actual claim of embodied dynamic systems approaches to cognition, a far cry from the thesis that:

In the embodiment literature, we find the empirical step consisting of empirical correlations between certain kinds of cognitive processing and sentence comprehension and certain kinds of perceptual/motor performance.

Gibson was never concerned with “sentence comprehension”. While an admirable explanandum, Gibson thought we need to first better understand the more basic cognitive processes before we attempt to theorize about higher cognitive processes. He was almost always concerned with the cognition that we share with our animal cousins, not sentence comprehension or symbolic cognition. Many EC theorists actually propose a dual-level or dual-process model of reasoning wherein there exists a primordial, nonsymbolic level of cognitive processing shared by all animals (online processing) and a evolutionary recent and sententially grounded level of rational, serial processing (offline processing). I don’t know of any serious theorist proposing these two levels of distinctions  who makes the absurd claim that offline processing must be explained strictly in terms of online processing. Once external representations are taken up and integrated with the functioning of the cognitive system, there is no reason to suppose that the mechanism is only that of “simulation”. For example, Gibbs claims that representational (propositional) reasoning depends heavily upon analogical reason, which needs to be analyzed at the appropriate level of abstraction, not that of neurons firing. In all likelihood, it will require different explanatory tools and and terminology to explain both offline processing and online processing. Most EC theorists would simply emphasize the importance of recognizing that propositional reasoning comes after or “out of” online processing on both the phylogenetic and ontogenetic scales.

Accordingly, there seems to be a strange disconnect between Adams’ picture of EC and what the majority of serious theoreticians (that I know of) are proposing. The more I think about it, the more I think that this is a result of a widespread misunderstanding of what EC is, particularly in respect to the original formulations of Merleau-Ponty and Gibson. Some EC critics think that when we say “cognition is embodied” we are claiming that their conception of “cognition” is embodied. In actuality, we are trying to redefine what we mean by “cognition” and move away from definitions of cognition focused on sentential understanding. This is why Evan Thompson follows Varela in saying that all lifeforms exhibit cognition. Cognition is no longer manipulation of symbols, but regulation and coordination of emergent autonomous animacy/agency. This forces us to think about representations in terms of control and coordination of intrinsic movement rather than in terms of mirroring or “belief-formation”. Cognition is not sentence comprehension nor mastery of propositional concepts. We need to come up with a different concept to capture such higher-level processes.

I follow Julian Jaynes in making a distinction between what we can call cognition and narrative-consciousness. Narrative-consciousness enables the type of sentential mastery and understanding that Adams spent most of his time in the paper talking about. Giving the unique representational medium of sentential symbols, I see no reason why there cannot be an abstract analysis of such narrative mastery in terms that do not reduce to “sensori-motor simulation”. Which isn’t to say that we can make no progress on learning about the underlying functional circuitry which enables offline processing. Researching into resting state connectivity and anti-correlated functional networks is now opening up new vistas in understanding the neural distinction between online and offline processing.

This brings me to my next point: the misunderstanding of “meaning” and “affordances”. Adams follows Glenberg and Kaschak in defining affordances as “a set of actions available to the animal.” In this view, Adams seem to suggest that affordances are those cognitive systems which enable and support interaction between animal and environment. But this is exactly wrong. Affordances are not within the animal and they do not “arise” or “emerge” out of the interaction or “relation” between the animal and the environment. Affordances are real and objective. Meaning is external to the animal. For example, the ground affords support to all animals whether or not any particular one of them utilizes it for support. The affordance-property of support is embedded into the actual nature of the ground. What it really is determines what it means for the animal.

Accordingly, meaning is not generated by the interaction by the animal and environment, it is sought out and utilized. I get the feeling many EC supporters make this mistake as well. Meaning is external to the animal and needs to be found and used. For animals with the appropriate bodily capacities then, the process of finding the affordances can be decoupled from the process of using the resource. I therefore have problems with Zwaan and Madden, who Adams quote as saying “…there are no clear demarcations between perception, action, and cognition.”

I think this is stated poorly. For many higher animals, there is a clear distinction between the processing of detecting affordance-information (what Gibson calls “stimulus” or “ecological” information) and the utilization of that information for means of adaptive behavior. The is the distinction that Gibson makes between exploratory behavior and performatory behavior. However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the input-output model of perception is therefore right. The fact that the physical stimulus does not equate with the informational stimulus supports that idea that perception is but a perturbation upon an intrinsic dynamic network not a specific input which is mechanically read-off and used to send specific commands. As the frame-problem indicates, any concept of the cognitive system which understands the input to be “raw” or “meaningless” is bound to fail to produce functional specificity across widely changing environment demands. For embodied cognition, the given is already valenced in terms of what kind of information the animal is seeking in accordance with its internal dynamics and regulatory demands. The is the only way to avoid the input-out model. Doing so also allows us to escape from the Myth of the Raw Input, otherwise known as the Myth of the Given.


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

Edward Reed on the Fundamental Mistake of Cognitive Psychology

Like always, Reed absolutely nails it.

Cognitive psychology has never outgrown its roots in behaviorism. The early cognitive psychologists actually called themselves subjective behaviorists (Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960)-a concept, if not a term, that is still exploited (Baars, 1986; Mandler, 1985). Because of its roots in S-R theory, cognitive psychology has always tried to distinguish cognition from mere response, or mere sensation, or even mere perception. Cognition is somehow supposed to be more than these things.

This is a deadly strategy for anyone interested in creating a science of cognition. The emphasis on keeping cognition distinct from other aspects of an animal’s encountering its surroundings has meant that cognitivists have often studied what animals and people do when they are not in adequate contact with their environment. How do observers cope with a lack of information? How do actors cope with unpredictable changes in circumstances? Evidence about how animals are disjoint from their environment forms the basis of most modern theories of cognition. Most of cognitive psychology has become the study of how animals and people manage under unnatural conditions.

The fundamental mistake in all these theories lay in not repudiating S-R theory outright. Time and again cognitivists have ceded whole areas of study to behaviorists. This is nonsense. Darwin did not say that Creationism was right about invertebrates but that natural selection worked for vertebrates. Such arbitrary divvying up of a field of study is ridiculous. If behaviorism is wrong, then it is wrong, period. (Whether it can be used to approximate some truths is a separate issue). By disdaining to study behavior and “basic” sensory-motor processes cognitivists guaranteed their own failure.

Encountering the world: Toward an Ecological Psychology, p. 170

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Preview of Master's Thesis: A Defense of Heidegger's Internal Consistency

I thought people might be interested in where my Master’s Thesis is going. It’s a defense of Heidegger’s metaphysical consistency (against the claims that he was incoherently anthropomorphic or subjectivist). But as far as I am aware, my interpretation is unique in the literature. I have seen nothing like it, although Dreyfus,  Carman, Sheehan, and Wheeler all anticipate me on several points. But I aim to offer something new to the Heidegger community. As I put it in the introduction, “While Carman, Dreyfus, and others implicitly develop the metaphysical resources for establishing an ecological realism within Heidegger’s thought, all commentators on his phenomenological-ontology (to my knowledge) ultimately fail to adequately address the theoretical plausibility of how exactly a phenomenon “shows-itself” in the first place, thus making Heidegger’s account of encountering entities philosophically intelligible as an answer to the classic questions of realism and idealism.”

This excerpt comes from the end of chapter 2, “Being as meaning”.


With being understood as meaning and ontic being distinguished from ontological being, we can now defend Heidegger’s internal consistency. In order to do so, we must reconcile entity realism with being idealism. Entity realism (what Taylor Carman calls “ontic realism”) is simply the common sense notion that the Earth exists regardless of whether agents are around to perceive it. As it were, the Earth does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the other hand, being idealism is the notion that, in some sense, the being of entities is dependent on or “relative to” perceivers. In order to reconcile these two theses, we must come to terms with the puzzle passages highlighted in chapter one.

Heidegger’s entity realism is evident when he says that “Entities are independently of the experience, cognition, and comprehension through which they are disclosed, discovered, and determined” (SZ 183). In contrast, his being idealism is evident when he says that “only as long as Dasein is (that is, as long as there is the ontic possibility of an understanding of being), ‘is there’ being” (SZ 212). While some scholars have attempted to reconcile these two passages in terms of a sophisticated distinction between different levels of analysis, my approach is much simpler. I contend that the most parsimonious way to reconcile the passages is to realize that for Heidegger, the ontological “being” of entities is synonymous with their meaning in relation to teleological interests. We can thus propose that there are two different senses of being in Heidegger’s ontology, the ontic and the ontological. Ontological being is synonymous with perceiver-dependence whereas ontic being is synonymous with perceiver-independence. This is nothing less than the famous “ontological difference” between being and beings. Accordingly, we can then read the puzzle passages as follows:

Only as long as Dasein is…‘is there’ meaning.

Meaning is that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood.

“There is” meaning – not entities – only insofar as truth is. And truth is only because and as long as Dasein is.

It is my contention that this interpretation of being as meaning absolves the contradiction between entity realism and being idealism. Under this framework, we can say that entities exist independently of us but their being (i.e. their meaning or significance) is dependent on how we take them to be. As Sheehan puts it, “Whereas entities may exist apart from whether or not human beings exist, being as the meaningful givenness of entities never “is” apart from human experience” (Sheehan, philosophy of mind, p. 289).

Take, for example, Mount Rushmore. Clearly, there is a sense in which the cliff face is constituted by perceiver-independence insofar as the material rock from which it is carved existed before perceivers came about and would continue to exist if all life vanished. It is in this sense that we can say Mount Rushmore is ontically real or actual. However, there is sense in which Mount Rushmore exists only insofar as there are humans around to encounter it as a monument. The mountain thus lives a double life when perceivers are around. On the one hand, its reality as a contingent entity is determined by material forces which operate independently of perceivers. On the other hand, its reality as a monument is dependent on those entities who disclose Mount Rushmore as Mount Rushmore. A bird living on the cliff face, for example, will not take the mountain as a monument, but rather, as a place of shelter or sustenance. It is only in this sense that we can say the mountain’s being is relative to the teleological interests of cognitive agents.

Accordingly, the meaning of the puzzle passages is now clear. Entities are independently of disclosure insofar as they exist as natural entities but their being “is” only insofar as there is an understanding of being, that is, only insofar as entities are taken to be meaningful in relation to prior teleological interests. The ontology of being, of meaning, is thus equivalent to the affordance ontology of ecological psychology. The ground will afford support whether any animal is around to walk on it, but the perception of the affordance is relative to the perceiver. In this way, we can say that the perception of affordances (the disclosure of meaning, of being) is both subjective and objective, but neither taken in isolation. Objective, because what the environment affords is related to what it actually is. Subjective, because an organisms history of structural coupling determines the perception of what the environment affords. Accordingly,

The meaning or value of a thing consists of what it affords. Note the implications of this proposed definition. What a thing affords to a particular observer (or species of observer) points to the organism, the subject. The shape and size and composition and rigidity of a thing, however, point to its physical existence, the object. But these determine what it affords the observer. The affordance points both ways. What a thing is and what it means are not separate, the former being physical and the latter mental, as we are accustomed to believe. (Gibson, notes on affordances, 407-408)

Moreover, it is important to note that this circumspective or hermeneutic understanding of being is operational prior to any explicit linguistic cognition. In other words, the primordial meaning or significance of entities is determined not by our language or theoretical concepts, but rather, in their immediate intelligibility relative to the teleology of circumspective concern. This point is eloquently expressed in ¶32 of Being and Time:

Any mere prepredicative seeing of the ready-to-hand is, in itself, something which already understands and interprets…that which is understood gets articulated when the entity to be understood is brought close interpretatively by taking as our clue the ‘something as something’; and this articulation lies before our making any thematic assertion about it. (SZ 149, emphasis added)

This point is important. If we do not understand the prelinguistic intelligibility of entities relative to the care-structure of affectivity (Befindlichkeit), we will not understand how linguistic cognition takes up and modulates this more primordial, prereflective understanding of being through the power of labeling and pointing (chapter 4). Heidegger’s point is simply that insofar as we are embodied individuals, our primordial relationship to the natural Earth is always already shaped by our history of structural coupling. It is this ontogenetic history which co-constitutes my encounter with Earthly entities.

For example, every time I enter my room and encounter a chair, I immediately understand that the chair affords the possibility of sitting. This is in fact my immediate and prereflective understanding of the chair. In Heidegger’s terms, my history of using chairs as something to sit on has now created a foreconception that shapes my everyday experience such that my encounter with chairs is proximally grounded by the affordance of sitting. This foreconception or “foresight” is generated by learning the affordances of the environment, an act of perceptual learning. It requires an act of theoretical cognition to “deworld” or “defamiliarize” the chair such that I see it as something besides a tool for use. Indeed, Heidegger says that “In every case interpretation is grounded in something we see in advance – in a foresight” (SZ 150). This foresight is what ecological psychologists have called “prospectivity” (Gibson & Pick, 2000, p. 164). If we carefully reflect upon our everyday experience, we can see the influence of historicity (our “having been”) and foresight upon our immediate encounter with entities. As we go about our business, the world is made significant in relation to our prior interests, expectations, and beliefs. And moreover, what we are interested in is always shaped by our internal structural history and what is currently ready-to-hand in the Umwelt. For this reason, Heidegger is right to emphasize that perception is better understood in terms of a meaningful encounter with the Earth that brings forth an ecological world rather than in terms of constructing representational models of the Earth which are then analyzed according to truth conditions. Accordingly, we can say that, strictly speaking, “the perceiver does not contribute anything to the act of perception, he simply performs the act” (Gibson, reasons for realism, p. 89).

According to my reading then, Heidegger’s ontology is internally coherent insofar as it combines entity realism and being idealism without collapsing into Cartesian subjectivism. Because we can account for how the being (i.e. meaning) of entities is relative to organisms without supposing that the perceiver synthetically contributes anything to what is perceived, I contend that Heideggerian ontology avoids the charge of strong correlationism.


Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology