Soft Selves and Ecological Control
Advanced biological brains are by nature open-ended opportunistic controllers. Such controllers compute, pretty much on a moment-to-moment basis, what problem-solving resources are readily available and recruit them into temporary problem-solving wholes. Neural plasticity, exaggerated in our own species, makes it possible for such resources to become factored deep into both our cognitive and physical problem-solving routines. One way to think about this is to depict the biological brain as a master of what I shall dub ‘ecological control’. Ecological control is the kind of top-level control that does not micro-manage every detail, but rather encourages substantial devolvement of power and responsibility. This kind of control allows much of our skill at walking to reside in the linkages and elastic properties of muscles and tendons. And it allows (I claim) much of our prowess at thought and reason to depend upon the robust and reliable operation, often (but not always) in dense brain-involving loops, of a variety of non-biological problem-solving resources spread throughout our social and technological surround. Are the complex distributed systems that result in some sense ‘out of control’, beyond the reach of useful (you might even, though problematically, say, ‘personal’) governance? I shall argue that they are not, although understanding them requires us to re-think some key ideas about control and the nature of the self. To (try to) make this case, I shall first examine some strategies for efficient, external opportunity exploiting control in simple systems. I shall then argue that many of the same lessons apply to the case of higher-level human problem-solving.