All entries for Tuesday 15 November 2005

November 15, 2005

Research Notes: porous minds and cracked–up agents

Follow-up to Research Notes: how radical can extended cognition be? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

I just found this in a text file whilst tidying up my laptop. It doesn't seem to have been published yet. There may be a reason why I abandoned it. But here it is anyway...

Section 10.6 of Andy Clark's book Being There is entitled with the question "Where does the mind stop and the world begin?". For philosophy this is a very significant question. For cognitive science and AI, much less so (its just a design issue). Why not just adopt the latter position? Would that be such a scandal?

Clark's answer to the question is both pragmatic and realistic, whilst promoting a proportionate, specific and sufficiently detailled investigation of real minds and environments. This is quite a contrast to the vague generalizations of some phenomenological models.

For someone with an AI/cog-sci background (that I in part share), the identification of a boundary (even a porous one) should only be significant when it could contribute to our understanding of the capabilities, limitations and developmental process of real cognitive processes. Our boundary marking conditions would have to be ones that really make a difference to the cognitive process itself. For example, one interesting boundary marking condition would be:

how replaceable or otherwise is a specific (internal or external) cognitive artefact? Could the individual agent simply swap the artefact with another similar or even totally different artefact? And to what extent would this change the character of the agent?

A related, equally important, but different question is:

how dependent is the development of an agent upon a specific artefact, such that it's abscence makes a significant difference to that agent?

This gets close to our understanding of what an agent actually is: it has a relatively consistent and pervasive character existing over time and to some extent surviving changes to the environment in which it exists. Whilst at the same time, its development and continuation is dependent upon the existence of key artefacts within that environment. It is as Clark says, closely coupled. Furthermore, the agent tends to influence the environment in which it exists so as to promote the continuation of these characteristics, so that an agent tends to be associated with an environment (reverse evolution), whilst the environment tends to promote certain characteristics in the agent and classes of agents (evolution).

This, to readers of recent dynamical systems theory (and the likes of Deleuze and Guattari), is quite an obvious model: 1) there are arangements of mechanisms that interact with and consume other mechanisms through processes of ordering, selection, managed preservation and controlled degradation; 2) these mechanisms have selective principles (the character traits) that are repetetively applied over time; 3) some of these repetitive mechanisms reproduce the conditions of their own production and reproduction; 4) and fewer still reproduce the conditions that make their own reproduction more likely, more desired by the environment in which they exist. Or in shore: they are desiring machines.

I would say that this is stating the obvious. Certainly there is a degree of convergence towards such a model in evolutionary biology. And I'm sure there will also be such a convergence in AI development. So why is it likely that philosophers will still consider it to be controversial? Why does it seem OK in biology, but radical when applied by, for example, the psychotherapist Felix Guattari, to the problem of fixing broken minds and bodies?

Thinking is selecting, is doing.

Research Notes: Merleau–Ponty, the philosopher as perpetual beginner

I have just read the first two chapters of The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by Eric Matthews. Of greatest interest is the conception of the "phenomenological reduction" (and by implication, the purpose of philosophy), which is not really a reduction at all, but more like a phenomenological refocussing on detail, context and engagement with the messy reality of the world.

So far it has dealt well with the historical context, including a high-level overview of the differences between the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Husserl and Hegel. These are all philosophers whom one would expect to see in the same sentence. But something marks out Merleau-Ponty as being very much different. Matthews states that the purpose of philosophy for Merleau-Ponty:

…is not a discovery of transcendent or eternal truths, but the adoption of an attitude of wonder, of being a "perpetual beginner". p.41

As Matthews explains, Husserl may have turned towards this position in his later work. However, much of phenomenology aims in the other direction: either epistemological of ontological transcendence. Even when trying to return to the world, it is only to recast the world as something other than its complexity.

Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology is entirely different. It shares with Nietzsche a liking for a child-like openness, a highly rational position of naivety and innocence. That's also the same ethos that sees Deleuze and Guattari talk of playing with circuits and concepts like a child plays with toys.

I suspect that this is not simply a result of Merleau-Ponty's work on psychology and pedagogy. This philosophy, like that of Deleuze and Guattari, is for a very different purpose. It is, as they say, an itinerant or nomadic philosophy. One that equips us to deal with change.

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