Tuesday 7 December 2021

The medium for direct perception (Notes on Van Dijk & Kiverstein, 2020)

The ecological approach has hit a point in its history where it has become interested in expanding its scope, to go beyond the real time coordination and control of action. There are many challenges from non-ecological cognitive science about how to tackle representation-hungry problems, and how to conceptualise things like language, social behaviour, and what the brain is up to. I am all on board with this move - it was important we waited till we were ready, but since Gibson died in 1979, the empirical programme on the basics has matured into a solid foundation and we have a lot of developed or adopted a lot of things that will come in useful. 

However, if we are going to do it, I want us to do it with rigour and care and with reference to all our hard-won successes. My current view is that our best path lies in looking at the ways we are able to use ecological information, and grounding our explanations and hypotheses at this scale. Sabrina first developed this idea in a paper about how to think about what language is (Golonka, 2015). The big take-home from that paper is the analytic distinction between law-based use and convention-based use of information, and the first draft of the consequences of this distinction. We built on this when we started thinking about brains (Golonka & Wilson, 2019), and I'm currently thinking about the next step along this path. 

I'm pretty sure that a big chunk of the work I need to do is explicitly connecting this distinction up to work on the skilled intentionality framework, and the notion of our variable levels of grip on the field of affordances. This work is wrong about affordances (they aren't relations) but other than that, there's a ton of really great work about how intentionality isn't an all-or-nothing thing, and a lot of really useful vocabulary and framing development that I think will be useful for articulating these ideas. I don't like re-inventing wheels, so I'm skilling up on this literature as I develop ideas for a paper. 

This post is about a recent paper (Van Dijk & Kiverstein, 2020) that is explicitly about developing a usage-based notion of information. To unbury the lede, I think this is a robust piece of work with solid internal logic, but I think like all this enactivist style work, it ends up in a place that cannot support a how-actually explanation of behaviour - this particular usage-based theory of information and the things that come with it aren't the framework that will let the ecological approach expand its scope. This is ok, at one level, because I don't think mechanisms are the goal of enactivist analyses. But it's a worry at another level, because I want an ecological theory of direct perception that can actually explain behaviours and this isn't going to cut it.