Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Nature of Representation: Interview with Robert Williams

Robbie Williams
In this post I interview Robert Williams, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Leeds. Robert is currently leading a project on the Nature of Representation (NatRep), funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (2012-2017). The aim is to explore the metaphysics and epistemology of mental and linguistic representation. The team includes Jennifer Carr and Rachel Goodman as post-doctoral research fellows, and Nick Tasker and Will Gamester as PhD students.


LB: What was your main motivation in choosing to investigate the nature of representation? How did you become interested in the topic?

RW: I’ve been fascinated since days in graduate school with underdetermination/indeterminacy arguments in the theory of representation. To illustrate with one I’m thinking about right now. Start from the following picture of the metaphysical grounds of belief and desire content: the content of an agent’s mental states is whatever it has to be, to rationalize the agent’s actions (the outputs) in the light of evidence (the inputs). An indeterminacy argument seeks to show that the constraints just mentioned can be met, not just by sensible-seeming interpretations, but by wild and crazy ones. The one I’m looking at right now, for example, constructs interpretations that have the agent thinking of themselves living in a universe that is void except in the local perceivable and manipulable environment of the agent (the agent’s “bubble”).

It’s fun to think up these crazy interpretations and show that they meet specified constraints. But what’s philosophically interesting is the lessons we draw. The most natural one—and my first instinct—is to draw the lesson that our account of the metaphysical grounds of content is incomplete, that we’re missing some `saving constraint’ that knocks out the crazy interpretations. And then the goal is to pin down what that missing ingredient could be. An alternative is to accept the arguments and revise our views about how determinate mental or linguistic content is. This strategy too raises interesting questions in the theory of representation—if we want to pinpoint what’s wrong with accepting indeterminacy of content, in my view we’ll need to say something about the theoretical role of representation, which pinpoints what we’d lose by embracing deviant interpretations. A final alternative—more popular historically than nowadays, perhaps—is to preserve the account of the grounds of representation but avoid indeterminacy, by rejecting presuppositions of the argument about the metaphysical character of the world that is being represented.

My graduate work focused on indeterminacy arguments and possible saving constraints—working in particular within the kind of `interpretationist’ metaphysical grounds for content David Lewis proposed (one element of which involves the rationalization story about mental content described above), which in certain parts of the philosophy literature has become almost orthodoxy, though rarely examined or defended in detail. The moral I drew from that work 10 years ago was largely negative—that living with indeterminacy wasn’t a real option because it’d prevent content from doing the work it needed to; and that the saving constraints that people (including Lewis himself) proposed didn’t work.

Maybe one moral at this point to have taken was that the Lewisian interpretationism was a busted flush, and to look instead at alternative traditions—salient among them being the causal-teleological accounts of Dretske and Mililkan, or (in the case of language rather than mental content) the ideas surrounding the causal theory of reference. But when I turned to look at those, the really compelling stuff that I could extract seemed to lack some of the virtues I prized in interpretationist accounts. Interpretationism, if it worked, would give a story about all content, not just special cases (reference to medium sized dry good and their observable properties). My hunch was that I wouldn’t find in these alternative traditions a satisfactory story about unsexy but genuine questions about what grounds the relation between the word `of’ and its semantic value, or about the grounds of content of highly theoretical beliefs remote from perception or action.

So this felt like unfinished business to me. For one thing, I’d said something about the way the metaphysics of representation wasn't—but the goal of course is to say something about how the metaphysics of representation is. Second—speaking personally—I struggled to find a presentation of the overall interpretationist picture that satisfied me as a real theory rather than a theory-sketch. The Lewisian story about linguistic content I thought I had a good grip on—but how the story about mental content went was much murkier. Thirdly, I was prepared to bet that some version of the interpretationist story was going to be part of the overall account of mental content—and since others in the literatures I was reading seem to be betting the same way, it seemed the division of philosophical labour required someone to go investigate whether that bet was going to pay off.

LB: In the first couple of years of your project, you were looking at whether the representational properties of belief have a genuine explanatory role. What sort of themes emerged as part of your research?

RW: One theme that emerged in the first couple of years was an argument about what is required to defend the spirit (as well as the letter) of a reductive realist theory of representation. I argue you need to do more than put forward a metaphysical theory that identifies where representation lies in the naturalistic world. You also need that metaphysical theory to be purely about representation. Let me expand on that.

We can illustrate the distinction here with a story about measurement. Suppose you have a community, the metricians, who report lengths simply by associating numbers with objects. So they would say “the length of the table is ” where we would say “the length of the table is 1 metre”. Since our measurement practice has an explicit role for a unit, we can easily report the same thing in other forms “the length of the table is 6 feet such-and-such inches”. The metricians' practice doesn’t give them this flexibility. Nevertheless, their un-paramaterized length concept is perfectly servicable and entrenched in their everyday life, engineering and science.

Some of the more reflective metricians start looking for a metaphysical grounding for the metricians’ length-concept. They ask for a story about where in the world to locate this relation that pairs that table, say, with the number 2. We know the sort of resources they could use—they could talk about the ratios between the length of the table and the length of one of their standard measuring sticks, and note that this is the same ratio as that between 2 and 1. They could show how the system of ratios can be represented by real numbers.

So the metricians have a successful up-and-running practice of length measurement and a story about the metaphysical basis of it. Does that mean that we should think that there’s an especially interesting relation between the table and 2, as opposed to between the table and 6.xyz? Surely not—after all, the imperialists in the neighbouring country could have a corresponding practice of reporting lengths, again without explicit reference to units, but which corresponds systematically to our measurements in feet and inches. There’s nothing wrong with the metricians and the imperialists ways of measuring lengths, or the metaphysics they offer. But their practices are parochial. When they use the relation that maps the table onto the number 2, they’re not talking purely about length—length is the intended subject-matter, but the relation they use to glom onto it has an admixture of an arbitrary choice of unit, in a way that isn’t explicitly acknowledged in their talk.

In contrast to the metricians and imperialists, the synthethisians don’t report lengths by appeal to numbers at all—not even via an explicit choice of unit as we do. They talk explicitly about the ratios and comparative distance relations between various objects. There’s nothing parochial about their talk—they capture the subject-matter directly (though it may from a practical point of view be a clunky way to proceed).

Might the same be true of representation? Might our representation talk (that I see this table or believe of it that it is solid) be similiarly parochial and embed an unacknowledged element of arbitrariness? This sort of questions has been raised before—Davidson used an analogy to the theory of measurement as a way into his concerns about indeterminacy, and Field in 1975 put his finger on exactly the issue as I understand it. But I think the message hasn’t been fully absorbed. The point, generalized, is that even if you having a successful theory of some aspect of the world, and even if you have a naturalistic and vindicatory metaphysics of the same, then there’s still a question about whether you are purely reporting on the facts about representationor whether there’s a perspectival element to the whole theory-and-metaphysics shabang. In short, there’s still a question about the objectivity of the theory of representation.

That’s got implications for the way we think about the philosophy and metaphysics of representation. By now, we know many candidate ways to defeat the letter of the Quine-Putnam-Davidson indeterminacy arguments, even if we may squabble over the details (shall we throw causation into the mix, or would an appeal to natural properties be better?). But suppose you’ve got your candidate—a naturalistic and vindicatory metaphysics of entrenched theorizing about representation. The real hard task is to say why appeal to causality or naturalness isn’t an arbitrary admixture to the theory, grounding only a parochial representation-relation—representation from a certain point of view. If you back down at this point, conceding that there’s no objectivity in the inclusion of causation rather than some permuted variant or naturalness vs its variant, then I think in spirit, if not in letter, you’re with the Quineans and Davidsonians, thinking there’s no real interesting sense in which we’re any more representationally-related to balls in front of our eyes than small furry creatures on another galaxy. It’s just as staggeringly implausible as it is in the original formulations. So the stakes for our conception of what we’ve achieved are very high.

There are in fact two really hard tasks here—first to articulate what being “purely about X” amounts to; and second to apply that understanding to the debate about representation, and see if which if any extant theories pass the test.

That is where debates about the explanatory role of representation becomes vital, in my view. I’ve been defending the line that this question of the objectivity of representation depends on teleology of the concept—the point and purpose which it serves for us. An arbitrary admixture to the metaphysics of X is one that can be varied while still achieving the purposes in question. And I’ve been arguing that considerations of charitable interpretation (as opposed to causality or naturalness) can be defended as non-arbitrary on these grounds.

LB: As you know, we are working on a project investigating the potential benefits of beliefs that are inaccurate in some important respect, so we find some aspects of your project very interesting and relevant. In particular, your project considers different ways in which content should be ascribed to beliefs in an interpretive framework, including informativeness, accuracy, and simplicity. Do you think accuracy should play a fundamental role?

RW: That’s an interesting question! Davidson thought one of the norms of interpretation was to make the target a “believer of the true, a lover of the good”. By contrast, Lewis doesn’t have this emphasis on *truth* or *goodness* in his official account of interpretation. For him (as I read his “Radical Interpretation”—the passage is a bit subtle) it’s all about rationality: depicting the believer as responding rationally to evidence (that’s his formulation of charity) and as acting rationality (that’s his rationalization principle). Attributing more accurate but *unjustified* beliefs, is no gain from this perspective. 

How could we resolve this debate about what the norms of interpretation should be? The kind of perspective outlined above suggests that we go back to the question of the point and purpose of interpreting and ascribing beliefs in the first place. I think there’s a lot to be said for rationality as tied up with the telos of ascribing attitudes to people. If a person is rational, then the sort of person you can engage with in a distinctive way, as part of a process of joint inquiry or action. 

The distinctive engagement is by presenting them with reasons to believe or do something---and only if they're rational (at least to the relevant extent) can you trust them to respond to reasons in the right kind of ways. So detecting a rational pattern is detecting an opportunity for a distinctive kind of person-to-person engagement. That kind of thing isn’t secured just by accuracy—you might pat someone on the back for getting things right, but if you think of someone has having hit on the right idea by pure chance, the preconditions for full collaborative engagement with them on theoretical inquiry and practical projects haven’t been met.

If we do think that rationality has the primary role here, perhaps there’s room for accuracy as supplementary. After all, in order to engage in joint cognitive or practical projects with another person, being able to interact with them in rational ways is required, but you’ll typically also want some shared starting points. And interpreting others as accurate (by your lights) is exactly to identify common ground. So—tentatively—I think that both rationality and accuracy have a fundamental role in interpretation. But rationality is more fundamental than accuracy: an absence of rationality means that you can’t engage with them *at all* in the ways we want; an absence of accuracy (by your lights) just means that it’s harder to do so.

(Just to mention another theme that lurking in this area. Williamson has suggested that the right way to do something like radical interpretation is to maximize (wait for it!) knowledge, rather than true belief. And you can see why that might be related to the telos of interpretation, too, if we’re interested in interacting with others as part of a project of inquiry aimed at knowledge. Since knowledge entails truth (and justification) this kind of story might subsume the other two.)

Having said that, let me add an important caveat. From my perspective it’d certainly be legitimate to engage in the project of interpretation for purposes *other* than that of finding people with whom one can rationally collaboratively engage in inquiry, or practically collaboratively engage in joint projects to bring about the good. You could engage in interpretation of another because you want to predict what they’ll do next. Those different purposes would support different constraints on interpretation. So while normative stuff like accuracy and rationality may be fundamental relative to one kind of interpretative exercise, that doesn’t mean they’re fundamental for everything we might be doing around here.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Transparent Emotions?

In this post, Naomi Kloosterboer (PhD student at VU University of Amsterdam and visiting research fellow at the University of Birmingham) discusses her paper ‘Transparent emotions? A critical analysis of Moran’s Transparency Claim’ that will appear in the special issue of Philosophical Explorations on ‘Self-knowledge and Folk Psychology: Perspectives from Philosophy and Psychiatry’.

If I want to know what you believe or feel, the easiest and most prevailing way of finding out would be to just ask you. Moreover, if I don’t take your answer at face value, I should be able to provide good reasons to justify my mistrust. That is to say, when it comes to speaking our minds, the default mode is that we are granted the authority to do so. But what justifies this first-person authority? In Authority and Estrangement (2001), Richard Moran argues convincingly against the idea that our authority is grounded in epistemic features of self-knowledge because they do not explain its specific first-personal character. Instead, he advocates that our agential capacities ground our authority.

Crucial to Moran’s account of self-knowledge is his distinction between two different stances we can take towards our mental lives: a theoretical and a deliberative stance. Put concisely, from a theoretical perspective I answer a question about whether I have a particular mental attitude by looking for evidence for my having the attitude. From a deliberative perspective, by contrast, I answer such a question by deliberating about the reasons in favor of or against the content of the attitude. We are not mere bystanders of what goes on in our heads (theoretical stance), but acquiring knowledge of our mental attitudes is related to how we see the world (deliberative stance).

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Sight, Sound, and Mental Health

On 16th March I chaired a session entitled "Sight, Sound, and Mental Health" for the Arts & Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. Thanks to project PERFECT sponsoring the event, we could have three exciting talks, one by Sam Wilkinson on verbal hallucinations, one by Amy Hardy on imagery, and one by Ema Sullivan-Bissett on alien abduction belief, followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

Sam talked about the difficulties in defining verbal hallucinations, as some have an auditory quality to them, but others appear to be more like thoughts. The wide variety of verbal hallucinations makes it harder to arrive at a unifying theory of what causes them. Drawing from his work with the Hearing the Voice project, Sam illustrated with examples and case studies how hallucinations can play a significant role in either hindering or supporting the wellbeing of voice hearers. 

Amy Hardy
Amy explained the importance of imagery in everyday life and mental health. As with the previous talk, the emphasis was on how different the contributions of imagery can be, from supporting the constructions of memories to planning future actions. 

Imagery can help people improve their performance (as a form of 'mental' rehearsal elite sportspeople use before competing) but can also be distressing when it is influenced by previous experience of abuse or victimisation.

What Amy touched on at the end of her talk, based on her clinical experience, was the role that imagery can have in cognitive behavioural therapy for people who experienced trauma.


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Aesthetic Memory

Jon Robson
This post is by Jon Robson, teaching associate at the University of Nottingham. He works on the epistemology of aesthetic, ethical, and religious judgements.

There is a prominent doctrine in philosophical aesthetics according to which aesthetic judgements are only legitimate if based on first-hand experience of their objects. In order to properly judge that a painting is beautiful or a work of music graceful, we need to have seen or heard the relevant items for ourselves. Much of my recent work has focused on arguing that this doctrine is mistaken. In particular, I have aimed to show that there is nothing illegitimate about forming aesthetic judgements on the basis of testimony (see Robson forthcoming). Here, though, I want to focus on a different source of aesthetic judgement: memory.

Memory may initially seem to present no problems for the orthodox view. Those who accept the ‘first person requirement’ (FPR) will doubtless, like the rest of us, accept that we can (in the right circumstances) legitimately hold that a work has a particular aesthetic property on the basis of our memory of experiencing the work. Still, given that a first-person experience of the work plays an essential role in the process, this does not seem to generate any immediate worries for their view. I think, however, that a consideration of memory does lead to a number of problems for FPR.

One thing that consideration of memory in aesthetics teaches us is that a number of the standard worries about forming aesthetic judgements on the basis of testimony are misleading. We are often told that aesthetic testimony is insufficient since it does not give us the same aesthetic experience as seeing the work for ourselves or because it cannot convey the full detail of the work (it cannot tell us precisely what made that brushstroke so graceful). As others have noted already (Budd 2003), though, such considerations also apply with respect to many (if not all) aesthetic judgements retrieved via memory.

Memories are rarely, if ever, as aesthetically rewarding as the original experiences and it would be highly atypical for anyone to remember all of the minute details of even a treasured work. If, then, such considerations provide us with good reason to reject testimony in aesthetics then they would also, by parity of reasoning, give us reason to reject appeals to memory. On occasion some defenders of FPR (most notably Scruton 1974) have expressed a little sympathy for accepting the consequent of this conditional but I assume that most would, rightly, find it completely unpalatable.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

Autism and Conscious Thinking

Uwe Peters
In honour of World Autism Awareness Day, we publish a post by Uwe Peters on his recent paper 'Self-Knowledge and Consciousness of Attitudes'. 

Uwe is currently writing up his dissertation on the accessibility and self-knowledge of beliefs at King's College London. He develops an account of self-knowledge on which our privileged, non-inferential self-knowledge of beliefs is grounded in and dependent on our inferential knowledge of other people’s mental states.

In my research, I often appeal to cases of atypical cognition. In a recent paper, I argue that findings on autism pose a challenge to the following view of conscious thinking. On the basis of empirical studies and theoretical considerations, it has been argued that conscious thinking, i.e., thinking that involves the deployment of the components of working memory, involves only sensory-imagistic events such as episodes of inner speech or visual imagery but no attitudes, e.g., judgments or decisions. 


The claim is that in conscious theoretical or practical reasoning, we only have indirect access to our own attitudes via their sensory-imagistic expressions which don’t themselves qualify as attitudes, for they don’t play the right causal role. They can attain attitude-like roles (e.g., settle reasoning and justify inferences and report) only after they have been unconsciously interpreted by the mindreading system and their underlying attitudes have been self-ascribed (see Carruthers 20112013; Fletcher and Carruthers 2012; Frankish 2009, 2012; Frankish agrees that conscious thinking is based on sensory-imagistic events but claims that some of them can be “virtual” attitudes. He too, however, maintains that they depend on unconscious mindreading and metacognitive attitudes to become “effective”).