Meeting reality halfway

MIT World has put up a video here of Jeff Hawkins talking about Numenta and his Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM) model.

It’s a bit strange. On the one hand Jeff is a kind of naive realist. But then he develops a theory of brain functioning critically dependent on top-down, inside-out feedback and guidance systems. In other words, he says we see donuts because we already know what donuts are supposed to look like. He “understands” that “we” are copartners in constructing our experience of reality—but doesn’t “understand” that he “understands” it.

The same point, from a Buddhist, cognitive science standpoint, is the argument made in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco J. Varela (details ), Evan T. Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. They present a post-cognitivist, post-connectionist view, integrating subject and object, which they call “enactive cognitive science”. Theirs is a “middle way”, between a mechanical view of cognition as a set of robotic sensors, and a simplistic “it’s all in your mind” mentalism. Varela, of course, is the late Chilean biologist known for, among other things, inventing the word neurophenomenology. This book may be one of the few philosophy books in the world with a lengthy explanation of animals whose visual color space is 2-dimensional, or even 5-dimensional (some birds)! The authors’ call for science to incorporate personal experience into its methodologies echoes that of the Dalai Lama—not surprising, since Varela was a student of Tibetan Buddhism.

Of course, Dogen is talking about exactly the same thing in Genjo Koan , where he tells us:

When we experience sights and sounds, body and mind outstretched, we do so directly, not as reflections in a mirror, not as the moon and the water.

The “outstretching” of our body and mind here is precisely the feedback loop down from our beliefs and learned patterns. The word “directly” is 親しく (shitashiku), which could probably also be translated as “intimately”. Dogen is giving us his basic model of cognition, still clear as a bell after 750 years. (Although you could never tell this from other translations.)

The last two phrases are not mere throw-away Zen-like images. Dogen is specifically contrasting his model with two alternatives. The first, “reflections in a mirror”, is the robot eye. The second, “moon and water”, is the “Matrix”-like simulacrum.

Dogen is saying, in other words, our outstretched body and mind provide a context which shapes and interprets sights and sounds—meeting reality halfway.

One Response to “Meeting reality halfway”

  1. mogg Says:

    dogen talks about there being no difference between the direct experience and reality. That they are one and the same, and shape each other. Direct experience is to look at an object for what it truely is, not tainted by perception or past experience, this is what the mirror and water are at their lowest meaning.
    Dave on the other hand is looking at the world from a physicists point of view; basic quantum mechanics, you effect what you observe.

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