Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part III: The Unending Contents of Content)

In a paper entitled "What Makes Perceptual Content Non-conceptual?" (1998), Sean Dorrance Kelly examines Gareth Evans' (1982) arguments for a non-conceptual understanding of perception. Kelly lists these as follows:

"a) that perceptual content is the same for humans and animals,
b) that perceptual content is belief-independent,
c) that perceptual content is, sometimes at least, irreducibly articulated in terms of dispositions by the perceiver to act upon the object being perceived, and
d) that perceptual content is more finely grained than the concepts in terms of which we classify our thoughts."

Before I discuss each of the above (in this and following posts) I'd first like to say a few words about what Kelly, Evans and others term "perceptual content." In my view, to speak of content in this way is to beg the question: content of what form? If the answer is "representational content", as Kelly and Evans make plain, then we already have an unexamined assumption on the table before we have even begun any serious analysis. It is my contention that a thorough analysis of social practices of representation lies at the heart of any principled explanation of perception, and any unfounded assumption about what representations are—and more importantly: how they function—is both premature and potentially obstructive to insight. For this reason, when discussing perception I intend to speak only of perception and to reserve the term "perceptual content" specifically for the discussion of  theories that make explicit use of the term.

In (a) Evans' takes the view that humans and animals share the same "informational states" and thus the same perceptual content. He writes: "The informational states which a subject acquires through perception are non-conceptual, or nonconceptualised. Judgements based upon such states necessarily involve conceptualisation." Although I agree that perception is non-conceptual and that judgements necessarily involve conceptualisation, I find Evans' claim that perceptual content is the same for humans and animals to be lacking in argumentative force. All he provides is a rather flimsy assertion that perception is non-conceptual. Furthermore, as as John McDowell (1994) points out: "the word 'content' plays just the role in Evans' account that is played in that position by the fraudulent word 'conceptual.'" Unlike Evans, McDowell (who edited and published Evans' book after his death in 1980),  conceives of perception as fundamentally conceptual. Nonetheless, as Daniel Hutto (1998) points out, McDowell's commitment to conceptual content, like that of other intellectualists, creates a "heavy burden when it comes to explaining the origin and development of concepts." 

The problem is readily located in the entailments of the content view. If we conceive of brains as containers then it will be necessary to provide both a theory and evidence of what these containers actually contain and how this content is generated, distributed, stored, retrieved and interpreted. The alternative is to conceive of brains as embodied organs that have evolved in response to challenging environmental influences and which have therefore developed highly sophisticated dispositions to respond to a variety of causal encounters. On this view, "content" is simply a convenient but misleading characterisation of these complex dispositions to respond. When someone asks your name, you are disposed to say your name — no inner representation is necessary. Nonetheless, despite the explanatory power of this view, the mainstream position throughout much of the cognitive sciences and philosophy holds that brains are containers and that their content is fundamentally representational. A variety of competing representational theories are proposed but in all cases the basic idea is that brains obviously cannot construct their own 1:1 copy of the world with which to do their work. Instead, it is assumed that brains generate representational states which correspond in informationally significant ways with the encountered world. A minimal version of this approach construes content as a form of "covariation" between internal (brain) and external (world) events — the idea being that as a perceived event occurs, corresponding changes occur in the brain and as the event varies, so too do the corresponding brain states. These states are thus regarded as representational states or, as Mark Cain (2013) puts it: "according to the causal covariation theory, the LOT [Language Of Thought] symbol HORSE means horse because tokens of that symbol are caused by, and only by, horses." Hutto and Myin (2013) are unconvinced: 

"If information is nothing but covariance then it is not any kind of content—at least, it is not content defined, even in part, in terms of truth-bearing properties. The number of a tree's rings can vary with the age of the tree; however, this doesn't entail that the first state of affairs says or conveys anything true about the second, or vice versa. The same goes for states that happen to be inside agents and which reliably correspond with external states of affairs—these too, in and of themselves, don't 'say' or 'mean' anything just in virtue of instantiating covariance relations."

The idea that mental content "means" or is "about" the things it is directed towards is a central article of faith amongst many, if not all, representationalists, but as Kathleen Atkins (1996) points out:

"In an important sense we do not really know what "aboutness" is. Certainly, at the outset, a vague realism about the directedness of mental/neural events is adopted: representations are "tied" to objects and properties and hence (there being no good reason to suppose otherwise) bear some kind of relation to them. But if we do not know exactly what it means to regard a particular as a particular, to see this thing as being of a certain type, this place as the same place, and so on—hence what kinds of capacities or abilities are involved in having representations that are about those things—then we do not know, in any substantive sense, in what that relationship consists. We only trust that it is."

Theorists are right to enquire into the relationships between neural events and the perceived world, but whether those neural events are "about" the world is simply too uncertain to merit the credibility it currently commands, especially if this credibility is simply taken on trust. 

On the issue of whether we know what aboutness is, perhaps we don't in the context of alleged inner representations but what we do know is that in the publicly perceptible world, aboutness is very well understood. Aboutness is the meaning we attribute to symbolic representations of numerous kinds and forms, all of which rely on rules of use for their efficacy. For something to be about something else — for it to signal, refer, indicate, signify, token, connote, or denote, is for it to be generated and interpreted within an already intelligent system. Without such a system or rule to give it meaning, a wink is nothing more than a contraction of the eyelids (Ryle 1968). Without a system or rule, a symbol or signal cannot reliably stand-in (i.e. represent) anything (Bickhard and Turveen 1995). It merely is what it is. 

Moreover, acts of symbolic communication are intentional and herein lies the greatest challenge in proposing a coherent account of mental content. Because if an inner representation is needed to drive an intentional action, then a further intentional representation is needed to initiate this intentional representation and this regress of representations is without end! An alternative naturalistic theory is therefore needed that avoids this regress, not to mention the equally illogical assumption that some form of symbolic language underlies language itself (Fodor 1975, Fodor and Pylyshyn, 1988). As Gilbert Ryle put it to Daniel Dennett in a letter in 1976: "Fodor beats Locke in the intricacy of his 'wires-and-pulleys', when what was chiefly wrong with Locke was the (intermittent) intricacy of his 'wires-and-pulleys'!"

In the next post I will explore how the challenge of intentional action can be met without recourse to inner representations. Such an account will also prove helpful in understanding how we might reasonably attribute intentional action to animals. In so doing it may also be possible to give some substance to Evans' intuition over the common foundations of animal and human perception.


Post a Comment