Thursday, 2 October 2014

Cultural Innovation In The Brain?

Neolithic stone arrowhead.
Anyone who follows this blog will know that I have been trying – amongst other things –to dismantle the idea that brains utilise inner representations, i.e. Representationalism. A recent discussion led to the following insights.

The story of the emergence and development of culture is the story of the emergence and development of representational practices. Representations are cultural artefacts. They are created by intelligent organisms for communicative purposes. Representations are tools of a fundamental kind but they are nonetheless products of cultural evolution, not biological evolution.

Whatever intricate processes occur in the brain, these cannot be the consequence of communication between inner organisms. Brains are singular organs, not communities of organisms competing in a hostile environment for available resources. So, the electrochemical impulses that shuttle around the brain and the structures that give rise to them must have evolved in an entirely different way from the many tools and technical artefacts of culture (computers being an obvious example).

Geneticists commonly speak of genes in representational terms (“encodings,” “information,” “signals" etc.) and this has been extremely successful in unravelling the mysteries of our most famous double helix. But no geneticist would ever seriously argue that DNA is literally a code. This usage is simply a convenience. Philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists, on the other hand, commonly treat anti-representationalist dissent with contempt and disregard.

There are no cultural innovations in your brain, and that necessarily includes representations and everything else representation enables, from images to computation.


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