Thursday, 17 November 2016

Free Energy: How the F*ck Does That Work, Ecologically?

Karl Friston has spent a lot of time recently developing the free energy principle framework as a way to explain life, behaviour and cognition; you know, biology, and it's become the cool kid on the block in fairly record time. 

Crudely, the basic idea of the FEP is that living organisms need to operate within a range for a given process, or else they will be malfunctioning to some extent and might suffer injury or death. Being within the relevant range across all your processes means you are alive and doing well, and so for an organism that has made it this far in evolution those states must be highly probable. Being outside those ranges is therefore less probable, and so if you find yourself outside a range you will be surprised. Your job as a self-sustaining organism can therefore be described as 'work to minimise surprise'.

There is a problem with this formalisation though. The information-theoretic term that formalise 'surprise' is not a thing that any organism can access, so you can't work to control it. Luckily, there is another formal quantity, free energy, that is related to surprise and is always higher than surprise. Free energy is therefore the upper bound on surprise and minimising that upper bound can reduce surprise as well. 

All this is currently implemented in an inferential, Bayesian framework that aligns, at least on the surface, with modern representational cognitive science. Andy Clark thinks this is the future, and Jakob Howhy has worked hard to nail this connection down so it won't move. If this is all right, and if the FEP is being successful, perhaps non-representational, non-inferential accounts like ours are going to lose.

A recent paper (Bruineberg, Kiverstein & Rietveld (2016) tries to wedge the FEP and Bayesian psychology apart to allow room for an ecological/enactivist take on the FEP. To be honest, I found the paper a little underwhelming, but it did get me thinking about things, and two questions have emerged.

Before we worry about an ecological account of the FEP, we need to know 1) whether such a thing makes any sense and 2) whether it adds anything new to the proceedings. All comments welcome - these are genuine questions and if there are answers we would love to know.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Field is Full, Just Not of Affordances - A Reply to Rietveld & Kiverstein

I recently posted about relational accounts of affordances and how one way to summarise my objections to them is that they cannot support mechanistic models of cognition. I came to this after reading Rietveld & Kiverstein's 'Landscape of Affordances' paper and chatting to them both at EWEP14. Eric and Julian have been kind enough to send through some detailed comments (beginning here and split over three comments due to character limits). This post is me replying to these comments as a way to get them somewhere a little more visible. I haven't gone point by point, I've just pulled out the key stuff I wanted to address; read their comments for the whole thing. I appreciate their willingness to get into this with me; their account is becoming wildly influential and their papers and feedback are helping me immensely as I work to articulate my concerns. 

To preview: my fundamental objection remains the same and as yet unanswered - while it is indeed possible to identify relations between 'forms of life' and 'socio-cultural environments' there is, as yet, no evidence that these relations create perceptual information. If they do not create information, they are not ecologically perceived, and they cannot figure in the online coordination and control of behaviour. And if they can't do that, then they sure as hell aren't affordances.

So my challenge to Reitveld & Kiverstein (R&K) is this - work up an example of an affordance that fits their definition and not mine and that creates information. Then we can test to see whether people act as if they perceive that affordance and can try perturbing the information to confirm how they are perceiving it. Then, and only then, do we have a ball game.