May 07, 2018
Jakob Von Uexkull, like many thinkers, introduced a new meaning for a familiar term. The German biologist used the everyday German word 'umwelt' which means surrounding environment to be an organisms inner world. It's some sort of a subjective representation of things outside the 'body' according to what Dennett calls an organism's 'affordances'.
Affordances are things that an organism can hide in, sit on, fly to, mate with, and others. These are, firstly, the things that matter most to an organism.
Uexkull discussed his concept of the Umwelt through the tick. In the tick's internal representation of the world, there are just (mostly) a few things that matters. Imagine a tick hanging from a tip of a branch in a forest clearing. In it's umwelt are three receptor cues and effector cues. Roughly, these are: (1) the detection of butyric acid that triggers it to let go of its hold to fall on the skin of a mammal, the source of this odor, (2) the tactile trigger when it lands to go and run, and (3) the detection of heat that after a bout of maneuvering on the topology of an organism will trigger it to bore and burrow.
It's biological configuration 'bottlenecks' all the "colorful stimuli" of its immediate environment into "three beacons of light". This is what it matters to it to be fit in an evolutionary sense. This 'minimizing of cues' by its biological configuration or state allows it to survive long enough to sire young; maximizing the chances of its genes getting to the next generation.
These "approximating" apparatuses afforded by the tick's biological configuration leans the odds of it to be evolutionary successful. The minimizing or the bottlenecking of the things that matters most in the environment pays dividends. This doesn't violate the scientific maxim that evolution favors the efficient. It just makes do.
An agent, the tick here, can only detect and act upon what is valued by its very biological configuration.
Philosophically, we can extract that first (1) we, agents like the tick, are just approximating through bio-approximators endowed by evolution (senses are part of them), and second (2) without the biological configuration, organisms can't create this inner world. There is no umwelt without the body which generates it. This, in fact, is quite self-evident. No physical body, no internal representation.
This means that there is no meaning outside the agent(s). The agent, by virtue of its biological configuration, "creates" this meaning. It's better thought of as an internal spontaneous generation than the act of creating. There is no meaning out there. We make meanings for them because we can. Like the tick, evolution has shaped us to only detect features of things and to have the ability to act upon them because they are 'inherently valued' by our biological configuration.
But, in our own umwelt, why do we think and feel so?
AFFORDANCES, PRIORITIES, AND CHANGING VALUATIONS: THE ROLE OF INFORMATION-VALUE
Affordances (things to fly to, hide in, to mate with, to eat, to drink, among other things) lie in some sort of priority queue. This queue, like both 'detection' and 'valuation', is conditional to the very biological configuration of the agent at a certain time.
One good example of which that I can muster is the craving for food. When one's biological configuration is in dire need of food, internal representation and valuation of things that count as food are heightened. When one is not "hungry", its biological configuration places food at a lower value. It's in a lower position in the 'priority queue'. The agent may be dealing with some more pressing biological problems. But if the agent stays alive, one way or the other, food will be back on top.
The meaning of a thing or, better yet, the internal representation of a thing both in the realms of 'detection' or generation of information (representation of what a thing is) and 'valuation' or the generation of the value of that thing are both dependent upon an agent's biological state.
From this, we can infer that both 'information' and 'valuation' have a deep connection with each other. There is no internal representation that doesn't include both when the body "weighs" priorities according to its allostatic activities--can be subconscious and conscious.
Like mentioned before, "an agent... can only detect and act upon what is valued by its very biological configuration." This is true for a specific species. What's interesting is that it can also hold for one single agent for a certain point in time. In humans, selective attention has been found in experiments like the man in a gorilla suit.
Going back, there are two ways of looking at the connection of information and value.
First, agents detect things then assign "value tags" according to their "priority list". It's something that can be called information-value; detected (faintly or overtly). Things are valued according to what the agent is undergoing physically--when they are hungry, or its mating season.
Second, agents see things as information-value. Their bodily configurations generate internal informational representation with subjective valuation embedded therein according to their bodily states. The umwelt "registers" not just things separate from value but it registers affordances: what it is, what's it value, and what can be done because of it. It is the internal representation or model of affordances.
I think that the second one is a good tool for thinking about subjective representations because of the following reasons.
First, to an agent "registering" a thing in it's umwelt, the thing has an intrinsic value. Value is already embedded in the representation. The umwelt rolls up the (a) identification and categorization of a stimuli, (b) possible course of action, and (c) potential payoffs and costs of such stimuli or the agents very actions regards it in one flash of "meaning generation".
This is why we think or feel (when we don't put our thinking caps on) that sugar is sweet, or the smell of vomit is disgusting, or the sight of a predator is scary, among other things. This can also be extended to other types of 'valuation' like a human being has an intrinsic value, money has intrinsic value, oxygen has intrinsic value, and so forth. If we put our thinking caps on, we'd find that there is nothing there in sugar (in glucose molecules) that says it's sweet. There is nothing there in oxygen molecules that says its valuable (also fiat money).
Second, it's a thinking tool that allows the same things to be valued by the same agent differently during a different time under a different biological state while accommodating the subjective feeling of the intrinsic value of things.
Third, by virtue of the fact that con-specific agents (like humans) share much of their biological configurations because of evolutionary causes, they can 'sort of' agree about the objective representation of things and even their valuations. If they share more than that, like similar life history (learning) and more or less same valuation of things, agents (humans now) can agree even though every bit of meaning in the world is generated subjectively.
Fourth, this shows how we are confident in our 'bio-approximators' that they really show what is real and true as they create our very sense of what is real. The umwelt is our only "internal reality", we can't peak through other lenses even though how much we try. This is a reason why our judgment of things (including ideas) feel too real and true compared to the judgments of others.
This is why we judge quickly and, even slowly the things we detect with a "feeling of deductive certainty" yet navigate the world through "tentative inductions".
On the inside, it seems that we really do deduce from available general principles in our umwelt. In the real world, our "internal deductions" are chastised when they don't give good enough pay-off (or straight out costs us) thus we learn from induction. The success of such either strengthens our internal valuation of such act towards a thing or diminishes it. Because the dimension of acting is also a part of the representation (of the whole information-value of a thing), the valuation of the thing also suffers the same fate.
We do this 'deductive representation and inductive trial' over and over again. This is what philosopher Andy Clark calls action loops. It's also what is called predictive coding. Agents make predictions, compute the errors, and update its model (hypothesis).
The "feeling" of deductive surety cues agents to act allowing for both types of errors, false positive (type 1) and false negative (type 2), if we think along the lines of information-value. Information-value offers a line of thinking that is both consistent with subjectivity and accommodating of more objective corrections.
MORE TO COME
At this stage, I have outlined some philosophical implications that this concept entails. In future articles about information-value, I will go through the implications stated therein. These were the four reasons stated above.
Clark, A. (1998). Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. MIT press.
Dennett, D. C. (2013). Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking. WW Norton & Company.
Kwisthout, J., & van Rooij, I. (2013). Predictive coding and the Bayesian brain: Intractability hurdles that are yet to be overcome. In CogSci.