No Life Without Perception

pleurosigmasalinarum
To be alive is to perceive

To be alive implies an ecological niche. An ecological niche is the set of available opportunities of adaptive behavior of a given living organism [1].

From the point of view of ecological psychology, perception is the non-inferential exploitation of organismically-accessible information to guide action [2] [3].

A lurking assumption in the evolutionary narrative of standard cognitive science is that perception is a subsequent adaptation of living organisms. This is a mistake. Perception is a condition of possibility of any adaptative behavior. As ecological psychologist Gregory Burton [4] aptly puts it:

The evolution of perception is implicitly assumed to be driven by the mutation of bodily interfaces into special bodily interfaces that seek particular physical aspects of the world and translate the data collected to some abstract format.

This default position conflates the evolution of specialized energy transducers in given species with the emergence of perception itself. Perception, however, is much more basic and can be accomplished in the absence of any sensory neuron.

A structured ambient array of energy is available to any living organism. Different species differ in their capability to exploit the structured information of this ambient array; they are are more or less keen in the detection and registration of different ecological invariants according to the niche.

Take the lowly Halobacterium salinarum. It is equipped with photoresponsive proteins and tracks both the levels of oxygen and sunlight to format their metabolism hours in advance, maximizing energy output by the effective switching from an oxic to an anoxic physiological mode [5].

We can go on and move much further into the borderlands of Life. A roaming bacteriophage could be said to be imbued with the most rudimentary kind of haptic perception, one that becomes active once the virus stops randomly roaming in viscous Brownian fluid and attaches itself to the cellular wall of its prokaryotic prey.

A view of this sort raises several interesting philosophical consequences. To mention one, if Tony Chemero's phenomenological realism holds, where all perceptual content is conscious content, we are led into what we may call biopanpsychism, the thesis that all life is conscious.

J. J. Gibson himself would most likely disagree with this the way I interpret some of his writings; conscious experience depends on a certain egocentric perspective which is inaccessible to most life forms [2], [6].

References

[1] J. J. Gibson, The ecological approach to visual perception, Psychology Press, 1979.
[Bibtex]
@book{Gibson1979a,
author = {Gibson, James J.},
citeulike-article-id = {12534786},
posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:10},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Psychology Press},
title = {The Ecological Approach To Visual Perception},
year = {1979}
}
[2] J. J. Gibson, The senses considered as perceptual systems, Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
[Bibtex]
@book{Gibson1966a,
author = {Gibson, James J.},
citeulike-article-id = {13531654},
posted-at = {2015-03-02 22:50:46},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Houghton Mifflin},
title = {The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems},
year = {1966}
}
[3] A. Chemero, Radical embodied cognitive science, The MIT Press, 2009.
[Bibtex]
@book{Chemero2009a,
author = {Chemero, Anthony},
citeulike-article-id = {12534923},
posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:13},
priority = {2},
publisher = {The MIT Press},
title = {Radical Embodied Cognitive Science},
year = {2009}
}
[4] G. Burton, "Non-Neural extensions of haptic sensitivity," Ecological psychology, vol. 2, iss. 5, pp. 105-124, 1993.
[Bibtex]
@article{Burton1993a,
author = {Burton, Gregory},
citeulike-article-id = {13531658},
journal = {Ecological Psychology},
number = {5},
pages = {105--124},
posted-at = {2015-03-02 22:50:46},
priority = {2},
title = {{Non-Neural} Extensions of Haptic Sensitivity},
volume = {2},
year = {1993}
}
[5] K. Whitehead, M. Pan, K. ichi Masumura, R. Bonneau, and N. S. Baliga, "Diurnally entrained anticipatory behavior in archaea," Plos one, vol. 4, iss. 5, 2009.
[Bibtex]
@article{Whitehead2009a,
author = {Whitehead, Kenia and Pan, Min and ichi Masumura, Ken and Bonneau, Richard and Baliga, Nitin S.},
citeulike-article-id = {13531657},
journal = {PLoS ONE},
number = {5},
posted-at = {2015-03-02 22:50:46},
priority = {2},
title = {Diurnally Entrained Anticipatory Behavior in Archaea},
volume = {4},
year = {2009}
}
[6] J. J. Gibson, "Are there sensory qualities of objects?," Synthese, vol. 19, iss. 3, pp. 408-409, 1969.
[Bibtex]
@article{Gibson1969a,
author = {Gibson, James J.},
citeulike-article-id = {13559285},
journal = {Synthese},
number = {3},
pages = {408--409},
posted-at = {2015-03-24 08:13:29},
priority = {2},
publisher = {Springer},
title = {Are there sensory qualities of objects?},
volume = {19},
year = {1969}
}