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.