A role for representations in inflexible behavior

Biology and Philosophy 35 (4):1-18 (2020)
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Representationalists have routinely expressed skepticism about the idea that inflexible responses to stimuli are to be explained in representational terms. Representations are supposed to be more than just causal mediators in the chain of events stretching from stimulus to response, and it is difficult to see how the sensory states driving reflexes are doing more than playing the role of causal intermediaries. One popular strategy for distinguishing representations from mere causal mediators is to require that representations are decoupled from specific stimulus conditions. I believe this requirement on representation is mistaken and at odds with explanatory practices in sensory ecology. Even when sensory states have the job of coordinating a specific output with a specific input, we can still find them doing the work of representations, carrying information needed for organisms to respond successfully to environmental conditions. We can uncover information at work by intervening specifically on the information conveyed by sensory states, leaving their causal role undisturbed.

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Todd Ganson
Oberlin College


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