Category Archives: embodied cognition

Beyond free will: The embodied emergence of conscious agency

Article by Mascolo, M. F., & Kallio, E. (2019). Philosophical Psychology, 1-26. Abstract follows:

“Is it possible to reconcile the concept of conscious agency with the view that humans are biological creatures subject to material causality? The problem of conscious agency is complicated by the tendency to attribute autonomous powers of control to conscious processes. In this paper, we offer an embodied process model of conscious agency. We begin with the concept of embodied emergence – the idea that psychological processes are higher-order biological processes, albeit ones that exhibit emergent properties. Although consciousness, experience, and representation are emergent properties of higher-order biological organisms, the capacity for hierarchical regulation is a property of all living systems. Thus, while the capacity for consciousness transforms the process of hierarchical regulation, consciousness is not an autonomous center of control. Instead, consciousness functions as a system for coordinating novel representations of the most pressing demands placed on the organism at any given time. While it does not regulate action directly, consciousness orients and activates preconscious control systems that mediate the construction of genuinely novel action. Far from being an epiphenomenon, consciousness plays a central albeit non-autonomous role in psychological functioning.”

history and philosophy of ecological psychology

Article from Frontiers in Psychology at this link. From the Introduction:

“Ecological psychology is an embodied, situated, and non-representationalist approach to cognition pioneered by J. J. Gibson (1904–1979) in the field of perception and by E. J. Gibson (1910–2002) in the field of developmental psychology. Ecological psychology, in its very origins, aimed to offer an innovative perspective for understanding perception and perceptual learning that overcomes the traditional psychological dichotomies of perception/action, organism/environment, subjective/objective, and mind/body.”

‘Neurosexism’ debated

Neuroscientist Larry Cahill takes issue with a Feb 2019 Nature favorable book review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain.

Cahill’s response prompted an interview by Medium Neuroscience writer Meghan Daum.

Scientific findings have a way of upsetting apple carts, especially when we consider our oft-demonstrated human capacity to bend science to advantage some power-coveting groups over others.

Valid research amply shows there are real differences in male and female neuroanatomy and functions. Honest science must follow the evidence where it leads. Clearly, any discovered differences cannot be allowed to justify unequal social or economic opportunities or treatment. Cahill compares the situation to genetics. That people differ genetically in a vast number of ways cannot be taken as cause to misstate scientific findings or preclude further learning about genetics.

There are times and circumstances in which certain research approaches must be blocked for humane or other reasons but that is a different argument than denying the findings of a body of research because they are uncomfortable or inconvenient.


ai will never conquer humanity

From this piece located at the publications page of the International Computer Science Institute.   “Mathematical models help describe reality, but only by ignoring its inherent integrity.” Computers work on binary logic and the world is full of  ‘noise.’ Hence computers, and mathematical models for that matter, can only approximate reality by eliminating that noise.

“Can a bunch of bits represent reality exactly, in a way that can be controlled and predicted indefinitely? The answer is no, because nature is inherently chaotic, while a bunch of bits representing a program can never be so, by definition.”

Which leads us to ask: “Are our mathematical models just a desperate, failed attempt to de-noise an otherwise very confusing, extremely blurred reality?”

So yes, math and computers are quite useful as long as we keep the above in mind instead of assuming they reveal reality as it is. And as long as we also search for that noisy humanity in the spaces between binary logic, which will never be revealed by math or computers alone.

The info processing (IP) metaphor of the brain is wrong

Psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor of Psychology Today, challenges anyone to show the brain processing information or data. The IP metaphor, he says, is so deeply embedded in thinking about thinking it prevents us from learning how the brain really works. Epstein also takes on popular luminaries including Ray Kurzweil and Henry Markram, seeing both exemplifying the extremes of wrongness we get into with the IP metaphor and the notion mental experience could persist outside the organic body.

The Empty Brain (Aeon article with audio)

New free e-books from Frontiers in Science

See the selection here. Frontiers is a pioneer in open access science publishing. Of possible interest to this forum:

What Is the Role for Effective Pedagogy In Contemporary Higher Education?

Reaching to Grasp Cognition: Analyzing Motor Behavior to Investigate Social Interactions

Neural Computation in Embodied Closed-Loop Systems for the Generation of Complex Behavior: From Biology to Technology

Cellular Therapies: Past, Present and Future

Software Architectures for Humanoid Robotics

Recontextualizing decenterd cognition

New issue of Contructivist Foundations on e-cognition. E.g.:

“Such considerations motivate the need to re-think our understanding of how the brain itself works. They suggest that the best explanation of brain function may be found in the mixed vocabularies of embodied and situated cognition, developmental psychology, ecological psychology, dynamic systems theory, applied linguistics, the theory of affordances and material engagement, rather than the narrow vocabulary of computational neuroscience.”

What are numbers, really?

The nature of math came up in our embodied cognition discussion. Here is a presentation by Dehaene on the topic followed by comments from The Reality Club: George Lakoff, Marc Hauser, Jaron Lanier, Rafael Núñez, Margaret Wertheim, Howard Gardner, Joseph Traub, Steven Pinker, Charles Simonyi. A few brief, edited Lakoff excerpts follow from that discussion. Note that this is a discussion from 1997, so a lot of confirming science has happened since then.

” [Dehaene] has made it clear that our capacity for number has evolved and that the very notion of number is shaped by specific neural systems in our brains. […] We understand the world through our cognitive models and those models are not mirrors of the world, but arise from the detailed peculiarities of our brains.”

“Mathematics is not ‘abstract’, but rather metaphorical, based on projections from sensory-motor areas that make use of ‘inferences’ performed in those areas. The metaphors are not arbitrary, but based on common experiences: putting things into piles, taking steps, turning around, coming close to objects so they appear larger, and so on.”

“Dehaene is right that this requires a nonplatonic philosophy of mathematics that is also not socially constructivist. Indeed, what is required is a special case of experientialist philosophy (or ’embodied realism’). […] Such a philosophy of mathematics is not relativist or socially constructivist, since it is embodied, that is, based on the shared characteristics of human brains and bodies as well as the shared aspects of our physical and interpersonal environments. […] On the other hand, such a philosophy of mathematics is not platonic or objectivist. Consider two simple examples. First, can sets contain themselves or not? This cannot be answered by looking at the mathematical universe. You can have it either way, choosing either the container metaphor or the graph metaphor, depending on your interests.”

“Dehaene is by no means alone is his implicit rejection of the Computer Program Theory. Distinguished figures in neuroscience have rejected it (e.g., Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Patricia Churchland). Even among computer scientists, connectionism presents a contrasting view. In our lab at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley, Jerome Feldman, I, and our co-workers working on a neural theory of language, have discovered results in the course of our work suggesting that the program-mind is not even a remotely good approximation to a real mind.”

Pinker of course also comments and takes issue with Lakoff’s depiction of him. Dehaene also responds to the comments at the end.

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.