Friday 24 April 2020

Lecture 2: Organism-Environment Dualism (Turvey, 2019, Lectures on Perception)

In this Lecture, Turvey lays out the organism-environment dualism that lies at the heart of pretty much all attempts to answer the question, how can an organism come to know about it's environment via perception? He discusses Descartes' mechanistic (mechanical) approach, and then pivots back to the idea that Composition, Environment, Structures (CES) systems are the only approach that can possibly cope with the nature of the problem. 

A dualism is an ontology that proposes things are made of two different kinds of things. No one really does substance dualism anymore (we think that everything is made of the same kind of stuff), but property dualism (the claim there are two different kinds of properties) is alive and well in science. In psychology, this gives us material properties and mental properties, and it's rooted in a broader commitment to a dualism between organism and environment. Turvey explains this with reference to the notion of adaptation in evolutionary theory - the idea that the environment and its niches are what they are prior to organisms, and the job of the organism is to adapt, bring itself into alignment with the environment. 

This gets us into causality. In the dualism, the environment causes the evolutionary change in the organism, but the organism does not cause the environment to take certain forms. This comes from Newtonian mechanics, in which the system under study and the environment in which that system operates are treated differently, with different kinds of properties. (Note: rejecting this will be part of rejecting mechanistic approaches to science, which may yet be an error.)

In Newtonian mechanics, systems have states at time t (a position, velocity, etc, plus a mass), and over time systems change states according to recursive functions which characterise the environment of the system imposing forces on the system. The system is the material cause of the behaviour; the environment is the efficient cause, and these are different kinds of causes: a dualism. 

With respect to perception, this dualism creates some tensions. For example, the science of environments and the science of perceptual systems tend to live in different disciplines. Second, perceptual science takes the results of the environmental science as it's starting point (i.e. the world as described by physics is what perceptual systems have to work with in order to create perceptual experience). Any gap between what physics offers and what perception accomplishes must be filled by epistemic mediators that do the necessary work. These are internal to the perceptual system, by definition within this framing. Perception is immediately and necessarily indirect (more on this in the next Lecture). 

At this point, Turvey jumps straight into describing the very different mechanics he's going to appeal to. Remember in Lecture 1 he claims that complexity theory is going to be the right kind of framework for studying perceptual systems. He discusses a concept from Iberall, CES Spectroscopy, which is just a Turvey way of talking about examining the characteristic behaviours of the system to identify the kinds of subsystems it is made of. This gives us a way to talk about organisms having behavioural modes, preferences among those modes, dynamical stability when exhibiting the modes, and how interacting with the environment perturbs that stability and thus creates the next behaviours. 


This Lecture is still simply staking out some ground. Turvey identifies that dualisms are alive and well and causing problems in science, and that for our purposes the worst offender is the notion that the organism and the environment have different kinds or properties.

During the reading group, we discussed whether these is any meaningful overlap between the physics-based approach Turvey is taking, and Friston's free energy principle work. There are many surface similarities, in the discussions of what kind of states systems can have and how they change those states. It's not yet clear if those overlaps are substantive, though. Friston is notoriously slippery, and the FEP can be viably interpreted to support both indirect (inferential) perception, and direct (ecological) perception. Turvey is definitely not going to allow that to happen to his framework, so something must be different. 


  1. Is it still property dualism to think of the mind as having intentionality, while another physical system do not?

    1. No, I think it's property dualism only if you think the mind system can have intentionality but other systems cannot possibly.