What’s your position on representation?

by James Thorniley
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6 Comments to “What’s your position on representation?”

  1. My stance:

    Thoughts are things that can only really be talked about on the mental level, not the physical one. Kind of like words – although words are very highly correlated with vibrations of the vocal chords, nobody would want to say that words *are* vibrations of the vocal chords. It is simply a category error to say that any type of physical thing (or relationship between physical things) defines what a word is, and I think it’s the same with thoughts.

    To unpack this a bit, the concept of a thought is something we use to communicate with others about our behaviour and our mental state (e.g. in expressions like “I’ve had a thought” or “what are your thoughts?”). With our current level of understanding of the human brain we have absolutely no idea how, if at all, the concept corresponds to any well-defined aspect of our internal state or its relationship to our environment. Attaining this knowledge would at the very least require the implanting large numbers of electrodes inside human brains. They’d have to be human brains, because it’s hard enough to get people to agree on whether animals have thoughts at all (my stance: “duh, of course they do”), let alone what thoughts and when. And then even if we did find such a correlation, it would probably still be an error to say that this *was* the thought. (c/f my comments about words above.)

    I’m not sure whether it’s possible to have a thought without being aware of it. For me this question boils down to, is it ever useful to us to say something like “I didn’t realise I thought that”? I think it probably sometimes is. It certainly seems plausible that I might want to say “I’ve just realised I was having a really weird thought”, with the implication that I didn’t know I was having the thought until I noticed it.

  2. Yeah, the question was intended to tease out whether people think of representations in brains, but later on I realised perhaps it’s pushing people a bit towards the first two answers, which are the only really “mental” definitions of what a thought is. So if you think that thoughts are a mental thing, then you’re kind of forced to pick one of the first two, so I’m kind of forcing you to pick a “representationalist” stance in a slightly unfair way!

    That said, it’s not that hard to find people who will say things like “a thought is just a bunch of neurons firing” (I saw answers like this when I was googling around the question).

    I guess I was slightly attacking the wrong question. Perhaps “what do all the patterns of activity in your brain do?” or something would be better.

    • But my point was that the first two options *aren’t* descriptions on the mental level. As soon as you say “representations in brains”, you’re making a claim about the physical level (i.e. the physical state of the brain plays a role in both of these definitions). I’m saying that the physical level of description has no place at all in a description of what a thought is, at least with our current level of understanding of the brain.

      [Note: there is something called a "representation" that exists in purely the mental level of description. I can represent the number 123 as a series of mental images or by saying it using my "inner voice", for example - but this is a rather different meaning of the word "representation". I think some neuroscientists are confused about this, and think the two types of representation must be the same thing. This would certainly explain some of the wacky things some of them say.]

  3. Fair enough, but nowhere did I say that representations are “in the brain” in the question or any of the answers, I just said they were “internal”, which could mean lots of things. Probably not being specific about that is part of the problem. Apart from the words sensor and motor I can’t see anything explicitly physical/mechanical about the questions.

  4. (Also the words sensor and motor are kind of teleologically loaded themselves, so I’m not sure if they are purely mechanical)

  5. Ah sorry, just realised I said “representations in brains” in my comment, i see what you mean

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