Posts Tagged ‘Regularities’

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.

Cognitive Regularities 1

August 30, 2015

My work on the cognitive foundations of mind is guided by the underlying intuition that the study of the mind is at a stage similar to chemistry in the late nineteenth century – on the one hand large amounts of new data are being collected that point to underlying principles, and on the other hand conceptual problems are being raised about the relationship between the mind and other natural entities. As we know now, chemistry was incompatible with nineteenth century physics; it took the quantum mechanical revolution to bring chemistry and mechanics into one theoretical structure. I believe the same is true of the study of the mind now.
A tremendous amount of new data is being generated from neuroscience and cognitive science experiments as well related social science disciplines like economics. One can think of the new data as the counterparts of chemical reactions; we are getting a sense for what happens when two mental entities interact with each other. However, at the same time, conceptual problems (such as that of intentionality and consciousness) are being raised about how to reconcile these phenomena with what we know of the physical world. I believe that regularity theory is a good lens through which we can view these new developments in the mind sciences; these notes are a first attempt to summarise past work and lay out a research agenda.

To push the analogy between chemistry and the mind sciences further, while we are not ready for the full fledged ‘quantum mechanics of the mind’, I do think we are ready for the Plank and Bohr model of the mind sciences, i.e., a halfway stage that integrates both the experimental and the conceptual problems into one framework. These notes are an introduction to a regularities approach to cognition with the intent of grounding knowledge itself in cognition, in the spirit of the classical Indian pramana theorists.

Understanding Regularities 1: Some examples

August 30, 2015

One problem with the regularities framework is that, like other frameworks, it is an interlocking set of conceptual intuitions and hypotheses that do not lead to an easy definition. It is almost OK to say that regularities are not definable but we know one when we see one. I don’t quite agree with that conclusion, but let us first see if we can agree about some phenomena being regularities, so that we can at least say that we know one when we see one. Here are a few examples of what I would call regularities:

  1. The size of an animal predicts the pitch of it’s voice. Mice squeak and lions roar and not vice versa
  2. Clouds are puffy while water is runny.
  3. More controversially, the size of an animal predicts how smart it is. A bacterium can never be as smart as a dophin.

These three examples are all related to each other though not in any obvious way. The underlying mechanisms for mice squeaking, clouds puffing and dolphins thinking are all different. Even the evolutionary histories are different. However, at a thermodynamic level, we can see that all of them have to do with how energy and information flow through the respective systems. Physicists talk about “universality” i.e., that the macroscopic properties of a system can often be independent of it’s microscopic origins. The regularity approach takes this one step further, that the regularities of a system are not only independent of the underlying mechanism or causal features, they are the real thing. Especially when it comes to biological processes we can hypothesize that it is regularities and their graspability that is being selected for in natural selection, not the underlying mechanism. I see this as a biologically grounded version of the hardware/software distinction well known in AI and cognitive science. Just as an earlier generation of theorists argued that the same software can be instantiated in different hardware, we can argue that the same regularity can be instantiated via different mechanisms while remaining the same.

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.

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.

Pointing versus Pushing

June 25, 2011

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.

A Typology of Beliefs

June 22, 2011


1. Introduction. The goal of this essay is to analyze the cognitive structure of beliefs. While beliefs vary tremendously, from sacred beliefs that are codified in texts to scientific hypotheses about the cosmos, I want to understand the structure of beliefs as encoded in the common sense of various human cultures. For that purpose, I focus on the kind of everyday suppositions, inferences, judgments and expectations that transpire during the process of living a life in a given social context. These beliefs are often tacit and effortless, without any overt reasoning or reflective analysis.

 

Suppose you are leaving home for work and while walking to the subway station, you notice that everyone is carrying an umbrella. You might want to head back home and get your own umbrella. Here, the belief that rain might be in the offing dictates your actions via an unconscious inference about the link between umbrellas and rain. Beliefs can also guide action without any mediation from inference. When your mother comes and tells you that your friend is at the door, you believe her and walk to the front of the house. There is no need for inference; your trust in your mother’s testimony is enough. Similarly, consider the following two sentences that might equally well inform our beliefs about John being late:

 

  1. While John was driving to his house, he remembered that he was supposed to be at a meeting and he immediately turned around and drove back to his office.

  2. While John was driving to his house he got stuck in a traffic jam behind an old red Honda.

 

The first statement has an inferential form of the type “I should be at work, but I am heading towards my house, therefore I should drive back,” but what about the second? It only has a temporal order, and there is no sense in which “there is an old Honda” follows logically from “John was caught in a traffic jam”. Yet, most of our oral and written communication (and spoken and written language informs most of our beliefs) is of this form. Importantly, while the second sentence does not have an inferential structure, it does have a recognizable narrative structure and sounds plausible enough to our ears, unlike the third sentence below.

 

  1. While John was driving to his house, he turned into a dragon and ate a couple of pedestrians.

What makes the first two beliefs acceptable in ordinary discourse, while the third isn’t? I believe that the answer to that question has to do with the cognitive structure of beliefs. This essay is an attempt to develop a theoretical understanding of the cognitive structure of beliefs in the form of a typology of beliefs, which I believe to be a first step towards a far reaching analysis of beliefs. An adequate typology is a precondition for any explanatory account, for it delineates the phenomena that need modelling. This essay bases its typology of beliefs on a series of interrelated claims:

 

  1. The production and comprehension of beliefs lies at the foundation of cognition.

  2. The structure of beliefs has two aspects: a ‘production structure’ that dictates which beliefs that are generated and a ‘comprehension structure’ that dictates which beliefs are understood. Both the production and comprehension structures are further sub-dividable.

  3. The logical/inductive structure of a belief (if there is one) is a subset of the structure of production and comprehension of a belief. In particular, the production structure consists of narrative patterns more general than the inferential patterns normally studied.

  4. Further, and most importantly, beliefs are fundamentally tied to a social context, with tacit assumptions about the size of the community to which the belief is addressed.

 

Each one of these factors – potential narratives, the social community, the degree of acceptability, the perceived value – is fluid and changes from context to context. The religious fundamentalist who insists on a strict interpretation of a sacred text and enforces social relations consistent with that interpretation, is often more than happy to call his friends on their cell phone to tell them about his understanding of the same text. So when is a belief change acceptable and when is it not? Some new beliefs and actions are so egregious that the originator is rebuked, ostracized or worse and others are embraced as the next new thing. Indeed, beliefs wouldn’t change if someone didn’t come along and say something different, but, as we all know, some changes are more acceptable than others. Is it possible to study beliefs theoretically and computationally in a manner that’s sensitive to the circumstances in which beliefs (or as is more likely, a cluster of beliefs) are altered? A good place to start would be a definition; after all, we need to delimit the phenomena we want to model.

 

2. A Preliminary Definition. I want to define the theoretical notion of beliefs with daily life activities in mind. Consider eating practice. In most western cultures, people eat with a knife and fork, with the fork on the left of the plate and the knife to the right. In India, in most places, people eat with their right hands. Both of these eating practices are beliefs. What is common to them (and to all beliefs in our account) are three things – they are acts that are shared across a community, they are remarkably stable over time (compared to the time scale of the act of eating) and they come in tightly coupled clusters (for example, in western cultures, the decision to put the fork to left and the knife to the right is paired with other decisions about where the soup spoon goes etc). In general, I define a belief as follows:

 

Definition. A Belief is a guide to a stable social act directed towards a community such that:

  1. Generically, the Believer wants the community to share the contents of that belief

  2. Generically, the community wants to accept that belief.

  3. Beliefs come in clusters, a modal combination of acts that are interrelated within a larger frame (say eating).

  4. The goal of the community is to make sure that each cluster of beliefs is transmitted successfully across time.

 

 

In the next few sections, I flesh this definition into a typology of the structure of beliefs. Our account of beliefs is based on a “structural level” of analysis, which assumes that human beliefs are not primarily created and acted upon for rational reasons, but they still have some underlying structure. The structural level of analysis makes the following key assumption:

 

Between the biopsychological levels of unconscious processing and the rational agent of economics and international relations lies an autonomous level of tacit, shared beliefs and acts that are socially enacted, communicated and justified using narrative structures.

Our goal is to elucidate the structure of this level. As I have mentioned before, the structure of beliefs can be divided into two: production structures and comprehension structures. The production and comprehension structures operate against the background of three kinds of constraints: sociality, narrative/ritual structure and normativity.

 

3. A Typology of Beliefs: Sociality, Narrativity and Normativity.

 

(a ) Sociality : Every belief comes with a (perhaps tacit) community that is a potential audience for the belief. When you ask your wife whether she has seen your favorite coffee mug and she replies that it is next to your computer in the study, you are both sharing a belief that has the family (where, for example, everyone knows the identity of the favored coffee mugs) as its tacit community. When talking to a stranger on the train about the death of Michael Jackson, you are sharing beliefs that bind almost everyone on earth. These beliefs are mostly traded back and forth in informal social networks that belie whatever formal affiliations we might have. For example, nation states have many formal institutions and hierarchies. For example, during the periods when Pakistan is a democracy, the chief of army staff (COAS) is nominally subservient to the elected Prime Minister. However, as we all know, practice and precept are not quite the same in this case. More commonly, we are all aware of the power wielded by a Director or CEO’s personal assistant, a person whose official position in the hierarchy can be quite low. Informal connections go beyond the subversion of official hierarchies. They also reflect networks of patronage or friendship that stem from personal or community history. Once again, let us turn to Pakistan. We know that as a feudal society, much power is wielded by a relatively small number of landed families. These families have members in the army, bureaucracy and party politics and exert power without any explicit conspiracy to do so. The very fact that there are relationships of trust is enough to create influence.

 

To be more precise, a formal network captures the official link s between nodes/agents occupying (typically hierarchical) positions in a network of institutions while the informal network captures the relationships of trust, power and influence based on personal connections and shifting loyalties that mark actual human conduct. I think that each person is a member of a few (say, not more than seven) ‘typical’ set of social networks: family, friends, work, religious affiliation, hobbies/sports, city, state, nation. Sociality is primarily a constraint on the production of beliefs, i.e., the producer of a belief has the intended community in mind.

 

(b ) Narrative structure . In formal networks, we can model the patterns of influence using game theory, i.e., in terms of explicit bargaining between institutional actors. Explicit goals and strategies with explicit payoffs dominate the analysis of formal networks. Informal networks on the other hand may not be so concerned with payoffs as much as they are constructed around various forms of story-telling. As anyone who goes to a South Asian bazaar knows, bargaining is itself ritualized and part of an elaborate narrative structure. One can think of the narrative structure of beliefs in terms similar to the Gricean axioms for language use, i.e., a pragmatics of belief propagation with the following principles:

 

  1. Communities share a common narrative. These narratives are non-accidental features in the sense that the story is a highly unlikely belief in the space of all possible beliefs which is why they are easy to remember and propagate quickly through a community.

  2. Small sub-communities are the locus of change. In other words these sub-communities are the people within the community who hold the communal narrative explicitly, and they are also standard bearers of this communal narrative. The common narrative flows from them to the community and back.

  3. Most communities replicate their communal narrative in each generation, mostly without change. However, within communities that are under stress, these small groups can have in-group pressure to compete with each other since they all share the same beliefs. This may lead to the production of additional narrative elements or of a radical revision of the common narrative.

 

An important reason for the power or narratives in informal networks is the density of connection s. In formal networks, agents do not know much or share much with other agents in the network. Everything that they know about each other is from painstaking and explicit fact finding. The Cuban missile crisis is a good example of a situation where the cultural and political distance between the two sides was such that there were no established stereotypes or patterns of engagement. The India-Pakistan situation is rather different. The two sides share a long and contentious history, ways of thinking and other commonalities that make the gestalt laws of behavior far more applicable. Here, political narratives about ‘us’ and ‘them’ are as important as explicit goal setting.

 

Narratives themselves have a rather complex typology. A full typology of narratives is beyond the scope of t his essay, but I highlight five different narrative strategies that correspond to five different types of beliefs:

  1. Temporal narratives: These are narratives that consist of a sequence of events recited in temporal order such as “ This Sunday, I need to go shopping for shoes and I also need to make a trip to the grocery store.” In temporal narratives, there is no logic or overt cause connecting the different events in the narrative.

  2. Causal narratives: These are the narratives of causation in common sense as well as scientific reasoning, like “Mosquitoes cause Malaria.”

  3. Rational Narratives: These are narratives that adduce reasons for events being the way they are such as “He could not have murdered Mr.X since he was out of town that day.”

  4. Habitual/ritual narratives: These are narratives that recite how something is to be done because of an established protocol or because of cultural tradition. Recipes, ritual acts and daily routines fall under this heading.

  5. Analogical narratives: These are narratives of the form “X is so and so, because X is like Y,” for example, when you say “John has his fathers temper.”

 

The production of beliefs is determined by a combination of these narrative structures. Religious beliefs, for example, can be a complex combination of causal (god created the world in seven days), rational (thou should not) and ritual (going to Church on Sundays) narratives.

 

(c ) Normativity . If sociality and narrativity are about the production of beliefs, normativity is primarily about their comprehension. We are constantly evaluating beliefs according to tacit norms of conduct. Here, I single out three norms of belief evaluation: acceptability, certainty and sacredness.

 

  1. Acceptability: Every belief/act is evaluated for how acceptable it is in a given social context. Ties and shoes are important for best men but not on the tennis court.

  2. Certainty: We evaluate every belief according to the degree of certainty we grant to it. We are far more likely to believe that it will rain today than about winning the lottery today.

  3. Sacredness: Every belief is rated for its value to our general conceptual/emotional system. Some beliefs are entirely negotiable – whether it will rain today or not being one – and others are entirely non-negotiable – religious beliefs for example. Correspondingly, we might reason about beliefs using different patterns; we are utilitarian about commodities we buy in a supermarket, but very careful about our children’s education.

 

There are perhaps many other tacit norms that come into play in the evaluation of beliefs, but the general idea remains the same: beliefs are produced with a narrative structure and target audience in mind and evaluated with a battery of norms suitable to the context. So the macro-typology of beliefs as I conceive them looks like the figure below:

4. Discussion and Conclusions. Normally, beliefs are individuated according to their content so that the usual classification takes the form: religious beliefs, beliefs about nature, beliefs about social relations etc. Our approach is more abstract; beliefs are classified structurally according to abstract principles that are common to beliefs independent of content. For example, when evaluating the degree of sacredness of a belief, one person might concentrate on its religious foundation while another might look for secular values such as its environmental sustainability. Further, an inviolable value in a given context (such as brushing teeth before bed) might not generalize at all to other social contexts. Nevertheless, all of us evaluate a belief for its sacred value in a given context. Therefore, we can be confident that sacredness is part of a cognitive typology of beliefs. The same argument applies to the other structures: sociality, narrativity and normativity. All of these appear essential to the cognitive structure of beliefs.

 

Since beliefs are remarkably varied, our typology is only a first step in uncovering the cognitive structure of beliefs. A further refinement might involve the kind of action/knowledge guided by the belief. For example, beliefs guide daily rituals (you might always shower before going to bed, while another person might shower first thing in the morning), common sense knowledge (clouds of a particular color might be seen as rain bearing clouds), stereotypes (you might prefer one neighborhood grocer to another because of the perception that the preferred one gives you the best vegetables) and various preferences (for food or clothing, for example). Some of these forms are tied to knowledge (common sense beliefs), while others have no truth value even in principle (food preferences for example), some others are guides to action (such as daily rituals) yet others are dual encoding (stereotypes regulate knowledge as well as action). The outcome of a belief is a dimension that can be added to the typology in figure 1. While the details of the typology will change, the principles underlying the typology remain the same: the structural categorization of beliefs should be based on the regularities underlying daily life phenomena like eating food, driving to work, saying your prayers, making phone calls. The world hangs together just fine for most people most of the time since it is “deeply regular”. The science of beliefs should be about the study of these deep regularities, of which our typology is a first, rough analysis.

 

To summarize, the typology of beliefs outlined in this essay makes the assumption that beliefs are fundamentally social mental states The sociality of beliefs makes narrativity a crucial condition for producing a belief and normativity a crucial criterion for evaluating a belief. However, beliefs are not entirely social; they are also tied to knowledge and action in the world of physical objects. For beliefs tied to knowledge, truth is another norm. For beliefs tied to action, effectiveness is a relevant norm. The typology of beliefs raises some natural questions about the other norms that regulate beliefs such as “what is the relationship between acceptability and truth?” and “how do unacceptable beliefs become acceptable and vice versa?” These are questions that point the way to a larger cognitive and computational exploration of belief.

 

 

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Understanding Regularities 4: Some more groping.

June 18, 2011

The idea of a primeval order or design is central to Indo European cultures – it is there in the Rig-Vedic corpus in the notion of Rta, and it is there in Plato when he talks about ideas. Someone like Thomas McEvilley would argue that these notions have circulated within the ancient world for a long time. I think much of what we call logic, design and model come from elaborations upon this primal vision of a cosmic order. Regularities are nothing but a modern manifestation of this rather old insight.

The primeval intuition of a cosmic order has bequeathed many investigations, some in the abstract sphere and others in the concrete sphere. As far as I know, the most influential abstract technical treatment of the notion of order is in one of the following two sequences:
(a) Patterns of reasoning > logic > algorithms > computer programs.
(b) Patterns of motion > Calculus > Science of Mechanics > Unified Theory of Matter

Nevertheless, the older notion of order/Rta is both metaphysically and historically prior as well as being conceptually and aesthetically richer. In regularity theory I am interested in recovering some of the lost meanings of ‘order.’ Part of my motive is to bring about a closer relation between ethics, science and aesthetics. This too has a traditional grounding – especially in the Indian traditions where Rta is tied to Dharma: the early Buddhists use the term dhamma/dharma for both the causal and the ethical order. The other motive is empirical and scientific – I think that human life in particular and organismic life in general is regular but it is not mechanical. I see the older conception of order and regularity as our best hope of breaking away from mechanical thinking.

Now that we have this primeval notion of order in the back of our heads, we need to move to a more operational understanding of regularities in the context of living beings. For my purposes, a regularity in the living world can be defined as:

A regularity is a way of being with which we repeatedly engage the world

Some orders are wholesome, while others might be pathological. According to some parts of the Indian tradition, the pathology might run rather deep. It might be part of the human condition (our being-in-samsara so to speak) to propagate an unwholesome order. In this view, human beings have a tendency to reify something impermanent and incomplete into something permanent and complete.

Understanding Regularities 3: Groping Toward a Definition

June 14, 2011

There are two ways of understanding the physical world. The first is a view from “nowhere,” a God’s eye view of the world. Physics, for the most part, has taken this line of understanding. However, it is also possible to describe the physical world from a particular perspective, that of an ant or an elephant. Each of these perspectives is embedded in a “somewhere.” I am going to give somewheres a fancier name; let us call every somewhere a niche. Each niche, which only occupies a particular range of parameters (for example, life can only exist within a narrow band of temperatures) has several patterns that are it’s signatures. Therefore, let me define a regularity as:

A regularity is a pattern that informs us about other elements in a niche.

For example, clouds can only exist because of the particular combination of temperatures and gases on Earth; that said, other planets can also have the same parameters, which is what makes astrobiology interesting. When I see a cloud, it’s fluffiness is a regularity that informs me that the cloud is soft. I would be really surprised if a cloud turns out to be hard as a rock.

At the same time, a cotton ball is also fluffy and it’s fluffiness also tells me that it is soft. Clouds are made of vapor while cotton balls are made of cotton. In both cases, fluffiness is informative about density. There is something generalizable about regularities, so that the regularity is not tied to the precise mechanisms that underlie the phenomena. Our definition should somehow capture the inherent generalizability of regularities. More on that later.

Cognitive Regularities 2

June 13, 2011

Perception and cognition are traditionally considered as sources of knowledge. Consider the opening paragraph of Marr’s book on Vision (Marr 1982), which says “Vision is the process of discovering from images what is present in the world, and where it is.” According to Marr, the role of vision is to acquire knowledge about the geometric layout of the external world. The most important questions (and most productive from a research point of view) have always revolved around the relationship between knowledge and cognition; some of these questions are: what representations underlie our capacities for knowing? What makes a representation veridical? What are the origins of our representations?

Much progress has been made on these questions within – roughly – the computational account of the mind, which assumes that knowledge is a result of computation on representations. In the last two decades, alternate models of the mind such as those considered in embodied cognitive science have challenged the older computational view, and in some cases, have also called for a non-representationist account of perception and cognition. While I sympathize with theories of embodiment and enaction, I think it is premature to go straight from computation to embodiment. Instead, I view cognitions as the primary constituents of perception, beliefs and emotions, i.e., the replacement for “computation on representations.” Instead of knowledge being the outcome of computation on representations, knowledge is a product of cognitions.

The approach I am taking is not that different from the classical Indian philosophers, for whom knowledge is grounded in pramana, i.e., valid cognition. The approach taken here also derives inspiration from recent research on language and conception – for example, in cognitive linguistics – that has been moving away from viewing cognition and perception solely as sources of knowledge. These researchers have emphasized the metaphorical, ‘loose’ structure of concepts and the crossover between representations across semantic fields (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Talmy 2000) rather than their formal or modular structure. Perhaps it is now time to invert the relationship between cognition and epistemology and to ground knowledge in cognition rather than the other way around. Further, I also view cognitions are prior to computations. In some cases, computational schemes might model aspects of cognition, this is no more a computational theory of mind than classical physics is a calculus theory of matter.

It is the logic of cognition that one needs for understanding the mind rather than the logic of computation. Coming back to the Indian pramana systems once again, the Indian philosophers understood pramana’s as material entities; it may turn out that the pramana theory will deepen our understanding of the body and embodiment rather than reducing embodiment to the “gross body” that walks and talks. At this stage it is too early to ask for a full theory of embodiment; pramana is a better bet for a model of the mind. My first paper on this model, “Indian Cognitivism and the Phenomenology of Conceptualization,” coauthored with Nirmalya Guha and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad.