Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Representation Defined

Q: What is representation?

A: It's the substitution of one thing for another. Representations are stand-ins.

Q: So, if I replaced a cat with a dog, would that be a representation?

A: That depends on several things – the respects in which you want the dog to represent the cat, the strategy of representation you use and the skills and especially the perceptual weaknesses of the person or creature you're offering the representation to.

Q: So you're saying that it's possible but only in certain ways and for certain perceivers?

A: That's right.

Q: So, could I use a dog to represent a cat in respect of its being a furry, four-legged house pet?

A: Sure you could, because in those specific respects dogs and cats are alike.

Q: So something has to be like something else to be usable as a representation?

A: Only in this specific kind of representation. There are two other kinds of representation where the representation doesn't have to be like the represented thing at all.

Q: Could I use a dog to represent a cat using these other kinds of representations?

A: Yes, but let's try to keep things simple. The strategy I’ve just outlined is what the theorist Donald Brook calls "Matching". Matching representations trade on our ability to match attributes. Other species' might perceive differences between things that humans find identical, so representations of this kind are dependent upon shared perceptual limitations. If things were never like one another in any respects then Matching would be impossible.

Q: What about approximate matches then?

A: Sure, you can have approximate matches. Some approximations are better than others obviously.

Q: Ok, I get it that Matching representations must seem objectively the same or approximately the same in some way as the things they represent. But what about these other kinds of representation? How can I represent a cat with a dog?

A: Well the easiest way to represent the cat with a dog is to tell someone that this is what you intend. We actually do this all the time with language: we substitute sounds or words for things. The word “dog” doesn't share anything in common with dogs but because we know the rule that assigns the word “dog” to a particular species of animal we can use the representation with other rule users.

Q: It's symbolic then isn't it?

A: That's exactly what it is.

Q: So, what about the third type of representation, the one where the representation doesn't have to be objectively like the represented thing?

A: This strategy requires careful control of the way the representation is presented in relation to the perceptual skills of the person or creature you are producing the representation for. You couldn’t very easily use a dog to represent a cat with this strategy so I won’t even try. Let’s concentrate on some simple examples. Let’s say you have a blue piece of paper and you hold it up to the sky and find it to be indiscriminable from the sky. The assumption might be to say that the paper Matches the sky but this would be incorrect. A bee, for instance, probably wouldn’t perceive both colours to be the same because bees are sensitive to a wider range of colours that than we are.

Q: Isn’t it just an approximate match then?

A: Actually no. Let’s take another example that might help. Imagine you have a colour-blind friend who cannot discriminate between red and green. Say you want to represent a green field to them but you only have red paint. For you the red painting would look completely wrong but for them it would look exactly the same as if it were green.

Q: So, the red doesn’t actually match the green at all, yet my friend would perceive that it does?

A: Precisely.

Q: But in the case of the sky and blue paper, wouldn’t it be possible to get the blue sheet to reflect the exact hue, saturation and brightness as the sky so that  all possible perceivers would find it impossible to discriminate between the real and the represented blue? Wouldn’t this be a matching representation?

A: In principle, maybe, but you’re missing the point. The point is that when we “simulate” – as Donald Brook would say – the sky with a sheet of blue paper we exploit the fact that the perceptual capacities of normally sighted humans have regularly occurring limitations. These limitations make it impossible for us, under certain circumstances, to discriminate between one thing and another in a respect or respects in which they are objectively different.

Q: Can you give me another example?

A: Sure. Imagine you have a circular object – a coin say. You can easily use this to match other circular objects in respect of their shape – by matching them – but  you can also use it to simulate the size of other circular objects too, depending on how you present it.

Q: I don’t follow.

A: Think of it this way. If you hold a coin at the right distance from your eye you can get it to look like it’s the same size as other circular objects despite the fact that these are different sizes. You can even get it to look the same size as the moon if you want.

Q: Well yes, but only in a sense. Its obviously not really the same size as the moon.

A: No, of course not. But the point is that it looks like it is.

Q: So you’re saying it’s an illusion?

A: No. I’m saying that under these precise circumstances of presentation, the coin is indiscriminable from the moon in respect of its size.

Q: I’m still not getting it. I don’t see how these examples add up to a form of representation. They just seem like cases where we mistake one thing for another thing.

A: These are just examples of the principle. Such mistakes are systematic characteristics of our sensory capacities and because we’re all subject to them to the same degree we have learnt to exploit this. The discovery of perspective was a case in point. Simulating representations of this kind are a very sophisticated form of representation which has been discovered only gradually - although our ancestors have no doubt been susceptible to it since early prehistory.

Q: So are images simulating representations of this kind?

A: In the main yes. The problem though is that images also contain aspects of matching and symbolisation, which is no doubt why the question of representation has been so vexed for so long. It’s also handy to think of sculpture as predominantly a form of matching representation and language as symbolic – as you already guessed.

Q: Are you sure that there aren’t any other forms of representation? Three seems a bit limited.

A: Well, there are countless representations and representational media but there are only three distinct procedures for creating them: Matching, Simulating and Symbolising. There are also many sub-categories of the main three, like indicating and referring for example, which are both forms of symbolisation. But if three seems limited to you then it might be worth thinking of computer code. From a simple combination of ones and zeros we get an infinite variety - and let’s not forget that numbers are symbols too.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Memory and Exemplification

In a just-published paper, Dan Hutto discusses the commonplace interpretation of the brain as a vast storehouse of content, a memory bank of images, ideas and impressions. He finds this characterisation to be as unilluminating and inconsistent as it is antiquated and he suggests that this misconception continues to hinder insights in both philosophy and cognitive science. He remarks that there are better ways to conceive of memory, especially in the case of basic minds and he claims that simple kinds of memory — he cites rats as an example — might only require the ability to "re-enact embodied procedures" by using "local landmarks".

When a rat "re-enacts" its route around a maze, there is no doubt that certain features of the maze have causal influence over the behaviour of the rat — change the features of the maze and you change the behaviour of the rat. And Hutto is right to question whether we need to invoke mental charts, maps or schemas etc. to explain such successful navigation. All that need be assumed is that during the initial investigation of the maze, certain dispositions form in the rat that cause it to respond in certain ways on encountering these features again. The question of whether these dispositions constitute representations is simply more extravagant than is necessary.

Hutto argues that in the case of more sophisticated minds, it is the mastery of socially supported narrative practices that permit the 'reconstruction of past experiences' (i.e. memory) but he makes no indication of the more rudimentary practices that must have preceded narrative. Dance and procedural guidance in particular suggest themselves as obvious antecedents to the skills of narrative description, and it is puzzling therefore that Hutto makes no mention of these. Perhaps his earlier work (2008) on narrative practices and their importance for the development of 'folk psychological' skills — for inferring the thoughts and intentions of others — continues to dominate his thinking. However, applying this same argument to the case of memory is unconvincing to say the least. The engine simply doesn't fit the chassis.

Is it plausible that dance only ever emerged as a consequence of our linguistic powers? And what about tuneful vocalisations? I find it hard to believe that these preeminently social, embodied and enactive behaviours didn't precede the practice of storytelling. And mimicry? Of all the intelligent memory-implicating behaviours that we commonly observe on the part of animals, mimicry must be one of the most obvious. How, I wonder, might a creature successfully mimic a sequence of behaviours enacted by another animal if not by virtue of capacities significantly in excess of the simple behavioural responsiveness of the maze-navigating-rat?

In a 2011 book entitled "Words and Images" Christopher Gauker provides a simple description of the sequence of operations involved in fixing an ordinary tap (though he neglects to mention first switching the water off at the mains). He points out that whilst he is able to find words to describe the procedure, he could just as easily have imagined it without using any words at all. This is surely right — we "find" words to describe our memories and imaginings, not the other way around. If we wish to argue that words precede such imaginings, then infinite regress looms — as Gauker is quick to point out.

Gauker argues that animals and nonlinguistic human infants do not think conceptually but that they do think "imagistically". Imagistic cognition has also been discussed by Hutto in the past so it might be worth examining what is meant by the term. Neither Gauker nor Hutto take imagistic thinking to be literally pictorial, yet precisely what they do take it to be, they give no clear indication. Gauker states that mental imagery is "similar" to the things it represents whilst Hutto claims that it "resembles" (2008, p.81). The two terms (resemblance and similarity) are interchangeable in their vagueness and, like all blunt instruments, they are far more likely to do harm than good in the elucidation of the vexed issues of imagination, memory and consciousness. What I have found to be far more illuminating in this regard is to think of mental imagery in terms of what we could call latent exemplification. So, to imagine or remember something is to engage the cognitive component of skills that allow us to demonstrate, enact, perform, indicate, simulate, picture or select the things with which we are causally engaged. Questions of resemblance or similarity are immaterial in his context. What matters is that such imaginings involve — indeed are constituted by — many of the same brain/body responses (though in diminished form) as would arise as a consequence of actually encountering the thing or circumstance imagined. This also explains why tests of the actual accuracy and detail of imaginings invariably turn out to be disappointing in comparison with their reported vividness and why theorists like Gauker so often assume imagination to be representational. The assumption is understandable but unnecessary (though, admittedly, it is extremely convenient to regard capacities of exemplification as representations). 

We must be careful though. Imagination is not an inner module, theatre or "similarity space" for the private display of representations and resemblances. It is the evolutionary consequence, over countless generations, of a history of exemplification and more recently, as Hutto correctly observes, of linguistic and narrative practices. Moreover, these forms and practices of exemplification have emerged in the context of evolving inhibitory capacities that suppress physical actions of exemplification whilst allowing other associated brain processes to proceed as normal. It is these brain processes — linked inextricably to practices of exemplification — that must be considered as primary candidates in the constitution of thought and consciousness.

Ultimately I think Hutto gets a lot right about memory and I think his rejection of theories of mental content especially is well grounded and well argued but I think his focus upon narrative practices — derived from his earlier research — limits his view of a more extensive history of practices of exemplification.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

“Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content” A Scaffolded Review

When people talk about the possibility of foreknowledge of the future they always forget the fact of the prediction of one's own voluntary movements. —Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Very few philosophers will be persuaded by this important book by Dan Hutto and Erik Myin, most obviously because it undermines what for many will be held as irrefutable: the idea that minds are necessarily dependent upon inner content. By content is meant representations of one form or another: data structures, signals etc. that are supposedly transduced, encoded, interpreted, recombined, judged, parsed or otherwise processed according to information-processing models that despite decades of fine-grained EEG, MRI, fMRI, DTI and PET research remain entirely undiscovered in the Byzantine labyrinths of the brain.
For Hutto and Myin the assumption that cognition involves content is thoroughly unjustified in all but the most ‘scaffolded’ of cases: cases in which minds are supported by socially evolved practices of linguistic representation-use. In the case of more basic minds, they argue, content is neither necessary nor logically possible.
In a philosophical landscape dominated by representationalist thinking, all of which is perilously dependent upon the assumption that cognition involves content, this book fulfils its radical intention of exposing the many ways in which the content view runs thoroughly into the sand.
There isn’t room here to detail the many incisive arguments levelled against the content view by Hutto and Myin, but suffice it to say that the majority of the book is devoted to a point-by-point critique of the principal content-dependent theories, including several that share much in common with the authors’ brand of enactivism. No doubt critics will complain that the authors overemphasise their counterarguments at the expense of a comprehensive alternative thesis. Yet, if this book were nothing more than a thorough disavowal of the doctrine of content, its contribution to the field would be significant. As it is, Hutto and Myin have, at the very least, cleared the ground and provided some vital tools for further exploration and this is both welcome and, some would say, long overdue.*
Radical as this book is though, I suspect that Hutto and Myin are either withholding a more uncompromising version of their argument or else their position falls somewhat short of full blown radicalism. Their retention of content in the case of scaffolded minds in particular concedes more than is strictly necessary to their adversaries. Perhaps they wish to offer an olive branch to soft representationalists in the hope that they might be turned. But the fact that minds can be supported by an extensive range of performative practices, procedures and artefacts is no reason to suppose that scaffold users have somehow evolved into inner content bearers. The mere suggestion that this is the case does damage to what is otherwise a strong argument against the content view. 
Undoubtedly brain states have a functional correspondence to behaviours ('covariance conditions' as the jargon goes), but this is no reason to assume that these brain states literally constitute representations, no matter what the stage of their evolutionary development. This is the conclusion that we should draw from radical enactivism and it is strange therefore that Hutto and Myin are in the least credulous of contentful representation, even in the case of scaffolded minds. Scaffolds are external resources after all and the role they play is not one in which inner states become surrogate scaffolds.
The capacity to think using contentful representations is an example of a late-developing, scaffolded, and socially supported achievement. It originates from and exists, in part, in virtue of social practices that make use of external public resources, such as pen, paper, signs, and symbols.
It may be the case that Hutto and Myin are simply being economical here with their list of publicly available resources. No doubt they wish to establish a clear distinction between the resources and social practices utilised by language users and those used by other creatures. However, in doing so, they suggest an evolutionary break where none need be imputed. So, whilst I agree that social practices are centrally implicated in the emergence of mind, I am not at all convinced that only late-developing symbolic capacities qualify for consideration as constitutive of thought — conceptual thought, yes, but not all thought. So scaffolded thought need not - indeed should not - be regarded as exclusively linguistic in origin. Even language had to evolve from more basic roots. There are many immediately available behavioural (enactive) resources and communicative capacities that creatures commonly employ that deserve serious consideration as sufficient for the emergence of mind long prior to the discovery of the various processes and procedures of symbol manipulation and language. Gestures, dance, facial expressions, mock performances—including play, vocalisations, mimicry, exaggeration, deceit, distraction, diversion, concealment, shamming, and numerous other patterns and kinds of intelligent behaviour are all important contenders for the constitution of basic thought, or at the very least intentional directedness.
Intentional directedness - as it turns out - is a major challenge, not only for Hutto and Myin’s theory but for all principled non-representationalist theories. Representationalist thinkers, in contrast, can simply invoke inner representations of future states of affairs and claim these as the causal basis of intentional action. This is a very convenient theoretical strategy, but if the mounting arguments against representationalism — of which Hutto and Myin's should be regarded as canonical — are correct, then the representationalists ploy is recklessly misconceived.
What is it then, we might ask of the radical enactivist, for an eagle to act intentionally and to anticipate future events before they unfold? The challenge here is to explain how 'nonverbals' are capable of predicting future states of affairs with a high degree of accuracy. How are they capable of tracking moving objects when obscured? Can we credit such creatures with the ability to envision future circumstances and if not, what is it about human skills that lead us to suppose that only we are possessed of the ability to visualise — certainly not our verbal skills?
Hutto and Myin evidently discern little in the way of a challenge arising as a consequence their otherwise well argued and justified rejection of inner representations. They write: ‘The simplest life forms are capable of intentionally directed responding.’ but precisely what predictive causal influences are involved here they give only the merest suggestion when they offer: ‘informationally sensitive responses to natural signs.’ They claim that this is 'austere talk' and that it avoids the assumption of 'meaning' and 'representation' that they find frequently betrayed in the work of Thomson (2007) for example. I’m not at all sure though that the policy of offloading the attribution of content onto external ‘signs’ and ‘information’ is anywhere near as  austere as is required: advantageously sensitive responses to natural stimuli would be genuinely austere but would still leave the question of intentional directedness completely untouched.
A more convincing route to resolving this question is already available to Hutto and Myin, yet it is so thoroughly partitioned off in their theory that it seems unlikely that they would be willing to reconfigure their thinking to accommodate it. The scaffolding that they claim is only involved in late developing achievements of thinking is, as we have already seen, more extensive than their thesis currently allows. If this is true, and the evidence for these capacities is widespread amongst social organisms, then we already have good reason to believe that these enactive capacities themselves might be significantly implicated in intentional directedness. I will return to this point presently.
In an earlier publication, Hutto (2008) discusses the question of intentionality directly and he argues that the 'dances' guiding the behaviour of honey bees are 'contentless' and therefore non-representational. He claims that these dances are 'Local Indexical Guides' and that the bees are 'informationally sensitive to natural signs.' His preferred terminology is presumably intended to be as neutral as possible regarding it's representational implications yet he could hardly have chosen more prototypical cases of representation than indexical guidance or informational signification. He also states that bee dances incorporate: 'two distinct aspects: one carries information about the distance of the nectar from the hive and the other carries information about the direction in which it is located.' [My emphasis] This is curious because just few pages earlier he writes: 'It is easy to be misled on this score by free and easy talk of information "being carried" by signals and states.'
Either creatures communicate with one another or they don't, and if they do, then the only resources available to mediate this communication are public representations. So, for example, indexes are representations in which one thing is used to direct attention to another thing: a pointing finger [index] or footprint are obvious instances. But, as the saying goes: 'The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.' Indexes indicate other things and other locations, but bees do not literally stand outside the hive pointing in the direction of the relevant flora. If I see a flower and point to it, there is no doubt (at least for other humans skilled in representational practices) that I indicate the flower. But if I point to the flower through the solid wall of a hive, the indexical relationship suddenly becomes significantly less obvious. So, if bees do use indexical guides, they cannot be of the direct indicative kind — even intelligent animals like dogs or chimpanzees have trouble responding appropriately to a pointing finger (Tomasello 2006). Similarly, if we examine the concept of guidance we will find that this too turns out to be a paradigm case of representation with more complexity in its simplest forms than Hutto seems prepared to acknowledge. Guidance is a performative form of exemplification in which we physically enact the relevant route or procedure: we show the way. Deliberate guidance of this kind is actually fairly rare in nature, whereas non-physically enacted guides (like maps for instance) are very rare indeed (an intentionally produced  trail would probably qualify though). Bees do not leave trails lingering on the air for one another, nor do they personally guide one another to their floral caches. So if we wish to illuminate what appears to be an extraordinarily economical yet sophisticated form of public representation exemplified in the display behaviour of bees, then we have no alternative than to explore their socially evolved capacities for representation production**. No inner representations need be imputed — no knowing that, just embedded, embodied and enactive know-how.
I suspect that Hutto's denial of the representational behaviour of bees is motivated by his eagerness to dispense with teleosemantic accounts of cognition — accounts that characterise mental states in linguistic terms. Whilst I am entirely sympathetic with his ends, I think his means are gained at the cost of an appropriately nuanced understanding of the relationships and differences between nonverbal and fully verbal representational practices. Nobody doubts that bees have the capacity to respond to their successful foraging trips by behaving in ways that lead other bees to forage similarly. What is at issue is whether the information (direction and distance) is internalised in representational form or whether there might be a less extravagant way to conceive of it. Hutto and Myin are absolutely right to pursue this latter line of enquiry, yet Hutto's ‘Indexical Guides’ seem unlikely to withstand the occamists razor when compared with the intuitive, if utterly mistaken, conceptual simplicity of inner representations. A more substantial non-representational theory of intentional directedness is urgently required.
How might this be achieved? I suggest once again that an adjusted version of Hutto and Myin's Scaffolded Minds Hypothesis is all that is necessary. Where a sharp distinction needs to be drawn though, is between organisms that are capable of producing representations (like bees and human beings) and those that are not (like viruses and trees). Representation-producing organisms provide good cause to suspect that they might be capable of anticipating some future states of affairs, i.e. of representing them in token form – as is the case with bees. Such capacities would qualify therefore as viable causal drivers towards currently unfulfilled future states of affairs. In the case of other organisms, we haven’t yet embarked upon a study of what causally influential dispositions-to-represent may be mediating their actions but this would seem to be a field rich with untapped potential. What we can say though, is that the capacity to produce representations of future states of affairs should be considered instrumental in the attribution of intentional action as opposed to mere purposeful responsiveness.
Although I have only sketched the vaguest outline here of what is a far more extensive enactive theory of intentional directedness, it is nonetheless closely consistent with the main body of Hutto and Myin’s important theoretical work. Minds are by their very nature scaffolded and without such scaffolding, mindedness would be inconceivable.
In an article for the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Tom Roberts claims that Hutto and Myin’s most radical idea is that “basic minds are not brain-bound; they are not defined by representational transactions; they are fully and constitutively world-involving.” I would challenge Roberts on this observation. The book is called 'Radicalizing Enactivism' after all, not 'Radical Enactivism'. It is a rallying cry, not a stipulation of terms; a set of tools, not an academic ornament. It's radicalism derives from the advantages it confers to those who put it to use: enacting its radicalism.
Basic minds – indeed all minds - are constituted by what they are capable of representing: of precisely the public representational transactions they are capable of engaging in. Beyond these capacities to represent their causal engagements with the world, all organisms – ourselves included – are merely evolved purposeful responders. It just so happens that humans are massively disposed to represent their causal encounters. And what we are not capable of representing we can’t claim to perceive. The same applies, it might be said, to enormously important but largely ignored or misunderstood radical theories of mind.

For further discussion of Dan Hutto's theories you may be interested to read the next post  here.

*William Ramsey’s ‘Representation Reconsidered’ (2009) is another important contribution in this regard.
** The question of the representational nature of bee dances remains controversial. Adrian Wenner in particular is critical of the evidence provided regarding bee "language". His own research favours scent carried by successful foraging bees which then triggers fellow bees to search for the same scent. Nonetheless there remains reason to suppose that a simple form of representation may be at work - at least in the direction that the dances are conducted which correlates with the direction of food sources. More evidence is required to settle the issue.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Philosophical Behaviourism - An Incomplete Project

Our earlier history, the part without writing or artifacts, can only be deduced from what we do and what our primate relatives do – the hieroglyphics of the chimpanzee’s whimper and the baby’s smile. -Alison Jolly (1937-2014)
During the heyday of psychological behaviourism a partially related school of philosophy emerged in Oxford, inspired by the later ideas of Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical behaviourism (also known as Analytical or Logical behaviourism) had no concern for the scientific study of stimuli and conditioned responses but instead sought to explain mental concepts through an analysis of the ways we use language: through linguistic behaviour. Although this emphasis on language-use was a central preoccupation amongst these 'Ordinary Language' philosophers, the implications for a broader understanding of the relation between skilled action and mind are not difficult to detect. Gilbert Ryle especially, sought to clarify that our 'inner world' - and all of the dealings we are inclined to say that we conduct there - is a manifestation of our various interactions with the physical world itself, not some occult realm that somehow brings the world to light for us. So, to extend Ryle's argument a little: the mind does not endow us with capacities but rather is a consequence of them, of actions we are capable of performing.

It might be worthwhile examining why Ryle never made this last point explicitly. Most obviously, if he had, he would have faced an immediate difficulty. If it is true that the mind is a consequence of our physical capacities, then what possible skill could correspond to - or rather constitute - our imagining a colour? Perhaps our capacity to name a colour could be sufficient? But if this is the case then consciousness is only possible if we are first capable of language. Surprisingly, many theorists persist in directly, indirectly and inadvertently arguing that language is indeed essential to consciousness (though Ryle was not among these 'intellectualist' thinkers). A more plausible contender then - as a skill constitutive of mind - might be thought to be embodied in the capacity for sensory discrimination. However, this explanatory route turns out to be extravagant in precisely the same way that the language-only route seems overly restrictive. If all that is required for the emergence of mind is a capacity to discriminate one thing from another, then we have no alternative than to count even some of the most primitive organisms as minded - if only in the most elementary ways.

It seems likely that Ryle was aware of these difficulties, yet I suspect that his (and others') overriding focus upon language may also have contributed to the lack of exploration of alternative explanations in this area. Going by the majority of philosophical theories developed and pursued during the 20th Century, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the only field of interest worthy of serious investigation was to be found amongst the many sayings, signs, semes, signifiers and syntactical structures of language. And whilst the 'linguistic turn' in philosophy continues to exert a major influence upon a wide variety of fields of enquiry throughout the world, comparatively little attention has been paid to skills of nonverbal communication. Even with the recent upsurge of interest in theories of Embodied Cognition, there remains a general disregard for the evolutionary emergence of nonverbal skills of representation. 

Yet, if we fail to concern ourselves with the evolution of these rudimentary capacities we leave an unassailable mountain for anyone seeking to explain the evolutionary emergence of language. In spite of an absence of evidence and a dearth of reasoned argument, it is currently almost universally assumed that the symbolic practices comprising language sprang into existence unaided by other more rudimentary forms of communicative behaviour. 

With a more expansive view of representational practices than is currently on offer, it becomes significantly more feasible to discern the embryonic origins of language and even to formulate a speculative solution to Ryle's dilemma. If we propose capacities of nonverbal representation as significantly constitutive of mind, we avoid the excesses both of overgeneralisation and of restrictive limitation and situate the attribution of mind at a more plausible stage between basic organismic behaviour and the highly sophisticated symbol manipulations of which language users are capable. 

Innumerable animals are capable of basic forms of mimicry and countless creatures communicate through the use of sounds, gestures, scents, colour changes etc. We need no persuasion that our linguistic skills must have had more rudimentary origins. Symbolic practices must have, at the very least, evolved alongside non-symbolic skills, if not as a more sophisticated consequence of them.
The shift is one from a focus on “things”, such as representations, to a concern with “activities”, such as the act of representing. [...] The task is to understand a variety of representational practices, and wherein they are representational. The means we employ in doing so will be various: historical analysis of their emergence, sociological analysis of the conditions under which they operate, experimental psychological analysis of representational gaps and gluts, anthropological analysis of practices of symbolization, evolutionary analysis of social environments and our sensitivity to them. (Robert A. Wilson 2010)
Philosophers have barely even scratched the surface of these enquiries into the nature, variety and extent of representational practices, of behaviours and acts of non-verbal representing. But what should be clear is that animals do indeed have minds - if only simple minds - because mind is not dependent upon language but upon representational capacities that are functionally and procedurally distinct from language and that must have evolved long before these skills of symbol manipulation of which we are so fond but which so often cloud our understanding of other creatures and ourselves.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Negative Causation: a brief refutation

For a handful of philosophers the notion of absence gives rise to concerns over the nature of causation. Jonathan Schaffer of Rutgers University, for instance, argues that 'negative causation', as he calls it, is a 'genuine form of causation' in which 'causes need not be physically connected to their effects.'

At first blush, the concept of negative causation seems to fit the facts quite well. Pull a ladder from under someone and the absence of support precipitates a fall. Sever someone's wages and the absence of income will likely cause significant disruption. What is blindness other than an absence of vision, or ignorance other than an absence of knowledge?

Whenever we discuss causation we tend to talk in terms of influence and the exchange of forces. There is nothing contentious about this. Schaffer provides a long list of instances where the removal of some impediment triggers a consequence or chain of events and he argues that in each case we have indisputable evidence of causation through absence. He gathers together many plausible examples from a broad range of fields, yet one crucial point goes unmentioned. If causation arises in a negative form then it should, like its positive sibling, come in varying degrees or states. Photographic negatives consist of tonal gradations from transparent to opaque; negative numbers mirror their positive counterparts and even the theory of negative energy is not limited to a single state.

Another helpful way to appreciate the conceptual error is to recast negative causation as zero causation. Interestingly, as soon as we do so, it becomes obvious just where the fault lies: zero causation is zero influence. 

We don't need a theory of negative causation. Absence works perfectly well to designate the lack of causal influence. And the only reason we might be tempted to say that absence exerts influence is because, in the absence of influence, other forces come into play that would otherwise be held in check.