Thursday, 16 January 2014

Abstract for 1st code biology conference: "Codes and interpretation in perception"

Codes and interpretation in perception

Morten Tønnessen, Associate professor at University of Stavanger’s Department of health studies 
In this talk I present work in progress on the role of interpretation vs. codes in perception, where perception is understood in terms of coherent (unified) subjective experience. I follow Jakob von Uexküll (1956, cf. 2010) in assuming that all organisms except plants and fungi have such coherent, unified subjective experience (i.e. Umwelt experience). 
My starting point is the tripartite Umwelt model (Tønnessen 2011), according to which any Umwelt has two aspects (core and mediated) and some have three (including conceptual). In Tønnessen, forthcoming, I outline the workings of the Umwelt in terms of these three aspects in more detail. We can generally conceive of six types, or categories, of acts, and these can be located within the three different aspects of the Umwelt: 
 Core Umwelt
- Automated acts of perception 
Automated mental acts
Mediated Umwelt 
Wilful acts of perception 
 - Wilful mental acts
Conceptual Umwelt    
- Habitual acts of perception 
- Habitual mental acts  

By automated, I mean the exact and physiologically based matching of something with something else, by wilful I mean the agenda- and interest-driven matching of something with something else, and by habitual I mean the learned matching of something with something else. Whereas conscious animals carry out all six types of acts, non-conscious creatures, in so far as they perceive, only carry out two, namely automated and wilful acts of perception. Habitual, i.e. conceptual acts are reserved for conscious creatures, but even bacteria can carry out wilful acts of perception, i.e. make choices based on interpretation. 
In general terms automated acts can be said to be code-based, whereas both wilful and habitual acts are interpretation-based. An implication of this claim is that the core Umwelt is generally code-based, and that the mediated Umwelt and the conceptual Umwelt are interpretation-based. If this is correct, the interpretive threshold is not located where animals with a nervous system meet creatures without a nervous system, nor where the biotic meets the abiotic. Instead, the interpretive threshold must be located where core experience meets mediated experience (and since these aspects often intermingle, the dividing line is not in plain sight). 
Questions for further investigation include the following: Can coding in automated acts of perception and in automated mental acts be understood within the framework of code biology (Barbieri, de Beule and Hofmeyr 2014)? Particularly, can they be understood as organic codes? While I have only begun reflecting on the notion of code itself, I will relate codes in perception as presented here to the notions of a neural code and of ecological codes. 
Acknowledgement: The research leading to these results received funding from the Norway Financial Mechanism 2009-2014 under project contract no EMP151, “Animals in changing environments: Cultural mediation and semiotic analysis”. 
Barbieri, Marcello, Joachim de Beule and Jan-Hendrik Hofmeyr 2014. “Code biology: A glossary of terms and concepts”. URL:
Tønnessen 2011. Umwelt Transition and Uexküllian Phenomenology – An Ecosemiotic Analysis of Norwegian Wolf Management (= Dissertationes Semioticae Universitatis Tartuensis 16). Doctoral dissertation. Tartu: Tartu University Press. 232 pp. Introduction available online.
Tønnessen, Morten, forthcoming. „Umwelt and language“. Cahiers de l’ILSL[l'Institut de Linguistique et des Sciences du Langage], special issue „Biosemiotic perspectives in linguistics“, edited by Ekaterina Velmezova, Stephen Cowley and Kalevi Kull.
Uexküll, Jakob von, 1956 [1934/1940]: Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten. Bedeutungslehre. Hamburg: Rowohlt.
Uexküll, Jakob von, 2010: A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans with a Theory of Meaning. Trans. of Uexküll 1956 [1934, 1940] by Joseph D. O’Neil. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

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