Monday, July 9, 2012

R. E. Shaw: Eco-Psych, Pluralism, Schrödinger’s Cat

I have known of Robert E. Shaw for a number of years. Though he started his career as a standard issue cognitivist (Chomsky and Piaget) he became converted to the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson relatively early in his career. Alas, providing a characterization of Gibson’s conception that is both succinct (under 25 words) and intelligible to those who do not already know seems impossible. Suffice it say, Gibson believed that perception is direct and not mediated by a raft of representational machinery (take THAT! Immanuel, though Gibson was thinking as a psychologist, not a philosopher), and that the environment is replete with ‘information’ that an animal’s sensory systems can ‘grab on to’ (my phrase).

I believe that ecological psychology is compatible both with some version of object-oriented ontology (OOO) and with some version of pluralism. In fact, Shaw himself has explicitly formulated pluralist ideas in Ecological Foundations of Cognition: II. Degrees of Freedom and Conserved Quantities in Animal -- Environment Systems (co-authored with M. T. Turvey), which is available for download from his website. That paper is reprinted in Núñez and Freeman, eds. Reclaiming Cognition (pp. 111-123), which is where I was re-reading it last night when I decided to go out on the web to see if I could find more of Shaw’s work.

What set me off was Shaw’s statement of the plenitude hypothesis, which
asserts that nature is a plenum, or superabundance, of real possibilities—a view consistent with ecological psychology ... This idea is of a plenum that sits behind observed reality is also fundamental to modern physics, and sums up its weakened view of determinism: If laws of nature do not disallow something, then it exists.
Looks like pluralism to me!

I may say more about his development of plenitude in a later post—I’m still digesting—but I thought some of you might appreciate his (Bogostian?) treatment of Schrödinger’s experimental cat:
By Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, if a cat can be potentially killed by a random quantum event, the outcome remains in limbo, with the cat being neither living nor dead, or both, if you prefer, until observed or measured. Observing the situation is an occasion on which the wave function of the cat-and-apparatus collapses into one of the two possible, superposed states. Observation is supposed to cascade sufficient constraints to make the cat’s indefinite possible state (both alive and dead), into a potential state (either alive or dead), to being a unique value of a bound variable—a constant (say, alive). . . .

The issue is not whether we observe the cat and find it either living or dead, but whether the cat observes us as well. If it does, then neither it nor we can be dead, indefinite, or nonexistent, in the usual meaning of these words. If the observer and the cat can have mutual and reciprocal perspectives, then they are dual observers, a social dyad, sharing an environment (laboratory). Hence an ecosystem exists.
Assuming that you’re intrigued, where should you begin reading his stuff? That’s hard for me to say because I’ve not read most of the papers available at his site. The “Schrödinger’s cat” paper is a very good one, but it is also rather tough sledding. Here’s the abstract:
Cognition means different things to different psychologists depending on the position held on the mind-matter problem. Ecological psychologists reject the implied mind-matter dualism as an ill-posed theoretic problem because the assumed mind-matter incommensurability precludes a solution to the degrees of freedom problem. This fundamental problem was posed by both Nicolai Bernstein and James J. Gibson independently. It replaces mind-matter dualism with animal-environment duality (isomorphism)—a better posed scientific problem because commensurability is assured. Furthermore, when properly posed this way, a conservation law is suggested that encompasses a psychology of transactional systems, a biology of self-actional systems, and a physics of interactional systems. For such a solution, a theory of cognition for goal-directed behavior (e.g., choosing goals, authoring intentions, using information, and controlling actions) is needed. A sketch is supplied for how such a theory might be pursued in the spirit of the new physics of evolving complex systems.
Note especially this formulation, and that it talks of animal, not human: “It replaces mind-matter dualism with animal-environment duality (isomorphism)...” However, if you’re not already worked a bit with and are comfortable with the concept of degrees of freedom, you should probably pass on this paper for now.

Though I’ve only dipped into them here and there, I suggest two relatively recent and informal papers.
Theoretical Hubris and the Willingness to be Radical: An Open Letter to James J. Gibson (2002) states, informally and with citations to a variety of philosophers, how Shaw came to ecological psychology from orthodox cognitivism.

The Agent-Environment Interface: Simon's Indirect or Gibson's Direct Coupling? (2003) juxtaposes Gibsonian thinking with the thinking of Herbert Simon, one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence. Literary critics may appreciate the discussion of the Tristram Shandy paradox: Given that it takes a year to describe the events of a day, will Shandy ever be able to complete his autobiography? [OOOers: The ghost of Cantor lurks behind the curtain.]
Both are available for download here (toward the bottom).

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