Department of Philosophy

Computation & Representation in Cognitive Science:

Enactivism, Ecological Psychology & Cybernetics
10-11 July 2017
University of Sussex

A two-day conference exploring the relationship between enactive, ecological, and computational approaches to cognitive science. A particular focus of the conference is the shared ancestry of some of these approaches in classical cybernetics, and the potential for future reconciliation between the approaches.

Talks will be given by the following speakers:

Anthony Chemero - 'Dynamic Information Processing'
Computational and dynamical approaches to the mind are widely assumed to entail incompatible sciences of cognition. So foundational is the divide between the two approaches, it is said, that the latter constitutes a denial of the former. Indeed, the roots of the divide do run deep, and dynamical approaches do pose challenges to the core of the prevailing computational view. However, there is at least one sense in which the approaches can be seen as, at the very least, complementary, such that there may be a common ground for intellectual transactions between the two camps. In this talk, I stake out that common ground. The work presented here is from a collaboration with Frank Faries.

Alistair Isaac - 'Action, Structure, and the Directness of Perception'
Perception is not the mere passive registration of static environmental information, rather it is a dynamic process, and the agent’s actions constitutively determine the perceptual content experienced.  Enactive and ecological views have taken this insight to imply that perception is direct, allowing us unmediated access to objects in the world. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the constitutive role of action in perception was already recognized by 19th century psychologists Helmholtz and Müller, typically presented as arch-enemies of ecological and enactive movements due to their indirect theories of perception. I argue that Helmholtz and Müller correctly identified the implications of an action theory of perception: namely that perception must be indirect, yet structural relations may be perceived veridically, ie structural realism about perceptual content. I argue these conclusions have equal force today, and motivate a representationalist, structuralist enactivism.

Nico Orlandi - 'Perception without Computation?'
The idea that the mind is to be understood on the model of a digital computer was once regarded as the only scientifically respectable account of mental life. According to this position, mental processes – including perceptual processes – are computational processes that form internal, symbolic representations of what is present in the environment from information present at the sensory receptors. This classical view was also once thought to be damning for ecological accounts of perception. Ecologists tend to shy away from computational and symbolic approaches to perceptual activity, stressing, instead, the importance of external and organismic factors. In this talk, I explain how the development of different types of computational systems, and the evolution of our theorizing concerning them rescues an ecological, and yet computational way of thinking of perception.

Mario Villalobos - 'Computational closure in biological systems: the cybernetic roots of cognition'
In a conceptual and historical sense, cybernetics represents a common ancestor for computationalism and enactivism, two theoretical approaches that, despite this shared ascendant, have set and developed their respective research agendas in strong opposition. In this talk, I review some basic cybernetic ideas with respect to biological cognition and analyze their significance for a possible via of reconciliation between computationalism and enactivism. 

Ron Chrisley (Sussex University) - title: tba

Sabrina Golonka (Leeds Beckett University) - Ecological representations: Can the 'R' word fit in a Gibsonian framework?
There is widespread agreement that an ecological approach to explaining behaviour is at odds with a computational approach. Often, this opposition is also framed in terms of representations such that ecological approaches are meant to be necessarily non-representational. The perceived lack of fit between ecological explanations and computational / representational explanations may be accounted for by two facts. One, cognitive scientists tend to adopt an unnecessarily narrow view of computation (compared to the wider scientific community). Two, the motivation for invoking representations in an explanation is unfairly reduced to solving a problem of poverty of stimulus, which is anathema to ecological explanations. We argue that the concept of representation is amenable to an ecological approach, as long as it is built upon a foundation of ecological information. Ecological representations do not fill out impoverished sensory experiences. Their usefulness comes entirely from the extent to which they preserve spatiotemporal structure in information variables specifying biologically and psychologically relevant properties of the environment. Their job is to provide a mechanism by which behaviour can complement relevant properties of the environment in the absence of immediate perceptual access to those properties. Because the structure of ecological representations is determined by the structure of ecological information (which is formally definable), ecological representations are amenable to empirical investigation, making their existence an empirical, rather than theoretical matter. ​

Marcin Miłkowski (Polish Academy of Sciences) - 'Is Enactivism a Progressive Research Programme?'
Enactivism is touted by many as the hope for the future cognitive science. My purpose in this talk is to discuss the question of how to evaluate such claims. First of all, enactivism, just like computationalism, or dynamicism, is not a complete and detailed theory of cognition. It seems to be a research programme (or tradition), and these are notoriously difficult to evaluate for several important reasons.  Notwithstanding these difficulties, all proponents of any revolution owe their opponents at least a tentative justification of their claims. I will sketch what might be the most plausible way to justify claims about the nature of a research programme, and then apply the criteria to two (sub)programmes: the embodied cognition with perceptual symbols as proposed by Larry Barsalou, and enactivism in its classical reliance on autopoiesis. As I will argue, so far the justification for the claim that (this brand of) enactivism is the hope for cognitive science is particularly thin. However, this might not mean that the progress is logically impossible; it just so happens that there has been no significant progress in the last forty years. Some might still hold their breath.

Adam Linson (University of Dundee) - 'Free energy, from physics to cybernetics: Evolution, ecological adaptation, and active inference' 
One way to approach questions about neural computation is to take into account physical and neurobiological constraints. On such a view, mathematical models of neural dynamics can be understood in relation to an embodied architecture of neuronal connectivity networks (especially in terms of presynaptic firing patterns and postsynaptic responses). In turn, the embodied architecture itself is subject to physical constraints. Given these physical constraints, we can in principle plausibly account for the informational constraints under which evolutionary selection pressures drove organismic complexity in relation to ecological niche adaptation. I elaborate this view in terms of Friston's 'active inference' framework (hierarchical generative models with belief propagation), and argue that it offers a cybernetic reconfiguration of ecological accounts of perception and action.

To register (free of charge) please send an email to with your name and affiliation.

More details to follow shortly.

This conference is generously supported by grants from the Mind Association, the Doctoral School’s Researcher-Led Initiative (RLI) Fund, the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, and the Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts South-east England (CHASE).

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