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Cognition in Context: Phenomenology, Situated Robotics and the Frame Problem

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The frame problem is the difficulty of explaining how non-magical systems think and act in ways that are adaptively sensitive to context-dependent relevance. Influenced centrally by Heideggerian phenomenology, Hubert Dreyfus has argued that the frame problem is, in part, a consequence of the assumption (made by mainstream cognitive science and artificial intelligence) that intelligent behaviour is representation-guided behaviour. Dreyfus' Heideggerian analysis suggests that the frame problem dissolves if we reject representationalism about intelligence and recognize that human agents realize the property of thrownness (the property of being always already embedded in a context). I argue that this positive proposal is incomplete until we understand exactly how the properties in question may be instantiated in machines like us. So, working within a broadly Heideggerian conceptual framework, I pursue the character of a representation-shunning thrown machine. As part of this analysis, I suggest that the frame problem is, in truth, a two-headed beast. The intra-context frame problem challenges us to say how a purely mechanistic system may achieve appropriate, flexible and fluid action within a context. The inter-context frame problem challenges us to say how a purely mechanistic system may achieve appropriate, flexible and fluid action in worlds in which adaptation to new contexts is open-ended and in which the number of potential contexts is indeterminate. Drawing on the field of situated robotics, I suggest that the intra-context frame problem may be neutralized by systems of special-purpose adaptive couplings, while the inter-context frame problem may be neutralized by systems that exhibit the phenomenon of continuous reciprocal causation. I also defend the view that while continuous reciprocal causation is in conflict with representational explanation, special-purpose adaptive coupling, as well as its associated agential phenomenology, may feature representations. My proposal has been criticized recently by Dreyfus, who accuses me of propagating a cognitivist misreading of Heidegger, one that, because it maintains a role for representation, leads me seriously astray in my handling of the frame problem. I close by responding to Dreyfus' concerns.

Keywords: Heidegger; background coping; continuous reciprocal causation; frame problem; representations; situatedness

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Stirling, Scotland

Publication date: July 1, 2008

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