NoR 3.2: Experience

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

The job of the next few posts is to fill out the details of how source-intentionality is to be grounded. And as flagged, here I will draw on Karen Neander’s recent defence of a teleosemantic account of sensory-perceptual content.

This post lays out Neander’s approach to perceptual content. As mentioned, Neander concentrates on the representational content of sensory-perceptual states—so ones that occur within a particular cognitive system. Her story comprises two steps. The first is the following:

  • A sensory-perceptual representation R in sensory-perceptual system S has [E occurs] as a candidate-content iff S has the function to produce R-type events in response to E-type events (as such).

So let’s unpack this. The key notion here is the appeal to the function of something within a certain system. It’s this appeal that makes the account part of the teleosemantic tradition. Now, there’s a lot that could be said about what grounds facts of the form “x has function y in system z”. All we need, for now, is the assumption that these are “naturalistically respectable” and grounded prior to and independently of any representational facts. So for example, a theological account of functions, whereby the function of x is y in z iff God designed x to y in z, is out. More subtly, a stance-relative account of functions, whereby the function of x in y in z for an theorist t depends on theorist’s t’s projects and aims, is also out. But an etiological theory of functions, whereby the function of x in y is z iff x’s in z were evolutionary selected to do y, is an option. The details matter, of course (the details always matter) but for now, we’ll treat functions as a working primitive.

Neander’s proposal is that once we see Sally’s sensory-perceptual system as containing states with a variety of functions, it is response-functions that hold the key to analyzing perceptual content. The system is functioning “as designed” when a certain worldly event-type causes a specific state-type to be tokened within it. Consider the following non-biological example. Runners passing a checkpoint throw a tab with their number into a bucket. The system is functioning “as designed” when runner number 150 passing the checkpoint causes there to be a tab with 150 inscribed upon it in the bucket (the causal mechanism is the runner throwing a random tab from those on a loop on their belt into the bucket). Of course, things can go wrong (the runner can forget to throw the tab, they can miss the bucket, they may have been given a wrongly-inscribed tab at the start) but those would be cases of the system malfunctioning.

Designed systems, at least, can have “response-functions”.  In such cases it’s very natural to think that it’s in virtue of the response-function that the contents of the bucket records or represents the runners who have passed. Neander’s contention is that biological systems with etiological functions can work analogously. Because the grounding of the relevant functions doesn’t require intentions or design but just a pattern of selection in evolutionary history, this is a way of grounding such representation in non-representational facts.

Now, one famous challenge to naturalistic theories of representation (especially perceptual representation) was to distinguish those items in the causal history of an episode of perception which figure in the content of the perception, from those that do not. For example, a red cube observed from a given angle causes a certain pattern of retinal stimulation, which in turn causes a certain state R to obtain in the sensory-perceptual system. The perception has a content that concerns red cubes, not retinal stimluations. Yet it’s perfectly true that part of a well-functioning sensory-perceptual system is that it responds to retinal stimulations of a certain pattern by producing R. It’s also true that that the well-functioning system produces R in response to red cubes at the given angle, and this—indeed, within the system, the response to retinal stimulation is the means by which it responds to “distal” red cubes. But we better not analyze perceptual content as anything to which the perceptual system has a function to produce states in response to, else we’ll include proximal and distal events together. This is why the gloss above talks of “candidate contents” not “contents” simpliciter. Neander appeals to asymmetric means-end relation in the functioning of the system to narrow things down. Here is my reconstruction of her proposal:

  • Among candidate contents E1, E2, let E1>E2 iff in S, the function to produce R-type events as a response to E2 is a means to produce R-type events as a response to E1 but not vice versa.
  • The content of R is the >-minimal candidate content (if there are many >-maximal contents, then the content of R is indeterminate between them).

Suppose that I perceive a red cube to my right, and suppose that the vehicle of this representation is a single state of my sensory-perceptual system (presumably a state produced after a fair degree of processing has gone on). What grounds the fact that that token state represents what it does? On this account, it is because in the evolutionary history of this biological system, states of that type were produced in response to the presence of red cubes to the right of the perceiver, and this feature was selected for. The process by which the states were produced includes intermediary objects and properties, and the sensory-perceptual state was produced in response to those no less than the red cube  (perhaps the intermediary states include three mutually orthogonal red surfaces orientated towards the subject, a certain pattern of retinal stimulation in the subject, etc). However, the function to respond to such intermediaries is a mere means to the end of responding to the presence of *red cubes to the right*.

I will be using Neander’s theory as my account of the first-layer intentionality in perception. When we see appeal, in radical interpretation, to rationalizing dispositions to act given the *experiences* undergone, the “experiences” are to be cashed out in terms of teleoinformational contents. As I mentioned in the last post, there’s further work to be done in turning these representational raw materials into the kind of base facts that radical interpretation needs—identifying the relata of rationalization. How do we get from the content of possibly subpersonal representational states of the sensory-perceptual system, to the content of experience, and ultimately to the impact of that experience on rational belief? This will be addressed in future posts.


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