Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Part 3c. … well, from Earth, actually

This post is a continuation of the previous one — taking a broad look at the differences in the way representationalists and non-representationalists tend to explain how we come to think, believe, and understand things about the outside world. Part 3b addressed how the two types of accounts differ with regard to what is being caused; here I'll explain how they differ with regard to what counts as a cause.

What counts as a cause:
In Representationalist accounts: enduring mental entities (states, objects, or characteristics) — that is, discrete realities that somehow retain their essential character or properties over a period of time. Examples include beliefs, desires, intentional states, concepts, representations, information-bearing vehicles, and so on. The basic idea is that pinning down these things (e.g., locating particular patterns of neural activation that correspond to certain beliefs) will help explain the general capacities Representationalists are so interested in (see Part 3b).

In Non-representationalist accounts: ongoing, not-exclusively-mental processes that evolve and change over periods of time. These may include (a) processes immediately preceding and/or accompanying specific behaviors and experiences, and/or (b) any number of processes that have taken place in the past.

An Example
Question: How can a person recognize a dog as a dog?

In Representationalist accounts: The answer will address a general capacity, rather than a specific instance of recognition. Possible explanations include: the person has a concept dog, or a mental representation of a dog; there is a certain pattern of activation in the person’s brain that corresponds to the idea dog; etc.

In Non-representationalist accounts: The answer will look at specific instances of recognition. Therefore, relevant factors may include (a) numerous contextual details from the immediate situation (e.g., auditory stimuli of barking, visual stimuli of a fast-moving furry, four-legged animal, etc.) and (b) any number of details from the person’s past experiences (e.g., the person’s lifetime history of interacting with dogs and other animals, talking about dogs and other animals, etc.).

And a related issue: What accounts for similarities in experiences and behaviors over time, for a single individual and between different individuals? (E.g., one person can recognize dogs in a wide variety of different contexts and reason about abstract concepts such as justice in a wide variety of ways; many different individuals can recognize dogs, and many different individuals can reason about justice.)

In Representationalist accounts (R): Similarity of mental entities. For a single individual, the same underlying mental entity can play a causal role in a variety of different experiences and behaviors. In addition, multiple individuals may share the same basic type of mental entity.

In Non-representationalist accounts (N): Similarity of basic human anatomy and physiology (including neuroanatomy and neurophysiology), coupled with countless similarities and predictable regularities in social, physical, and cultural environments (ways of life). These factors alone — without reference to similar mental entities — can account for the full range of parallels and consistencies within and among individuals.

To do justice to these important issues and to have any chance of making sense to people who don't already understand what I'm talking about, I need to give more concrete examples that flesh out the ideas given here. That will be my task for the next major section of this blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment