The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Seminar #23: Enactive representationalism

Posted in Seminars by Tom Froese on August 14, 2007

The next Life and Mind seminar is taking place tomorrow, Wed. the 15th of Aug., at 16:30 in room Pev1 0A2.

Joel will lead a discussion on enactive representationalism:

The question I would like to pose is this: despite all the technical and theoretical advances that have been made, it is still difficult to construct an artefact that is engaged with its environment in the rich sort of way required by an enactive approach – never mind one that qualifies as a concept-possessing, concept-using cognitive agent. Nonetheless, one might well wish to construct artefacts with which to better understand cognition and conceptualization. Question: how much of the cognitive and enactive requirements might be put off onto a user (e.g., a test subject) dynamically engaged with the artefact (which might, then, be something not so different from a traditional computer program)?

Understanding cognition is more than recognizing the role of context: many AI researchers twenty years ago, when I was doing my undergraduate course, understood the importance of context. It’s not just that a cognitive agent is embedded in a certain environment or embodied in a certain way that constrains his cognition; it’s that cognition is largely a process of dynamic, physical engagement with the environment, in which the line separating organism from environment may from some important perspectives appear quite arbitrary.

My supervisor Ron Chrisley and I have, as part of a separate project, been exploring a way of approaching enactive experience that preserves a form of representationalism – one in which the contents of current experience go beyond current sensory input. This might be called counterfactualist representationalism: if I looked over there this is what I’d expect to see, because e.g. that’s what I saw the last time I looked there. In short, experience is more than current sensory experience, and current sensory experience is more than current sensory input. The medium for our research has been a robotic dog that assembles a composite depiction of its visual “experience” one jigsaw-puzzle-piece saccade at a time.

Noë’s enactive approach is more strictly forward looking than the one I’ve been taking with my supervisor, in which present experience is largely constrained by past experience: everything that has led up to the present moment. Much of the time one sees what past experience has taught one to expect to see.

Although our work to date has focused entirely on specifying the non-conceptual contents of experience, I believe that some of the same methods can be used for specifying the conceptual contents as well. Indeed I think that all experience is conceptualized to greater or lesser degree – by which I mean meeting some form of Gareth Evans’ Generality Constraint – and it is hard to conceive of experience that is fully non-conceptualized. As abstract thinking is built upon dynamic physical engagement with the world, as knowing how underlies much if not all of knowing that, so, too, is conceptual knowledge and experience built upon the non-conceptual: concepts projected over top of non-conceptualized experience and all but obscuring it, so that we might even think sometimes that the non-conceptualized experience does not exist.

Conceptual knowledge is not a collection of dictionary-style definitions nor is it a process of collecting such definitions. Though concepts may look like definitions when we try to explain them, they are nonetheless the result of the our dynamic engagement both with our environment as a whole and with the society of which we are members: so I have my personal concept DOG, which may vary in greater or lesser ways from the next person, or from my own concept DOG at different points in time; and I have the concept DOG that is part of the social space in which we all share.

My Question

The question I would like to pose is this: despite all the technical and theoretical advances that have been made, it is still difficult to construct an artefact that is engaged with its environment in the rich sort of way required by an enactive approach – never mind one that qualifies as a concept-possessing, concept-using cognitive agent. Nonetheless, one might well wish to construct artefacts with which to better understand cognition and conceptualization. Question: how much of the cognitive and enactive requirements might be put off onto a user (e.g., a test subject) dynamically engaged with the artefact (which might, then, be something not so different from a traditional computer program)?

All welcome.

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