Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Pointing versus Pushing

August 30, 2015

Every corporeal being is bound to classify the world into two extremely basic categories:

  1. That which can be grabbed (or grabbed by)
  2. That which cannot be reached.

More generally, for each sense, we classify the world into

  • That which is immediately available to that sense.
  • That which needs to be indexed into, in order to be available for that sense.

Indexing can take various forms, from body-muscle preparedness to eye-saccades to visual navigation. For every sense, we can make the following classification:

  1. An ”actual” object (or object part) of that sense into which we have indexed, and which is available for further elaboration or manipulation. For example, having indexed into Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, we can move closer to discern whether Mona Lisa is smiling or not.
  2. A ”potential” object (or object part) of that sense that will be made available to us with an appropriate amount of effort on our part.

Note that these are phenomenological distinctions; I am not talking about subconscious or unconscious representations in V1 or some other brain area. In our experience of the world, there is a basic division between those things that are immediately available using vision, hearing, touch etc and those that require effort. What is available transparently to one sense might require effort from another – consider the shape of a soccer ball from vision and touch. In any case, the sensory world can be divided into those entities with whom we are in direct contact, and those with whom contact requires effort.  We can think of the spatial world in terms of a figure-ground analogy: one the one hand, as Kant pointed out, space is a basic category, it is presupposed in our understanding of anything else. On the other hand, we process detailed spatial information (where objects are, how to catch this baseball etc). The first can be seen as the structuring aspect of space, while the second as consisting of detailed perceptual or encyclopedic information.

We can call this the pointing body versus the pushing body. The pointing body allows us to index into locations (there), objects (that!) and so on. The pushing body helps us interact with those entities that we have pointed to, but these seem to be two very distinct modes of bodily being.

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Arbitrariness

August 30, 2015

There are at least three kind of arbitrary relations in the mind sciences:

  • Between concepts/language and the world
  • Between the mind and the body
  • Between form and substance (which might include the above)

For example, we feel that there is no relation between the concept CUP and cups in the world. The concept CUP has neither shape nor size nor mass, while real world cups do. Similarly, concepts interact with each other logically – we can say “can you give me either the red or the blue cup?” while objects only interact with each other causally. Cups that fall on a hard floor break while the concept CUP does not break down when you say FLOOR.

The same goes for temporal arbitrariness. Consider the statement “Socrates died in 399 B.C.E.” Having once existed and died, Socrates is long gone but the statement regarding his death will now be true, independent of the rest of the history of the universe. Even if human beings become extinct as a species, Socrates would still have died in 399 B.C.E and the statement regarding his death would still be true. For these reasons, it seems possible to isolate an entity called a proposition that lives outside space and time and comes into relation (or is perhaps even contained within) with the human mind. To the extent that the human mind is a container for these kinds of entities, it is also primarily an abstract entity, whose foundational rules are abstract.

Consider the statement “dogs are animals”. The truth of this statement seems to have nothing to do with the actual character of dogs. You might have never seen one. Indeed, the statement would equally well apply to “grifmors are ringbats” as long as grifmors were known to be ringbats. The point is this: Conceptual structures are connected to the rest of the world, but only at the boundary. As long as the boundary conditions are known to be valid (Socrates dying in 399, dogs being animals etc) the rest of the conceptual structure is insulated from the universe. It is this encapsulation that leads to claims about modularity etc. We can see this boundary + interior reasoning explicitly in the minimalist program.

For similar reasons, we also feel that concepts are not like brain or body structures. Neurons interact using electrical impulses, while concepts do not. In fact, since concepts do not have any extension, they do not have any physical substance at all. What are they made of? According to Plato and Descartes, the essence of concepts is not a physical substance but a soul like substance, whose essence is reason. There is then an arbitrary relation between the body-like and soul-like substances, as well as their properties and states (the debate about the precise mental character of concepts, say, whether concepts are mental states or mental properties is ignored for now).

Both Gibsonians and Embodied Cognitivists have tried to dislodge this deep dualism, which comes from observations about the arbitrariness of the concept-body-world relation. I think they underestimate the strength of this position and therefore do not do enough to refute it thoroughly. For example, consider the CONTAINER schema often used by Lakoff and other cognitive linguists as an example of an imagistic element in human cognition. We could ask three questions of Lakoff about the nature of these schema:

  1. Isn’t an image schema already an abstraction? Our experience of the world conjoins the wind blowing in our eyes, the smell of the jasmine flower and the green of the leaves. Where in all of this is container-hood? It seems as if our pre-conceptual experience actually does not have such a thing as containers.
  2. Suppose, somehow we do experience rooms as things that make us act in certain ways (for example, making sure that we move towards the door when we want to leave the room, since the walls are inpenetrable. Even then the experience of not-being-able-to-leave-the-room is not the same as the abstract relation A-contained-in-B. Where does the latter come from?
  3. In any case, the feeling of not-being-able-to-leave-the-room is a conceptual judgment. What is pre-conceptual about it? If anything it shows that bodily perception/experience is infused with conception rather than being the basis of post-perceptual conceptualization.

I agree with the embodied cognitivists that we shouldnt separate mind from the body; but in actually ‘fleshing’ that out, they are themselves as guilty of making the same mistakes (for example about preconceptual experience) as their modular opponents. A cognitive science that is truly non-arbitrary in its leanings will no more be body centric as it is form centric.

Mind your Brain

April 2, 2013

Obama is about to announce the brain initiative any minute now. I happen to think it is a colossal mistake, but an instructive one. First, it prompts an analysis of Obama: more than his drone war and budget debacles, this brain project is my wake up call that for all his eloquence, he utterly lacks imagination: the only thing he can actually get excited about (like his election campaign) are numbers, measurables and deliverables with no feeling for ideas. Very much a prisoner of the Harvard-MIT best and brightest syndrome.

If you are interested in an extended analysis, read on:

I think of this initiative as the culmination of “iScience,” science as product development, which has a clear recipe:

  1. Assert a metaphysical goal such as: this project will help us understand consciousness, make us all happier, make our military better and build a 21st century economy.
  2. Immediately transform that goal with the greatest reductionist efficiency imaginable into a set of modular, measurable goals with clear deliverables.
  3. Hire a lot of smart people who will do as they are told, pay them a lot of money and give them lot of fancy gadgets to follow the script. Even better if they can keep writing papers about solving the brain.
  4. Show the world how you are sticking to a Brain 2020 timeline or some such vapid goal and have lots of press conferences where even more fancy gadgets and smart people showcase their latest sci-fi stuff.
  5. Torture a lot of animals in the name of science.

Now this is a good recipe for building iphones and Boeing 787’s, because that’s how global supply chains are structured now. But I think it is a terrible way to do science or any engagement with ideas and imagination.

The worst part of the brain initiative for me is not that it’s impractical or outlandish but that it is boring, a view of human inquiry that’s reached an imaginative dead end. If the project “works” then we will all be living in the matrix. But I don’t think it will, for the project for all its technical wizardry is not addressing the key questions – it is really about searching for the lost jewels where the light is shining rather than where it they were lost.

http://www.whitehouse.gov/live/president-obama-speaks-brain-initiative

Borganisms

July 15, 2012

Organisms have to eat to survive; they need useful energy to maintain their activity. Starting with Maxwell’s demon, we know that information can be used to turn energy into work. The demon plays the role of a gatekeeper, letting in desirable elements and keeping undesirable elements away.

For a living organism, information isn’t enough: the information must come with a stable, identifiable value. Prey must be labeled as prey and predator must be labeled as predator. To put it another way, the demon must know what is desirable before he can play the bouncer’s role.

Desirability and value are cognitive in nature even when done by bacteria. All living beings are demon’s; they have to know what to ingest and what not do. What they ingest can be food or genetic material. There are several ways to design the perception of value: one can invest in sensors or let random mutation take its course, but however one does it, there is an invariant link between survival and the cognizance of value.

A borganism is any living being that is also a cognitive creature. Our hypothesis is that all living beings are borganisms. If so, our studies of cognition should start with the simplest organisms such as bacteria, where studies can be carried in a dish and hypotheses tested and rejected quickly and then move to more complex creatures and eventually studying humans, which will invert the usual study of the mind, which is focused on the nervous systems of complex creatures.

Model Thinking

February 21, 2012

2011-2012 has seen many exciting developments in online education. One of the most promising ones is Stanford’s – and nowUdacity’s and Coursera’s- online courses in AI and Machine Learning that consist of free online lectures, exercises and other material. While most courses have concentrated on CS and AI topics, I am particularly excited about Scott Page‘s is teaching a class on Model Thinking. This class will be useful to anyone who wants to learn how to use models to understand the world. As Page himself says

These models will help you to better understand the world, to be a clearer thinker, to better use data, and to make better decisions.

My goal is to use Scott Page’s material as the first rung of a ladder of ideas. I will be organizing the second rung of this ladder; think of it as “Model Thinking ++.” Our course will take the material offered by Scott Page, build our own thoughts and ideas on top of it, including annotations, projects etc. The goal is to treat Scott Page’s offering as a spur to our own thinking; in other words, we will learn what Scott teaches us, add our responses and develop new creative projects that emerge from discussion within the group. If you are interested, please join the google group for the course, where you will find more information about what we are going to do. Scott Page’s class started on February 20th; you can register for free on the course site.

The Shape of Thought 1

November 4, 2011

There are two seemingly contradictory views about the mind:

  1. Mental processes are fundamentally independent of their physical instantiation. For example, there is a traditional view that reasoning and logic are essential features of the mind. Now consider the argument that says that from A → B and B → C we can always conclude that A → C. This argument seems independent of the laws of physics; in some other alternate universe where gravity points upwards we might reasonable expect that the previous argument holds.
  2. Mental processes are completely determined by the laws of nature. We are biological beings and so everything about us including our capacity for reasoning is ultimately determined by physics. Even the rules of logic such as “If A → B and B → C then A → C” are ultimately consequences of the kinds of creatures we are.

The debate doesn’t go away even if we accept that the mind must be naturalized in some manner or the other. A subtle version of the above paradox arises in the “brain-in-a-vat” versus “the embodied mind” debate. Does the brain in a vat have the same mental capacities as a fully embodied being? Even if the mind is a natural entity, is it entirely in the brain or is it intrinsically tied to bodily capacities? Both intuitions seem to have validity; disabled people demonstrably have the same capacities as we do, but on the other hand it seems obvious that our minds evolved to respond to the pressures of surviving in the physical world.

These paradoxes arise from the fact that 1 and 2 are two completely different intuitions about mental phenomena. I believe that both are partial truths. We are part of nature and nature is undivided so there must a naturalistic theory of logic. On the other hand, what we mean by nature itself might have to change in order for us to incorporate logic into physics. Like cups and tables, thoughts and reasons also have a shape, but we need to rethink what we mean by “shape.” This is normal for science; we now think of gravity as well as mechanical impulses as forces, but one involves physical contact while the other operates at a distance. Action at a distance was a major problem for physicists who insisted that forces have to involve physical contact. Similarly, if we agree that the concept of shape need not be restricted to what we see with our eyes we will have a better idea of how to calculate the shape of thought. There are regularities that bind all these shapes together into a complex; our goal is to understand these regularities and the complex that emerges from them.

Intrinsic and Statistical Regularities

October 25, 2011

Mice could roar but they don’t. There is nothing preventing a small organism from growling; we have horns in India that do it all the time. A roaring mouse is improbable but not impossible. Similarly, a cloud shaped object could be hard, but is unlikely to be so. The relation between clouds and fluffiness is a regularity. Unlike the laws of gravity, regularities are not cast in stone. On the other hand, I am reluctant to admit that regularities are purely statistical in nature, if by statistical, one means relations that aren’t intrinsic to the way the world works. A statistical theory of regularities is agnostic as to the way the world makes the regularity just so; it only cares about representing the likelihood that a given cloud like object is soft. In other words, if I walk around the world punching cloud like objects, I am unlikely to get hurt; but I don’t care whether there is some intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density.

The problem is that any intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density is not physical, or at least mediated by the same physical mechanism all the time; cotton balls and clouds are both fluffy and soft but they are not fluffy for the same physical reason. If at all there is a natural relation between fluffiness and density it lies in the world of embodied information rather than physical mechanisms.

PS: Even probability itself is subject to the same questions about intrinsic versus statistical regularities. Consider a one rupee coin. You toss it a hundred times and it comes heads 48 times and tails 52 times. Is the roughly 1/2 heads, 1/2 tails distribution a regularity or is it purely statistical (whatever that means).  The symmetry of the coin argues for a regularity; in other words, a coin comes up heads half the time because it is symmetric and if one can’t control the force with which the coin is tossed, it is going to come heads or tails an equal number of times. In other words, even statistics  are derived from intrinsic regularities rather than the other way around.

Statistical and Intrinsic Regularities.

October 25, 2011

Mice could roar but they don’t. There is nothing preventing a small organism from growling; we have horns in India that do it all the time. A roaring mouse is improbable but not impossible. Similarly, a cloud shaped object could be hard, but is unlikely to be so. The relation between clouds and fluffiness is a regularity. Unlike the laws of gravity, regularities are not cast in stone. On the other hand, I am reluctant to admit that regularities are purely statistical in nature, if by statistical, one means relations that aren’t intrinsic to the way the world works. A statistical theory of regularities is agnostic as to the way the world makes the regularity just so; it only cares about representing the likelihood that a given cloud like object is soft. In other words, if I walk around the world punching cloud like objects, I am unlikely to get hurt; but I don’t care whether there is some intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density.

The problem is that any intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density is not physical, or at least mediated by the same physical mechanism all the time; cotton balls and clouds are both fluffy and soft but they are not fluffy for the same physical reason. If at all there is a natural relation between fluffiness and density it lies in the world of embodied information rather than physical mechanisms.

PS: Even probability itself is subject to the same questions about intrinsic versus statistical regularities. Consider a one rupee coin. You toss it a hundred times and it comes heads 48 times and tails 52 times. Is the roughly 1/2 heads, 1/2 tails distribution a regularity or is it purely statistical (whatever that means).  The symmetry of the coin argues for a regularity; in other words, a coin comes up heads half the time because it is symmetric and if one can’t control the force with which the coin is tossed, it is going to come heads or tails an equal number of times. In other words, even statistics  are derived from intrinsic regularities rather than the other way around.

Umwelts, Affordances and Regularities

September 18, 2011

Many posts on this site use the terms Umwelt, Affordances and Regularities. While they are often used interchangeably, there is a hierarchical relationship between the three, which can be summarized as:

Umwelts → (The world of) Affordances → (The world of) Regularities.

Umwelts are life-worlds, the world as experienced by me as a subject or by a dolphin or a tick as a subject. The bacterium e.coli is not part of my umwelt and nor am I a part of its umwelt, though aspects of my gut might be. However, we both have a mutual affordances; e.coli bacteria pick up signals from my gut and my gut in turn is sensitive to the acidity created by e.coli. Therefore we can say that e.coli is part of my environment, even though it is not part of my life world. Now, there might be entities that are not part of my environment now, but could be so in principle. Suppose in 2100, there is a new kind of beings, say, intelligent robots. They are none right now, so we can’t say that our environment contains intelligent robots, but they would be part of our environment in 2100. Let us call the space of all potential environments our cosmos. Then regularities are all the affordances that we could potentially pick up in that cosmos. We can therefore state the relationship between umwelts, affordances and regularities as:

Umwelts → Environments → Cosmos.

We will need to be a little careful in defining the space of all possible environments. It is true that computers were not a part of the environment of our ancestors that arose in the Cambrian explosion, but they are the part of our environment. So, can we say that computers are part of the cosmos of our ancestor? That would be too broad a definition. We might be better of restricting the cosmos and its regularities only to those environments that are adjacent possible environments.

 

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Consciousness in the World

July 12, 2011

This post is partly a response to Sartaj’s post from a few days ago. He starts his post with a rather remarkable quote: “Colors are an artefact of perception.” This one line captures four hundred years of western investigations of the mind. One line of inquiry summarized in this quote goes as follows:

  1. If experiential states are indeed artifacts of our minds’ activities, then colour, shape, thoughts are all fundamentally subjective and not real, or at least not really real. In other words, ordinary experiences are no different from a fantasies or hallucinations.
  2. Our consciousness is inaccessible to others even in principle. Since there is nothing real “out there” about our experiences, we have no way of sharing the same experience. We can only infer the mental states of others. I can’t feel your pain; I can only infer what you feel from seeing you grimace.

An alternate line of investigation, which starts with the same assumptions about the artifactual nature of consciousness but ends up with the opposite conclusion goes as:

  1. I don’t have access to the world, only to my own experience. However, unlike 1&2 above, the accessibility of consciousness and the inaccessibility of the world leads me to conclude that experience is primary and the world secondary. In other words, “cogito ergo sum,” i.e., consciousness is the truest mark of existence.

 

In these schema, experience and consciousness keep shifting from one pole (consciousness is not real) to another (consciousness is the only real). I would like to contest the basic assumption though; is it possible for an entity to be truly real and also a product of the minds’ interaction with the world? Take colour: isn’t it possible that colour is real and a product of perception? The organism dependence of certain entities don’t make them less real. In terms of Gibsonian affordances, a smooth rock about two feet high and a foot in diameter is objectively sittable as far as human beings go. It is real and dependent on the potential presence of organisms like us.

Like probabilities, we can postulate both absolute and conditional existents.  An absolute existent is an entity that exists independent of other entities. A conditional existent is an entity whose existence depends on the mutual existence of some other entity. Chairs and table are no less real for being conditional existences. If we take the Buddhist’s seriously, all entities are really conditional existents. A rock is no more or no less an artifact than a colour. Underlying my argument is a desire to recover a fully-fleshed world, a world that hasn’t yet been divided into primary and secondary qualities. Galileo might have had a good reason to divide qualities into primary and secondary ones for his physics. However, we are not doing Galilean physics here. The world of organisms is needlessly divided into dualisms: primary and secondary, mind and body, consciousness and matter. While we need to understand why these dualisms came to dominate out ideas about the mind, we need not take them for granted.

 

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