Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Costall on EP and Behaviorism

In a review of Gibson, 1979, A. P. Costall wished to draw attention to some similarities he perceived between EP and behaviorism.  Among them, he mentions the following:
The ecological approach and operant psychology share a good deal more than mere disenchantment with the status quo. Both insist that behavior presents a primary datum for psychology which is not to be treated as a mere symptom of underlying structures of either the cognitive or physiological kind. They recognize that the description of behavior is nevertheless difficult, and they promote a molar and functional classification of behavior rather than muscle-twitch psychology or classical reflexology. In rejecting the S-R scheme, however, they insist that behavior is nonetheless subject to lawful description and that these laws refer to an irreducible organism-environment relationship. Finally, they each have special contributions to make towards a proper psychology of cognition-a psychology, that is, concerned with truly mediated modes of behavior. (Costall, 1984, p. 114).
I'm intrigued by the comment that behavior presents a primary datum for psychology which is not to be treated as a mere symptom of underlying structures of the cognitive kind.  I guess I do think that behavior is a product of, among other things, cognitive processes, but then again I am not sure what he alternative is.  Is it that there are no cognitive processes; instead there is cognitive behavior which is just a type of behavior?

I've recently had my suspicions that, e.g. Gibson and some of the EC folks just don't have the picture of the cognition/behavior relation that I do, but I don't know what the alternative is.  I just don't have the background on what behaviorists or EPists have said about this kind of thing.

Costall, A. (1984). Are theories of perception necessary? A review of Gibson's The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 41(1), 109.


  1. This may be a reference to the specific fights going on in the 60s and 70s. Early cognitive psychology put all responsibility for the form of behaviour into cognitive processes running in the brain. This still actually goes on, although it's watered down a little.

    A specific example: motor programmes. The classic approach to motor control was to measure the kinematic form of an action and then postulate a programme that produces that form. The problem is the specific form is multiply detirmined: the various landmarks (such as time-to-peak-speed, etc) all emerge from a coalition of constraints that includes object properties, task constraints, etc etc.

    The argument I think Costall is alluding to is this one, which in fairness is a little dated now. That said, motor programmes and schemas are still on the curriculum here, although I'm working on it. Plus think of all the super-baby research (infant habituation studies that supposedly reveal all the knowledge babies have about physics and maths and impossible events); the basic methodological assumption is that eye movements are a transparent filter that reveal the functioning of internal representations without shaping behaviour themselves. Thelen was on this before she died.

    Ug. I take it back; this is still alive and well :) But that's my guess as to the specific claim Costall is referring to; it was a much more explicit argument when Gibson was writing.

  2. "Early cognitive psychology put all responsibility for the form of behaviour into cognitive processes running in the brain"

    Well, one conclusion that one might draw about the demise of motor programmes and schemata, etc. would be that cognition is something other than the cognitivists had expected. It is instead blah, blah, blah. (I don't know what EPists think cognition is, even in a hand wavy kind of way.)

    But, another conclusion would be that behavior involves a lot less cognition that previously supposed. After all, the cognitivist might say, cognitive processing just is mental gymnastics, so tasks that don't involve mental gymnastics are one that don't involve cognition.

    In the parts of the EC literature that I have read, these options seems to me not in evidence. Instead, there is an immediate move to "cognitivism is wrong".

  3. Well, one conclusion that one might draw about the demise of motor programmes and schemata, etc. would be that cognition is something other than the cognitivists had expected. It is instead blah, blah, blah. (I don't know what EPists think cognition is, even in a hand wavy kind of way.)
    Two words: dynamical systems. In perception/action, anyway, dynamics has become the language of choice because it enables you to talk about all the parts of systems (animal, task, environment) in commensurate language. See my last post on Geoff's model of coordination; the form of a given behaviour is predicted to emerge from specific dynamical organisations, and not be prescribed ahead of time.

    The 'cognitivism is wrong' move is (I think) mostly tied to what I was saying in the other thread about the origin of content for enriching representations. Either you can get to that content, in which case you don't need the enrichment, or you can't, in which case you can't make the enriching representation. Gibson settled on the former because he was convinced that cognitivism was trapped by the latter.

  4. Two words: Get out.

    What do you take to be the difference between a DS that is a cognitive DS and one that is a DS that is not a cognitive DS? So, I take it that a pendulum is a DS that is not a cognitive DS. Why not?

    It seems to me that it is because DST folks do not really have much in the way of anything like the cognitivist picture of a relationship between cognitive processes and behavior that this kind of thing does not bug you. When I read DST stuff like HBK, I see them as describing behavior and so, I think, do they. Chemero seems to think that they are not.

    But, here's another way to see how Gibson is missing a case. He inherited from behaviorists this extreme empiricism. Cognitivism opens the door to nativism. Nativists don't think organisms have to glean all information from the environment, either phylogenetically or ontogenetically.

  5. Incidentally, Andrew, how do you get italics in your comments? HTML code?

  6. Italics: HTML indeed. It's < i > at the start and < / i > at the end (without the spaces).

    DST: I agree it's complicated. But the advantage is you can talk about perception, action, cognition, tasks and environments all in the same language, so if you want to do cognitive psychology that way you can.

    Nativism suffers from this problem I've been bringing up, though; where does that content come from, if not from phylo/onto-genetic processes?

  7. Thanks for the italics tip. I don't know why it didn't occur to me before.

    I have often heard complaints about cognitivism, but I think that many of these complaints understate the depth of the differences between cognitivism and, for example, DST. Cognitivism has the view that there are these cognitive processes in the brain and that they are one component in the production of behavior. But, DST folks seem not to have even this minimal a picture of the difference between cognition and behavior. For them it seems to be a matter of there being behavior, then maybe some special subtype of behavior that is cognitive behavior.

    I'm not sure what kind of example will address your empiricist worries, but how about this? Did the pupillary reflex require gleaning information from the environment? Or, might this have emerged simply by genetic mutations in which some individuals have some prototype of this reflex, but then selection increases the frequency of this mutation in the population? I don't know how it happened, but the point is that one needs a case for closing off such a story.

  8. I'm thinking more about the contents of mental representations; not hardware. Things like a cognitive process for transforming an ambiguous retinal image sensation into a meaningful percept - good old fashioned cognitive psychology, the kind of thing people claim/assume to be at work all the time.

  9. Ok. Well, cognitivist typically think some mental representations have innate content, others have learned content. So, maybe there are innate mental representations of, say, "noun", but learned representations of, say, "ballerina".

    I have this sense that I am not speaking to your concern.

  10. Right; the question is still, how does it come to have the content it does? Saying 'it's innate' simply pushes the question back, it doesn't answer it; sure you might have it now, but how did it come to be that way?

    Does that make sense?

  11. Well, then, I'm not going to get drawn in to some pop evolutionary psychology of the sort I've been taking Runeson to task for.

    The ur-case for innate representations is, of course, poverty of the stimulus arguments in natural language acquisition. Often these are highly abstract things like PRO that often have no overt morphology. Saying that they are innate is a conclusion based on the fact that the environment doesn't have abstract categories like this. What hypothetical entities, such as PRO, are supposed to explain are distributional features of items in sentences.

    PRO is an abstract linguistic category realized in the brain. Not a physical category. Why think the world have that?

  12. So how does it come to be that way it is?

    (I'm not trying to get you to invent a specific evolutionary story; I've just never gotten an answer from a cognitivist on where representations get their content from or how. I think this is something people should worry about.)

  13. Oh, well, there are lots of philosophical stories about how representations get their contents. This was a big deal in the 1980's. It's a project that has kind of faded from prominence lately, however. It's largely a philosophical project, so if you ask cognitivist psychologists, you might well not get these answers.

    Here's a really simple account Fodor gives:

    "X" means X if
    1. ‘Xs cause “X”s’ is a law,
    2. For all Ys that are not Xs, if Ys qua Ys actually cause “X”s, then the Y's causing “X”s is asymmetrically dependent on the Xs causing “X”s,
    3. The dependence in (2) is synchronic.

    Here are two pretty accessible accounts of two distinct approaches. (Be careful of trusting the first entry though, the authors are a bit on the shady side.)



  14. Here's one by Fred Dretske:

    "[t]he fundamental idea is that a system, S, represents a property, F, if and only if S has the function of indicating (providing information about) the F of a certain domain of objects." Dretske, 1995, p.)

    1995, Naturalizing the Mind, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  15. OK, so now I remember why I stopped doing philosophy of mind and stuck to science. (I'm currently working through Chemero's chapter on theories of representation and it's hurting just as much :)

    So, a question, and I'm sorry if I missed something in those encyclopaedia pages. All the causal theories talk about how representations have meaning because thing A caused it to be about thing A, and are then distinguished by what counts as a legitimate cause.

    This still leaves me wondering, what theories are there of the chain of events that leads a representation to acquire it's contents? So given a legitimate cause, what is the mechanism by which that cause is connected to it's effect?

    This is basically about theories of perception, obviously. But I'm interested in the question because of the function generally ascribed to representations, namely that of enriching sensory experience so as to resolve an ambiguity, and the problem is then how does a cause have it's effect when the theory of perception doesn't provide a mechanism to connect the two?

    I'm not sure how much sense that makes, but it's this specific questions that's bugging me; disambiguating sensory experience is only needed if the sensory experience is ambiguous, but if it is then it doesn't support the acquisition of the disambiguating information.

    I may post about this and we can argue this there.

  16. Well, I've mostly stopped doing that kind of philosophy of mind. The last I wrote on it myself (prior to that review) was about 1994.

    So, let me take a stab at an answer for you. Philosophers of science typically distinguish between basic laws and implemented laws. (Maybe this is not the best terminology to use, but let's go with it for now. Another popular description is "ceteris paribus laws".) The basic laws are those of something like quantum mechanics. The implemented laws are those of what are often called the special sciences, such as biology and psychology. Now, there is a lot of philosophical debate over whether implemented laws are (in one or another sense) reducible to basic laws or whether they state high level lawful relations. So, TSRM laws (if there were any =) )would count as implemented laws. Or take, maybe, Weber's law which relates the intensity of a perception to the intensity of a stimulus. There would be lots of different mechanisms that would realize this law. The stimulus could be light or sound waves.

    So, when X's cause "X"s, one is probably going to invoke something like an implemented law, so that there will be some abstraction over mechanisms.

    And the implemented laws could, in principle, connect affordances with mental representations of affordances (if there were such things).

    Does that help?

  17. A little. I need to think about this some more - thanks :)