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The Phenomenal Origins of Disembodied Cognition

“I’m in what seasoned psychonauts call ‘the waiting room’, an intellectual black hole beyond space and time, facing the picture puzzle patterns door beyond which the totality of phenomenal existence reveals itself in a single transpersonal flash. Time past and time future point in the same direction which is always now and time is eternally present. My eyes are wide open and moving instinctively in their sockets, yet the visual scene remains unchanged. I am inside an all-encompassing sphere, void of depth and perspective unresponsive to my attempts at regaining control over my visual experience. So there I lie motionless, marveling in absolute awe at the flurry of ever-changing fractal patterns and neon colours emerging and fading in a perpetual cycle of life and death. Snippets of music and voices choppy and incomprehensible echo inside my head, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. I feel the familiar touch of my bed against my body, except I don’t have a body. My disembodied soul lies in the flowerbed of all the mysteries of the universe.”

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Apologetic on Free Will – From the Perspective of Complexity Theory

Newtonian mechanics – a concise discipline that describes the laws governing the movement of all things, gives us a picture of the “clockwork universe”: if everything is set up in an initial state, and then it will continue to operate according to the three laws. Thus, there is an illusion of predictability: as long as current position and velocity of all the particles in the universe are known, the state of the whole universe at any time thereafter can be predicted.

This mechanistic, belief in causality ruled our minds for nearly three centuries; however, at the end of the 19th century, the study of the French mathematician Henri Poincaié broke this dream. His research is on three-body problem, which is to use Newton’s law to predict how three celestial bodies interacting through gravitation will move. The two-body problem has long been solved by Newton’s laws, giving a simple and stable system as the answer; however, no one expects that three-body problem is not as simple as the two-body problem.

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Why Take The Biogenic Approach To Cognition?

In this brief blog, I will be focusing on the reasons why the biogenic approach is suited towards investigating the ontology of cognition. 17 empirical principles were set out by Lyon (2006b)1 for constraining biogenic theorizing about cognition. The principles provide guidance and limitations for hypotheses. The biogenic approach assumes that organisms are generated by evolution through natural selection, and that complex biological functions, emerge from combinations of simpler biological functions. Another integral aspect of the biogenic approach is that organisms maintain themselves outside of thermodynamic equilibrium, through transferring “order” of both matter and energy too and from their surroundings. Altering the matter chemically to fuel work and then disposing of this “disorder”, i.e., waste products through numerous processes. Therefore, living systems need to form causal relations with aspects of their environments, which result in a transfer of matter and energy, that are vital for the living system to survive 2.

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Why a Beer Bottle in Reality is a Beetle

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The perceived wisdom, that in sensing the world, the picture thereby presented does indeed represent “reality” is of course prevalent and strong. Outside of movies and magic unexpected anomalies, apparitions and strange events contrary to our expectations of what reality is or how it behaves are generally not very welcome. In fact, they are normally quite stressful or even frightening experiences. We strongly defend and clutch to our viewpoint of reality. It would also seem to make sense that evolution has finely tuned our view of the world so as to maximally coincide with the reality of the world we view.
Not so, says Donald Hoffman in a recent TED talk, when he questions, does evolution work to provide organisms with the most “real” picture of the world? He provides the example of the Australian jewel beetle whose species went into serious decline because male beetles confused brown dimpled beer bottles for female mates. The simple rules nature had provided to the beetle, brown and dimpled equals mate, prompted Hoffman to examine does a view of reality over fitness function endow evolutionary simulated organisms with a benefit. He found that organisms with a “reality view” were always made extinct by those who had no view of “reality” only fitness, thereby concluding that a view of “reality” might not be the most important thing for organisms. Even further that organisms in fact do not perceive “reality”, and even to propose that space and time are a construction of some manner, used by us or organisms in order to cope in the natural world and not a reality as such.

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A Middle Ground

A representation is not a static “thing”; rather, it is a manifestation of a complicated and entangled processes emerge from an interactive history between you and the world.

[Notice: Basically, represent and perceive is used interchangeably in this blog post. I intentionally blur the definition of “representation” in this article for a reason that will be explained later.]

The conflict between representationalists and 4E theorists is obvious, and it seems their conflict give us a set of different theoretical frameworks at the end of the day. I am not sure having a bunch of theories is a good thing or a bad thing for the scientists, but I guess some people may be content with one theory in a specified area as long as the theory works. Nevertheless, an all-encompassing and coherent theoretical framework may still be attractive to most people, like the “Theory of Everything” in physics. This blog post is not about the formula of conjuring up an ultimate theory (unfortunately). Rather, I want to find a middle ground between the representationalist and the 4E theorists – I would like to discuss how representations come into being in the first place. After explaining my point, I hope we could reevaluate the theoretical conflict.

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Umwelt Problem

Fake Umwelt

The concept of umwelt is an overwhelmingly romantic idea and fascinates a lot of people in different areas. Some ambitious interactive designers try to fuse the concept of “umwelt” with Virtual Reality technology, and the idea they are selling is exactly “seeing the world through the eyes of an animal”. The development team made a digital map based on the landscape in the forest. Later, they edited the data to simulate how different animals would perceive the same landscape in their own unique way.
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Our Blind Narcissism

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Western thought is steeped in the theoretical alienation of cognitive self from the rest of the world. We are soften represented as closed chambers of reflection, capable of cognitive evaluation of the world; contemplating and producing a theoretical picture of it through solitary reflection. Our bodies themselves are often considered largely inconsequential.

This abstraction of the self from its surroundings is problematic — it results in a two-pronged schism, from the agentive ‘other’ on the one hand, and from the (non-animate) world on the other. Why is this solipsism, as Merleau-Ponty claims, such an “incomparable monster’? In what ways is the narcissism with which we interpret our world so blind? Continue reading “Our Blind Narcissism”