Mental Representations in a Mechanical World - The State of the Debate in Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Science
The concept of representation is ubiquitous in cognitive science and in the philosophy of mind. The concept seems to play two roles: on the one hand, neural representations are postulated by neuroscientists and philosophers to explain sub-personal phenomena such as the processing of visual information in the brain, or the fly-catching behavior of frogs. On the other hand, mental representations are taken to explain how personal-level phenomena, such as memory, perception, imagination, or consciousness work. Mental representations are taken to be required to make sense of beliefs and other propositional attitudes and posits of folk psychology.
Non-representationalists contend that postulating representations of any sort is either unnecessary or even deeply problematic. Especially the traditional objection against representationalism, the causal impotence of representational content, gets new force in the light of a popular new approach to scientific explanation in the life sciences and the cognitive sciences. According to the so-called new mechanists, to explain a phenomenon is to show how it is produced by an underlying mechanism. The challenge for representationalists is to explain how representations can figure in these mechanisms and to provide convincing arguments that mental representations have a place in a mechanical world.
This workshop investigates the status of representations in a mechanical account of the mind and cognition. One core question will be whether the status of neural and mental representation is equally problematic. While sub-personal phenomena seem to be less resistant to mechanistic explanation, many personal-level mental phenomena seem to be “representation hungry”. The burden of argument seems to be on the side of the mechanists to show how to explain these phenomena without invoking mental representations. A second core question concerns the relationship between neural and mental representations. It is often assumed that the former are needed to account for the latter. However, naturalising neural representations, and accounting for their explanatory utility in a mechanistic neuroscience proves difficult. How intertwined are beliefs and desires with neural representations? Do they only come together, or is a conceptual repertoire including one but not the other a coherent possibility?