Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Sabbatical Report: End of Month 1

Today marks the end of the first month of my current year-long sabbatical. I thought that this was as good a time as any to reflect on what I have accomplished so far, and to consider where my research is heading.

While the sabbatical is only officially one month old, the stage for the project was set in the fall term of 2016. In order to be fortunate enough to be awarded a sabbatical, one must apply for it, and part of this application involves proposing the kind of work that will be accomplished during the sabbatical. I have a long history of writing a book during each year-long sabbatical that I have been awarded; the plan for the current sabbatical was no different. I proposed using the time to draft a manuscript that extended some recent work in my lab on simple artificial neural networks and probability theory, and was lucky enough to be given the green light for this kind of project from the Faculty of Arts.

With a sabbatical plan required in the fall, it is not surprising that I was in a position to start groundwork for the current sabbatical at the end of the fall term. Much of that work has involved doing a lot of reading – since marking the final exam for my fall cognitive science course, I have read 23 books on systems theory, cybernetics, information theory, and probability. Those interested can see what I have been reading by looking through my Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/drmrwdawson/) for pictures of covers. I use #reading to tag these posts. I have also conducted a pretty extensive simulation study (which has involved training and analyzing the performance of 500 different perceptrons) that explores how networks match the probability of outcomes in a three-cue probability learning task. In the fall, I plan to collect data from human subjects that are trained on the same task that I have used to train the networks; I am pretty excited about the main result that I expect to observe when networks and humans are compared. This has meant that I have also written programs to collect this data from humans. Importantly, I have also successfully navigated the process for getting ethics approval for this work; I haven’t collected human data for years. Most importantly, I have already crafted three complete chapters of a new book manuscript (when published, it will be my eighth book) that relate networks to probability theory and information theory, that explore the relationship between simple networks and Bayes’ theorem in probability, and that report the results of my simulations.

As August begins, the sabbatical project turns to writing the opening chapter of the new book. I have enough of a ‘feel’ for the project now that I need to put it in the context of other theories, and need to lay out its purpose, methodology, and implications. Writing this chapter, though, requires me to do a lot more reading than I have been doing. Up to this point, I have been reading a book every 10 days or so, and I have to accelerate this. In short, currently my next steps are to read, to think, and eventually to write. Some sense of the different topics that I will be considering will be appearing in the near future as Instagrammed book covers.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Embodiment of Books

When thinking about books, we usually focus on their content, and not on their physical structure. However, the actual layout of a book is sometimes just as important as the meanings of the words one finds on its pages.

One notable example of this is the incredible novel House of Leaves (Danielewski, 2000). In many instances the pages of this book contains only a few words, arranged in peculiar ways to mirror events occurring in the novel. You haven’t experienced reading about a chase until you do so in this book, flipping rapidly to the next page during a pursuit, so that the frequency of moving to the next page reflects the increasing action unfolding in the plot.

A nice scholarly example of an interesting embodiment is The Society of Mind (Minsky, 1985). This book explores the idea of cognition emerging from the interactions of numerous simple agents. It is laid out in such a way that each chapter takes up a single page. This encourages the reader to interpret each chapter as a simple agent, and to consider interacting messages from chapters as delivering the rich message of the book. I was so taken by this sort of embodiment that I drafted two whole book manuscripts in this format (Dawson, 2008; Dawson, Dupuis, & Wilson, 2010). You start to write amazingly concisely when every page has to deliver a standalone message!

I’m thinking about books and embodiment because I’ve just finished reading one of the visionary books of embodied cognitive science, the influential The Tree of Knowledge (Maturana & Varela, 1998). This books provides a strong anti-representational view of cognition, arguing instead that cognition emerges from the linked relationships between self-organizing systems and the environments that they act upon. What is amazing about The Tree of Knowledge is that it is laid out as an introductory text, with a small single column of text on most pages, as well as numerous definition boxes and figures. In keeping with this format, the book is written in a disarmingly elementary style, even as it provides a complex and novel view of cognition that is quite distinct from typical perspectives. That is, the book is easy to read – but challenging to understand!

Maturana and Varela clearly had to work very hard to carry out this particular style of writing and of presenting ideas. The afterword indicates that the book itself was a decade in the making.


Danielewski, M. Z. (2000). House of leaves (2nd ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.
Dawson, M. R. W. (2008). Connectionism and classical conditioning. Comparative Cognition and Behavior Reviews, 3 (Monograph), 1-115.
Dawson, M. R. W., Dupuis, B., & Wilson, M. (2010). From Bricks To Brains: The Embodied Cognitive Science Of LEGO Robots. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Minsky, M. L. (1985). The Society Of Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Science in the Service of Humanity

As part of an ongoing history project, I have been reading a great deal about general systems theory and about cybernetics. Much of this reading began with some of the major works of Ludvig von Bertalanffy (Problems of Life, General System Theory, Robots Men and Minds). It has also included some biographical works about von Bertalanffy, as well as of other scholars involved in systems thinking and cybernetics. I have also pulled from the shelves of my library some classic works by Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson and placed them on the front burner.

One of the striking characteristics of von Bertalanffy’s writing is his emphasis on human values. Von Bertalanffy spent his career reacting against mechanistic views in science, and proposing an organismic alternative. One of his great concerns was that the mechanistic view of nature and of man deemphasized humans as individuals, and viewed them instead as cogs in a great machine. From his perspective, this led to many of the dark social and political moments of the 20th century. One Bertalanffy was particularly critical of Weiner’s cybernetics for exactly this reason; he viewed cybernetics as turning men into robots and leading the society into peril by advancing military technology. In contrast, von Bertalanffy was one of the founders (along with Kenneth Boulding, Anatol Rapaport, and Ralph Gerard) of the Society for General Systems Research. They planted the seed for this society in 1955 at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science. SGSR’s initial slogan was “Science in service of humanity”.

In the context of this slogan, von Bertalanffy’s criticism of the Weiner’s mechanized cybernetics misses the mark. Weiner himself had deep concerns about cybernetics’ technological impact on society and expressed these concerns in many of his writings. Similar concerns are easily found in the writings of other cybernetic leaders such as Bateson and Margaret Mead; in general, the cybernetic pioneers were actively sympathetic with the notion of applying their scholarly ideas for the betterment of society.

What strikes me as I read the optimistic values and goals of these eminent researchers; as I see their deep concerns about the relationship between science and the good of mankind; as I reflect upon their explicit goal of improving humanity through their scientific ideas, is this: half a century later all of these concerns seem missing from much of modern science. Nowadays it seems that science is replaced these noble social concerns with goals of developing products or commodities, or with solving specific problems that have been identified by government agencies as requiring particular attention.

“Science in the service of humanity” strikes me as a particularly powerful notion, and on this first day of 2017 I resolve to explore its implementation in my own scholarly activities.