The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Passive Cognition

In the 1960s the work of US biologist James-Jerome Gibson originated "ecological realism", the view that meaning is located in the interaction between living beings and the environment. Gibson started out with a critique of the traditional model of perception that harked back to Helmholtz, and ended with a new view of what cognition is.

The 19th-century German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz thought that perceptions are "unconscious inferences". Mind is isolated from the world and only knows what the senses deliver. The senses deliver signals, and the mind has to figure out how to interpret them. The mind uses whatever knowledge it has accrued. As proven by optical illusions, mind makes assumptions on such signals and "infers" what reality is. Perceptions are "hypotheses" on what reality just might be. But all of this inferring is largely invisible. Most of what goes on in the brain does not surface to the mind.

According to Gibson, instead, the process of perceiving is a process of "picking up" information that is available in the environment. The "information" that the organism uses originates from the interaction between the organism and its environment. Gibson believes that the sensory data coming from the environment already contain all the relationships needed to navigate the environment. No “representation” is needed by the brain. The brain’s sole task is to “pick up” the information that the environment provides with each sensory experience.

The way this information is acquired is rather passive: the organism is free to move in the world, but it is the environment that feeds it information.

The way this information is "processed" is direct: there is no mediation by the mind. Action follows perception, and the two can be viewed as dual aspects of the same process.

Cognitive life is passive as in "no active effort to understand information".

The brain does not organize the sensory input or process the sense data. The brain is simply a tool to seek and extract information about the environment. What the brain truly does is recognize information. Information, for Gibson, is patterns: any pattern of environmental stimuli that repeats itself over time constitutes "information". Our brain is an organ capable of discovering "invariants" in the environmental stimuli.

Physically, that pattern of stimuli is a pattern of energy that impinges on the brain. A pattern of energy that flows through the sensory system, and that depends in a reliable way on the structure of the environment, is information. In other words, any pattern of energy that corresponds to the structure of the world carries information about the world. We use this principle, for example, every time we draw a line to represent the edge of an object.

 Perception is a continuously ongoing process and consists in detecting the invariants of the environment.  The function of the brain is to orient the organs of perception for seeking and extracting information from the continuous energy flow of the environment.

Thus perception and action are not separate processes.  And perception cannot be separated from the environment in which the perceptive system (the organism) evolved and from the information which is present in that environment.  Perception, action and the environment are tightly related.

Far from being simply a background for action, the environment is therefore viewed as a source of stimulation.  Organisms move in the world using all the information that is available in it.  Perceptual organs are not completely passive to the extent that they can orient themselves to pick up information, to "resonate" with the information in the environment. Ultimately, there is much more information in the world and less in the head than was traditionally assumed. And the environment does most of the work that we traditionally ascribe to the mind.

David Marr explained "how" we see. Gibson explained "what" we see, and why we see what we see.


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