Saturday, June 04, 2016

Representation Eliminativism and Its Rivals

Robert Epstein recently stirred up some controversy in an Aeon essay arguing that the brain is not a computer -- indeed, that computationalist vocabulary applied to human beings is highly misleading. For instance, he argues, we do not store and retrieve information. Instead, our behaviors are refined under environmental pressures, and that is all there is to it. There is no representation of a song in your head; it's just that you've been conditioned by your prior actions and your environment to sing (or hum, or whistle) on certain kinds of occasions. To catch a ball, you don't have to do any elaborate representing of the situation; you just reach out and catch it, having built on your reflexes by whatever practice you've had.

This received criticism from a rather wide variety of different sources, arguing against particular arguments or the general position itself, insisting that we do, in fact, have representations. Much of this was not particularly interested; poorly conceived and often question-begging arguments, mostly. (Part of the problem is Epstein's attempt to put his argument in vague terms about computers, thus running afoul of the fact that theory of computation is very abstract and does not depend on a number of things he attributes to computers.) But what is more interesting is how similar many of the arguments on both sides are to arguments about free will.

Epstein is a representation eliminativist -- we have no representations in our brains, if we talk about 'representations in the brain' it is a loose way of speaking that doesn't actually explain anything, and a proper and complete account of our brains and behaviors would not require any such talk at all. It's just physics, and chemistry, and biology, and psychological conditioning, and nothing else is needed. This position is structurally analogous to hard determinism (free will is an illusion, etc.). Several of Epstein's arguments to this end have counterparts in arguments for hard determinism; to give just one example, the argument for the claim that all the information/representation talk is just "a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand" is easily recognizable as an analogue to arguments one finds for determinism. Likewise with the repeated insinuations that no one actually knows what these 'representations' really are. One also notes that Epstein's own position, based on conditioning and environmental determinations, could easily double as a determinist position without any significant change at all.

Many of Epstein's critics are representation compatibilists; they think it is all explained in terms of physics, etc., yes, but they think talk of representation, information, memory storage, or what have you is genuinely useful if not abused. The two do not exclude each other, and it's not wrong to use either. In both the representation and free will cases, the major arguments involve the idea that there is some important field that regularly requires appeal to these things in order to make sense of even basic behaviors. 'How else do you explain X?' is a common, if somewhat futile, tactic against the eliminativist, precisely because the eliminativist is usually concerned with eliminating a concept regarded as covering our ignorance -- he won't usually have an explanation, but it's often because he is denying anyone has an explanation in the sense demanded, and is criticizing people for trying to cover that up. But the other side -- that we seem perfectly well to explain things, at least to some extent, with this concept -- can have bite.

More rare on the ground, but also occasionally found in the comments boxes, are incompatibilists who accept the existence of representations -- i.e., they think representation, etc., is necessary because these things add something that physics, etc., can't get us. At least in this case, they tend to have sympathy with Epstein's incompatibilist arguments, but take representation and the like to be obvious on other grounds.

It's not surprising for the field to break up this way. A lot of philosophy of mind issues, and similar issues, naturally break along these lines -- not just representation and free will, but also beliefs, qualia, concepts, and, farther afield, design, all tend to raise analogous issues about explanation of how these things are constituted -- and approaches to explaining how things are constituted can be eliminativist, reductivist, or nonreductivist. What is more, representation and free will are closely linked; a number of historical arguments for free will are based on the kinds of representations we have or seem to have, and, as one can see from Epstein's own descriptions, the influence could easily go in the opposite direction, as well. What's mostly interesting in this case is finding it so clearly and cleanly delineated, in part because of Epstein's provocative way of putting it.

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