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The Enactive Torch: Toward a Phenomenological Pragmatics of Enactive Perception Tom Froese and Adam Spiers Life and Mind #28.

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Presentation on theme: "The Enactive Torch: Toward a Phenomenological Pragmatics of Enactive Perception Tom Froese and Adam Spiers Life and Mind #28."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Enactive Torch: Toward a Phenomenological Pragmatics of Enactive Perception Tom Froese and Adam Spiers Life and Mind #28

2 Life and Mind2 Overview 1.What is the enactive approach to perception? 2.The role of perceptual supplementation devices 3.Toward a phenomenological pragmatics 4.The Enactive Torch 5.Concluding remarks

3 Life and Mind3 The enactive approach to perception The enactive approach to perception was first proposed by Varela and colleagues in the early 1990s. It is an important contribution to the embodied- embedded and dynamicist movement in the cognitive sciences (e.g. Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991). It holds that perception consists in perceptually guided action. Since its inception it has inspired a number of related approaches.

4 Life and Mind4 Related approaches The sensorimotor approach (O’Regan & Noë 2001) The dynamic sensorimotor hypothesis (Hurley & Noë 2003) Noë’s (2004) enactive approach to perception While there are certainly important differences between these approaches, we will refer to them as “enactive” to the extent that their overall concern: “is not to determine how some perceiver-independent world is to be recovered; it is, rather, to determine the common principles or lawful linkages between sensory and motor systems that explain how action can be perceptually guided in a perceiver-dependent world” (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, p. 173).

5 Life and Mind5 Enaction vs. enactive perception Noe, O’Regan, Hurley… Varela, Thompson, Rosch… Sensory-motor contingencies Living body (biology) Lived body (phenomenology)

6 Life and Mind6 Perceptual supplementation One important source of evidence supporting the enactive approach is the data generated by subjects who have mastered using a “sensory substitution” device. Such a device functions by making use of the ability of the central nervous system to incorporate the device’s feedback into the subject’s sensorimotor exploration of the environment. For reasons given by Lenay and colleagues (2003) we prefer to call it a perceptual supplementation (PS) device: –More than just providing new sensory feedback, it also provides new affordances for action –It constitutes a perceptual modality dependent on the sensorimotor profile afforded by the device

7 Life and Mind7 The role of PS devices Research done with PS devices has social, scientific and philosophical implications: –Prosthetic technology –Science of enactive perception (cognitive science) –Philosophy of perception (phenomenology) We will mostly focus on the role of PS devices in the science and phenomenology of perception. Such a human-machine interface is an innovative tool for investigating perception.

8 Life and Mind8 An example: TVSS The research done with tactile-vision substitution systems (TVSS) originated in the early 1960s (e.g. Bach-y-Rita et al. 1969). A trained blind (or blindfolded) user of a TVSS can successfully engage in tasks which normally require visual perception such as: –navigating novel environments and locating objects in space –reading signs/text –distinguishing different persons based on their external appearance Accordingly, such research has important practical implications for the development of better prosthetic visual systems. How does research with PS devices inform the enactive approach to perception?

9 Life and Mind9 Action in perception Research with PS devices provides significant empirical support because it highlights the importance of action in perception (e.g. Noë 2004; Hurley & Noë 2003; Bach-y- Rita & Kercel 2003; O’Regan & Noë 2001). 1.It has been observed that the capacity for action is needed for exercising the appropriate sensorimotor skills which are constitutive of the perceptual abilities (Bach-y- Rita et al. 1969). 2.It is also necessary for the acquisition of these skills since “only through self-movement can one test and so learn the relevant patterns of sensorimotor dependence” (Noë 2004, p. 13).

10 Life and Mind10 Spatial awareness Interestingly, a subject’s mastery of skillfully using a TVSS device is often reported to result in the constitution of a specific spatial mode of perceptual awareness. However, there is little agreement about the best way to characterize the phenomenology of this perceptual modality (cf. Bach-y-Rita & Kercel 2003). Is it an extension to an existing modality such as touch (e.g. Block 2003; Prinz 2006) or vision (e.g. Noë 2004; O’Regan & Noë 2001; Hurley & Noë 2003)? Or is it, perhaps, the constitution of an entirely new perceptual modality (e.g. Lenay et al. 2003)?

11 Life and Mind11 Moving forward in the debate In this context the aim of this paper is twofold: 1.to argue that the current debate in the literature provides a good example of why a purely third-person approach is not sufficient to achieve clarity on these kinds of first-person issues, and 2.to promote a phenomenological pragmatics of enactive perception, namely a research program which goes beyond such a purely third- person approach in a principled manner Accordingly, –the current third-person approach to the phenomenology of TVSS use is critically reviewed, –the development of a first-person approach is motivated theoretically, –a design for a simple PS device that is cheap, non-intrusive and easily replicated is outlined.

12 Life and Mind12 Vision, touch, or something new? The arguments in this dispute are generally based on two sources of evidence: 1.the experimenter’s descriptions of the abilities of the subjects who master the skillful use of the apparatus (e.g. to explore their environment while avoiding obstacles), and 2.the experimenter’s descriptions of the verbal reports which the subjects provide of their experience. Since both of these sources provide third-person data, this debate about the character of a subject’s experience is an instance of one popular third-person approach to the scientific study of conscious experience, namely Dennett’s (1991) heterophenomenology.

13 Life and Mind13 Source 1: descriptions of abilities There is general agreement that blind (or blindfolded) subjects must have some sort of spatial awareness, since they are able to navigate their environment (at least to some extent). However, since this is a matter of determining the characteristics of first-person experience, Prinz (2006) makes the important point that a description of the subject’s abilities is not sufficient evidence to settle this matter. From the observation of a subject’s ability we cannot deduce what it is like for her to exercise those abilities.

14 Life and Mind14 Source 2: descriptions of reports What about the published descriptions of the verbal reports provided by the subjects? They allow contradicting interpretations! Moreover, the reader of the literature generally has no access to the actual reports, but must base her interpretation on the descriptions provided by the experimenter. As an example consider the following account of TVSS usage in an early seminal paper by Bach-y-Rita and colleagues: “our subjects spontaneously report the external localization of stimuli, in that sensory information seems to come from in front of the camera, rather than from the vibrotactors on their back” (Bach-y- Rita et al. 1969).

15 Life and Mind15 What’s the verdict? O’Regan and Noë (2001) interpret such descriptions as evidence that the experience of the subjects is similar to vision, and Noë (2004, p. 27) claims that “it is reasonable to admit that the resulting experiences are, if not fully visual, then vision-like to some extent”. Block (2003), on the other hand, argues that “there is doubt as to whether the phenomenology of TVSS is exclusively visual” and that “perhaps TVSS is a case of spatial perception via tactile sensation”. Similarly, Prinz (2006) seriously doubts whether subjects experience anything visual: “My best guess is that prosthetic vision devices simple allow subjects to make automatic inferences about where objects are located in space as a result of tactile information”. Again, it appears that the published reports are not sufficient to settle this issue.

16 Life and Mind16 A matter of interpretation It is all too easy to be content with simple textual interpretation when the principled analysis of first-person experience is not assigned any explicit role (Varela 1997). This seems to be the case in the current debate, where a scientific investigation has slowly been turned into an open-ended debate about mere interpretations of interpretations. Indeed, there is no evidence that any of those involved in the debate have had experience with TVSS. In this respect Prinz (2006) has to be commended for openly disclosing that he has not used the apparatus, and therefore admits venturing a “best guess” on what its use could be like.

17 Life and Mind17 A methodological problem It is doubtful that a consistently third-person approach could ever go beyond postulating such educated guesses while at the same time remaining true to its foundational principles. A strict heterophenomenology would be like demanding that only congenitally blind researchers can investigate the phenomenology of vision. It is clear that they would be immensely aided in their task if they themselves had experience of what having vision is like. This concession opens the door for acknowledging the importance of a full blown phenomenological pragmatics (cf. Depraz, Varela & Vermersch 2003).

18 Life and Mind18 Phenomenological pragmatics The biggest hurdle is that it requires some radical re-learning from the research community (Varela 1997). This is an important topic but beyond the scope of this paper (cf. Varela & Shear 1999). What is significant in this context is that researchers must be able to train in the use of a PS device themselves. Unfortunately, such an endeavor is often impractical when dealing with expensive and complex commercial products. A better starting point would be a cheap PS device which is effortlessly replicated, simple to handle, non-intrusive, and for which the design can easily be made available to the public. Such a PS device is the Enactive Torch (ET).

19 Life and Mind19 The Enactive Torch (ET) A schematic of the Enactive TorchA recent experimental prototype

20 The Haptic Torch Life and Mind20

21 The Enactive Torch (ET) Life and Mind21

22 Life and Mind22 A torch for the blind The ET provides the subject with one continuous channel of vibro-tactile feedback to the hand, where the strength of stimulation depends on the distance to the object which is currently pointed at. Its practical advantage over a traditional cane is that it avoids the intrusiveness of direct contact and thus encourages exploratory movements, especially in social contexts. This is important considering the role of action in the deployment of such a new mode of perception.

23 Life and Mind23 Initial results Almost immediately a subject can use the ET to detect obstacles, and after a little training (ca. 10 minutes) has no problem of locating relatively ‘invisible’ objects, such as a lamppost, in space. It is worth emphasizing that appropriate sensorimotor action can thus give rise to perceptual resolutions that significantly exceed those of single-point stimulation. Moreover, already after around 1 hour of practice certain salient features of the environment, such as corners and open doors, take on a distinctive perceptual pattern which could be described as ‘touching objects out there’. During this learning process a subject’s experience of the ET shifts from, using Heidegger’s (1927) terminology, a more “present-to- hand” to a more “ready-to-hand” attitude.

24 Life and Mind24 The role of action We hypothesize that severing the causal relationship between action and tactile sensation when using the ET, for example by playing back a recording of a previous trial, will prevent the constitution of an experience of spatial exteriority. We expect that under such conditions subjects will be unable to make sense of their surroundings, even though the ‘information’ that is potentially provided by the tactile sensations will be the same as before. Initial trials with short training times (ca. 30 minutes) have indicated this to be the case. These results are in accordance with the claim of the enactive approach that perceiving is not about the recovery of a perceiver- independent world, but rather consists in perceptually guided action.

25 Life and Mind25 Future projects How to go about a more accurate, inter- subjectively validated description of the phenomenology of using the ET? How do variations in the ET’s sensorimotor affordances impact that phenomenology? Does the phenomenology change when there are several ET users interacting in a social context?


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