Saturday, 3 December 2016

Masters of Illusion


The following discussion aims to show that our perception of the world is in no way illusory. Whilst we are obviously susceptible to illusions, our perceptual skills and cultural innovations enable us to recognise and exploit many of these these susceptibilities in a variety of powerful ways.

According to Alex Byrne: "Perception comprises, by stipulation, veridical perception and illusion" (2009). For Byrne, and many other philosophers, one “veridically perceives an object if and only if one sees it, and it is the way it appears or looks.” In other words, veridical perception is what we usually mean when we speak of perception in ordinary language. It is the perception of how objects ordinarily are, or what we typically call “ordinary perception”, “normal perception” or just plain “perception”. However, like Byrne, some philosophers claim that perception “comprises”, or at least sometimes involves, illusion or illusory perceptions. Two important points need to be made regarding this claim. Firstly, an illusory parrot is not a species of parrot—in fact it is not a parrot at all. And by the same token, an illusory perception is not a perception either, at least not in the respects in which it is illusory. The same is true of misperceptions, false perceptions or perceptual mistakes etc. A failure to perceive something in certain respects cannot be a sort of perception in those respects. Missing a train is not an instance of catching a train. Secondly, to perceive an illusion is not to fall under its spell. It is to recognise the illusion for what it is.

In a forthcoming book chapter, John O’Dea writes: "I can think of no good reason to deny that a tilted coin could be seen as elliptical and flat with respect to the viewer. This would be tantamount to denying the possibility of illusion." It is perfectly justified to say that a tilted circular coin can be treated, regarded or considered as a flatly presented ellipse, because a tilted circular coin can be successfully depicted as a flatly presented ellipse. However, if O’Dea intends “seen” in the sense of “perceived”, which seems likely in the context of his discussion, then his claim should be examined in light of the conclusions we have already drawn about the relation between perception and illusion. Thus, if the alleged perception is an illusion, then it is not a de facto perception in the relevant respects. On the other hand, if looking at a tilted circular coin results in a perception of an illusion—in seeing the illusion for what it is—then a description of the illusion alone will not answer the question of what has been perceived. What has been perceived is a tilted circular coin that can be successfully depicted through the use of a flatly presented ellipse. 

In the concluding paragraph of the chapter, O’Dea writes:
Constancy often fails; deep shadows can make surface colour perceptually unclear; at severe angles, shapes constancy disappears; size becomes harder to judge from more distant objects; and so on. Is perceptual experience illusory in these conditions?
Evidently O’Dea confuses the illusion of inconstancy with actual constancy. Constancy is usually characterised as the stability we regularly encounter in the properties of perceived objects, despite changes in angle of view, illumination, shading etc. So if circumstances of apparent inconstancy do not constitute actual inconstancy, but rather the illusion of inconstancy, then it would be false to conclude that they are perceived as inconstant. A failure to see that a dead parrot is deceased is not a failure of constancy on the part of the parrot.

If the properties of a stable object, like a book or a table (or even a dead parrot), are perceived as having constancy, there is nothing to prevent us from also regarding, considering or treating these same objects as if they have inconstant features like being blurred when viewed at close quarters or being small when seen from a distance or being colourless in moonlight etc. This is important because it shows that we are often capable of treating things in two quite different ways, one of which involves the capacity to represent the actual properties we perceive whilst the other involves a more sophisticated knowledge of how to represent objects by way of illusory representational techniques.

The following passage from Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes a related point:
It took centuries of painting before the reflections upon the eye were seen, without which the painting remains lifeless and blind, as in the paintings by primitive peoples. The reflection is not seen for itself, since it was able to go unnoticed for so long, and yet it has its function in perception, since its mere absence is enough to remove the life and the expression from objects and from faces. [...] It is not itself seen, but makes the rest be seen. Reflections and lighting in photography are often poorly portrayed because they are transformed into things..." (2012, §364)
It is true that eyes quickly lose their lustre in the absence of lubrication, but if the reflection is not seen for itself, an obvious question arises. Is the reflection on a pond seen for itself, or the reflection in a mirror? Merleau-Ponty provides no obvious answer, but it seems reasonable to conclude that his view would be this. Until the discovery of depictive techniques capable of transforming reflections into things, people were not capable of representing them. In other words, it is by virtue of the emergence of pictorial techniques that visual phenomena like blurring, reflections, perspectival distortions etc. have become communicable (there is even evidence that this applies to the colour blue). This is not to say that reflections have not always played a part in perception. After all, if tears produced no reflections, they would be invisible. As Merleau Ponty says: the reflection “is not itself seen” but it enables the tears, the pond etc. to “be seen”. And what of mirrors? Do we not perceive the reflection in a mirror? His point is that the reflection is not perceived “for itself” as a thing. We might occasionally mistake a reflection for a thing, but this would not constitute a perception. It would be the perceptual equivalent of sitting on the platform of Glasgow Queen Street station dreaming that you are on the 8:15 to Edinburgh Waverly.

Schwitzgebel (2011) raises another reason to be wary about the claim that perception involves illusion. 
Consider the oar's looking bent in water. Could we say that the oar's appearance is an illusion? That seems natural. But if so, then presumably the look of things through a glass of water, which will be similarly distorted, is also an illusion. And if that, then also the look of things through a magnifying glass held appropriately close? Through a telescope? Through ordinary corrective lenses? (166n.8)
It makes little sense to say, for example, that when things recede into the distance, they gradually become illusory. They are simply harder to make out. When we look across a table, we see less of the far side. This isn't an illusion. It's a commonplace and unremarkable consequence of the spatial fall-off of sensory input. The more distant an object, the less we see of it. The effect is regular and gradual and leads eventually to the complete loss of input as objects recede into the distance. If our sensory systems were perfect, there would be no fall-off. But then again, if our sensory systems were perfect, there would be nothing we could not perceive and there would be no such thing as partially seeing or barely hearing something etc. Partial perception and the gradual failure to make things out in certain respects are just normal characteristics of our sensory relation to the world. 

In ordinary circumstances, when we perceive things normally, we often describe them as if they have properties that they do not actually possess. We might say that shiny surfaces commonly "look silvery or wet", that rainclouds "look leaden or grey" or that fast-moving objects "appear to be blurred". These are not perceptual claims, but they do not preclude other ways of representing things in terms of their actual perceived properties. In normal usage though, it doesn't really matter which strategy of representation we invoke in describing the objects we see, because we all share the same cultural tools and we are all subject to very much the same perceptual strengths and weaknesses.
Very much less theoretical attention has been paid to those perceptual failures that are the logical corollary of success. […] In the wake of each positive perceptual advance the reciprocal logic of discrimination failure opens up new prospects for influential representational substitution. (Brook 1997)
This is a vitally important observation with profound implications. To be under the spell of an illusion is to be incapable either of recognising it or exploiting it. It is simply to make a mistake. However, to recognise an illusion is not only to be capable of recognising and perhaps avoiding other similar illusions. It is to have an insight into how other similar illusions might be staged. While many creatures are capable of learning from their mistakes, only tool-users are capable of recognising and exploiting their mistakes.


Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Grammar of Information



Wittgenstein said he preferred to reserve the expression “I know” for the cases in which it is used in normal linguistic exchange. […] If we are to build a theory of information, if there is ever to be a science of information, that, after all, is what we want a theory, a science, of — whatever we, in normal conversation, are talking about when we talk about information. (Dretske 2003)

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: "There seems to be no pragmatic pressure in everyday communication to converge to a more exact definition of the notion of information." The following discussion is not intended to offer a more exact definition, but it is intended to present what I think are some important observations about the concept of information that are all too commonly overlooked, ignored or misunderstood.

Communication Dependence
The first of these is that information is dependent upon communication and the skills that mediate between intelligent creatures. To fail to account for this connection is to risk undermining the important distinction we typically assume between communication and causation. To communicate is to share information, usually between two or more parties. Inanimate objects cannot share information. Their influence is causal, not communicative. Nonetheless, the effects of causal influence can be used as information, but only by creatures capable of treating effect E as evidence of cause C.

Transmissibility and Communication
In a paper entitled “The Metaphysics of Information” (2003), Fred Dretske argues that information has three “essential properties”, one of which is its transmissibility. On this point I agree, but I think we could probably be a little more specific. Communication always involves transmission but transmission does not always involve communication. Conductive materials transmit heat or electricity, but they do not communicate heat or electricity. Communication is the narrower conceptual category, but it still encompasses all forms of information. It might be rightly argued however, that information about the origins of the Universe is transmitted from distant stars without being communicated by them. The important point to bear in mind though, is that without our culturally acquired communication skills and associated technologies we would have no capacity to treat the light from distant stars as information.

The of/about Distinction
The next “essential property” of information, according to Dretske, is that it is about something and is therefore necessarily semantic: “If it isn’t about anything, it isn’t information.” If this means that nonverbal (i.e. non-semantic) representations do not qualify as information, then we would have good reason to object. A simple but vitally important distinction will help to exemplify the issue. We commonly distinguish between what nonverbal representations are of and what they are about. I can answer the question of what a nonverbal representation is of by offering another representation (by providing information that is) of the same thing. But I cannot answer the question of what a representation is about in the same way. “Aboutness,” as it is sometimes called, is necessarily semantic, whereas ofness is not. A more detailed image of what a representational sculpture is of will certainly provide more information, but it will not necessarily provide more information concerning the semantic content of the sculpture, i.e. what it is about. We could document Rodin’s “The Kiss” in minute detail without providing the slightest information regarding what it is about.

False Information
The last essential property of information according to Dretske, is that it is true. He acknowledges that we sometimes talk of misinformation and false information, but he regards it as “heavy-handed” to conclude that information can be false. He states: “False information is fake information and fake information is not a species of information any more than fake diamonds are a kind of diamond.” If a theory of information needs to take account of “whatever we, in normal conversation, are talking about when we talk about information,” then it makes little sense to reject our ordinary talk of false information, misinformation and misleading information etc. It is also mistaken to suggest that “fake information” will serve as a superior substitute. Fakes are always intended to be fakes, whereas false arguments, for example, are almost never intended to be false.

Unreliable information needn’t always be false information. Information may be adequate in some circumstances and not in others. And even if such information were always reliable in most circumstances, this would only make it contingently true and not universally true.

Effects as Information
According to Steven Pinker (1997) “Information itself is nothing special; it is found wherever causes leave effects.” There is potential to be led astray here. Causation is not in the business of leaving representations in its wake. We can measure and evaluate many of the effects of causal processes, but these measurements and evaluations—not the effects measured and evaluated—are invariably instantiated in the form of representational tokens of one sort or another. It should be clear then, that information concerning the precursors of a certain effect is not to be found like apples lying around an orchard. It can only be found through the application of various skills, tools and techniques, many of which have taken many centuries of experimentation and discovery to reach their current level of sophistication.

Carrying Information
Pinker continues: “We can regard a piece of matter that carries information about some state of affairs as a symbol; it can ‘stand for’ that state of affairs.” It may not be immediately obvious, but this is a tautology. It is like saying that we can regard a symbol as a symbol. To say that something “carries information” is already to imply that it can be regarded in symbolic terms. When information is transmitted, the process can be described in either of two ways: causal or symbolic. Despite being a tautology, Pinker’s point is correct—a piece of matter can be regarded as a symbolic stand-in for a state of affairs of which it is the effect. That’s what it means to “carry information about some state of affairs”.

The Burden of Information
It is also important to distinguish the carrying involved in information-transfer (or communication more generally) from the carrying of a physical burden. Carrying in the sense that we use when discussing information, is not at all like the carrying of a sack of potatoes or the carrying of a virus.  It is more like the carrying of value or responsibility. When we say that a coin “carries” value, it would be absurd to assume that the value inheres, and is therefore detectable, in the coin. Value is conferred upon the coin through a system of exchange that enables the coin to be traded for various goods or services. The carrying of responsibility is likewise, something that finds its expression in actions. To carry responsibility for looking after a friend’s dog, is to be trusted to treat the dog with care and consideration. Burdens of responsibility are not burdens that can be measured by the kilo; they are burdens of expectation.

So when we say that something “carries information,” we mean that it can be treated in representational terms and, by virtue of this treatment, we acquire information either in the form of actual representations or through the ability to produce them.

Information is Not a Property
The carrying of information is also importantly different from the having of properties. Objects can be vehicles of information, which is to say that they can contain, carry or convey information, but they are not vehicles of their properties. Inanimate objects have properties but they do not usually have information. To have information is usually to be a member of a community and to be in possession of some form of representational artefact or ability that might be usefully shared. Accordingly, to gain information is usually to gain an ability that might be shared through one’s skills as a communicator.

Representational Utility
In a paper entitled “The Informational Turn in Philosophy” (2003), Fred Adams writes:
“Waves of radiation traveling through space may contain information about the Big Bang before anyone detects it. Fingerprints on a gun may contain information about who pulled the trigger before anyone lifts the prints. Thus, information appears to be mind-independent (and, thereby, language independent too)."
Just as the utility of objects precedes any use that might be made of them, so too does the capacity for something to be used as information precede any use we might make of it. So, whilst the ways of exploiting the world did not exist before they were discovered, the regularities—that enable exploitation—almost certainly did. Fingerprints on a gun are not representations, but when used as representations about the identity of of a murderer say, they can have very significant utility indeed. It should be noted though, that without the necessary skills and techniques, this utility of fingerprints—and thus any information they might contain—would remain wholly inaccessible. A latent image on a sheet of unprocessed film is not yet a representation, even though it contains information. It clearly follows then, that it is the techniques and processes that we apply to things that draw out their representational utility; their information.

Information Reified
According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Audi, 1999), information is: “an objective (mind independent) entity.” If information is an entity, we could be forgiven for trying to put a finger on it. Sometimes philosophers use the term “entity” to cover concepts (as does Dretske in fact) and this is usually unproblematic. In Audi’s case though, the claim that information is an objective mind-independent entity, would surely make it more substantial than a concept. Representations are entities but a capacity to represent something is not. Skills exist of course, but it is both silly and misleading to suggest that they are entities. If I commit some information to memory, I have not taken an entity on board, I have developed an ability. Abilities are not entities, they are actions that we can perform. 

The Principle of Information Proliferation
When we produce information, the way that we do so can also be treated as information. When we make a phone call, the time, duration, origin and destination of the call can all be measured and recorded. This kind of information has recently become known as "metadata" and there is no reason in principle why the measurement and recording of metadata could not itself be measured and recorded. It will be evident then, that, in principle at least, this process could proliferate infinitely. I can think of no better or more persuasive evidence that information is a consequence of the way that we treat things as representational tokens.

The Media of Information
Without its representational utility, information would have no capacity to inform. So when we say that something "carries," "contains" or "conveys" information, this utility is implicit. Information is something we use. To use an object as information is to treat it or respond to it in a particular way or ways that have to be learned. Using information is thus a skill and is reliant upon techniques of communication in which representations function as the fundamental medium of exchange.


I would like to thank the members of the British Wittgenstein Society Facebook Group for valuable input during the preparation of this text.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Brief Introduction To My Research




The following is an introductory text produced for an exhibition of research staff currently teaching at Gray’s School of Art.

Throughout my career as an artist and academic, I have always been interested in the theory as well as the many practices of representation. During the last 5 years this interest has developed to the point that my research has become wholly devoted to the theory of representation and its wider implications, most especially as it pertains to perception, communication and consciousness.

What is representation? By "representation" I mean precisely what we commonly mean by the term in ordinary language. Representations are stand-ins. Even political representatives act as proxies for the people whose views they represent. In short, representations are useful substitutes for the things they represent. The means by which representations function might seem to be extremely varied, because they are produced by so many different techniques. But in fact representations can be divided into three distinct categories (vide Donald Brook 1997, 2013), two nonverbal and one verbal. The two nonverbal strategies of representation rely on two importantly different sorts of resemblance, whereas verbal communication relies upon the capacity to accept absolutely anything as a symbolic substitute for absolutely anything else. This is an extremely sophisticated skill, almost entirely restricted to most humans.

It is my view that our prodigious skill in the use of symbolic communication is the result of a long history of tool use and especially of practices of social exchange in which objects and behaviours become interchangeable due to socially negotiated attributions of value that are ascribed to them. It is this process—this technique—of value attribution that I regard as such a vital factor in the emergence of practices of symbol-use and the ascription of meaning.

It will be clear then, that I regard meaning as an exclusively human invention because meaning is fully dependent upon the capacity to treat objects and circumstances as having significance or “content” that is not a measurable or quantifiable property of them.

Returning to nonverbal representations, we find that language enables us to treat even these as verbal constructs, but it obviously does not follow that it is always appropriate to do so; to treat them as messages, signifiers, descriptions or signs. They are just useful substitutive tools and behaviours that also happen to be extremely apt for conceptual interpretation, not least as products of intentional action.

There is another common confusion that my research seeks to disentangle. Images, for example, do not resemble things in the same way as models. Models, copies, replicas, reproductions, re-enactments, and exemplification etc. all function because they share features in common with the things they represent. These shared features may be approximate to various degrees, but they do not rely on our taking a particular point of view to maximise the effect. Images, on the other hand, are only fully like the things they represent in certain ways and under certain conditions. In other words, depictions can sometimes be mistaken for the things they represent, but such mistakes rely to a very significant degree on the particular circumstances of presentation or encounter (i.e. the level and evenness of light, our point of view, our level of attentiveness etc.).

So to sum up, to say that an image is a description or that a description is a picture or that a picture is a model or that models delineate the world etc. is to talk in circles. My research is intended to show how the theorisation of philosophers, researchers and sometimes even scientists goes awry when they confuse, misunderstand and mischaracterise distinct categories of representation.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Taking Advantage Of Our Mistakes


‘Just to see what happens…’ is the sense of the word ‘experiment’ with which we are able to conceive of an experimenter who is lurching forward through more or less random behaviours in a limbo of ignorance, but with some (usually unjustified) air of optimism. It is also the sense in which, in the course of doing something that the experimenters do know how to do (such as boiling flasks of urine), they unexpectedly discover how to do something that they did not know how to do and thereafter—if an unexpected but desirably efficacious outcome has emerged—are able to do ‘the same thing’ again, although now in a differently purposeful way. (Donald Brook 2015)

My 5 year old son recently mistook a photograph behind a shop counter for an actual person. After a brief moment of surprise, he remarked: “That could scare other children.” I had noticed the picture too, but hadn’t been fooled by it, partly I think because my vantage point made me less prone to the illusion. My son’s comment seemed to be fairly trivial at the time, but it left me wondering about the nature of mistakes. Most especially it left me thinking about how discoveries and insights are often the unexpected offspring of mistakes.

“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” -Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Invariably when we make discoveries, they arise unexpectedly. You cannot get up in the morning and decide to have a discovery, an epiphany, a revelation or an insight. It is in the nature of these concepts, that their treasures are stumbled upon “in the limbo of ignorance”, even when our anticipatory bags are diligently packed in preparation. No matter how well prepared we might be, no matter how well equipped, we can only fully anticipate what we already know or can imagine. There would be nothing to discover, no insights to be had and no revelations to befall us if we were already acquainted with our discoveries in advance.

During a tutorial a few years ago, I found myself saying: “A mistake is a discovery never to be repeated.” I made a point of committing this phrase to memory for future use, but I’m beginning to realise that it isn’t the pithy truism that I had assumed. Sometimes there is potential in our tendency to make mistakes, especially mistakes of a commonly occurring and therefore exploitable sort. Indeed, there are times when our mistakes become what James Joyce called: “portals of discovery”.

When my son mistook the shop image for an actual person, he made a fairly commonplace mistake. But when he remarked that the image could scare other children, he had already transformed his mistake into an insightful observation: other people like him would have a similar response in similar circumstances. In essence he had discovered, or at least he was noting the fact, that in certain circumstances images can be mistaken for the things they represent.

In my investigations of the theories of Donald Brook, I have often been struck by the emphasis he places upon the notion of “sensory discrimination failure”. It has often seemed to me that he places too much emphasis on what we fail to perceive and not enough on what we succeed in perceiving. In my attempts to explore and exploit his insights I have frequently avoided the notion of failure, preferring instead to draw attention to the “characteristics” of our sensory system or our sensory “limitations”. But if it is true that our perceptual mistakes can be the source of insight—of discoveries of how we and others like us are susceptible in the same purposefully exploitable ways—then perhaps my uneasiness has been unwarranted. To be fair to Brook, on several occasions he has mentioned that sensory discrimination failure is a great “felicity”. After all, amongst other things, it enables us to successfully simulate three-dimensional objects with the flat things we call “pictures” or—by a completely different method of substitution—to imitate (with various levels of success of course) the sounds of innumerable different creatures or to replicate, copy, mimic and emulate all manner of things.

Non-verbal matching and non-verbal simulating are two significantly different ways of exploiting the useful substitutability of one thing for another thing under certain circumstances, for certain communities of perceivers, for certain purposes, by virtue of the fact that all sensory systems are systematically unreliable in certain ways. Science is the most orderly and progressive way of finding out what we might be expected to say about the world if our sensory systems were not unreliable. (In spite of this--and not paradoxically--we could never have got language, and hence science, going at all if our sensory systems hadn't been unreliable in the felicitous way they are, enabling us to substitute one thing for another thing in ways that have an evolutionary pay-off). (Brook, in personal communication 27/12/12)

That perception is usually successful is obvious. No doubt this is why Brook’s primary concern has always been to elucidate the contrasting importance of perceptual mistakes in our account of representation and perception. Unlike mistakes of a more procedural sort, perceptual mistakes cannot be overcome by careful practice or training. We can be more or less vigilant of course, but illustrators, photographers and even perceptual psychologists are no less susceptible to well presented illusions than the rest of us. There is no sense in which my son could have avoided his mistake by trying a little harder or by being better informed. Such illusions do not result from a lack of knowledge or expertise, they result from our creaturely fallibilities. Where our skills come to the fore is in the dawning realisation that we have made a mistake, not in the mistaking. And by the time we have figured out what is going on, the mistake has already been made.

Some people take the view that we would have language even if we had no inability to discriminate between certain things in certain circumstances. But what would this entail? To be able to discriminate between everything and anything under all circumstances and in all respects would be to exist in a universe with no regularities and patterns whatsoever. Nothing would be the same as anything else and even similarity would be out of the question because there would be no end to our discriminations. In such a universe there would be no possibility of substituting or exchanging one thing for another equivalent thing because no two things would be equivalent. Language simply couldn’t get the slightest foothold in such a universe because nothing would be like anything else at all. It is hard to imagine a more alien universe or one more unsuited to communication. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton’s rendition of Wittgenstein: “It makes no sense to speak of perceiving something in a context where we could not possibly make mistakes."

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Can Information Be Naturalised?



Psychologists Sabrina Golonka and Andrew Wilson have recently shared a yet to be published paper entitled: “Ecological Representations”. I noted their work in the summary literature review I posted here a couple of weeks ago, but from this new paper it would appear that that they have shifted their position on the question of cognitive representation considerably. They write: “We will agree that cognition requires representations.” Hopefully they can be persuaded that this is only true if the required representations are of the fully public and intentional sort and not the neural and non-intentional sort that they seem to have embraced.

The influential psychologist J. J. Gibson, is well known for his rejection of representationalism. His work on perception is foundational to many of the ideas pursued by Golonka and Wilson. At the core of G&W’s argument is the conjecture that “Gibson’s ecological information fits the basic definition of representation.” They observe that most “radical” theories of embodied cognition are based on Gibson’s ecological approach to perception and action, and that, despite some successes, these theories have not made significant headway in explaining higher order cognitive processes such as thinking about absent objects etc. They claim to have discovered a way to salvage the good work on all sides of the debate. I aim to show that their proposed solution comes at an unacceptably high price.

In Chapter 8 of Gibson’s book “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”, (1979) Gibson coins the term “affordances” to describe what he suggests the environment “offers” animals for their survival. He writes:
[I]f there is information in light for the perception of surfaces, is there information for the perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces constitute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the “values” and “meanings” of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiver.
The hypothesis that values and meaning are external to perceivers corresponds closely with the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, towards the end of his life, developed some carefully nuanced arguments to show how values and meanings are best understood as socially negotiated and rule dependent practices rather than inner states of perceivers. However, unlike Gibson, Wittgenstein almost certainly would not agree that we actually perceive meanings and values, whether directly or otherwise. To put the point as simply as possible, the value of money is not a perceptible property of the coin or note in your pocket. Value is ascribed to things by virtue of practices of exchange that involve the treatment of things as if they have properties that they do not in fact possess. Indeed, without the capacity to pretend and to accept acts of pretence, the skills necessary to ascribe value and meaning to things would be out of the question.

So when Gibson proposes that we perceive the affordances the “environment…offers… provides or furnishes”, he confuses practices of use attribution and/or meaning ascription with skills of perception. I think this is a very serious mistake that Golonka and Wilson only amplify with their new paper. Wittgenstein took the view that the meaning of a word is best determined by looking at the various ways in which it is used. The Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher, Thomas Reid made a very similar point about 300 years ago. On several occasions Wittgenstein also suggested that we should regard words as tools. Do tools have perceptible affordances? According to Martin Heidegger a tool has a "usability" that "belongs to it essentially". Wittgenstein would disagree. Do we perceive the use of a tool we have never seen before? Think of a fork. Would we immediately see its alleged inherent Heideggerian function if we were intelligent animals of a different shape and size? G&W are bound by the force of reason to say that we do not. So then, how can the many different ways of using a stick  its alleged affordances  be perceptible in the stick?

Another serious issue that arises in Gibson’s theorisation, and that G&W further ramify, is his suggestion that light carries information; that there is information in it (I will return to this issue of “content” in a moment). The philosophy of information (as distinct from Information Theory which is an engineering term) was in its infancy in Gibson’s day (some say that it still is (Floridi 2011)), so it is unlikely that Gibson would have been aware of the dangers of his use of the word. “Information” is what Ryle (1954) might have called a “smother word”. For Ryle, terms like “depiction”, “description” and “illustration” often smother important conceptual distinctions and create otherwise avoidable philosophical dilemmas. It is the task of conceptual analysis to tease out these differences and to dispel conceptual confusion.

I have mentioned before on this blog how even Wittgenstein made the mistake of describing language as a "picture" of the world in his earlier philosophical work. I have also pointed out how C.S Peirce regarded the whole universe as being perfused with meaningful signs. Grice (1957) too, saw no confusion is assuming that nature creates “natural meanings” in addition to the “non-natural” ones that we generate. More recently, Fred Adams published a paper (2003) attempting to “naturalise meaning” and to suggest a way to account for the meaningful content that he believes is realised in the mind/brain. He writes: “To be of value to a would-be knower, or to someone interested in naturalizing the mind, information must be an objective, mind-independent commodity.” He provides the following two examples as evidence of this supposed natural commodity (if that isn’t already a careless oxymoron):

Waves of radiation traveling through space may contain information about the Big Bang before anyone detects it. Fingerprints on the gun may contain information about who pulled the trigger before anyone lifts the prints. Thus, information appears to be mind-independent (and, thereby, language independent too).

According to a recent comment from Golonka on their blog, they “agree with content critiques regarding mental reps”, so they would probably reject at least some of Adams’ radical representationalism. Nonetheless, since they take Gibson’s ecological information to fit with ecological representations they have a job on their hands to reconcile their agreement with say Hutto and Myin (2013) on the question of content and their own representational “vehicles”. If, as I contend, the influence is merely causal, then no representation, no vehicles and no content need be imputed.

G&W are clearly aware that perhaps the greatest explanatory challenge for a theory of cognition is to give a coherent account of intentionality. In philosophy "intentionality" has a technical sense that I assume is the sense in which G&W are using it. Nonetheless, both senses are applicable here. They state that: “The need for intentionality therefore provided the first and primary motivation for treating cognition as necessarily representational.” What should be pointed out here is that this assumption is questionable on grounds of logical incoherence. In order for cognition to be intentional (in either sense), it must intended, but if it is intended this intention must be supplied by representations, then these must also be intended and must therefore be motivated by intentionally generated representations. This is a logical regress of the most vicious kind that is widely overlooked in much of the relevant literature. Perhaps it is this general lack of recognition that has led to G&W's overlooking this serious logical obstacle.

G&W do acknowledge the “symbol grounding problem” though. This is characterised as the challenge of explaining how symbols gain their meaning (their representational content in fact) outwith a system of mutually agreed rules. This is another serious challenge to representationalism that, for example, Adams fails to mention at all. He evidently takes it as unchallenging that fingerprints “contain” information. Words like “contain” and “content” are a common cause of conceptual confusion. When we talk of the “content” of a painting, we do not mean that the content is a property analogous to the size and shape of the painting. Content is not a special characteristic of objects. It is not perceptible. If anything content is a special characteristic of us, of the things we can do, not something that inheres in things ready to be extracted like some kind of magical inform-essence. Fingerprints are part of a forensic system. They are meaningless outwith this system. Our knowledge imbues nature with meaning but in the process it leaves nature entirely untouched, in respect of its content that is.

G&W also wisely acknowledge the “system-detectable error problem” (Bickhard, 2009). Within any notionally intelligent system there has to be a way for the system to detect and avoid errors. Once again, within a social system this process depends on the observance of various socially negotiated rules. But without such rules it is challenging to say the least, to know how errors could even qualify as errors, let alone be avoided. Like most of the obstacles to representationalism, the issue here comes down once again to intentionality. In order to detect errors you need a system that can represent and compare errors with successes and in order for the system to represent the difference between error and success, evaluative criteria or some form of metric is needed by which such comparisons can be made.

In their definition of representation, G&W begin, rightly, by stating that representations are stand-ins. However they then rely heavily on Newell (1980) who was principally concerned with symbol systems and “designation”. Newell defines representation/designation thus:

An entity X designates an entity Y relative to a process P, if, when P takes X as input, its behavior depends on Y.

In my view this is too narrow a definition of representation. Onomatopoeia does not designate the thing it represents and nor does a photograph, an enactment or a model. Designation is more akin to delegation, nomination or stipulation than it is to depiction or imitation. So, at best, Newell’s definition applies to symbolic representations only. However, to be fair to G&W they do a quite good job of translating Newell’s formulation into a more palatable version:

X, is a thing that is not Y but can close the gap and that P can access and use as if it were Y; when it does, P works as if it had access to Y.

This can be tidied up as:

X is a thing that P can use as if it were Y. When it does, P works as if it had access to Y.

So, on this basis:

A wind turbine is a thing that a lightbulb can use as if it were a battery. When it does, the lightbulb works as if it had access to a battery.

Or, better still:

Sugar syrup is a thing that a honeybee can use as if it were honey. When it does, the honeybee works as if it had access to honey.

I may be missing something important, but I fail to see how this qualifies the wind turbine as a representation of a battery or sugar syrup as a representation of honey. All of the paradigmatic cases of representation of which I am aware involve substitution for the purposes of communication between agents, not simple replacement of functional component A with alternative functional component B. The radioactive isotope of strontium substitutes for calcium in bone formation but it certainly isn’t a representation of calcium. Something is awry in Newell’s formulation.

Leaving this objection aside for the moment, G&W focus their attention on what they see as “the gap” which X can “close” between P and Y (the bee and its honey). But this is merely an anomalous consequence of their turn of phrase (which I edited out of my reformulation). Sugar syrup does not close a gap between the bee and its honey; it simply replaces honey. Nonetheless G&W spend several sentences fleshing out the significance of this supposed “action at a distance”.

G&W turn next to a consideration of “ecological information [as] a representation”. They define ecological information as energy patterns of  “lawful interaction of the energy with the dynamics of the world [that] are used by organisms to perceive that world.” [My emphasis]. If organisms use energy patterns to perceive the world, then this form of usage needs to be sharply distinguished from intentional use, otherwise we have no means of distinguishing tool using creatures (humans mostly) from all the other creatures in the world who do not use tools. Moreover, we also need this important distinction to distinguish between the intentional actions of purposeful creatures and the efficacious (but not intentionally directed) behaviours of their internal processes. My bone forming processes do not intend to use strontium as a replacement for calcium, but my dentist did intend to use gold as a crown for one of my teeth. This is why my crown is plausibly a representation—indeed it is a cast—of parts of the tooth it replaced. The reason such actions, as the replacement of a tooth, are intentional is because they are performed in pursuit of a goal that can be represented on demand. The fact that my dentist could explain his behaviour is not because a representation of my tooth was contained in his neural fibres but because the capacity to represent the aims of his activity was something he could do; something he could perform as a competent agent embedded in a culture where such actions are understood.

If I might be allowed to go into a little technical detail, theorists often distinguish between teleological and teleonomic descriptions of behaviour. A telos is a goal, an aim or an envisaged end that an action is intentionally directed towards. Teleological behaviours are thus genuinely purposeful actions. Teleonomic behaviours, on the other hand, often have the appearance of purposefulness but are actually merely efficacious (some theorists use the word “purposive” here, as contrasted with genuinely purposeful activity), having been shaped by millions of years of evolution. When we say that a plant uses varying light intensities to find its way towards the sun, we do not mean to suggest that the plant is an intentionally directed agent: a perceiver. We are simply using a teleonomic description. Unfortunately I think both Gibson and G&W conflate teleonomic descriptions in which organisms and their inner processes “use energy and genuinely teleological descriptions in which we human agents use energy—to illuminate a light bulb for instance.

I do not believe that perceivers use energy in the way that both Gibson and G&W suggest. I might use my desk light in order to read a book at night, but the inner processes that in large part bring about my perception of the book do not use either the desk light or the energy patterns that emanate from it in this intentionally directed way at all. I can choose to turn out the light, but my inner processes have no choice in the matter. Choices are exercised by whole agents, not by their parts (Hacker and Bennett 2007).

A lot of confusion can be cleared up in discussions of representation if we distinguish sharply between processes in which X is taken as Y and actions in which X is treated as Y. My bones will take strontium as calcium but only a performer of actions can treat an act of mock aggression as if it is merely playful as opposed to genuinely threatening. This is why I argue that pretending is the most fundamental and important skill in intelligent behaviour because it is the basis of the higher forms of cognition that G&W are so keen to account for.

G&W return to the notion of “a gap” when they state: “Most of the behaviorally relevant dynamics in the world are ‘over there’ and not in mechanical contact with the organism. They must therefore be perceived.” The fact that the keys of my keyboard are “over there” and not in “mechanical contact” with my fingers does not mean that they are not causally influential upon me by virtue of the light reflected from them. My perception certainly depends upon light but my perception is not of the light as information, it is of the keys as keys. Light is something we know about, not something we see. So, whilst it is true that we pretenders can act as if light is perceptible, the light reflected from my keyboard is simply taken by my sensory system not as information but as causal influence. When G&W say that: “Perception relies on information about dynamics” this is not true. Only knowledge (propositional knowledge that is) relies on information about dynamics.

According to G&W:

Gibsonian ecological information is only a kinematic projection of those dynamics into an energy array. […] This means that kinematic information cannot be identical to the dynamical world, and this fact is effectively a poverty of stimulus.

Kinematic information is quite clearly a culturally enabled ascription—indeed a “description”—of “units” of measure to the “dynamical world”. There is no possibility that such sophisticated cultural contrivances as units are to be found in nature.

Their worries about “a gap”, “action at a distance” and “a poverty of stimulus” continue when they write:

Other lines of neuroscientific enquiry do suggest that at least some of the structure of energy impinging on perceptual receptors is preserved as it travels through the nervous system.
According to G&W’s theory of representation it is important that structure is carried through the nervous system because this qualifies the structure as a neural representation of the ecological information that caused it (recall that they take all forms of replacement to be representational). At the risk of repeating myself, the fact that some pattern corresponds with an antecedent state of affairs does not mean that the pattern is a representation. Effects are not representations of their causes. If they were, then the universe would be nothing but representations. I therefore think we have good reason to reject G&W’s proposal that “at least some of the neural activity caused by informational representations will qualify as a neural representation of that information.”

To be fair to G&W, they observe that: “These neural representations are… not implementing the mental representations of the standard cognitive approach.” because they do not “enrich, model or predict anything about that information.” If this is true, then it leaves these representations as representations in name only.

Later in their paper G&W attempt to tackle the issue of higher order cognition. They remark: “To be clear, the stipulation that knowledge systems must be conceptual and componential is so that knowledge systems can support counterfactual thinking, etc.” This is mistaken. Pretending that I am rocking a baby in my arms is a gesture that would be understood by humans the world over but, even though it is counterfactual (there is no baby after all) it is not a conceptual representation. Conceptualisation relies on the ability to manipulate abstractions and there is no other species on the planet that has the capacity to manipulate abstractions with anything more the most rudimentary competence.
Washoe, the first of the signing apes, had been regularly bathed. Sometimes between the ages of one and a half and two years, she picked up her doll, filled the bathtub with water, dumped the doll in the tub, took it out and dried it with a towel. In later repetitions she even soaped the doll. This is imitation, but it also must be a form of representation—indeed, of pretence. (Jolly 2000, 291)
On page 18 G&W write: “From the first person perspective of the organism, it is just interacting with information.” We commonly interact with others by means of information but it is somewhat confused to suggest without qualification that we interact with information. Our use of information forms part of our interactions with other intelligent agents: people usually. When we use so called “interactive technologies” we do so in a sense that is derivative of these interactions with other agents. Information is simply not responsive in the way that that other intelligent agents are. It helps to regard information as a tool. We use our tools but it is somewhat strained to say that we interact with them.

In conclusion, G&W are right to regard representation as important in the explanation of higher order capacities but only if we regard representation as a thoroughly public activity of intelligent agents. G&W are also right to focus on behaviour that treats X as if it is Y. Nonetheless their Newell-derived definition of representation is inadequate to the task of distinguishing between behaviours in which X is taken for Y and actions in which X is treated as Y. If they were to thoroughly examine this important distinction, they would probably recognise that representation is the point of demarcation between evolved efficacious processes and behaviours and de facto teleological actions; between nature and culture. Information cannot be naturalised because information is a cultural contrivance.