The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Abstracts for some upcoming talks

Posted in General by Ezequiel on July 6, 2007

I will be giving some talks over the next few months that are relevant to Life and Mind. The content may not be too new for some of you, but I thought I’d leave a record anyway. Abstracts below.

Best, Ezequiel

“Play, enaction and the dialectics of worldmaking”, Toward a Science of Consciousness 2007, Budapest, Hungary, July 23-26, 2007.

Enaction begins in autonomy (and some forms of autonomy begin in play)”, Enaction and Cognitive Science, CNRS Summer School Organized by the Association pour la Recherche Cognitive (ARCo), 6 September to 12 September 2007 – Fréjus, France.

“Escape from pervasive individualism: Why should embodied cognition seriously study the collective dynamics of social interaction?” Keynote talk, 9th European Conference on Artificial Life, ECAL2007, September 10-14, 2007
Lisbon, Portugal.


“Play, enaction and the dialectics of worldmaking”

Enactivism (Varela et al 1991, Thompson, 2007) articulates several major shifts towards embodied cognition in terms of its biological and experiential roots. In order to prosper, enactivism must move beyond its basis on sensorimotor skills into the problems of higher mental function. To this end, it should provide accounts for transitional activities that deploy novel sense-making capabilities, thus overcoming the paradox of situated action that avoids representationalism by a deep engagement with the environment but apparently constrains cognition to the here-and-now.

We find in human pretend-play an example of how cognition is both tightly coupled to the circumstances and yet capable of producing novel meaning as a result of a dialectic process of value-generation. Play cannot be understood without taking experience seriously since otherwise its lack of obvious purpose renders it mysterious. Play is the controlled, often socially-mediated, experientially-guided creation of norms and strict submission to the emerging rules. Play is not mostly assimilation (Piaget, 1951); it is in fact a breaking of the constraints of self-equilibrating cognition. It does not confront an environment that places demands on an agent. The urge to play pre-exists the game, but becomes definite as an experience only through the game.

It seems impossible to account for play if we resist the active participation of the child in transforming her world, hence its appeal to enactivism. In play, the child detaches meaning (how something is perceived and what it demands) from a situation. Such ‘detachment’ is an embodied activity. It begins by relying on concrete similarities – a doll resembling a person – but soon these similarities are mostly given by the child’s own use of gestures (movements, sounds, etc.) and their recursive effect on perception (Vygotsky, 1966). The resulting experience of ambiguity can be fun; the bringing into presence of the absent, a partial cheating of ‘reality’.

Once objects are imbued with new sense by actions, which in turn demand an interpretation, these objects partially share the meaning of cars, houses and creatures. The child brings forth alienated meanings, and novel experiences, through gestures and then – and here is the equally radical trick – submits to the reality thus created through adaptive equilibration (the absence of which would make play unchallenging and ‘un-realistic’).

The combination of a concrete situation with embodied alienated meaning is the freedom-engendering paradox of play. When the child becomes the regulator of play, the activity takes off as a proper form of life, a skilful manipulation of consciousness through situated action. Over time, play is a self-structuring process governed by the dialectics of expansion and contraction of possibilities. Its freedom lies in the capability that players acquire of creating novel non-arbitrary constraints. The playful body can now steer its sense-making activity and set new rules for itself and others.

Piaget, J. (1951). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Routledge.

Thompson, E. (2007) Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Harvard UP.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E. (1991) The Embodied Mind, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1966). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Soviet Psychology, 12, 62–76.

“Enaction begins in autonomy (and some forms of autonomy begin in play)”

The core ideas of the enactive approach to cognition (autonomy, experience, emergence, embodiment and sense-making) form a tight conceptual bundle. However, from a scientific perspective, the enactive “story” is at its most radical if it departs from the concept of autonomy. With this idea alone, enactivism confronts head-on one of the most overlooked challenges in contemporary cognitive science: the problem of identity.

An autonomous system is defined as a system composed of several processes that actively generate and sustain an identity under precarious conditions. By identity we mean the joint properties of self-distinction and operational closure. The two properties go hand in hand. Operational closure, in a non-trivial sense, indicates the property that among the enabling conditions for any constituent process in the system we will always find one or more of the other processes in the system (i.e., there are no component processes that are not conditioned by other processes in the network, which does not mean, of course, that other conditions external to the system are not necessary as well). Self-distinction therefore means that the network of enabling conditions (the relation of closure) defines which processes/components belong to the system. More strongly, the system actively affirms its identity through its own operation. By precarious we mean the fact that in the absence of the organization of the system as a network of processes, under otherwise equal physical conditions, isolated component processes would tend to run down or extinguish.

We then find autonomous dynamics cropping up not only in the sustained processes of metabolism, but also at different levels (neural, sensorimotor, behavioural and social), with different durations (from transient neural activity, to goal-directed behaviour, to sustained games, to conversations, to careers), and possible conflicts.

What sort of conceptual and modelling tools can help us disentangle all these different and interacting modes of identity? Novel synthetic techniques allow us generate complex autonomous behaviour in robotic agents that we would not have been able to build by hand otherwise. Dynamical systems analysis provides not only the tools but also much of the conceptual framework for understanding such models and extracting relevant theoretical consequences from them. I will illustrate these points by presenting a recent model of behavioural preference where new goals emerge spontaneously in a robotic system using homeostatic neural dynamics. The model allows us to get an idea of how behavioural choices cannot be said to be generated by the agent’s endogenous dynamics or by environmental impositions but always emerge from the mutual tuning between the two. The emerging picture is one of (behavioural) autonomy as the self-structuring of different modes of commitment to the performance of an action and its self-generated value, rather than the more paradoxical (and less useful) notion of causal self-determination.

Still, such models do not resolve other paradoxes of autonomy – such as that of freedom through constraint – that become apparent in play behaviour. I will briefly refer to what enaction can say about play as the locus where novel forms of autonomy are born.

“Escape from pervasive individualism: Why should embodied cognition seriously study the collective dynamics of social interaction?”

When studying social cognition, adaptive behaviour and robotics research has tended to adopt without much questioning the methodological individualism that is prevalent in computational cognitive science, neuroscience and psychology. Accordingly, the challenges of social cognition reside in the cognitive architecture of the individual who must confront a social situation as a particularly complex sort of problem-solving.

There are good reasons to question this point of departure. Firstly, dynamical and embodied alternative frameworks propose a view of the cognizer as an autonomous actor, an exploring being who does things in the world as opposed to a detached problem-solver. In no other realm is this aspect more striking than in social behaviour. Secondly, systemic perspectives allow for a non-mysterious description of interaction between dynamical levels from neural and bodily to the collective process of interaction. There is no a priori natural order between these levels and exploring how they influence each other during behaviour and development becomes the new challenge for an enactive theory of social cognition. And finally, artificial life and embodied AI are particularly well suited for exploring and clarifying such complex relations between individual and collective dynamics. In short, for the first time in history we have not just good motivations and good (if young) alternative frameworks, but also – and crucially – good tools for escaping methodological individualism.

This talk will argue for a view on social behaviour that is not totally new, but is hardly orthodox in modern approaches to social cognition (although everyone pays lip service to it). A view based on the interaction process and its influence on the sense-making activity of the interactors. Several modelling studies of collective dynamics using evolutionary robotics methods will be discussed. In particular, it will be shown how the recognition of social contingency can happen at the collective level even when the individual actors do not have the cognitive capacity to achieve such performance. This has implications for understanding social behaviour in newborns in terms of more parsimonious hypotheses. Some of these models have now successfully predicted human social performance and reveal in detail how social coordination can structure not only the timing aspects of an interaction but the perceptual processes of the individual interactors.

There are several implications for a new wave of synthetic modelling studies of social cognition. Interaction as a process must be much better understood. Our modelling assumptions about interaction are not innocent; they deeply affect the significance of the results we obtain. If we fully prescribe the structure of an interaction in our model, we freeze up the most fundamental layer of meaning-making, and complex behaviours such as communication cannot be fully understood (let alone language). The challenges facing artificial life modelling of social cognition are not how to obtain more complex communication per se, but real communication, proper social generation of meaning, and the abandoning of methodological individualism.


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