Slow, Steady, and Permanent

Your half hour will be well spent in a close engagement with the thought of Mr. Varela.

Recovering Common Sense
The tacit assumption behind the varieties of cognitive realism (cognitivism, emergence, and the society of mind) has been that the world can be divided into regions of discrete elements and tasks. Cognition consists in problem solving, which must, if it is to be successful, respect the elements, properties, and relations within these pre-given regions.

This approach to cognition as problem solving works to some degree for task domains in which it is relatively easy to specify all possible states. Consider for example the game of chess. It is relatively easy to define the constituents of the “space of chess”: there are positions on the board, rules for movements, turns that are taken, and so on. The limits of this space are clearly defined; in fact, it is an almost crystalline world. It is not surprising, then, that chess playing by computer is an advanced art.

For less circumscribed or well-defined task domains, however, this approach has proved to be considerably less productive. Consider, for example, a mobile robot that is supposed to drive a car within a city. One can still single out in this “driving space” discrete items, such as wheels and windows, red lights, and other cars. But unlike the world of chessplaying, movement among objects is not a space that can be said to end neatly at some point. Should the robot pay attention to pedestrians or not? Should it take weather conditions into account? Or the country in which the city is located and its unique driving customs? Such a list of questions could go on forever. The driving world does not end at some point; it has the structure of ever-receding levels of detail that blend into a nonspecific back- ground. Indeed, successfully directed movement such as driving de- pends upon acquired motor skills and the continuous use of common sense or background know-how. (Chapter 8, The Embodied Mind)

Varela passed away in 2001. What would he think about self-driving cars, and self-navigating drones? On one hand, he would no doubt be impressed by the effective programming underlying the operational flexibility in such robotic machines. On the other hand he would have every reason to remind us about the inherent uncertainty in particular task domains.

Embodied Cognition Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Archive.org full text Francisco J. Varela, Evan T. Thompson, Eleanor Rosch The Embodied Mind Cognitive Science And Human Experience MIT Press (1993)

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