Sunday 10 June 2012

How Information Gets Its Meaning (Specification II)

Gibson proposed that specification was required in order for perceptual information to have meaning that was tied to the world in a manner an organism could use. The concept of specification has been placed back under the microscope by recent theoretical and empirical work. Here I want to briefly summarise the theoretical argument put forth by Withagen & van der Kamp (2010), who worry that specification places too strong a constraint on what a perceiving-acting organism might find informative. They suggest that (visual) perception can still be direct with non-specifying patterns, if you stop thinking information is in the relation between the environment and the optic array but rather, in the relation between the optic array and the organism. They propose this because recent empirical work suggests that organisms can happily get around using non-specifying variables; they want to keep directness, however and they don't think Chemero's solution to the problem does the trick. I'll review the studies they cite over the next few posts; first, let's lay out the solutions they propose.

Again, I want to emphasise that this is very much a work in progress for me. I'm using these posts to come to grips with the arguments, and I don't yet endorse any of these various critiques. My goal is simply to have a clear understanding of what everyone says, so that we can evaluate those claims later on when I review some data.

How information gets its meaning I: Gibson (well, Turvey, Shaw & Mace, anyway)
For Gibson and those who followed shortly after, most prominently Turvey, Shaw, Reed & Mace, (1981), specification was critical for a theory of direct perception to succeed. The idea is this: there are properties of the environment to which organisms need to be sensitive. These properties interact with energy such as light and created patterns in structured arrays of energy which can be detected by an organism. The pattern then provides information about the properties if and only if the property caused the pattern by a lawful process that guarantees the two are uniquely related to each other. Specification guarantees that pattern is informative, because of the Shaw's symmetry principle:
We can represent the symmetry principle as follows. Let E = ‘‘The environment is the way it is,’’ I = ‘‘The information is the way it is,’’ and P = ‘‘Perception is the way it is.’’ Also, let ‘‘>’’ stand for the logical relation of adjunction, a nontransitive conjunction that we can read as ‘‘specifies.’’ Then, the symmetry principle is

[(E > I) & (I > P)] & [(P > I) & (I > E)].

In English, this says: ‘‘That the environment is the way it is specifies that information is the way it is and that information is the way it is specifies that perception is the way it is, and that perception is the way it is specifies that the information is the way it is and that information is the way it is specifies that the environment is the way it is.’’ We can simplify this to say that the environment specifies the information, which specifies perception, and perception specifies the information, which specifies the environment. This principle is symmetrical in that the environment, information, and perception determine one another. This, on the Turvey-Shaw-Mace view, is what it is for perception to be direct.
Chemero, 2009, p. 111
The environmental property is projected as a pattern into light according to the laws of ecological optics. By virtue of this lawful basis, picking up the pattern simply is perceiving the environment because the symmetry principle underwrites a legitimate path back to the environment. This principle is critical, Turvey et al argue, because only it can establish a direct path along which information about things in the world can flow to the organism. The whole system depends on specification, however, so losing specification means losing this path.

How information gets its meaning II: Chemero & situation semantics
I've reviewed Chemero's suggestion here; he takes the situation semantics of Barwise & Perry and uses that to underpin the relationship between the world, the pattern and the organism, instead of the lawful basis of the symmetry principle. This removes the need for specification and thus the symmetry principle, and I suggested in my post that this really is a problem. Withagen & van der Kamp (2010) think so to and summarise it very effectively:
Arguing that variables that correlate with an environmental property can also carry information about it, Chemero cannot explain the object of perception solely in terms of the variable that is detected....After all, a pattern in the array can correlate with and thus carry information about many environmental properties. For example, because of constraints (i.e., the laws of mechanics) the above-mentioned variable M correlates with the length, the weight, and perhaps even with the color of rods. So what determines that a participant perceives the length of the rod and not its color when detecting this variable?
Withagen & van der Kemp, 2010, pg, 7, emphasis added
This is the cost Chemero incurs by abandoning symmetry; the mapping between pattern and environment is no longer 1:1. He needs another process to constrain the meaning of the pattern to one rather than another property of the world, and if this is internal then we're back with representational, indirect theories of perception. Withagen & van der Kamp still want directness but don't want specification. They attempt to solve this problem by appeal to Oyama's relational theory of information from developmental systems biology (Oyama, 1985, 2000). 

How information gets its meaning III: Withagen, van der Kamp and developmental systems theory
Developmental systems theory is the idea (Oyama, 1985, 2000) that the form of an organism is the result of a developmental process in which multiple factors participate, rather than being specified by, for example, the genome (another classic in the literature is D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's 1917 book On Growth and Form). In this context, Oyama defines (genetic) information relationally. That is, patterns in a genome (genes) cannot be described as containing information until they take part in a developmental process. Only then can what that a gene means (it's informational content) be revealed, and that meaning will vary with the process in which it takes part. 

The analogy for Gibsonian information is to stop calling the pattern in the optic array information, and instead simply think of it as just a structure. It should only be thought of as containing information when it takes part in a specific process and is placed in a particular relation (i.e. when it is perceived by a particular organism engaged in a particular task). The informational content, i.e what the pattern means, is then defined by the specifics of the relation. The details of the act of perception constrains the meaning of the pattern, making it information.

On this view of information, a given pattern in an array can mean different things to different organisms, or to the same organism at different times. The empirical work I'll review next claims to show that this sort of thing can occur. What an organism perceives at any given time, on this account, is a function of the relation between the pattern detected and that current exploratory behaviour: this, Withagen & van der Kamp claim, is enough to reduce the mapping between pattern and environment back to 1:1. 

Everyone into direct perception agrees that properties of the world interact with energy arrays to create patterns in, say, ambient light (making it an optic array). Everyone also agrees that organisms know about the world by detecting this pattern, after a little learning. The main difference is the mechanism that underpins how this last bit works without mental representations providing additional content (see Figure 1; click to embiggen).

Figure 1. How structure in light can come to directly inform an organism about the world, according to Gibson vs Withagen & van der Kamp (click for huge)
For Gibson and Turvey et al, the critical work is in the projection of the world into a pattern in light. This occurs according to the laws of ecological optics and the resulting pattern is therefore specific (maps 1:1) to the interesting property in the world. All the organism has to do is pick up that pattern and it has perceived the property of the world. The pattern is therefore information, and it is defined with respect to a potential point of observation.

For Withagen & van der Kamp, the critical work is in the perception of that pattern by the organism. Perception is a relational act: it involves an organism placing itself in a relation to some pattern, and the details of the relation depend on what the organism is up to in order to access the pattern. That pattern then has meaning as a function of the relation created by the organism's activity.

This has a side effect. Placing the hard work in the relation between pattern and information means you can relax the rules about the relation between the world and the pattern. In particular, that relation no longer needs to be a specification relation; the pattern just has to be reliable enough so that when the organism perceives it, the meaning that emerges is correct often enough so that the organism doesn't get itself killed. Evolution, they argue, only favours 'slightly better than the other guy' and does not demand 'using the one correct answer'. The overall process, however, is still direct: no mental gymnastics required.

At this point I will reserve judgement about whether I think this move is a good idea. The first thing to do is to review the empirical evidence that motivated this particular move; this paper gives me the Discussion section summaries, but I need to spend some time on the Methods and Results.

I will say that I'm still worried about the loss of specification; making any old thing that gets projected into the optic array a potential source of information means it's complicated to get from that projection back to some particular property of the world. In addition, the issue of 'works well enough' is a real problem; trying to control, say, locomotion using information that actually means something relevent to locomotion 70% of the time is a recipe for disaster. I'm inclined to think evolution might eat such an organism for breakfast (see? I can appeal to evolution too! :) The account here sounds plausible, but lacks detail. That said, this analysis might come in handy when we start talking about language,where specification seems unlikely. So for now, count me as intrigued but as yet unconvinced.

ResearchBlogging.orgChemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.,, MIT Press e-book 

Turvey, M. T., Shaw, R. E., Reed, E. S., Mace W. M. (1981). Ecological laws of perceiving and acting: In reply to Fodor and Pylyshyn (1981) Cognition, 9 (3), 237-304 DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(81)90002-0 Download 
Withagen, R., & van der Kamp, J. (2010). Towards a new ecological conception of perceptual information: Lessons from a developmental systems perspective Human Movement Science, 29 (1), 149-163 DOI: 10.1016/j.humov.2009.09.003 Download


  1. Hmmmm... while I'm trying to get at this from a different angle here, I suppose I should say something about where this post looks like it is going.

    Based on the way you have laid things out, this seems like a discussion of the definition of "information". I say this because, I think, it should be obvious in all three systems that the same pattern in light means something different for different organisms engaged in different activities. The properties of a telephone cord that make it good for creating a trip-cord also make it good for creating a noose, and also make it a good bridge for ants to climb upon. There is nothing "temporary" about this, e.g., I think Withagan and van der Kamp use the wrong word... except maybe, maybe, if you want to say that "the organism-environment system with that pattern as an element is temporary", in a "soft-assembly" sort of way.

    P.S. One thing that I really like about Withagen and van der Kamp's stuff is the emphasis on exploratory action. With the exception of the now beaten-into-the-ground rod length studies, I that topic of research has been severely neglected under the current regime.

    1. The initial problem here is that the examples you have described are properties of the world, not information about those properties. So you need to reformulate this in terms of information.

    2. But isn't that a mere formality? If the properties are the same, then the patterned energy is the same... by all accounts. Right?

      (Note, I don't want to use the word "information", because if this is definition problem, then we will be stuck arguing pointlessly.)

    3. No, it's not a formality. It's crucial to keep 'world' and 'optics' separate in the analysis. The reason why different organisms respond differently to the same object is likely to be because they are responding to different information, so the sameness of the object isn't the point.

      Regardless, conflating world and information is an error, so you have to talk about the right one. Sabrina and I are realising that many of the problems about specification, etc are boiling down to really boring careless language use, so we're going to start getting more specific as we try to resolve these.

  2. Alright... I agree with that, and I am a hypocrite for suggesting otherwise in this case (as that was the message of at least a quarter of my can't-seem-to-get paper about affordances)... but the if you can't say it without the word "information" you have a problem.

    Do you mean, "they are responding to different patterns of energy"? Because if they are responding to the same properties of an object, while resonating to different patterns of energy, then we are in a "one-to-many" situation. That is, the property of the world is multiply-specified.

    1. They clearly aren't responding to the same properties. Affordances, relations OR dispositions, are defined with reference to world and organism. Ecologically, there is no 'length of wire', there is only the measured affordance, and so the length of the wire measured with respect to an ant's abilities is a different property than when measured with respect to mine.

    2. Well now you are shifting the problem, in a very not TSM way. If every object use is based on a different set of object properties by definition... because "property" is always expressed in a use-by-this-organism-for-this-task specific metric... then that is a very different story.

      While, as you know, I think affordance-talk confuses all of these more basic issues, I can try moving forward with an affordance example if you prefer.

      Lets just stick with a piece of road that can support my walking and assume, for the sake of argument, that the ability of the road to support my weight is somehow specified. (Gibson has some nice illustrations showing that such specification can exist if the right events are present.) Are you really going to argue that the ability of the road's walk-on-able affordance for me and the road's walk-on-able affordance for a mouse are different properties, one to be measured in me-units, the other in that-mouse-units? Is it a different affordance for each person who walks on it and each different way they could possibly walk? ;- )

    3. Every object use is based on an affordance property of the object. The same organism using the same object for the same task is using the same affordance; change any of these and you may have changed the affordance structure guiding behaviour (it's always an empirical question, of course). This is perfectly in line with affordances as dispositions.

      So the affordance of the surface is different for the mouse and me, even though we're both walking on it. You're assuming that the description 'walking on the surface' is the correct analysis, but of course the full analysis requires details of the organism effecting the affordance and the information supporting it's perception.

      This isn't a problem for the idea of affordances, only for the terribly lazy way we all talk about them.

    4. But... uhm... huh?

      The properties of a surface that make it able to support my weight as I walk are exactly the same properties that make it able to support a mouses weight as a mouse walks. Now, the mouse could walk on things I couldn't, but there is no continuous surface that I could walk on that a mouse couldn't. The road affords locomotion from A-to-B for a vast array of creatures based on having a certain rigidity, width, etc.

      The generality of the term "locomotion" is virtuous in this context; it is not just being lazy. A wide range of behaviors are afforded by the single set of object properties.

    5. P.S. If all we are saying is the every muscle movement is in response to the perception of the possibility of such a movement, then we suddenly just became Watsonian behaviorists with a theory of specification. That can't possibly be what you want, can it?

    6. Remember, Gibson beats physics at the ecological scale and as far as the perceiving acting organism cares. You and the mouse are resonating differently to properties of the world underpinning surface support. You are measuring them differently and coming to different conclusions. I can measure a given length in either cm or inches and end up with two legitimately different numbers, even though that actual space is the same.

      When studying perception-action, the property of interest is the one measured by the organism and then used to control action, and not the property as measured by physics.

  3. A primary objection I've had to using "information" in the eco-psych context is that the transfer of information (in its technical sense) requires agreement (possibly implicit) between sender and receiver as to how information to be sent will structure the transmitted signal so that the receiver knows how to extract the information from the signal. This has seemed to be missing from from the exchanges we've had prior to this post (or if there, I've completely missed it). The idea of "exploratory actions" by an organism seems to provide that missing "agreement". The organism can learn from experience (possibly with guidance from parents, et al) how to recognize the presence of patterns (in comm lingo, "codewords ") in the signal and extract the information content in the patterns (in comm lingo, "decode the codewords"). It can also have learned what action can be successfully taken (ie, what immediately effectable affordance is available) when a particular decoded "message" is received. This introduces the last missing component, viz, the semantics of the decoded information. With my (hopefully) better understanding of the overall process, I'm now inclined to acquiesce to use of that once bothersome word, assuming it is used very carefully - as you propose to do.

    The word "pattern" strikes me as yet another potentially problematic word. I think most people would understand the word to refer to a discrete, static entity - like the pattern of a checkerboard. Since I understand the ecological energy flow to be continuous in time, my inclination would be to use something like "distinguishable waveform" instead (or explicitly state that "pattern" should be understood in that sense). We usually think of codewords as being finite sequences of digits (typically, "bits"), but a code can instead comprise a set of distinguishable continuous waveforms, in which case all of the previous paragraph applies unchanged.

    If correct, this view perhaps addresses eric's concern about whether the mapping from patterns to affordances is 1:1. For a given organism, not all structure in the received time-varying energy array (AKA, input signal) will be detected as being a previously learned codeword (waveform) that when decoded identifies an affordance. But any structure that is detected and decoded will uniquely identify an affordance; ie, the mapping will be 1:1 between waveforms and affordances (and hence, their corresponding effecting actions).

    Of course, this ignores many complexities, eg, the context-dependence ("situational semantics"?) of the correspondence between waveform/codeword and affordance. But my objective is only to suggest how one might fine-tune the vocabulary a bit.

    1. One issue is that Gibson never meant information to mean Shannon information, which may simply be an error by Gibson (I'm reading Gleick's book and wondering about this a little) or it could be an important distinction with an unfortunate cross over in vocabulary.

      One thought on the issue of some kind of agreement; there could easily be an evolutionary story whereby that kind of agreement has been built into the system over time. We have evolved to be the kind of organisms that can detect the kind of information that is available... One potential problem with this kind of role for exploratory behaviour is that it begs a few questions - why am I exploring one way rather than another way? You need this to be controlled by information too but if information only comes to have meaning in the context of exploration, how do you get off the ground?

      There are issues here of the difference between a trained and untrained (pre learning) system, and what structure means to the untrained system. That's a whole other kettle of fish for later.

      My training means I don't assume patterns are static, but I take the point there. Waveform isn't quite right though, it has it's own history in terms of meaning and the kind of invariant spatial-temporal structure we're talking about doesn't really fit that definition.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Despite using "codeword", I'm now thinking of information in the sense you intend, not in the Shannon sense. Error-correcting codes are relevant to the latter, but codes in general aren't necessarily; eg, Morse or Huffman codes.

      It appears that I misinterpreted "exploratory behavior". The problem of how to get off the ground seems to permeate all these related issues - perception, language, knowledge - and I was thinking of how one might learn what is OK to jump on and what isn't by trial and error (exploratory behavior) as an alternative to being explicitly taught by another organism.

      I agree that "waveform" isn't right, but the more accurate "muli-variate stochastic process" is a real turnoff. Probably better to stick with "pattern", emphasizing up front the time dependency.

    4. and I was thinking of how one might learn what is OK to jump on and what isn't by trial and error (exploratory behavior) as an alternative to being explicitly taught by another organism.
      This isn't crazy. As I watch our son do his developmental thing, I'm reminded of exactly how goddamn hard it is to become a fully trained adult perception-action system. I study learning over days, he's 5 and a half months in and has years to go.

      That comment of mine comes from some conversations Sabrina and I have been having about direct access to meaning and what the hell that might actually mean from the first person perspective of a learning organism. That gets messy fast.

    5. I was just re-reading the classic EJ Gibson visual cliff stuff and she argues that the whole point of learning the meaning of information is that you don't have to bumble around and test everything by trial and error. So, for instance, babies who know how to crawl know that the visual information of a steep drop off means that they can fall even though they haven't (hopefully) tumbled off any tables before. This leaves us with a fuzzy notion of how much and what type of exploration might be necessary. Obviously, there is behavioural generalisation at some level (no need to learn everything by trial and error), but some of this type of exploration has to occur.

    6. Perhaps a visual cliff doesn't visually specify a fall; rather, to a crawling infant, it doesn't specify a crawl-across-able surface and hence doesn't support that action taking place?

    7. Interesting.... I'm not sure that it makes sense to distinguish between positive and negative affordances. Surely somethings can be said more succinctly one way or the other (in whatever language we happen to be using), but there might be no other reason to prefer positive over negative phrasings in any given case.

    8. I'm not suggesting a negative affordance, just the perceivable absence of the positive one.

    9. And I think it important to make that distinction because of our old nemesis the distal pseudo-affordance. The (presumably more or less horizontal) surface affords move-hand-onto-able, which is immediately effectable, but not crawl-across-able or even crawl-onto-able, neither of which is immediately effectable. A precipitous drop - AKA, the absence of a sufficiently close and horizontal surface - may not afford move-hand-onto-able to a crawling infant.

      And a surface (eg, road) seems similarly to offer the immediately effectable affordeance move-foot-onto-able rather than the distal pseudo-affordances walk-on-able, et al. Whether the surface's structure offers step-safely-onto-able also seems a (relatively) distal pseudo-affordance until a foot (or paw) has been moved onto the surface - even if there is enough information available to make the safety judgment prior to so moving the foot/paw.

    10. I think there's a key distinction between a trained and untrained system; the adult has learned the higher order, more extended in time and space affordance structure(s) I think (like Holt on events perhaps). But the immediately effectable affordance can still be part of the story, and possibly even a critical part, I'm ok with that too.

  4. "Information" is a problematic word. Gibson readily admits that.

    While Gibson's use of the term in his unique way dates after Shannon's original papers, he started using the term before Shannon's usage became the across-science standard. Remember, Gibson had his system pretty much in place before the "cognitive revolution". And, I shouldn't need to mention that "information" was a word before Shannon.

    So, yeah, the word causes problems in communication between ecological psychologists and non-ecological psychologists. Even those without a Shannon infatuation are prone to ask "information for whom?" That is why (I suspect) it is better to try to have these discussions without the word, and then define "information" for the sake of later discussions at some point towards the end.

    P.S. A post from yesterday seems to have been lost in the ether. Can you check the spam filter? It was about mice and men...

    1. I think infatuation is a bit harsh. You should read Gleick's 'The Information'; it's excellent, and Shannon style information really is everywhere. I think if we're disciplined then we can overcome this; what else would you call information?

      And yes, I just released that comment from the spam filter. I usually check whenever I'm on the blog doing things.

  5. Even those without a Shannon infatuation are prone to ask "information for whom?"

    Which - I think we all agree - is a crucial question.

    Shades of Davidson's "triangulation" among speaker, hearer, and external world. There, in order to learn to communicate, the speaker must utter a word intended to refer to a mutually visible object in such a way that the hearer learns to associate "word and object".

    Similarly, an association must be learned by an organism between a message "sent" by a surface in the environment - specifically to that organism - and an action. Once that has happened, the organism can detect the organism-relevant information contained in that message and respond with the appropriate action. (A gross simplification, but I think it's helping me get over some conceptual hurdles.)

    1. Actually association is a problematic concept and isn't part of a good ecological theory, I think. There aren't two things that must become attached within the organism; there is, to the organism only information and it's meaning is whatever got into it according to specification or something else.

    2. But Gibson-information isn't 'information to' anyone, it is a pattern of energy specific to [something about] the objects and events that created it.

      Nothing is sent specifically to anyone, it is all "out there" as part of the ecology. An organism in the right place and time, moving the right ways, with the right perceptual apparatus could "resonate" with it.

      Some of that stuff is relevant to organism behavior, and there is good reason to believe that organisms would be particularly "attuned" to the relevant stuff.

    3. This is actually what Withagen is challenging; the idea that information exists to be picked up. He calls that structure which only becomes information when picked up in the service of an action. That's the Oyama angle.

    4. But that is purely a semantic issue - e.g. preferring to use "information" to refer to one part of the story and not the other. The important part is the story. Not that we don't have to agree on term usage, but we need to distinguish arguments about usage from arguments about how perception works.

    5. It's not semantics. TSM say structure becomes information because of the lawful process of projection into light; Withagen says it becomes information when it is used as part of the execution of a perception-action task. These are very different.

    6. Can you say that without the word information?!? My understanding of your post is as follows:

      TSM says that we should use the term "information" to refer to structure in ambient energy - which the animal can uses to execute perception-action tasks. In contrast, Withagen says that there are structures in ambient energy - and that we should use the word "information" to refer to that structure when it is being used by an animal to execute a perception-action task.

      If I was to tell a story about how an man caught a baseball, how would the TSM and the Withagen stories differ? (And note that their use the word "information" at a different point in the story is not particularly interesting.)

    7. Your description is what I think the TSM vs Withagen & van der Kamp argument is. Potentially, there is no difference in this story from the first person perspective of the learning organism (Sabrina's been banging on at me about this for some time and she has a point).

      Where it makes a difference is in the analysis of why the variable means one thing and not another. TSM called structure information because the work underpinning directness (specification) happened during the projection of an affordance property into light. W&vdK call detected structure information because it's during perception (they say) that structure comes to mean something in particular.

      This is all about how structure in an array can come to mean something in particular. They all want directness (ie they don't want meaning to get added in any kind of post-perceptual process) but the difference is in how (and in whether it works; specification has the ability to underwrite directness but may not be common enough to handle it all. Whether the act of perception can handle it is anas yet untested hypothesis).

  6. It looks to me like the problem may have to do with the assumed function of "information" as the word is used in common discourse.

    I view the use of language as involving three entities: a speaker, a hearer, and the speaker's objective, which per Sabrina is to "change the world"- in particular, to change the behavioral disposition of the hearer. In the case of a command, this is obvious. Eg, I'm at one end of the dinner table and want to salt my veggies, so I may emit the (polite) command "Please pass the salt", the objective being to cause in you a disposition to execute that action. But suppose I say instead "I prefer eating salted veggies, but I can't reach the salt." Here, I have conveyed "information" (in the usual sense) to you, but the objective remains the same: to cause in you a disposition to pass the salt to me. Ie, in both cases, the "information" conveyed is really just an index into what I assume to be your database of learned responses to (simple) linguistic input. As eric expresses it, I say something which I hope will "resonate" with you so as to cause a certain responsive action (Sabrina used that very word in this forum last year). And such "resonance" requires that we use the same vocabulary in the same language; ie, we must have established agreement on an association of sounds and responsive actions.

    I'm trying to think about perception in general (ie, not restricted to language) using the same architecture. Again, there is a perceiver, but instead of a speaker there is an energy source - perhaps a surface reflecting ambient light. And that surface has a virtual "objective", viz, to cause responsive actions on the part of perceivers (AKA, to offer them affordances). The received energy conveys to a specific perceiver "information" that again serves as an index into that perceiver's database of learned associations between affordances and effecting actions.

    Now, eric doesn't like the idea that the surface is sending "information to" the perceiver, and of course I agree that that's not what's really happening. But it's an analogy, not an analysis. And speaking of "resonances" and being "attuned" is no better, and actually worse if one insists on using "information" - which actually has to go "to" a direct object (of "inform"). The energy from a source in the environment obviously does have structure independent of the existence of perceivers, but as Andrew and apparently others argue, it takes a perceiver to extract actionable "information" from that structure.

    Aside: Since the extractable information is perceiver-dependent, doesn't that violate the Symmetry Principle? Ie, for a specific perceiver the mapping from the domain "total information about the environment that is latent in the energy" is only "into" the codomain of all available affordances, and hence isn't invertible with respect to the total information latent in the energy, and hence with respect to the whole environment.

    And Andrew doesn't like "association". But don't we agree that having extracted the "information" from the received energy, the perceiver must know, based on some learning process, what to do in response? If so, we need to be able to describe the relationship between information and action (which I take to be the "meaning" of the information) somehow, and Andrew's rather vague description ("there is, to the organism only information and it's meaning ...") doesn't immediately strike me as an improvement over "has learned to associate information and action".

    In short, it appears to me that we're actually close to convergence re the mechanisms and are only quibbling over terminology.

    1. And Andrew doesn't like "association". But don't we agree that having extracted the "information" from the received energy, the perceiver must know, based on some learning process, what to do in response?

      Yes, and no. This as an "embodied cognition" vs. "dualistic cognition" problem. The organism only needs to be the type of thing that responds in a certain way to certain environmental properties. Development needs to change the way the organism acts in certain circumstances. None of this requires anything the word "associate" traditionally means in these types of discussions.

      A weather vane does not "associate" the direction of wind with it being beneficial to point in a certain direction. The weather vane, by virtue of its construction, turns to face the wind. Similarly, over the process of development a baseball player becomes a thing that reliably moves to were a ball will land. Similarly, over the process of development a child becomes the type of thing that responds with "your welcome" after someone says "thank you. While obviously there are changes in neural architecture that accompany many such developmental changes, there is no process of mental association required.

      Also, wait for my next post about pragmatism and Gibson. In that tradition, acting-a-certain-way-in-certain-circumstances is what the word "know" refers to. (And, that is what the word has always meant outside of odd philosophical discourse.) Without that, any discussion of knowledge related to Gibson is invariably a mess.

    2. OK, but I don't mean to imply anything "mental" by using "associate" - I'm actually trying to purge "mentalese" from my vocabulary in formal discussions. All I mean by it is that an organism acquires (via evolution, training by parents, trial and error, other means) a disposition to respond with a certain action when experiencing a certain sensory stimulation. My concept of "association" is physiological - in particular, neurological - not psychological. The "database" to which I alluded in a previous comment is actually (as envisioned by me) a neurological network which pairs sensory neuronal activity patterns (inputs) with motor neuronal commands (outputs). Or, if you will, affordances received from the environment and effecting actions. (And the network "resonates" to any inputs that are sufficiently "close" to those to which it is "(at)tuned"!) So, if one prefers "acquires dispositions to respond to information extracted from the ecological energy received from the environment by taking actions that effect the corresponding affordances" to "learns to associate affordances and effecting actions", fine. Although we might want to agree on an operational abbreviation of that rather cumbersome expression.

      Note that in my intended meaning of the word, a weather vane does "associate" input from the wind and a disposition to "point in a certain direction". It "acquires" that disposition by design, as you suggest.

    3. I agree with what you mean by association, but the word comes with historical baggage, specifically being used to describe a process of taking two unrelated things and connecting them via some kind of spatial or temporal relationship (eg Pavlov and his dogs). It makes no real sense to say the weather vane associates wind input to direction output; this is, in effect, the point of the parable of the Watts steam governor.

      So, if one prefers "acquires dispositions to respond to information extracted from the ecological energy received from the environment by taking actions that effect the corresponding affordances" to "learns to associate affordances and effecting actions", fine. Although we might want to agree on an operational abbreviation of that rather cumbersome expression.
      I think I prefer the longer one, and to be honest Sabrina and I are starting to think a lot of the trouble around these topics is people using shorthand. TSM knew what the short hand meant but then the next generation just learned the short hand and bam! before you know it we're talking past each other.

      In short, it appears to me that we're actually close to convergence re the mechanisms and are only quibbling over terminology.
      I still think there's a little more to it, but getting the terminology straight will, I think, resolve at least some of the argument.

      Aside: Since the extractable information is perceiver-dependent, doesn't that violate the Symmetry Principle??
      I don't think so. The principle is about individual variables, I think, not sets of them.

    4. It makes no real sense to say the weather vane associates wind input to direction output

      The weather vane "acquires a disposition [by design] to respond to information extracted from the ecological energy received from the environment [in the form of air pressure to which it responds in accordance with relevant laws of dynamics] by taking actions that effect the affordance offered [viz, to turn]". I offered that as the sense in which I was using "associate", and I understood you to agree. And perhaps I wasn't clear, but my intent was to drop that word - I have no vested interest in it. So, no need to address "association" further. (And I see the weather vane as a direct analog to the Watts governor.)

      I agree in spirit about "shorthand", but the tendency I've encountered in the whole phil/psych of mind arena to use common words in a narrow technical sense without precisely stating what that sense is. Shorthand per se isn't a problem; "let X be the blah, blah, blah, blah ..." is shorthand, but it works fine - in fact is indispensable - in math.

      The principle is about individual variables, I think, not sets of them.

      I don't understand this. The quoted passage by Shaw (from Chemero's book) about the SP suggests that both the mapping from domain E, the environment (it isn't clear from the quote what specific entities comprise E), to its codomain I, the ecological information, and the mapping from I to it's codomain P, "perception" (again, not clear what entities comprise P) are invertible. Consistent with this, you and eric addressed whether some mappings - I assume one or both of these - are 1:1. Mappings are usually between sets. This seems an example of the need to be a bit more precise - unless the quote's context includes the missing definitions.

  7. Andrew: TSM knew what the short hand meant but then the next generation just learned the short hand and bam! before you know it we're talking past each other.

    This is exactly Skinner's stated rational for rejecting hypothetical constructs. He claims that there is nothing inherently wrong with them, but that the next generation typically forgets they are hypothetical. (That isn't particularly relevant here, except to give +1 to Skinner.)

    Charles: Mappings are usually between sets.

    Yeah... the word "Mapping" really only makes sense if we have sets. Certain members of one set, connect to certain members of the other set. The non-completeness of the connections creates a "map".

    1. Well, I threw in "usually" as a CYA in the unlikely event that any category theory fans stumble in here. I only vaguely understand the subtlety, but when a friend who is such a person tries to explain some aspect of category theory, he insists that I forget about sets - and in fact, about mappings as well. Apparently those are passé concepts in his world, where instead it's all about objects and arrows respectively.

  8. Andrew & Sabrina:
    I've been puzzling over "information" for a while now, since it's central to my book project. I've come down (for now) on a "it's both particle and wave" sort of approach. The way I see it, since language is emergent, I try to respect the emergent meanings I see around me. Why discount one use of "information" over another if it's meaningful and has a track record in a given context?
    So... I'm going with "information has 3 modes" (probably more, but these are the ones I'm focusing on). In roughly the order in which they emerged ...
    1. Ecological in the Gibson sense. Properties of an environment, when interacted with by energy (light, sound, etc) and perceived by an organism as structural affordance.
    2. Linguistic: Language isn't information -- it's environment. But it's a human-made environmental dimension. When I say something (or type something like I'm doing now) I'm creating more environment … the information is in the interaction between the listener/reader and the environmental features I have created. I think humans emerged as a language-dependent species in the way many birds emerged as nest-and-flight dependent. We collectively, unconsciously created a new layer or dimension of environment that we inhabit with exapted physical capabilities. In a sense, language is a simulacrum we create together, but made of bodily sound. That went on for a very very long time before writing, which basically encodes aural environmental information into visual environmental information. (What is writing but human-made affordances of light & dark?)
    3. Digital in the Shannon sense. This is basically "writing taken to a complete extreme" … encoding not sound but *difference* -- the most primitive abstraction of what could be experienced informatively. In order to allow machines to talk to one another without error, Shannon had to break the human part of language down and ignore "meaning." (Not unlike how artists have to forget that a face is a face, and just draw the shapes…) Maybe one way to put it is Shannon took information out of the ecological context?

    This third sense of information permeated everything very quickly. It's deeply rooted in the culture of pretty much everyone involved in the conversation we're engaged in. As shown in Gleick's book, it was immediately put to use in biology … once there was no "perceiver" involved in the Gibson or Language sense, any cell or molecule could be a 'receiver.'

    For me, it's more useful to say that all of these modes are valid and helpful to understand. There's a good (evolutionary, in a sense) reason why "information" is used as the word in all these senses. But it's really helpful to break them out and call them what they are because, kind of like ice, water and steam, they have very different properties. (Probably a bad metaphor there…)

    At any rate, sorry for the very long comment -- selfishly, engaging in these conversations helps me articulate stuff or myself much better. :-)

    I posted about these modes in something yesterday btw

    I also wonder if you're familiar with the work of Marcia Bates?
    A couple of fascinating bits from her:
    Information and Knowledge: an evolutionary framework for information science
    Fundamental Forms of Information