Project Description

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Jon Bowen


  • Ecological Psychology

  • Theories of Conversation

  • Ethics of Artificial Intelligence



Doctoral Student
Department of Philosophy, Western University

I am a first-year PhD student in the philosophy program at Western University studying under Dr. Michael Anderson. Before that I received my MA in philosophy from Western University, and a combined BSc in psychology and computer science from the University of Victoria.

My research interests can broadly be divided into two groups. The first is ethical, and it concerns “person-building” projects in artificial intelligence. While there has been much discussion of the potential consequences and societal impacts of artificial intelligence, not much attention has been paid to the ethical status of the pursuit itself. Are there good reasons to create artificial persons? Are there good reasons not to? I am interested in intrinsicreasons for or against this endeavour, as opposed to instrumental ones. My second group of interests involve actually engaging in this kind of project. My master’s research involved trying to incorporate the phenomenon of temptation into a Gibsonian ecological framework. Currently, I am interested in further extending an ecological approach to social interaction in general, and to conversation in particular.

My current research focuses on developing the tradition of ecological psychology that began with James Gibson’s 1979 classic, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Explanations of behaviour in the ecological tradition employ an explanatory strategy with three basic analytical parts. First, objects and events in the world are redescribed in terms of their affordances–the opportunities for action that these objects and events present to an animal with a particular set of bodily capacities. Second, a description is given of what specifying information is available to that animal, such that the animal can ​directly perceive these affordances. Finally, perception is redescribed as a fundamentally ​active process of information pickup.

The ambition to extend an ecological approach to all of human psychology has been expressed from its inception. However, only very recently have there actually been attempts to extend this approach to human social interaction. This is partly because one major interpretation of Gibson’s notion of ​ecological information has circumscribed it to affordances that can be ​lawfully ​specified by that information. This would preclude ecological accounts of things like conventions (beer cans may lawfully specify graspability, but they do not ​lawfully specify the presence of beer) and human communication (linguistic utterances do not lawfully specify the communicative intentions of the utterers).

Recently, some ecological theorists have directly challenged this constraint upon ecological theory. In 2018, Chemero et al. made a distinction between ​lawful ecological information and ​general ecological information. Information can specify affordances of objects lawfully, but it can also specify affordances that objects or events usually or reliably have.If this conception of general ecological information is accepted, and if we can consider affordances as being constitutively entangled in the social practices of a community, then we are not restrained from employing the three-pronged ecological explanatory strategy to the most intricate observations of human ethnography.

The basic research question I wish to investigate is this. Following the ecological explanatory scheme described above, I have a threefold query. First, what kinds of affordances do other people and their behaviours have? Second, what kind of specifying information–general and lawful–is available to a person to specify the affordances of another person and their behaviours? And, third, what are the characteristic exploratory activities that humans employ to extract invariant information specifying social aspects of other people and their behaviour?

Gibson rather boldly states this in his Ecological Approach to Visual Perception:

“Behaviour affords behaviour, and the whole subject matter of psychology and the social sciences can be thought of as an elaboration of this basic fact. Sexual behaviour, nurturing behaviour, fighting behaviour, cooperative behaviour, economic behaviour, political behaviour—all depend on the perceiving of what another person or persons afford, or sometimes the misperceiving of it. (Gibson, 1979, p. 42)”

I aim to elaborate upon this basic fact.


Chin, M. D., Evans, K. K., Wolfe, J. M., Bowen, J., & Tanaka, J. W. (2018). Inversion effects in the expert classification of mammograms and faces. ​Cognitive research: principles and implications, ​3(1), 31.

Sung​, A. N., Bai, A., Bowen, J. G., Xu, B., Bartlett, L. M., Sanchez, J. C., Chin, M. D., Poirier L, Blinkhorn M, Campbell A, & Tanaka, J. W. (2015). From the small screen to the big world: mobile apps for teaching real-world face recognition to children with autism. ​Advanced Health Care Technologies

MA Thesis

An Ecological Approach to Temptation

(2019). Embodiment and the Split-Brain: an Enactive Unity. Annual Meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, London, Canada. With Michael Anderson.

(2019). Thou, Robot. Annual Meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association, Vancouver, Canada.

(2019). Person-Building Projects. Arts and Humanities Research Fair, London, Canada

(2019). Non-Instrumental Reasons for Creating Artificial Persons. Canada-United Kingdom Symposium On Ethics In Artificial Intelligence (EIAI2019), Ottawa, Canada (Poster presentation.)

(2016). Training Facial Expression Production and Perception. Perceptual Expertise Network XXXI Workshop, New Orleans LA, United States

Philosophy 1020: Introduction to Philosophy (Fall 2018-Winter 2019) (Nominated for the Graduate Teaching Assistant Award of Excellence)