Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Thinking outside of four dimensions

    In Jakob Von Uexkull's paper entitled Instinctive Behavior he proposes the fascinating idea of organisms residing in their own "umwelt." While this may be the German word for environment, Von Uexkull gives the word entirely new meaning. In his paper, an "umwelt" is not simply an environment. Instead, it is every possible way an organism can sense the world. This applies to the simplest and most complex organisms in the universe.  Von Uexkull gives an in depth description of a female tick's "umwelt" at the beginning of his paper to get the reader acquainted with the idea of a simple "umwelt" with only three sensory modalities. This can be expanded indefinitely to organisms with many more sensory modalities. For instance, humans would have a much richer "umwelt" than that of the tick. While the tick only has the capability of smelling the single chemical composition of butyric acid, humans have approximately 400 olfactory receptors each of which can register multiple smell molecules. Without even leaving the realm of smell, the human has a considerably more stimulating "umwelt."

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A bereaved dog owner's attempt at embodied empathy

In some strange way, although very sad, it seems somewhat apt that my dog Dusty (inset image) was ‘put to sleep’ on the same morning I was scheduled to attend our discussion session on Jacob von Uexküll’s (1937) Umwelt Theory.  Dusty was my dear and close companion for over 11 years and I miss him terribly.  Relaying Dusty’s passing to Gary, another of my best (human) friends who also experienced the recent loss of his dog (Shadow), I recalled Louise Barrett’s (2016) assertion that ‘animals in different ecological niches, with different bodies, and different nervous systems solve the problems they face in unique ways’ (p.11).  I also remembered my colleague Mary Joan’s response, who asked: if this assertion is correct, how can we follow Barrett’s argument to account for our feelings of empathy towards other animals?  

Bringing these things together, with Dusty and Shadow’s passing providing concrete grounds for the cultivation of empathy between my friend Gary and I, I’d like to briefly explore the possibilities for an embodied account of empathy.  I’m hopeful my approach illustrates something about the radical ambitions of Embodiment and the challenges it faces.  Perhaps my doing so may also ease our shared burden of grief a little.  

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

An uncertain view of Cartesian dualism: from a beginning researcher sitting on a fence

(Friman, 2005)
Some contributions from my student colleagues, and readings, posted to this blog reflect aspects of our in-class discussions by problematizing the persistent influences of Cartesian dualism on the study of cognitive science.  These and similar criticisms may be recognisable to those of you who are familiar with accounts from radical/ critical sociology and history that describe the epistemological leanings of ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy.  I found a worthwhile example of such criticism in the work of the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault.  I’d like to share Foucault’s ideas with you and then reflect on how they relate to my experience as a beginning student of cognitive science and novice researcher.

Foucault (2000) attributes an orientation in his work towards explorations of power to his analyses of ‘modes of objectification that transform human beings into subjects’ (p.326).  Through these analyses Foucault (1984) traces the development of particular forms of inquiry, that were increasingly adopted by the human and social sciences in the early 20th century, to a ‘classical age’ (p.180) in Western philosophical thought between the 17th and 18th centuries.  

Friday, 3 March 2017

Is Nature Inherently Intelligent?

In his chapter “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, von Uexküll illustrates Umwelt theory.  This theory seeks to describe the phenomenal world of animals and their subjective experience.  von Uexküll claims we must start by investigating an animal’s perceptual cues or what the animal experiences as meaningful in the environment.  For example, he speaks of a pregnant tick picking out the perceptual cue of butyric acid through its sense of smell because this signals the presence of a warm blooded animal, and the tick needs a warm blooded host in order to feed before laying her eggs.  Even though there may be a multitude of potential stimuli in an environment, the tick has adapted to respond to this particular cue.  It means something to the tick and stimulates it into action.  Other scents have no meaning and, therefore, do not even exist for the tick. 

A house fly has the capacities to perceive spilled juice on the table through taste receptors in its feet.  The juice takes on what von Uexküll might call a ‘nourishment tone’.  It cannot, however, perceive a spider’s web because its vision is too coarse.  One might question why flies have not evolved to have better vision in order to avoid being eaten.  Shouldn’t a web take on a ‘danger tone’ rather than remaining invisible?  Why do animals have certain perceptual cues which aid in their survival and not others?  Wouldn’t a fly’s optimal Umwelt allow for the detection of nourishment as well as traps?