Information Theory, yes. But where is Autonomy Theory?
This is a quick post to follow up on the discussion generated yesterday after Paul William’s seminar on Information Dynamics of Embodied Agents. I raised the worry that information theoretic measures rely on the observer’s access to the totality of environmental states, and that this limits their relevance to understanding the embodied agent. In the subsequent discussion I failed to articulate my worry in a more precise way, so I will try to do that here.
To begin with, I am worried that the measure too naively adopts an absolute God’s eyes viewpoint. We surely understand something of the brain-body-world system as a whole when taking such a perspective, but have we understood something about how the agent as an agent does what it does? The label “brain-body-world” system fools us into thinking that we do at least partially, but the complete arbitrariness of the divisions shows us that things are not this simple.
I’m not saying that a dynamical analysis can fully sidestep this critique, it cannot. But at least there we have the option of looking at the “autonomous” dynamics of the system that we have denoted as the “agent”, and can try to understand what kind of system it is in itself. It’s another privileged viewpoint, but one which tries to respect the boundaries of the system, while at the same time acknowledging that the system is parametrically coupled to an environment. This is why I was trying to suggest that information theoretic measures might tell us more about how the agent as an agent works, by applying these tools within the sensory-motor loop. After all, that’s all the system has to work with in order get the job done.
This may sound like a retreat to some kind of traditional cognitivist or internalist approach to cognition, as some of you have pointed out, but this is not the case (I hope!). What I am interested in is to find a middle ground. Traditional internalism (assumed by GOFAI) and radical externalism (assumed by the way in which Paul measured global information flows) are both too extreme: one differentiates the agent too much, thereby forgetting that the agent is situated, and the other differentiates the agent too little, thereby forgetting that the situation has an agent.
It therefore appears that there is currently a tension between an embodied-situated approach to cognition, and one which tries to emphasize the autonomy of the agent. As far as I understand Maturana and Varela’s work, they introduced the notion of organizational closure precisely in order to provide a scientific principle which could mediate between the two extremes. I attach here an excerpt of a short opinion piece by Varela (1977), which makes this point well.
So I guess my frustration with Information Theory, as it is mostly used in our field, is that it falls into an externalist extreme that leaves no space for the agent. It’s good mathematical training, but it tells us little (if anything at all) about what is specific to living and cognitive beings as such. Of course, you could say that Information Theory does not even try to say anything that specific, but then the question is: why use it as a tool for doing cognitive science? This comment may be too harsh, but the problem remains: here we have another framework to keep us busy, but we are not getting any closer to studying the big questions about what is autonomy, agency, cognition, etc. Why are there no signs of an Autonomy Theory to complement Information Theory? Or am I just too blind to see it?
In the end, as Nathaniel has to keep on reminding me, I may simply be looking for autonomy in the wrong place. As we argued in our ECAL’09 paper (Virgo, Egbert & Froese, in press), the organizational boundaries of the autonomous system do not need to coincide with its apparent physical boundaries. To confuse the two kinds of boundaries is to commit a category mistake. Thus, if we want to find autonomous systems in our simulations, then we may have to look for them in the relational dynamics of the brain-body-world systemic whole, and NOT inside that sub-system which we typically refer to as the ‘agent’.
I tried to do something along those lines in a paper I submitted to Alife’08 (cf. Froese & Di Paolo 2008), but it got rejected so I’m not sure how successful the attempt was. Perhaps Nathaniel’s idea of analyzing a reaction-diffusion system in terms of an individual ‘spot’ may be a more productive starting point.
In any case, I think that as long as we cannot begin to address the big questions in a more systematic way, we won’t be able to convince those working within the traditional cognitivist mainstream to change their approach. They may be studying cognition the wrong way but, at the moment at least, it seems that we are not even studying cognition at all.