Timo Jarvilehto (1998) Knowledge Must be Unitary in Order to Achieve Results. Psycoloquy: 9(55) Efference Knowledge (3)

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Psycoloquy 9(55): Knowledge Must be Unitary in Order to Achieve Results

Reply to Rickert on Efference-Knowledge

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



Rickert (1998) mistakenly thinks that I tried in my target article (Jarvilehto 1998d) to refute the idea that knowledge is transmitted through sensory systems. My aim was rather to show that _if_ we refute this idea, as proposed, in the theory of the organism-environment system (Jarvilehto 1998a), we can still make sense of the role of receptors and account for the existence of efferent influences on receptors, and in an even more consistent way than in traditional sensory physiology. Rickert does not think it is possible to build any theory of cognition on this basis. However, if knowledge is related to the structure of the whole organism-environment system, and conscious knowledge to social relations rendering shared results possible, then a theory of cognition separating an agent and the object of knowing is impossible.


afference, artificial life, efference, epistemology, evolution, Gibson, knowledge, motor theory, movement, perception, receptors, robotics, sensation, sensorimotor systems, situatedness
1. I can well understand the difficulty Rickert (1998) seems to have in understanding the basic principles of my approach, because space did not allow the elaboration of the background in detail, and I could only refer to two articles still in press (but available on the Web: Jarvilehto, 1998a and Jarvilehto, 1998b). My main aim is not "to refute the idea that knowledge is transmitted through the sensory systems" (p. 16), because that idea is already refuted by the theory of the organism-environment system (see paragraph 4 of the target article). I am instead trying to show how the conclusion that there is no transmission of knowledge through sensory systems can be understood from the standpoint of sensory physiology and neuroscience despite first seeming to be at variance with everything we know about the functions of the sensory systems. I also try to show that the interpretation of the role of efferent influences on receptors in the theory of the organism-environment system avoids the conceptual problems inherent in traditional neuroscience with its ad hoc explanations, eclectically mixing neurophysiological and psychological concepts (exemplified by the attention hypothesis; see para. 22 of the target article). Rickert commits himself to this kind of eclecticism when he relates sensory input to beliefs or memories (para. 2).

2. Organism-environment system theory starts with the idea that many unsolvable problems in sensory physiology, psychophysics and psychophysiology (and perhaps in psychology, in general) are due to a very simple mistake in the basic assumptions about the character of the objects under study. The mistake is conceiving the organism and the environment as two separate systems. This starting point is based on everyday experience and common sense thinking exactly in the same way it seems correct to think the sun is revolving around the Earth. Just as astronomers had to invent epicycles for the planets to explain their strange trajectories in the Earth-centered model, cognitive psychology has to invent inner models or representations when it tries to explain how the two systems may interact. Rickert is quite right that in this model knowledge is not unitary, because it must somehow exist both in the environment and in the organism. However, I think it is Rickert who owes us a strict definition of the knowledge that exists in the environment without any organisms as well as of the knowledge located in the organism.

3. Rickert is also right when he says that I too must speak about the organism and_ the environment. This is only a problem of terminology, however, and of the basic dualism of language. If it were not equivocal, I would rather speak of a living system or an organism, but redefined so as to consist of not only its body, but also all those parts of the environment necessary in achieving behavioral results.

4. I do not mind being aligned with such ingenious theoreticians as Maturana and Varela, Vinograd and Flores, and Rose, although I am not so sure they would accept me in the group! If they regard themselves as interactionists of some sort then my unitary approach with no interaction at all is clearly at variance with their ideas. Furthermore, my aim is not so ambitious as theirs. I am not proposing a new theory of life, only questioning the basic assumptions of traditional cognitive psychology and seeking better ones.

5. Rickert's main criticism is that the organism-environment theory would exclude distinctions that are needed for a theory of cognition: if we start with a unitary organism-environment system, there is no agent of knowledge. Yet I am not the first to propose that "knowing" is possible without a "knower" located in the body or separated from the "known." An agent is an agent only together with the object of agency (e.g. James, 1912; Brentano, 1924). James writes that it is an experience that knows another experience when we know (James, 1912); Arthur Bentley criticizes those philosophers who assign a decisive role in their definition of knowledge to an anatomical concept, the skin, which should be the border between the knower and the known (Bentley, 1941).

6. According to Bentley, knowing is a form of human behavior and behavior is something that cannot be "in" or "out." Rickert needs to give us a strict definition of "learning" and "knowledge" in his description of the fox learning new tricks. Once he does this -- probably in some customary operational way -- we will see that the definitions also need to include the rabbit, because learning new tricks involves new chasing behavior which necessarily involves the rabbit. Curiously, many cognitive psychologists and behaviorists regard "behavior" as belonging to the agent only, whereas it can only be defined in an environment. Hence it cannot be ascribed to the agent; it is a change of relations within the whole organism-environment system.

7. My definition is related to the fact that knowledge is needed to achieve a result (e.g., catching the rabbit) and the result is determined by factors both inside and outside the organism. Hence knowledge cannot be something residing "inside" only; it must be based on the structure of the whole organism-environment system. Knowledge must be unitary; otherwise a definite result could not be achieved. The result gives us the clue as to the architecture of the organism-environment system. What does it mean if we say the fox learns new tricks? It means that a new system is formed, a system consisting of the fox and the rabbit; and the result of the activity of that system is the disappearance of the rabbit, plus a satisfied fox. The learning of new tricks by the fox does not occur in a void; learning is possible only in a system which includes both the fox and those rabbits it has not yet caught. To know something means to able to do something to achieve results. It is the result that eventually verifies the existence of knowledge.

8. We must also differentiate between knowledge as the structure of a single organism-environment system (as discussed in my thought experiment) and knowledge as something that can be reported (conscious knowledge). Consciousness appeared as a new kind of organization, a social organization based on co-operation of individual organism-environment systems for common or shared results (Jarvilehto, 1994). The advent of consciousness was also the advent of the "self," the possibility for the individual to reflect on itself and the results of its own action via other individuals (Mead, 1934). Organism-environment theory starts with consciousness, which makes it possible to look simultaneously at one's own body and at other objects in relation to it and to use language in this description. Language reflects this duality.

9. For the self, the body is an object like other parts of the environment, but with one important difference: The body is the point of reference for the self in relation to shared results; the body creates the personal aspect of social organization. When I know, where is this "I" located? It cannot be in the body, because the body is an object of "I." In fact, the"I" is an agent, but not an entity that can be located somewhere; rather, it is a set of relations defining the self. Thus, if we cannot locate this agent, how can we locate knowledge in it other than in in terms of the social relations rendering shared results possible?

10. When we perceive the world, stimuli do not jump into our brains from the outside to cause perceptions; but in conscious perception we are joined to certain parts of universe in order to act together with other people. Hence this what we concretely and consciously perceive is always related to the possibility of cooperation, to potential common results and hence to language. This does not mean perception is some kind of social "construction" realized by a single brain, or that it is only "subjective." Each percept is the realization of an aspect of the real world. In each conscious perception the world turns one of its sides toward us, a side which can be used in joint action with our fellow humans.

11. The perception of a chair, for example, is the result of the organization of a complex system which involves my body and its presence in a certain environment and culture. The functioning of my senses makes possible certain ways of joining my body with the parts of environment necessary for the result (my percept), but from the point of view of the content of perception, the fact that the receptors are needed in this process is something relatively trivial and in no way explains why I am perceiving a chair.


I thank Dr. Seppo Laukka and Mr. Jukka Heikkila, M. Ed. for help in preparation of my reply.


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Brentano F (1924) Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. Hamburg: Meiner.

James W (1912) Essays in Radical Empiricism. ftp://ftp.std.com/obi/William.James/

Jarvilehto T (1998a) The theory of the organism-environment system: I. Description of the theory. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33, in press. http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/tjarvile/chap1.htm

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

II. Significance of nervous activity in the organism-environment

system. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33, in press. http://wwwedu.oulu.fi/homepage/tjarvile/nerve.htm

Jarvilehto T (1998c) Efferent Influences on Receptors in Knowledge Formation. Psycoloquy: 9(41) http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psyc-bin/newpsy?efference-knowledge.1

Jarvilehto, T. (1998d) 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

Mead G H (1934) Mind, self, and society. Chicago:Chicago Univ Press.

Rickert N W (1998) Knowledge is not unitary. Commentary on Jarvilehto on Efference-Knowledge. Psycoloquy 9(50) http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psyc-bin/newpsy?efference-knowledge.2

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