Friday, 16 December 2016

Affordances are Not Relations, Part 1: Chemero (2009)

Affordances are on my mind right now as I develop the throwing research programme, and a major commitment of that work is that affordances are (dispositional) properties of the environment picked out by organisms in the context of tasks. This commitment has become important enough that it's time to get into developing specific arguments against the various 'affordances are relations' papers that are out there. I am working towards a paper summarising my objections to the relations account that also strongly advocates for the properties account on the grounds it enables a lot more science. This will be an occasional series of posts as I read and draft my arguments; as always, feedback welcome.

In this first post, I want to draft a response to 'Affordances 2.0', from Chemero's (2009) book Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. I previously blogged this chapter in two parts here and here

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Affordances of Natural vs Designed Environments (A Purple Peril)

I had a conversation with Eric Brymer (@Ericbrymer) a few weeks ago. Eric is a Reader at Leeds Beckett and is an ecologically minded psychologist interested in the effects of the natural world on mental health. We chatted affordances for a while, and despite it being a very interesting chat, I really wasn’t sure if I had anything to say about the differences between the natural and designed worlds. 

But I have not been able to stop thinking about this topic, and now I think there’s something fairly cool here.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Is the Ecological Approach Radical Enough?

Radical enactivists do not just want to get representations out of their explanations for our mental life. They also want to get rid of the notion of content. Hutto & Myin (2013) is the strong version of this claim. 

Mental states or processes have content if there are specified conditions of satisfaction and if it can be evaluated for things like truth (i.e. does the thing conveying content doing so accurately or not?). Part of the concern is that ecological psychology is committed to content and thus can’t play with the other radical theories. The evidence is that we talk about things like ‘information about affordances’; that ‘about’ implies content. 

van Dijk, Withagen & Bongers (2015) took a swing at defending a content-less ecological psychology. I admire the attempt to get the radical camps on the same page, but at the end of the day I think a) the defence is grounded on the wrong notion of affordances (as relations, instead of dispositions) which means b) I don’t think it works but that c) I don’t think I care. I am as yet unfazed by critiques of content, although I’m happy to hear more on this; frankly Hutto & Myin’s book is a real struggle to read and any clarity people can add, I’ll take. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Scarantino (2003) “Affordances Explained”

Turvey, Shaw, Reed and Mace (1981) laid out an ontology of affordances; a formal account of the kind of things they are. They described them as dispositions, properties of the world constituted by sets of anchoring properties that offered an action to an organism whose dispositions could complement the affordance. Making affordances dispositions makes them real, makes them pre-date the interaction with the organism, and accounts for their odd ‘not doing anything until interacted with’ kind of existence. I am firmly Team Affordances are Dispositions and I have yet to meet an alternative account that supports a science of affordances or even allows them to be perceived.

The literature on dispositions was somewhat limited in 1981, but in 1998 Stephan Mumford published the definitive work on what they are and how they work. I always hoped someone with the necessary philosophy chops would use this work to strengthen the foundations of affordances (I even almost talked a philosopher into doing it!) but it turns out I’m covered. Andrea Scarantino (2003) published ‘Affordances Explained’ and did much of the necessary work, and there are some very useful things in the analysis. This post is me working through this material, translating from the technical philosophy into words I can understand better.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Free Energy: How the F*ck Does That Work, Ecologically?

Karl Friston has spent a lot of time recently developing the free energy principle framework as a way to explain life, behaviour and cognition; you know, biology, and it's become the cool kid on the block in fairly record time. 

Crudely, the basic idea of the FEP is that living organisms need to operate within a range for a given process, or else they will be malfunctioning to some extent and might suffer injury or death. Being within the relevant range across all your processes means you are alive and doing well, and so for an organism that has made it this far in evolution those states must be highly probable. Being outside those ranges is therefore less probable, and so if you find yourself outside a range you will be surprised. Your job as a self-sustaining organism can therefore be described as 'work to minimise surprise'.

There is a problem with this formalisation though. The information-theoretic term that formalise 'surprise' is not a thing that any organism can access, so you can't work to control it. Luckily, there is another formal quantity, free energy, that is related to surprise and is always higher than surprise. Free energy is therefore the upper bound on surprise and minimising that upper bound can reduce surprise as well. 

All this is currently implemented in an inferential, Bayesian framework that aligns, at least on the surface, with modern representational cognitive science. Andy Clark thinks this is the future, and Jakob Howhy has worked hard to nail this connection down so it won't move. If this is all right, and if the FEP is being successful, perhaps non-representational, non-inferential accounts like ours are going to lose.

A recent paper (Bruineberg, Kiverstein & Rietveld (2016) tries to wedge the FEP and Bayesian psychology apart to allow room for an ecological/enactivist take on the FEP. To be honest, I found the paper a little underwhelming, but it did get me thinking about things, and two questions have emerged.

Before we worry about an ecological account of the FEP, we need to know 1) whether such a thing makes any sense and 2) whether it adds anything new to the proceedings. All comments welcome - these are genuine questions and if there are answers we would love to know.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Field is Full, Just Not of Affordances - A Reply to Rietveld & Kiverstein

I recently posted about relational accounts of affordances and how one way to summarise my objections to them is that they cannot support mechanistic models of cognition. I came to this after reading Rietveld & Kiverstein's 'Landscape of Affordances' paper and chatting to them both at EWEP14. Eric and Julian have been kind enough to send through some detailed comments (beginning here and split over three comments due to character limits). This post is me replying to these comments as a way to get them somewhere a little more visible. I haven't gone point by point, I've just pulled out the key stuff I wanted to address; read their comments for the whole thing. I appreciate their willingness to get into this with me; their account is becoming wildly influential and their papers and feedback are helping me immensely as I work to articulate my concerns. 

To preview: my fundamental objection remains the same and as yet unanswered - while it is indeed possible to identify relations between 'forms of life' and 'socio-cultural environments' there is, as yet, no evidence that these relations create perceptual information. If they do not create information, they are not ecologically perceived, and they cannot figure in the online coordination and control of behaviour. And if they can't do that, then they sure as hell aren't affordances.

So my challenge to Reitveld & Kiverstein (R&K) is this - work up an example of an affordance that fits their definition and not mine and that creates information. Then we can test to see whether people act as if they perceive that affordance and can try perturbing the information to confirm how they are perceiving it. Then, and only then, do we have a ball game.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Nonlinear Covariation Analysis (Müller & Sternad, 2003)

I have been working my way through some analyses that fall under the idea of the motor abundance hypothesis (Latash, 2012) - the idea that motor control does not work to produce a single, optimal movement trajectory, but rather works to produce a particular task goal, or outcome. Motor control preserves function, and not structure; it exhibits degeneracy. So far I have looked at uncontrolled manifold analysis here and here, and stochastic optimal control theory here

This post will review nonlinear covariation analysis developed by Müller & Sternad (2003). This purports to address several issues with UCM.