Monday, 24 April 2017

A Project of This World

Tim Ingold’s paper, “An Anthropologist Looks at Biology,” offers an excellent critique of neo-Darwinian biological approaches which, he claims, actually ignore the organism.  Neo-Darwinian biology considers the organism to be determined by its genes or genotype which can never be influenced retroactively by the phenotype or the life experience and traits which are uniquely expressed through interaction with the environment.  It is viewed as a closed system.  However, as Ingold argues, organisms are necessarily open systems.  Evolution is simply tracking which genetic mutations happened to be beneficial to a species so they were passed on rather than actually telling us anything about the nature of life.  Ingold provides three reasons for why Neo-Darwinism cannot explain life.

First, he claims Neo-Darwinism is only concerned with events rather than processes.  Evolution looks at the events of genes passing from one generation to the next which may include mutations, but it fails to consider the importance of the variation in how these genes are expressed and lived by the organism.  Second, it ignores the interconnectedness of organisms and their worlds.  Third, organisms and their environments assumed to evolve separately rather than in tandem.  

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Meta-question: Can we ever know what it is like to be a bat?

After a semester of stimulating, interesting, exciting and frustrating exploration of post cognitive topics, here are some of the ideas running around in my….oops was just about to type “brain”…humm. What’s a better word for this … this… this… umm “experience of being sentient”? How about the word consciousness? Or the cognitive apparatus? Environment-linked mind-like-“thing” inside a cultural self referencing and sustaining milieu? None of those seems quite IT. And certainly, none of those words is fully descriptive of experience.

How do we talk about this experience of Being a Thinking Entity? Sentience, “smarts” consciousness, awareness, neuro synaptic sharing, quantum drop? Feedback loops which self-sustain – autocatalyic systems, post-cognitive “understanding”? From which point of view shall we approach it? Philosophically via Idealism, Realism, Physicalism, Materialism, or with Phenomenology? Which of these preoccupations is the next path towards greater understanding: intentionality, intersubjectivity, finding the “mark of the mental”, the hard problem, the explanatory gap, even “What is it like to be a bat?”

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Does neuroscience promise to make us super-humans?

What does it take to master a skill? Helsen et al. (1998) suggested that for an athlete to reach a world-class level of performance at least 4000 hours need to be invested into deliberate practice. Ericsson (1990) takes it even further than that by putting forward a figure of 10000 hours (20 hours x 50 weeks / year x 10 years) to master any kind of skill.

We’re going to leave the question of how a person’s body changes with the skill acquisition for the purposes of this post and look deeper into what happens to a person’s brain. Beilock (2011) hypothesized that as a person moves along the stages of skill mastering from being a novice to becoming an expert, the skill-related knowledge is gradually migrating from working memory localized in a pre-frontal cortex to procedural memory occupying sensorimotor regions. In fact, existing neuroscience research reveals strong evidence for neuroplasticity caused by the deliberate practice. It is now evident that wide structural and physiological changes are happening in both abovementioned areas when extensive training is applied (see, for example, Draganski et al., 2004).

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Flynn’s Cat – Part I: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
It is fair to say that a wide range of topics invoke discussion under the banner of embodiment, too many to discuss in a few short posts. There are however, a few themes that while not exhaustive, are prominent in the literature:

Does the body and world form part of my cognitive processing as opposed to merely causing it?

Does my body determine in some way, how I understand my world?

Can my cognition be explained solely by my interaction with the world, without appealing to representations or computational processes?

Beginning with the question of whether cognition, or at least parts of it, extend beyond the brain, a common problem from systems analysis arises, namely, where is the boundary of the system, and how might its parts be either decomposed or clustered together to aid investigation, or are questions of boundary and decomposition, themselves part of the problem.

Flynn’s Cat – Part 2: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
< Flynn's Cat - Part 1 

So the cat is watching a cursor move about on my laptop screen. Is how the cat solves the problem of figuring out what the cursor is, embedded inside her somewhere sandwiched between perceiving and the movement of her paw, or is it developed and made possible through her interactions with the cursor? 
Even before this problem-solving task, how does the cat go about categorising the world she perceives? Is she constrained or limited by the body she inhabits?  I perceive her as black and white, but is that because in some way, I am physiologically equipped to perceive her as black and white.  The next door neighbour’s dog may perceive her differently. If I twist the can opener around a tin of cat food, does she perceive this, since she has no opposable thumbs to understand the concept of twisting, or does she merely see me move the can? Is there a pre-given world for either of us, or are both of us bringing it forth from our respective histories of structural coupling with artefacts in the world, which will be markedly different?

Flynn’s Cat – Part 3: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
< Flynn's Cat - Part 2 

Radical embodiment theorists are the most openly opposed to traditional cognitive science.  It aims to replace traditional methods and concepts, with new foundations that incorporate emergent outcomes of dynamical systems and sense-act interactions between a body and the world it is engulfed in. In this approach, inspired in part by Gibson’s (1966) continuous interactions between an organism and its environment, computational models can never be adequate, as cognition is a continuous thing, and the body and its nervous system are in the world, so there is no need to represent them. 

Dynamical systems with their state space (a map of all possible states), certainly have explanatory power. The state space for the cat would presumably be all possible positions and movements that she could assume and her evolution would be in the form of differential equations. According to this view, cognition emerges from the dynamical interaction of the cat’s brain activity, the activities in her body and her environment. In other words, a neural mechanism in a certain sort of body, in a certain sort of environment will produce behaviours that dynamical systems equations can describe.

Flynn’s Cat – Part 4: An Exploration of Embodiment

© 2017 Simon’s Cat Limited
< Flynn's Cat - Part 3

There are many methods of evaluating a theory. Simplicity, testability, fruitfulness, power to unify, and so on. So how does embodiment stack up?

Traditional cognitive science in some aspects, has had a lot of success and has a proven track record. It has deepened our understanding of the mind in an unprecedented manner.  It has a power to unify perception, attention, memory, language under the same explanatory framework. Embodiment’s ability to be applied equally well across the range of cognitive phenomena, has yet to be proven, but it is very early days.  Appeals to concepts such as affordances, meshing, world-making, etc have as yet, an uncertain status. That a cat and I might conceive of the world differently is a difficult theory to test. Virtual reality technologies may present possibilities of testing in this area, but any findings would still be speculative at best. Traditional cognitive science is testable, and in certain cases experimental results from studies in embodiment can equally be explained by traditional cognitive science, and yet its explanations are less certain.

It must however be conceded that traditional cognitive science does not do a good job in explaining all varieties of cognition.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Umwelt, Anthropocentrism and Island Universes

“By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.

We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes".

Aldous Huxley – The Doors of Perception

Early Cartesian views of the mind/brain distinction implied an ego derived, individualistic separation of the self from the environment and social structures. From this perspective the subject was a production of mind and reason as somehow set aside from the natural environs surrounding it from conception. It followed that all non-human organisms were considered to have absent any actual form of cognitive capability and were reduced to simplistic, non –agentic, stimulus-response machines of reflexive action. This position of human exceptionalism has  maintained itself into the modern era due largely to the perpetuation of the mind/brain, soul/body distinction.
“The ideology lies not in the search for differences, but in the unwavering belief that humanity is defined by attributes that have absolutely no precedent in the rest of the biological world” (Radner and Radner, 1989, p.9). This may be readily identified as a Cartesian hangover into current thinking. It may be appropriate to consider the limiting effect of such a position being held for any length of time in so far as the exclusionary consequences of failing to appreciate, and investigate, other organisms from their own distinctive, varied and embodied perspective. In more recent times Barrett (2015) has addressed this sustained anthropocentric thrust into the scientific inquiry and evaluation of non-human species through the lens of 4E embodiment where common engagement is the requirement of skillfully negotiating the environment and the mutual cognitive and agentic traits necessary for doing so.

Much earlier than Radner and Barrett, Jacob Von Uexkull posited the concept of an organisms "Umwelt". This closed phenomenal experience of each living system as constituted by the components and configuration of the individual animal and resulting from which each living system engages with and experiences the world around them. Von Uexkull states that there are as many "Umwelt" as there are organisms in the world and each of which negotiate  with the environment within their own terms and physical make up. He believed that each of these distinct worlds, while beautiful and worthy of appreciation, remained only spiritually, and forever non-physically, accessible to us.

It has previously been posited that there are grounds for allowing for some degree of similarity in sentiment or reason, whatever these ultimately transpire to be, given the shared environment between species be it either human to animal or animal to animal. A consideration which may be appropriate is the "multiple realizability" thesis where mental states, such as cognitions are acknowledged to be  may be found or "realized" within any number of physical, organic systems. From this other researchers have found a high degree of similarity between the human organism and others. In primate research for example, substantially developed social and emotional behaviors and technical capability have been found which readily suggest that  "differences are of degree rather than of kind" (Goodall, 2006, p.188). This stands in stark contrast to earlier views of human exceptionalism.

Is it reasonable to maintain the view that each individual  is ultimately in a type or form of critical isolation from the world, and species, around them or does the 4E perspective now require a more engaged, enacted and mutually shared experience? Huxley framed the position with regard to such ultimate distinction between the individual and the"human group" but perhaps the advancement of embodiment theory will allow for a deeper and more enriched appraisal of each organisms unique role, value and worth within the overall system.

For anyone interested here is the full quote from Huxley:

“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”


Barrett, L. (2016) “Why Brains Are Not Computers, Why Behaviorism Is Not Satanism, and Why Dolphins Are Not Aquatic Apes”, The Behavior Analyst, 39 (1), pp. 9-23.

Goodall, J. (2006) We are not alone, The re-enchantment of the cosmos, pp. 187-192.Inner Traditions:USA.

Huxley, A. (1954) The doors of perception. Chatto and Windus:UK

Radner, D. and Radner, M. (1989). Animal consciousness. Prometheus Press:New York.

Von Uexküll, J. (1934) “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”,  Instinctive behavior: The development of a modern concept, translated and edited by Claire H. Schiller, 8-80.  New York:  International Universities Press, Inc.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Bio-enactive framework: The perpetual life or ultimate death of the cell in the myth

(Cummins, 2016, p.3)
Although I know it's largely figurative, I can’t seem to resist my existential or reductionist tenancies for seeking out something else in the milieu for the (excellently named) 'cell in the myth' described by Cummins and De Jesus (2016).

As I read the authors’ account of their bio-enactive framework I imagined the cell running out of glucose.  But, what in the milieu causes glucose to run out?  Will the cell die without glucose?  What exactly is present in the milieu or the organism that causes the cell to die?  Otherwise, if glucose doesn’t run out, does the cell live forever?  If glucose never runs out and the cell lives forever, why would the cell evolve movement at all?  Why don't cells just evolve to grow on/ close to glucose deposits instead?  If cells grew on glucose, and didn't need to move, would cells have evolved in the first place?

Monday, 10 April 2017

Enaction as a core connective concept: is non-reducible naturalism the way into consensus?

Brian D. Cohen "Strata" watercolor on paper

“Naturalism” is the doctrine that all can be explained via science – in contrast to anti-realism, among other prevailing philosophies of mind. However, the term “naturalism” has a long history of shifting meanings, and may or may not be a useful term for the current argument. According to the SEP, “the term 'naturalism' has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy.” (Papineu, 2016)

Historically, the term was employed by John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars, who sought to connect philosophic discourse to what was emerging as so-called “hard science” in the mid 1900s. As the disciplines of physics, biology, sociology, and psychology came to use more sophisticated “scientific methods”, these thinkers urged that human experience be situated within the natural world rather than outside it. Believing that “reality is exhausted by nature, contain[s] nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality” (Papineu, 2016), the self-identified followers of Naturalism were, essentially, Naturalists in the old-fashioned meaning of the term. That is, those individuals who knew the names of biotia, understood weather patterns, and knew their granite from their basalt. There was a long tradition of “gentleman and lady” naturalists, those who were stamp collectors of butterflies, beetles, and pressed flowers; who sought solace in the hyper-organizing stratagem of cataloging the world via Linnaeus’ taxonomy. Also, Naturalists who were writers, such as Henry David Thoreau in New England, and John Muir in the western US, were instrumental in politicizing the landscape in order to drive the public towards conservation.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Did Anyone Else Forget their Brain?

When one dives into the fascinating world of enactive cognition, a necessary part of understanding is to leave the brain at the door. It is key to come to terms with the idea that one's brain is not necessarily the seat of their consciousness. The idea that the word "mind" is better off as a verb than a noun is one that took me some time to adapt to. The mind is not something that simply exists inside if the human skull, it arises from doing. Humans are not intelligent because of their grey matter, instead it comes from their ability to act in their environment. Cognition is not something that takes place in the head but rather takes place during the interaction between the human and its environment from which it is inseparable. This is rather blasphemous from the point of view of a neuroscientist. However, with the respective writings of the wide range of authors like McGann, Froese, Di Paolo, De Jesus, Cummins and Barrett, I found this point of view an interesting and satisfying alternative to the way I had been brought through my previous university studies. Coming from a background in neuroscience, my previous professors would constantly discuss the unequivocal evidence that the brain is the source of consciousness and that functional neural imaging can reveal truths about which regions of the brain are in charge of certain aspects of our life. I am sure they would all be distressed that I have found such comfort in the idea that the mind comes about from action in the environment and is not necessarily the result of action potentials being carried through neurons.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Overcoming Anthropocentrism

Barrett’s paper, Why Brains Are Not Computers, Why Behaviorism Is Not Satanism, and Why Dolphins Are Not Aquatic Apes, presents the problem of ‘anthropocentrism’.  Anthropocentrism is the tendency, when speaking about cognition, to compare other species with our own.  Human cognition is always the reference point from which we work.  This may seem fair enough as it is the only point of reference we, as humans, can ever really have.  However, it is the inherent value we place in human cognition above all other forms of cognition that is problematic.  We try to understand the cognition of other animals without understanding or considering their Umwelt, or perhaps with a bias towards our own UmweltUmwelt, as presented by von Uexküll, refers to an organism’s environment as it is experienced by the organism. 

von Uexküll states, “all animals, from the simplest to the most complex, are fitted into their unique worlds with equal completeness.  A simple world corresponds to a simple animal, a well-articulated world to a complex one.” P.11 Anthropocentrism seems to assume a well-articulated world = a more valuable or real world.  In other words, we do not treat every embodied subject’s experience as carrying equal weight or validity within their respective environments – even if we grant the existence of non-human embodied subjects. 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Of Embodiment, Robots and Nightmares…

Robots are here to stay, whether we like it or not, they have been slowly crawling into the militia, factories, schools and even our homes during the last decade. And it is fascinating how the insights of new approaches to cognition have greatly influenced these intriguing mechanical creatures.

As described by Louise Barret (2016) the famous 4E cognition approach —cognition as embodied, embedded, extended and enacted— has radically changed the job description of the brain. Brains are no longer “representational”, now they can be viewed as “performative”. Meaning that it is not longer their job to model the world, but to guide and control action in a dynamic and unpredictable world. This greatly lightens the load of brains, even if they are made of silicon and some metallic alloy.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

A Continuing Plea for Phenomenology

Bio-enaction provides us with a compelling picture of how the body plays an inextricable role in subjecthood. Cummins and de Jesus, in their paper "The loneliness of the enactive cell: Towards a bio-enactive framework" staunchly maintain, as one of their central claims of bio-enactivity, "that cognition, or mentality, including subjective phenomenology, is not a uniquely human trait but rather something which exists across the phylogenetic scale" (6). There are many merits to the bio-enactive model, such as the proposition that each organism possesses a distinct, corporeally-driven value-ridden view of the world (in short, a milieu). However, it seems that in its effort to give full credit to this idea of various milieus as a result of distinct subjects, bio-enaction places itself in deep, almost impressive, denial of a great deal of phenomenology (despite its saying otherwise), and this is problematic for a great many reasons.

Phenomenology is a philosophy that uses as its method of inquiry our very experience, and as such it has a great deal of weight to bear on cognitive science, especially now that cognitive science has come to see the inextricable importance of perspective. The best phenomenology cannot get away without speaking of cognition, for it is a deeply entrenched part of our experience. Similarly, cognition cannot and should not get away without reference to phenomenology, because otherwise it is characterising something that does not exist.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Perceiving how robot Bob’s brain and body act

(Kuloser, 2013)
I partially accredit my burgeoning interests in areas of robotics and human-computer-interaction to the portion of youth I briefly (mis)spent identifying myself as a science fiction fan.  I’m not intending to disparage fans of science fiction, rather, I’m merely pointing out that I never fully committed myself to being a particularly dedicated fan.  I still, nonetheless, unashamedly count Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Her by Spike Jonze (2013) among my favourite films.  

In light of my interests, I’d like to indulge what remains of my inner science fiction nerd by proposing ‘Bob’: an imaginary human-like robot.  Bob is already seemingly capable of handling natural language, but we want to give him additional human-like characteristics.  As a literary device, Bob inspires my naive musings about some relevant areas of robotics, embodiment and the sensorimotor correspondence theory of visual perception/ actionism.  So, assuming Bob can somehow ‘talk the talk’, how might we help him to ‘walk the walk’?