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In your face: transcendence in embodied interaction

A new open access article by Sean Gallagher (there currently seems to be some problem with the journal’s website but will hopefully be resolved).

In cognitive psychology, studies concerning the face tend to focus on questions about face recognition, theory of mind (ToM) and empathy. Questions about the face, however, also fit into a very different set of issues that are central to ethics. Based especially on the work of Levinas, philosophers have come to see that reference to the face of another person can anchor conceptions of moral responsibility and ethical demand. Levinas points to a certain irreducibility and transcendence implicit in the face of the other. In this paper I argue that the notion of transcendence involved in this kind of analysis can be given a naturalistic interpretation by drawing on recent interactive approaches to social cognition found in developmental psychology, phenomenology, and the study of autism.

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Cultural-historical activity theory and the zone of proximal development in the study of idioculture design and implementation

Robert Lecusay, Lars Rossen, and Michael Cole’s intro:

The absence of context and culture from the early history of the cognitive sciences was, according to Gardner (1987), the result of a general attempt by cognitive scientists to “factor out these elements to the maximum extent possible,” (p. 41). The traditional vision of cognition framed human thinking as the manipulation of inner mental representations of an external world (the central processing unit metaphor). Computational models were viewed as a key way to study cognitive phenomena thus interpreted. These models assume cognitive processes that are invariant across contexts, cultures, and history. This theoretical vision set the agenda of cognitive science as a project of explaining the mind from the inside out. From this perspective the external/internal distinction is clear: processing goes on inside the head.

Over the past several decades approaches challenging these foundational assumptions have emerged or been rediscovered within the cognitive and social sciences (Cole, 1996, Engeström, 1987 and Hutchins, 1995). These alternatives approach the problem of cognition from the outside in, bringing us to reevaluate the importance of culture in our theories of cognition (Hutchins, 2001). In this paper we focus on one such approach: Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). Rather than conceptualizing culture and cognition as two separate phenomena that interact in a manner akin to stimulus and response, CHAT argues for a view of culture and cognition as co-constituted in socially organized, culturally mediated, historically conditioned forms of activity. This move broadens the unit of analysis beyond the individual to include the development and deployment of the mediational means through which humans coordinate with one another and their multifaceted environments; it places particular focus on the dynamics of change over time.

In this article we seek to accomplish two goals. First, we present a brief overview of CHAT sufficient to permit analysis of a real-world example of change in joint mediated activity that reveals the dynamics of cognitive change in a theoretically fruitful manner. Second, we present the example and its analysis. The example is presented in two forms: as a printed transcript with interspersed interpretive comments and as a videotaped archival record available on the internet. We return at the end to examine the impact of this approach in relation to other efforts to understand cognition as a socio-culturally constituted process.

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Dynamic empathy: A new formulation for the simulation theory of mind reading

The intro to Teed Rockwell’s paper:

There are currently two popular theories for explaining “mind reading” i.e. our ability to become aware of what other people are feeling and thinking, and to predict (and/or respond skillfully to) behavior on the basis of that awareness. The first, known as the theory-theory (TT), claims that we have a theory of mind, which we use to make sense out of both our own and other people’s behavior. The second, known as the simulation theory (ST), has taken on two importantly different meanings.

(1) The first meaning is “equated with… imaginatively ‘putting oneself in the other’s place”’ (Gordon, 2004). Because the words ‘imaginative” and “imagine” are different forms of the word “image”, this definition seems to imply something like “creating an image in the mind”, and could include all five sensory modalities, not just audio-visual. There are arguably problems with thinking of this diverse range of qualities in the pictorial terms implied by the word “image”. However, this is very much in line with the traditional British Empiricist view. The Empiricists usually used visual examples like triangles and patches of red as their prototypes for “ideas”, and then used that word to refer to all sorts of sensations and feelings, including more qualitatively complex feelings such as thirst, hunger, disgust, fear, etc.

(2) Gordon also points out that ST refers to simulations of mental states where the pictorial connotations of “image” are much more problematic. These interpretations rely on the association of the word “simulation” with pretense or hypothetical “acting out”.

One’s own behavior control system is employed as a manipulable model of other such systems… The system is first taken off-line, so that the output is not actual behavior but only predictions or anticipations of behavior (Gordon, 2004).

According to this view, any aspect of our mental life can be turned into a simulation by taking it off-line—not just images and feelings, but abstract thoughts such as beliefs, desires, and decisions. Abstract thoughts of this sort include what are called the propositional attitudes, because they are focused towards a claim expressible in a proposition. (I believe/desire/ have decided that Paris is the capital of France, the war in Iraq must end, etc.) Because theories are ordinarily thought of as being sets of propositions, many people argue that there is no important difference between “simulating” these kinds of verbalizable thoughts and thinking them yourself, and thus the Simulation Theory collapses into the Theory Theory. (This requires the plausible assumption that thinking about something requires having a theory about it.)

It would take at least another whole paper to paraphrase and respond to the detailed and ingenious replies made by ST theorists to this objection (see especially Goldman, 2006, pp. 30–40). Most of them involve accepting what Goldman calls a hybrid theory, which describes mind reading as requiring both theories and simulations. The debate then continues as each side either defends or attacks claims that all alleged simulations in such a hybrid system can actually be reduced to theories, which in turn requires arguing over exactly what a theory is. The problem has become so complex that some have argued that we ought to drop the term “simulation” altogether (Stich & Nichols, 1992).

I personally find the criticisms made by TT theorists to be reasonably convincing, and agree with Stich and Nichols that the current defense of ST has made it hard to tell the difference between a theory and a simulation. I do believe, however, that the Simulation Theory got something importantly right, which would be lost if we retreated to a pure Theory Theory. The goal of this paper is to preserve these essential insights with a redefined Simulation Theory, which returns to an idea inspired by the first of Gordon’s descriptions of simulation, i.e. as a kind of “movie” consisting of perceptual sensations. I think the hybrid TT/ST theory does explain much (perhaps most) of what can be called mind reading. But I also believe that there is a kind of mind reading which is in a certain sense purely “perceptual” and unaided by any verbal theoretical elements. I understand why Gordon, Goldman and the other defenders of the Simulation Theory have not taken this route. There are excellent reasons, with a distinguished lineage, for rejecting pure ST. In the following section, I am going to trace that lineage. I will then argue that something like a pure ST is possible, if we greatly expand our concepts of “simulation” and “perception” by using conceptual resources from connectionist neuroscience. However, once these concepts are taken out of the brain and put into the world, there is no longer a compelling reason to always refer to our awareness of other minds as being a simulation. In certain circumstances, it arguably makes more sense to say that I share the same emotion with another person, rather than make a simulation of their emotion in my own private mind.

1. The Kantian objection to the simulation theory

In many ways, the argument between the Theory-Theory and the Pure Simulation Theory is the same argument that Kant and Hume had about the true nature of ideas. Hume and the other British empiricists thought that an idea was a particular ‘image’ in one of the sensory modalities, such as a red triangle or the taste of chocolate. These images were also capable of being shaped in a variety of ways by the faculty of imagination once they were received by the mind. Hume apparently believed that imagination was all that was needed to give these particular images the powers rationalists attributed to generalized abstractions.

Kant, however, argued that no image could ever do the work of a concept. The concept of triangle applies to triangles of mutually exclusive shapes and sizes, and therefore such an image of a “Universal Triangle” would be self-contradictory. The later Wittgenstein raised a similar objection to his earlier picture theory of language by pointing out that a picture of a man walking down a hill could just as easily be a picture of a man walking up a hill backwards. It is only our interpretation of the picture that makes it one or the other, just as it is our interpretation that decides that an image of a red triangle is an example of a triangle, rather than an example of a red thing. Jerry Fodor labeled this Humean position the resemblance theory and raised this objection to it.

The difficulty with the resemblance theory is that any portrait showing John to be tall must also show him to be many other things: clothed or naked, lying standing or sitting, having a head or not having a head, and so on. A portrait of a tall man who is sitting resembles a man’s being seated, as much as it resembles a man being tall. On the resemblance theory, it is not clear what distinguishes thoughts about John’s height from thoughts about his posture (Fodor, 1981, pp. 127–128).

The resemblance theory is the genus of which the pure simulation theory is a species, and the latter is thus vulnerable to all of these objections. Kant claimed that the only way to deal with this problem was to see an idea not as an image, but as a verbalizable theoretical rule. To have a concept of a triangle or dog is to have some sort of criteria or set of definitions that identifies all the different triangles or dogs. Even though a picture of a particular dog may be similar to all other dogs, It is also similar to countless other things. The only way you can make a distinction between relevant and irrelevant similarities is with a rule that connects the image to other members (and only other members) of the same category. Similarly, being able to simulate someone else’s emotions or beliefs is not going to help you “read her mind” unless you have some sort of theory that enables you to classify the simulated emotions and beliefs into some kind of category, such as fear or pain.

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Consciousness and the social mind

Here is the intro to Phil’s piece.

Emotion is a hot topic, getting hotter all the time. The reasons for this enthusiasm are various, but the growth of neuroscientific interest in the area surely ranks high among them. The same goes for another hot topic: social cognition. Within the last two decades, two subfields of neuroscience have emerged: affective neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying emotion and emotional feeling; and social neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition. The parallel development of these new brain sciences is no accident. As Damasio (1994) makes clear, emotional and social functioning are deeply intertwined, since practical rationality is scaffolded by the ability to feel one’s way through the world, the social world included. This is now a familiar theme in cognitive science. Less familiar is the idea that the link between emotional and social functioning identified by Damasio forms part of a constellation of connections between consciousness (in the phenomenal, ‘what it’s like’ sense; see Nagel, 1974) and social cognition. In this paper, I try to identify some of these other connections, and to explore their implications for how we think about the conscious mind in general.

The plan of the paper goes like this. In the first part, I argue that a wide swath of consciousness is a product of the social mind, as it arises from cognitive operations dedicated to processing information about the domain of persons. I begin by describing two phenomena that have attracted considerable attention in the empirical literature. The first is social pain: the affect associated with the perception of actual or potential damage to one’s interpersonal relations. The second phenomenon of interest is affective contagion: the tendency for emotions, moods, and other affective states to spread from person to person as a consequence of social perception. Neuroscientific investigation of these phenomena suggests that affective consciousness depends on perception of the social world in much the same way that it depends on perception of the body. It appears, in short, that consciousness is a ‘socially embodied’ capacity, in two senses of the term (articulated below). In the second part of the paper I look at the flip side of this thematic coin. Here I argue that the distinctive sociality of our species, especially its moral dimension, rests heavily on our ability to represent the conscious states of others. In closing, I try to connect the two main claims of the paper – the claim that consciousness is essentially social, and the claim that thinking about consciousness is socially essential – by showing how they jointly point to a kind of circular causal-mechanistic nexus between consciousness and social mindedness.

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Is Behavioral Economics Doomed?

Here is a skeptical take on the insights supposedly offered by the rise of behavioral economics as represented by Daniel Kahneman and others. Since I’m in the process of reviewing Kahneman it will be interesting to see if Levine’s take on behavioral economics jibes with my take on Kahneman in particular and behavioral economics in general – I have a strong sense that is unlikely to be the case.

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Hayek and Behavioral Economics: Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension

I see that the publisher now has a fully detailed page up for a volume that I’ve been privileged to be a part of. The Foreword is by a very nice chappie going by the name of V.Smith and includes luminaries such as McCloskey, Boettke, Gintis, Steel and others. My abstract:

Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension

Hayek’s and Simon’s social externalism runs on a shared presupposition: mind is constrained in its computational capacity to detect, harvest, and assimilate “data” generated by the infinitely fine-grained and perpetually dynamic characteristic of experience in complex social environments. For Hayek, mind and sociality are co-evolved spontaneous orders, allowing little or no prospect of comprehensive explanation, trapped in a hermeneutically sealed, i.e. inescapably context bound, eco-system. For Simon, it is the simplicity of mind that is the bottleneck, overwhelmed by the ambient complexity of the environmental. Since on Simon’s account complexity is unidirectional, Simon is far more ebullient about the prospects of explanation. Hayek’s social externalism functions as a kind of distributed “extra-neural” memory store manifest as dynamic spontaneous orders. Simon’s organizational rule-governed externalism negotiates the “inner” world (the mind) with the “outer” world through a homeostatic interface that offloads the cognitive burden into the environment. Their respective externalisms may differ in detail but not in spirit in that it ameliorates their shared presupposition of cognitive constraint. Even though any “optimization talk” for Hayek and Simon is objectionable, knowledge acquisition can be represented by a contextualized stigmergic swarm optimization algorithm that gives due emphasis to both the individual and the environment. The key insight is that “perfect” knowledge is unnecessary, impracticable and indeed irrelevant if one understands the mechanism at work in complex sociality, a stigmergic sociality that in effect augments or scaffolds cognition.

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Rationalism in Politics

In anticipation of a talk I’m giving later on in the week on Oakeshott’s so-called “dispositional conservatism”, here is a nice little piece by my chum Gene Callahan serving as a good introduction to RIP.

The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott is a curious figure in twentieth-century intellectual history. He is known mostly as a “conservative political theorist,” although he rejected ideology and his conservatism was primarily temperamental. Furthermore, his work on politics was only a fraction of his output, which comprised idealist philosophy, aesthetics, religion, education, the philosophy of history, and even horse racing. His popularity reached its zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he was well known on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on the BBC and becoming the favorite philosopher at National Review. But he never seemed to seek popularity, and did little or nothing to boost his own when it subsequently faded. Today, despite the growing interest in Oakeshott since his death in 1990, even his best-recognized work, his essay “Rationalism in Politics,” is, I contend, not appreciated widely enough—thus, this article.

Lovers of liberty should keep Oakeshott’s work on rationalism in mind for at least two reasons. First, it offers a complementary but still significantly different critique of planning to those of Mises and Hayek. However, at the same time, it provides a warning to the advocates of freedom not to fall into the rationalist quagmire themselves. The relevance of the latter point is demonstrated by, for example, the tendency of many development economists, even those who are “market oriented,” to attempt to impose their theoretical schemes for taking a shortcut to westernization on some Third World country, while running roughshod over all the traditions, customs, and morals native to the place, which, whatever their short-comings, at least managed to sustain the society in question over previous centuries. Freedom cannot be “imposed” on a people according to some preconceived scheme. We all need to watch out for “the rationalist within.”