Archive for December, 2007

PMS-WIPS 015 - Alex Morgan - What is a Theory of Scientific Representation?

Monday, December 31st, 2007

“What is a Theory of Scientific Representation?” by Alex Morgan, Rutgers University

ABSTRACT: I address the question of precisely what recent debates about scientific representation have been about. I respond to a recent paper by Callender & Cohen (2006), who argue that such debates have largely been concerned with non-issues, because (i) they have primarily addressed the question of what constitutes something’s being a scientific representation, and (ii) this ‘constitution question’ receives a trivial answer, for what constitutes something’s being a scientific representation is the fact that it is stipulated to be a scientific representation. I argue that the stipulation proposal doesn’t account well for the apparently non-arbitrary nature of much scientific representation, and that the constitution question presupposes problematic metaphysical and semantic theses. Contra Callender & Cohen, I propose that recent debates about scientific representation are best understood as provisional attempts to explain a certain empirical phenomenon: the use of representational artifacts for predictive and explanatory purposes.

[Link to full text of article]
[Link to further info on PMS WIPS]


Thursday, December 20th, 2007

The use of bristles in ingenious. I’d like to see a steerable version.

Link to Bristlebot page here.

Math vs. Natural Language and the Mind-Brain

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Much of the recent discussion on “Your Brain is Reading This” has focused on what sorts of substantive conclusions (if any) can be drawn about cognitive neuroscience based on reflections on ordinary language. One contributor to that thread is neuroscientist Eric Thompson and I’m reminded of remarks he’s made over at the Brains blog about the relative poverty of natural language (as opposed to mathematical theories) in capturing neural and mental phenomena.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot more recently and want to link to these past comments of Eric’s. For starters, there’s his dream curriculum for a cognitive science program here. But for real food for thought, there are his remarks here on the differences between two groups of researchers who don’t collect their own data. Here’s an excerpt:

Unfortunately, philosophy training is not very helpful for thinking about data or coming up with precise theories of how brains work. Many philosophers I talk to think that theoretical neuroscience is just philosophical neuroscience, but there are really two groups of people that don’t collect their own data. The theoretical neuroscientists (Sejnowski, Abbott, Hopfield, etc) who are trained in lots of mathematics (typically they come from physics) on one hand, and the philosophers who typically use natural language to think about brains. I think the philosophical branch of the armchair neuroscientists have done, and will do, very little to push neuroscience in fruitful directions. The mathematical branch of the armchair dwellers, though, will continue to bear fruit.

While it is possible, I just don’t see neuroscience becoming data rich and theory poor: theoretical neuroscience is exploding, especially as theoretical physicists are realizing that it is much easier to find jobs in biophysics than string theory. Theories to explain given data are a dime a dozen. While the amount of data is quite daunting, if you ask an experimentalist for their speculations about their data, you typically won’t find any shortage. However, they will tend to be quite cautious, journal editors tend to cut such speculations out of papers, and experimentalists don’t want to come off as mushy theorists in their presentation of data. There is a strong selection effect to make it look like there lots of theories. Also, in practice, it is typically experimentalists who come up with predictions that can actually be tested: this is very hard to do even if you are an experimentalist with an understanding of the nuances of the techniques.

Also, while I don’t think philosophical naturalists should necessarily be doing experiments, as I mentioned above, they would be better served by learning more mathematics and actually analyzing some data.

PMS-WIPS 014 - Luke Jerzykiewicz - Platonist Epistemology and Cognition

Monday, December 17th, 2007

“Platonist Epistemology and Cognition” by Luke Jerzykiewicz, Clark University of Massachusetts and the University of Western Ontario

ABSTRACT: Recent findings in cognitive psychology are used to show that Stewart Shapiro’s [1997] account of human mathematical knowledge is in need of revision.

[Link to full text of article]
[Link to further info on PMS WIPS]

From Hacker to WIPS

Monday, December 17th, 2007

All the discussion of P.M.S. Hacker in the previous post makes me think of PMS. PMS WIPS, that is, and how there are two more additions forthcoming:

December 17, 2007 - PMS WIPS 014 - Luke Jerzykiewicz, Clark University of Massachusetts and the University of Western Ontario - Platonist Epistemology and Cognition

December 31, 2007 - PMS WIPS 015 - Alex Morgan, Rutgers University - What is a Theory of Scientific Representation?

Further submissions welcome, read guidelines here: [link].

Your Brain is Reading This

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

What Bennett and Hacker call “the mereological fallacy” is the view that psychological predicates attributable to whole organisms may also be attributed to proper parts of organisms. It’s consistent with such a view that my cat may remember where the litter-box is in virtue of his brain’s remembering where the litter-box is. Bennett and Hacker’s hostility toward this view goes beyond merely thinking it false: they reject it as incoherent and nonsensical.

In contrast, I regard it as at worst mostly harmless, probably true, and thus far from incoherent. A lot of the difference between us likely hinges on differing views regarding the mutability of concepts and the scientific worth of conceptual analysis.

Let’s, however, indulge in a little analysis, especially of the concept of a fallacy. I regard fallacies as invalid arguments, and if there is an invalid argument form deserving of the title “mereological fallacy” it goes something like this.

1. a is F
2. b is a proper part of a
3. Therefore, b is F

You can’t plug just any old predicate in for “F” and expect 1, 2, and 3 to come out true. However, it’s fully consistent with this that there are some substitution instances whereby 1, 2, and 3 do come out true. Let a = Mandik, b = Mandik’s left foot, and F = in the Earth’s gravitational field.

There are lots of occasions in which 1, 2, & 3 come out true. Why not, then, regard occasions in which F is a psychological predicate as such occasions?

Consider some relevant analogies. If my computer crashes and investigation reveals that all of its parts are in working order except for the hard-drive, then no confusion ensues in saying that the hard-drive crashed. If my cat digests a meal and investigation of all his parts reveals that his stomach did most of the work, then no confusion ensues in saying that his stomach digests the meal. Medieval philosophers, concerned with the doctrine of bodily resurrection, used to engage in a priori speculations about how digestion worked. It seems silly to engage in such practices now.

It should, at a minimum, be regarded as an open question, not something ruled out a priori, that further investigation will uncover facts we may summarize as that the brain remembers, is conscious, has beliefs, etc.

Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker (2003). Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Berlin, Blackwell Publishing.

Bennett, M.R., D. Dennett, P.M.S. Hacker, J. Searle. (2007). Neuroscience and Philosophy. Brain, Mind and Language. N.Y., Columbia University Press.

Subjective Colors Online

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Benham’s Top or Benham’s Disk involves the elicitation of a perception of colors by a rotating stimulus that is itself only black and white. A terrific online demo is available at this link [here]. My own experience is that at relatively high speeds, the inner bands are yellowish and the outer bands are blueish. Reversing the direction of rotation results in the colors switching locations.

Benham's Top

Tip of the Tongue, Iceberg

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

In his recent post “Echoes of Inner Speech“, Eric Schwitzgebel reflects on the phenomenological differences between inner speech and the apparently lingering non-speech thoughts that follow episodes of inner speech. As the comments to the post evidence, it’s natural to wonder here to what degree the various relevant mental phenomena - thoughts, etc. - are language like. How “speechy” is so-called inner-speech? How language-like are so-called non-speechy thoughts?

It strikes me as relevant to compare such phenomena to the phenomenon of a name on the tip of one’s tongue. There’s a clear sense in which the name is “there” even though it’s not there in the way it would be if you were silently saying the name to yourself. It’s also clear that what ever is “there” has to be pretty language-like, since what’s on the tip of the tongue is a name, after all.