Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is there a Gibsonian ur-case?

Having read a fair bit of stuff by ecological psychologists, I still feel I'm just not getting it.  I don't see what is driving the project; just a collection of (to me) weird beliefs.

But, here's what might work for me.  Simplifying:
Skinner thought he could extrapolate from what happens with Skinner boxes to much of cognition.
Chomsky thought he could extrapolate from what happens with syntax acquisition to much of cognition.
PDP folks thought they could extrapolate from what happens with variants of three-layer back-prop nets to much of cognition.
Dynamical systems folks think they can extrapolate from finger-wagging to large parts of cognition.

But, with Gibson, I don't know what the base case is, or even if there is one.  What, if anything, is the ur-case that is supposed to be the basis of the extrapolation?  I don't see the "successful case" that inspires the approach.  Instead, I see this huge mass of terminology and polemic.  Maybe this is just a matter of expository style, but I don't get it.  Maybe there is a story somewhere in the many pages of The Ecological Approach that I have not read.

If someone could tell me the Gibsonian ur-case, if there is one,that might help.


  1. I'd say the ur-case for Gibson is his explanation of basic animal locomotion. Gibson would want to extrapolate from how animals move themselves to large parts of cognition. For example, Gibson thinks that if we could explain how birds navigate while flying, we would have a psychological foundation upon which to study more advanced processes. But locomotion is the key for Gibson, especially since he was interested in visual perception and visual perceptions seems to have evolved to coordinate such locomotion.

    Also, I don't think that finger-wagging is the "ur-case" for dynamic systems theory (although Chemero might think so). I think, rather, that the ur-case is the motility and sense-making of unicellular organisms (at least according to Evan Thompson).

  2. So, what text would you offer as a good presentation of the bird flight?

    The other possible DST ur-case that comes to mind is the leg movements or A not-B error by Smith & Thelen. But, I wanted to keep the story short. Is there another case you have in mind as paradigmatic DST?

    I had not included the Varela-Maturana stuff in the above list, but single-celled organisms do seem to be their base case. I'm thinking that this V-M stuff is not the same thing as DST.

  3. Speaking as someone who studies finger wiggling (well, coordinated rhythmic movement) I can say that it does actually count as a paradigmatic case for dynamical systems in psychology. The A-not-B is good too though.

    I'm not sure birds are the place to go, although locomotion is a good example. The first pass analysis of the global structure to the optic array when locomoting is classic (flow originating from a focus of expansion which specifies heading, expanding out regularly in a sphere and disappearing into a focus of contraction, specifying where you can from). Now some of the details have changed (the FoE per se doesn't appear to be recovered and used to control heading, depending on whether you believe Wilkie & Wann or Fajen & Warren) but the global structure of optic flow is still the key.

  4. Well, I don't know about bird flight in particular, but Gibson spent a lot of time during WWII researching how airplane pilots successfully make perceptual judgments in flight. He would then extrapolate from the information cues needed to successful fly a plane to the cues needed for a bird to fly. For him, these two cases are more or less similar from a psychological perspective. Gibson also did a lot of work on automobile control and the various information cues needed to successfully navigate through traffic. Gibson was primarily concerned with these types of examples because they start from the assumption of locomotion being primary and then the question is how to coordinate and control such locomotion in respect to the layout of the environment.

    You raise an interesting question about the DST literature. There seems to be a divide between those who follow van Gelder and those who follow Varela-Maturna. The van Gelder people like to talk about the finger-wagging and leg-movements and all that good stuff, whereas the Varela people like to talk about autopoietic sense-making. I am unaware of any theorist who has explicitly discussed the similarities and differences of these two approaches. It seems though that a lot of confusion has been generated by not appreciating the differences between these two schools.

  5. So, Andrew, would you say that the best intro to the bird flight stuff is in Gibson, 1979, or is there something else? Is there a review of this literature or a bibliography I could get somewhere?

  6. Gary, what is this DST divide of which you speak?

  7. Ken,

    I get the sense that you are struggling to find a clear, easy to understand summary-text that encapsulates the "Gibsonian" approach in contrast to more orthodox approaches. In my opinion, the absolute best interpreter of Gibsonian psychology is Edward Reed. I would read either "James J. Gibson and the Psychology of Perception" or his "Encountering the world: Towards an Ecological Psychology".

    "Encountering the world" is perhaps the single best defense of ecological psychology that is less than 200 pages. Reed explains beautifully the theoretical motives that drive the ecological approach in contrast to the cognitive approach. Reed understands the history of psychology better than most and clearly explains the underlying differences between ecological psychology and everyone else. He also takes a very Darwinian perspective in the hopes of making ecological psychology a branch of biological science. Great stuff.

  8. No. I think I am looking for a very particular kind of introduction. One that is very close to the experimental work. I want to see the experimental work; not the commentary that Gibsonians attach to it.

    I've read a number of introductions to EP, but I still don't see what is "driving" it.

    So, take the finger wagging stuff. To me, the differential equations only provide a description of the behavior, hence at most what would call a "descriptive explanation". But, they don't tell you, "Why do fingers tend to move into phase at high speed?" There is no explanation of that sort. I don't want to rely on Chemero's, or anyone else's, take on the example. I want the example.

  9. This is not to say, however, that Reed's stuff is not on my reading list. It's there, only not that close to the top.

  10. A couple of things:

    re coordination:
    To me, the differential equations only provide a description of the behavior, hence at most what would call a "descriptive explanation". But, they don't tell you, "Why do fingers tend to move into phase at high speed?" There is no explanation of that sort.
    You are entirely correct. This has been a real problem and it's one Geoff Bingham and I are working on correcting. The Kelso style 'dynamic pattern' approach is indeed merely descriptive, and I'm working on killing it off with a perception-action approach. I'm posting about coordination slowly at the moment, with the goal of laying this all out more explicitly and with specific reference to experiments.

    Experimental work: Gibson has an extensive empirical literature, in which he tries to tackle these issues and work out how to talk about them - early work on driving and steering for example?

    It's funny, though, I really don't know of any reviews of the type I think you're thinking of. I'll have a think, though.

    re. dynamics: I don't particularly think of myself as following van Gelder, but yes, his is the type of dynamics I think of.

  11. So, Andrew, given that you agree with the merely descriptive character of the Kelso descriptions of finger wagging (and, it seems to me that Kelso describes his equations as descriptions in his own papers (or at least the one or two that I have read))let me press a point.

    It seems to me that much of what is being urged in the extended cognition literature is not really extended cognition, but extended behavior. The wagging of fingers is a behavior and of course it involves the body. We're talking fingers, right? So, that leaves open the question, how much cognitive processing is involved in this behavior? If you are Skinner, the answer is "none", but for cognitivists there is room for a range of answers.

    Similarly, gesturing is a type of behavior, which leaves open the question how much cognitive processing is there in gesturing?

    Similarly, tossing a coin to decide which movie to go to is a behavior. One might, then, want to know how much cognitive processing is involved in tossing a coin to decide which movie to go to.

  12. Kelso does indeed know that the HKB model, etc is purely descriptive. It's everyone else that forgot.

    I also agree somewhat that a lot of the specific examples for EC are problems - I think most of you are arguing about spherical cows, remember :) So I (cautiously :) agree with your point that there is a lot of noise in the arguments.

    I'm cautious, though, because I'm not entirely sure of the specific point you're pressing here.

  13. So, the Kelso example is why I like to get back to the primary research and the experiments themselves, rather than the commentary that is subsequently added (even if it were by the original experimentalist).

    All I'm saying later on is that prima facie one needs to distinguish between an hypothesis of extended cognition and an hypothesis of extended behavior. These are prima facie different, though one might argue (and, in fact, some folks do seem to argue or maybe merely believe) that there is no difference.

    I am happy to accept an hypothesis of extended behavior, but resist an hypothesis of extended cognition. I take it that behavior is, at times and in part, the product of cognitive processes. Cognitive processes are among the mechanisms that, at times, contribute to behavior. This is a central idea of the cognitivist revolution.

    Advocates of EC can deny it, but they have not been all that forthcoming on the issue.

  14. I agree it's noisy right now. This problem of drawing boundaries is exactly what Sabrina's posting about at the moment.