Thursday, 23 June 2016

Can Information Be Naturalised?

Psychologists Sabrina Golonka and Andrew Wilson have recently shared a yet to be published paper entitled: “Ecological Representations”. I noted their work in the summary literature review I posted here a couple of weeks ago, but from this new paper it would appear that that they have shifted their position on the question of cognitive representation considerably. They write: “We will agree that cognition requires representations.” Hopefully they can be persuaded that this is only true if the required representations are of the fully public and intentional sort and not the neural and non-intentional sort that they seem to have embraced.

The influential psychologist J. J. Gibson, is well known for his rejection of representationalism. His work on perception is foundational to many of the ideas pursued by Golonka and Wilson. At the core of G&W’s argument is the conjecture that “Gibson’s ecological information fits the basic definition of representation.” They observe that most “radical” theories of embodied cognition are based on Gibson’s ecological approach to perception and action, and that, despite some successes, these theories have not made significant headway in explaining higher order cognitive processes such as thinking about absent objects etc. They claim to have discovered a way to salvage the good work on all sides of the debate. I aim to show that their proposed solution comes at an unacceptably high price.

In Chapter 8 of Gibson’s book “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”, (1979) Gibson coins the term “affordances” to describe what he suggests the environment “offers” animals for their survival. He writes:
[I]f there is information in light for the perception of surfaces, is there information for the perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces constitute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the “values” and “meanings” of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiver.
The hypothesis that values and meaning are external to perceivers corresponds closely with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, towards the end of his life, developed some carefully nuanced arguments to show how values and meanings are best understood as socially negotiated and rule dependent practices rather than inner states of perceivers. However, unlike Gibson, Wittgenstein almost certainly would not agree that we actually perceive meanings and values, whether directly or otherwise. To put the point as simply as possible, the value of money is not a perceptible property of the coin or note in your pocket. Value is ascribed to things by virtue of practices of exchange that involve the treatment of things as if they have properties that they do not in fact possess. Indeed, without the capacity to pretend and to accept acts of pretence, the skills necessary to ascribe value and meaning to things would be out of the question.

So when Gibson proposes that we perceive the affordances the “environment…offers… provides or furnishes”, he confuses practices of use attribution and/or meaning ascription with skills of perception. I think this is a very serious mistake that Golonka and Wilson only amplify with their new paper. Wittgenstein took the view that the meaning of a word is best determined by looking at the various ways in which it is used. The Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher, Thomas Reid made a very similar point about 300 years ago. On several occasions Wittgenstein also suggested that we should regard words as tools. Do tools have perceptible affordances? According to Martin Heidegger a tool has a "usability" that "belongs to it essentially". Wittgenstein would disagree. Do we perceive the use of a tool we have never seen before? Think of a fork. Would we immediately see its alleged inherent Heideggerian function if we were intelligent animals of a different shape and size? G&W are bound by the force of reason to say that we do not. So then, how can the many different ways of using a stick  its alleged affordances  be perceptible in the stick?

Another serious issue that arises in Gibson’s theorisation, and that G&W further ramify, is his suggestion that light carries information; that there is information in it (I will return to this issue of “content” in a moment). The philosophy of information (as distinct from Information Theory which is an engineering term) was in its infancy in Gibson’s day (some say that it still is (Floridi 2011)), so it is unlikely that Gibson would have been aware of the dangers of his use of the word. “Information” is what Ryle (1954) might have called a “smother word”. For Ryle, terms like “depiction”, “description” and “illustration” often smother important conceptual distinctions and create otherwise avoidable philosophical dilemmas. It is the task of conceptual analysis to tease out these differences and to dispel conceptual confusion.

I have mentioned before on this blog how even the early Wittgenstein misleadingly described language as a "picture" of the world. I have also discussed how C.S Peirce regarded the whole universe as being perfused with meaningful signs. Grice (1957) too, saw no confusion is assuming that nature creates “natural meanings” in addition to the “non-natural” ones that we humans generate. More recently, Fred Adams published a paper (2003) attempting to “naturalise meaning” and to suggest a way to account for the meaningful content that he believes is realised in the mind/brain. He writes: “To be of value to a would-be knower, or to someone interested in naturalizing the mind, information must be an objective, mind-independent commodity.” He provides the following two examples as evidence of this supposed natural commodity (if that isn’t already a careless oxymoron):

Waves of radiation traveling through space may contain information about the Big Bang before anyone detects it. Fingerprints on the gun may contain information about who pulled the trigger before anyone lifts the prints. Thus, information appears to be mind-independent (and, thereby, language independent too).

According to a recent comment from Golonka on their blog, they “agree with content critiques regarding mental reps”, so they would probably reject at least some of Adams’ radical representationalism. Nonetheless, since they take Gibson’s ecological information to fit with ecological representations they have a job on their hands to reconcile their agreement with say Hutto and Myin (2013) on the question of content and their own representational “vehicles”. If, as I contend, the influence is merely causal, then no representation, no vehicles and no content need be imputed.

G&W are clearly aware that perhaps the greatest explanatory challenge for a theory of cognition is to give a coherent account of intentionality. In philosophy "intentionality" has a technical sense that I assume is the sense in which G&W are using it. Nonetheless, both senses are applicable here. They state that: “The need for intentionality therefore provided the first and primary motivation for treating cognition as necessarily representational.” What should be pointed out here is that this assumption is questionable on grounds of logical incoherence. In order for cognition to be intentional (in either sense), it must be intended, but if it is intended this intention must (according to the logic of the argument) be supplied by representations, then these must also be intended and must therefore be motivated by further intentionally generated representations. This is a logical regress of the most vicious kind that is widely overlooked in much of the relevant literature. Perhaps it is this general lack of recognition that has led to G&W's oversight of this serious logical obstacle.

G&W do acknowledge the “symbol grounding problem” though. This is characterised as the challenge of explaining how symbols gain their meaning (their representational content in fact) outwith a system of mutually agreed rules. This is another serious challenge to representationalism that, for example, Adams fails to mention at all. He evidently takes it as unchallenging that fingerprints “contain” information. 

Words like “contain” and “content” are a common cause of conceptual confusion. When we talk of the “content” of a painting, we do not mean that the content is a property analogous to the size and shape of the painting. Content is not a special characteristic of objects. It is not perceptible. If anything, content is a special characteristic of us; of the things we can do, not something that inheres in things ready to be extracted like some kind of magical inform-essence. Fingerprints are part of a forensic system. They are meaningless outwith this system. Our knowledge imbues nature with meaning but in the process it leaves nature entirely untouched, in respect of its content that is.

G&W also wisely acknowledge the “system-detectable error problem” (Bickhard, 2009). Within any notionally intelligent system there has to be a way for the system to detect and avoid errors. Once again, within a social system this process depends on the observance of various socially negotiated rules. But without such rules it is challenging to say the least, to know how errors could even qualify as errors, let alone be avoided. Like most of the obstacles to representationalism, the issue here comes down once again to intentionality. In order to detect errors you need a system that can represent and compare errors with successes and in order for the system to represent the difference between error and success, evaluative criteria or some form of metric is needed by which such comparisons can be made.

In their definition of representation, G&W begin, rightly, by stating that representations are stand-ins. However they then rely heavily on Newell (1980) who was principally concerned with symbol systems and “designation”. Newell defines representation/designation thus:

An entity X designates an entity Y relative to a process P, if, when P takes X as input, its behavior depends on Y.

In my view this is too narrow a definition of representation. Onomatopoeia does not designate the thing it represents and nor does a photograph, an enactment or a model. Designation is more akin to delegation, nomination or stipulation than it is to depiction or imitation. So, at best, Newell’s definition applies to symbolic representations only. However, to be fair to G&W they do a quite good job of translating Newell’s formulation into a more palatable version:

X, is a thing that is not Y but can close the gap and that P can access and use as if it were Y; when it does, P works as if it had access to Y.

This can be tidied up as:

X is a thing that P can use as if it were Y. When it does, P works as if it had access to Y.

So, on this basis:

A wind turbine is a thing that a lightbulb can use as if it were a battery. When it does, the lightbulb works as if it had access to a battery.

Or, better still:

Sugar syrup is a thing that a honeybee can use as if it were honey. When it does, the honeybee works as if it had access to honey.

I may be missing something important, but I fail to see how this qualifies the wind turbine as a representation of a battery or sugar syrup as a representation of honey. All of the paradigmatic cases of representation of which I am aware involve substitution for the purposes of communication between agents, not simple replacement of functional component A with alternative functional component B. The radioactive isotope of strontium substitutes for calcium in bone formation but it certainly isn’t a representation of calcium. Something is awry in Newell’s formulation.

Leaving this objection aside for the moment, G&W focus their attention on what they see as “the gap” which X can “close” between P and Y (the bee and its honey). But this is merely an anomalous consequence of their turn of phrase (which I edited out of my reformulation). Sugar syrup does not close a gap between the bee and its honey; it simply replaces honey. Nonetheless G&W spend several sentences fleshing out the significance of this supposed “action at a distance”.

G&W turn next to a consideration of “ecological information [as] a representation”. They define ecological information as energy patterns of  “lawful interaction of the energy with the dynamics of the world [that] are used by organisms to perceive that world.” [My emphasis]. If organisms use energy patterns to perceive the world, then this form of usage needs to be sharply distinguished from intentional use, otherwise we have no means of distinguishing tool using creatures (humans mostly) from all the other creatures in the world who do not use tools. Moreover, we also need this important distinction to distinguish between the intentional actions of purposeful creatures and the efficacious (but not intentionally directed) behaviours of their internal processes. My bone forming processes do not intend to use strontium as a replacement for calcium, but my dentist did intend to use gold as a crown for one of my teeth. This is why my crown is plausibly a representation—indeed it is a cast—of parts of the tooth it replaced. The reason such actions, as the replacement of a tooth, are intentional is because they are performed in pursuit of a goal that can be represented on demand. The fact that my dentist could explain his behaviour is not because a representation of my tooth was contained in his neural fibres but because the capacity to represent the aims of his activity was something he could do; something he could perform as a competent agent embedded in a culture where such actions are understood.

If I might be allowed to go into a little technical detail, theorists often distinguish between teleological and teleonomic descriptions of behaviour. A telos is a goal, an aim or an envisaged end that an action is intentionally directed towards. Teleological behaviours are thus genuinely purposeful actions. Teleonomic behaviours, on the other hand, often have the appearance of purposefulness but are actually merely efficacious (some theorists use the word “purposive” here, as contrasted with genuinely purposeful activity), having been shaped by millions of years of evolution. When we say that a plant uses varying light intensities to find its way towards the sun, we do not mean to suggest that the plant is an intentionally directed agent: a perceiver. We are simply using a teleonomic description. Unfortunately I think both Gibson and G&W conflate teleonomic descriptions in which organisms and their inner processes “use energy and genuinely teleological descriptions in which we human agents use energy—to illuminate a light bulb for instance.

I do not believe that perceivers use energy in the way that both Gibson and G&W suggest. I might use my desk light in order to read a book at night, but the inner processes that in large part bring about my perception of the book do not use either the desk light or the energy patterns that emanate from it in this intentionally directed way at all. I can choose to turn out the light, but my inner processes have no choice in the matter. Choices are exercised by whole agents, not by their parts (Hacker and Bennett 2007).

A lot of confusion can be cleared up in discussions of representation if we distinguish sharply between processes in which X is taken as Y and actions in which X is treated as Y. My bones will take strontium as calcium but only a performer of actions can treat an act of mock aggression as if it is merely playful as opposed to genuinely threatening. This is why I argue that pretending is the most fundamental and important skill in intelligent behaviour because it is the basis of the higher forms of cognition that G&W are so keen to account for.

G&W return to the notion of “a gap” when they state: “Most of the behaviorally relevant dynamics in the world are ‘over there’ and not in mechanical contact with the organism. They must therefore be perceived.” The fact that the keys of my keyboard are “over there” and not in “mechanical contact” with my fingers does not mean that they are not causally influential upon me by virtue of the light reflected from them. My perception certainly depends upon light but my perception is not of the light as information, it is of the keys as keys. Light is something we know about, not something we see. So, whilst it is true that we pretenders can act as if light is perceptible, the light reflected from my keyboard is simply taken by my sensory system not as information but as causal influence. When G&W say that: “Perception relies on information about dynamics” this is not true. Only knowledge (propositional knowledge that is) relies on information about dynamics.

According to G&W:

Gibsonian ecological information is only a kinematic projection of those dynamics into an energy array. […] This means that kinematic information cannot be identical to the dynamical world, and this fact is effectively a poverty of stimulus.

Kinematic information is quite clearly a culturally enabled ascription—indeed a “description”—of “units” of measure to the “dynamical world”. There is no possibility that such sophisticated cultural contrivances as units are to be found in nature.

Their worries about “a gap”, “action at a distance” and “a poverty of stimulus” continue when they write:

Other lines of neuroscientific enquiry do suggest that at least some of the structure of energy impinging on perceptual receptors is preserved as it travels through the nervous system.
According to G&W’s theory of representation it is important that structure is carried through the nervous system because this qualifies the structure as a neural representation of the ecological information that caused it (recall that they take all forms of replacement to be representational). At the risk of repeating myself, the fact that some pattern corresponds with an antecedent state of affairs does not mean that the pattern is a representation. Effects are not representations of their causes. If they were, then the universe would be nothing but representations. I therefore think we have good reason to reject G&W’s proposal that “at least some of the neural activity caused by informational representations will qualify as a neural representation of that information.”

To be fair to G&W, they observe that: “These neural representations are… not implementing the mental representations of the standard cognitive approach.” because they do not “enrich, model or predict anything about that information.” If this is true, then it leaves these representations as representations in name only.

Later in their paper G&W attempt to tackle the issue of higher order cognition. They remark: “To be clear, the stipulation that knowledge systems must be conceptual and componential is so that knowledge systems can support counterfactual thinking, etc.” This is mistaken. Pretending that I am rocking a baby in my arms is a gesture that would be understood by humans the world over but, even though it is counterfactual (there is no baby after all) it is not a conceptual representation. Conceptualisation relies on the ability to manipulate abstractions and there is no other species on the planet that has the capacity to manipulate abstractions with anything more the most rudimentary competence.
Washoe, the first of the signing apes, had been regularly bathed. Sometimes between the ages of one and a half and two years, she picked up her doll, filled the bathtub with water, dumped the doll in the tub, took it out and dried it with a towel. In later repetitions she even soaped the doll. This is imitation, but it also must be a form of representation—indeed, of pretence. (Jolly 2000, 291)
On page 18 G&W write: “From the first person perspective of the organism, it is just interacting with information.” We commonly interact with others by means of information but it is somewhat confused to suggest without qualification that we interact with information. Our use of information forms part of our interactions with other intelligent agents: people usually. When we use so called “interactive technologies” we do so in a sense that is derivative of these interactions with other agents. Information is simply not responsive in the way that that other intelligent agents are. It helps to regard information as a tool. We use our tools but it is somewhat strained to say that we interact with them.

In conclusion, G&W are right to regard representation as important in the explanation of higher order capacities but only if we regard representation as a thoroughly public activity of intelligent agents. G&W are also right to focus on behaviour that treats X as if it is Y. Nonetheless their Newell-derived definition of representation is inadequate to the task of distinguishing between behaviours in which X is taken for Y and actions in which X is treated as Y. If they were to thoroughly examine this important distinction, they would probably recognise that representation is the point of demarcation between evolved efficacious processes and behaviours and de facto teleological actions; between nature and culture. Information cannot be naturalised because information is a cultural contrivance.


modvs1 said...

Are you suggesting here that representations are good 'functional approximations' to the things they stand in for (like a flat head screw driver is a good (functionally approximate) stand-in for a dedicated lid lifter, with respect to prying a lid off a paint tin); or are you supporting the opposite view- namely that representations are functionally distal with respect to their stand-ins? For example: It's unlikely that I will try and ride my mountain bike across my navigational app, or that I'm worried about aggressive wild pigs coming out of my smart phone. Put simply, a map doesn't really count as a functional approximation to the terrain it represents (and what ever wild life that may lurk within), because we don't interact with them in the same way. A map (representation) is a tool that aids cognition with respect to various navigational activities one wishes to pursue within the a given territory. The same thing goes for recipes, lists, instructions/proceedures, charts, tables, graphs, technical drafting, diagrams, illustrations, etc. I get the feeling that this property of “standing in for” is a trifle overblown (?).
In what sense is a representation a “stand-in” if it is not functionally approximate/equivalent? If it is functionally approximate/equivalent then you could suppose that the environment by itself will always do the job in the same way the flat head screwdriver ( or butter knife; or chisel; or metal ruler) will for a dedicated lid lifter (pace Gibsonian's and Radical enactivits). In this case wouldn't representation be entirely redundant? What is meant by “Stand-in”?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks James,

\\Are you suggesting here that representations are good 'functional approximations'//

Almost, but no. I'm following Donald Brook in claiming that representations are actions and objects of efficacious substitution. A map, and all other nonverbal representations in fact, are efficacious substitutes in certain functional respects (not all respects) and in certain circumstances (not all circumstances). This is different from functional approximation because the function need not be approximate. In some circumstances the relevant function can be exactly the same. Verbal representations are not in the least approximate (save for onomatopoeic utterances which aren't really verbal anyway) at all. They rely for their efficacy on mutual agreement.

Anonymous said...

My question is: For what sake should it be needed that we make this distinction (between use and intentional use), if it is not to continuing to pretend that there is an entity called "intentional use"? This "intention" is the phlogiston of "culturalism".

Jim Hamlyn said...

Think about it. If we are pretending that we intend what we intend then we don't actually pretend at all. In which case your argument is self refuting.

Andrew Wilson said...

A reply, at last! :)

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