Timo Jarvilehto (1998) How far can Unity of the Organism-environment System be Maintained?. Psycoloquy: 9(83) Efference Knowledge (9)

Volume: 9 (next, prev) Issue: 83 (next, prev) Article: 9 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary
PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 9(83): How far can Unity of the Organism-environment System be Maintained?

Reply to Clark and Freeman on Efference-Knowledge

Timo Jarvilehto
Department of Behavioral Sciences
University of Oulu
PB 222, 90571 Oulu



Clark (1998) and Freeman (1998) regard the principle of the unity of the organism and environment useful, but both have some doubts about the scope of its application, presenting examples which seem to show that it is sometimes necessary to treat organism and environment separately. Although I agree that situations may exist that seem better treated by partitioning the organism from the environment, there are no cogent arguments for such a division in the cases presented.


afference, artificial life, efference, epistemology, evolution, Gibson, knowledge, motor theory, movement, perception, receptors, robotics, sensation, sensorimotor systems, situatedness
1. Clark (1998) and Freeman (1998) welcome the concept of organism-environment system, but at the same time they express doubts about its scope of applicability. Clark presents two cases, one related to the possibility of minimal information transmission by the senses and the other to the problem of explanation of "off-line reflection" or imagination. Freeman requires the partitioning of organism from the environment for practical experimental work with the brain processes, but he also wants to temper organism-environment unity to account for the intentionality of perception. Although I agree with both commentators that the organism/environment unity principle cannot be maintained in such cases in a simple way, I try in the following to show that possibilities exist to deal with the cases in question without dividing organism and environment into two separate systems.

2. With respect to Clark's example of ball catching, we must make an important distinction: It is one thing to catch the ball and another to report (or be aware of) its location. As indicated by Clark, the former can be described as a result of reorganization of the organism-environment system; the latter, however, cannot be simply equated with the former plus some minimal information processing; it presupposes a completely new kind of organization, i.e., consciousness. The possibility of reporting the location of the ball means that I am conscious of my own location and that of the ball. Such an organization is no longer a matter of a single organism-environment system getting some minimal information from the environment; it presupposes the joining of several such systems (see Jarvilehto, 1998b, para 8-9). Perceiving the location of the ball is similar to perceiving one's own running body; here the information processing metaphor does not help much.

3. Clark thinks it is possible to cut off the connection to the environment and still retain the ability to reflect or imagine. In such a condition, the mind would be located in the brain only, and the environment would play no role whatsoever. According to organism-environment theory, this would not be possible, because mental activity is conceived as the activity of the whole organism-environment system. (Jarvilehto and Korpusova [1993] have some experimental evidence that when body/world connections are "cut" during free-fall while parachuting, no mental activity is possible!)

4. What is the connection with the environment in imagination, then? In this context one can ask another question: Is the perception of a whole table imagination? for only a small part of the table is accessible to the visual system. When I look at a table I see a TABLE, not a collection of those separate parts which my eye may directly catch. In my opinion, the only way to deal with such problems is to consider the role of time in the organization of the organism-environment system: An organism-environment system exists in time. This means that the real parts of the system are not static, but form a dynamic process in time. The wall behind my back belongs to the system, although it was a few minutes ago that I last saw it. Past parts of the environment are constitutive parts of the current system; they are not something we have left behind. They allow us to contend otherwise with the future. Hence imagination could go on in the total absence of the environment; it uses the past environment in the same sense that I can use occluded parts of this table. The environment has a history; it is as if there were a path from its earlier condition to its present one. When I am interacting with the present environment, I am using its past history through my connection with its present state. When I am imagining, I am acting together with the present environment (I can never escape that, not even in sleep), but in a way that uses its history and my experience with all earlier environments. It is in this sense that imagination is not something that could happen exclusively on the "inside."

5. Can we say, as Freeman puts it, that the dichotomy between the organism and the environment is needed, because it is the brain from which the intentional activity is initiated? But if an organism-environment system is conceived as an active one in relation to the result of behavior then activity must accordingly be ascribed to all of its elements. No single element has the privilege of being active alone, although the roles of the elements may, of course, differ. In kicking a ball, the supportive leg is likewise an active element in the realization of the result; its seemingly passive role differs from that of the moving leg (see Jarvilehto, 1998c), but it is active nonetheless. Similarly, if we regard an organism-environment system as an intentional (i.e., as goal-directed) one, then no single part -- be it a neuron or the brain -- can comprise this intentionality exclusively. In fact, the idea that the brain is the locus of control of behavior is only a reverse way of saying that stimuli direct behavior.

6. Regarding the other problem Freeman raises, the EEG work in humans, in my opinion this does not entail any special difficulty for our unitary approach as demonstrated by recent doctoral theses from our laboratory (e.g. Makinen 1998). On the contrary, organism-environment theory opens possibilities for a new interpretation of the role of electrical recordings from the brain in mental activity. From this point of view (Jarvilehto 1988b), EEG does not reflect the processing of environmental stimuli or perception or changes in "inner" models or intentions; it simply reflects changes in metabolic relations of the neural elements in the brain. From the EEG we can get an impression of how the brain is organized as a part of the organism-environment system in behavior. Of especial importance is determining what the subject is really doing, how his action is divided into phases and behavioral results. With this information we can relate some individual measurements to the overall process of reorganization of the system. The EEG does not reflect mental "functions" of the brain (because such functions do not exist); it is only a very crude and incomplete window on the organization of some parts of the system.

7. From the point of view of the dynamics of mental activity the organism-environment system is the smallest unit of analysis. As mental activity is always a process comprising the whole organism-environment system, it is not possible for a part of the system alone to contain intentionality, meanings etc. If we consider only the organism/brain, or only the environment, we destroy the object of our study. In a practical investigation, however, we can study brain processes involved in behavior, localizing some components which seem to be necessary for certain kinds of behavior. Conceptualizing things in this way means that we artificially render the system static and look for necessary conditions (components) for a certain behavioral result. This kind of analysis will never provide an explanation of intention or mental activity; for that we would need a complete description of the system; it can only elucidate some aspects of the system.


Clark A (1998) Could sensing play multiple roles? Commentary on Jarvilehto on Efference-Knowledge. PSYCOLOQUY 9(80). http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?9.80 ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/1998.volume.9/psyc.98.9.80.efference-knowledge.6.clark

Freeman WJ (1998) The necessity for partitioning organism from environment. Commentary on Jarvilehto on Efference-Knowledge. PSYCOLOQUY 9(81). http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psyc-bin/newpsy?9.81 ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/1998.volume.9/psyc.98.9.80.efference-knowledge.7.freeman

Jarvilehto T and Korpusova A (1993) Learning and performance in parachuting. 6th ICP Technical Congress, Helsinki. http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/tjarvile/para.htm

Jarvilehto T. (1998a) Efferent influences on receptors in knowledge formation. PSYCOLOQUY 9(41). http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?9.41 ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/1998.volume.9/psyc.98.9.41.efference-knowledge.1.jarvilehto

Jarvilehto T (1998b) Knowledge must be unitary in order to achieve results. Reply to Rickert on Efference-Knowledge. PSYCOLOQUY 9(55). http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psyc-bin/newpsy?9.55 ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/1998.volume.9/psyc.98.9.55.efference-knowledge.3.jarvilehto

Jarvilehto T (1998c) The theory of the organism-environment system:

II. Significance of nervous activity in the organism-environment

system. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33: 331-338. http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/tjarvile/nerve.htm

Makinen K (1998) The development of dynamic brain processes. Acta Univ. Oul. E 29, 1997. http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/kmakinen/Vaitos.htm

Volume: 9 (next, prev) Issue: 83 (next, prev) Article: 9 (next prev first) Alternate versions: ASCII Summary