Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Bees, used car salesmen, and misrepresentation

Now if we are working on the level of simple representation, the perhaps some solution to the problem of misrepresentation can be generated. Let us consider, for example the case of bee dances. Bees perform dances which “represent” the positions of flowers in a garden. The bees, based on this information, go out to the garden only to find no flowers, because in the intervening time between the bees’ discovery of the flowers and the time when the bees performed the dance, a child had picked all the flowers and taken them indoors. We might be able to cash out this fact of misrepresentation in causal terms: there is a normal casual relationship between the bees’ dance and the location of pollinated flowers, so the bees represented flowers in that location, but the representation was incorrect, because the flowers had been picked in the meantime.

But other kinds of misrepresentation seem more difficult to deal with at the level of simple representation. Let’s consider the kind of misrepresentation that goes on in, say, a used car dealership. Can we really imagine a bee from a competing hive going “sneaking in,” giving a dance which would send the swarm of bees to a place where there are no pollinated flowers, in order to secure the real flowers for its own hive? This kind of misrepresentation seems to require that the fifth-columnist bee, like the used car dealer, know that the dance was misleading, in other words, understand what it is that their own dance and know that it was a misrepresentation. This seems to be beyond the capabilities of bees, and requires a radically different set of abilities. Can we account for the difference between being sincerely mistaken an lying in terms of causal relationships? I rather doubt it.

There have, certainly, been causal theories of reference which have been advanced. But these do not suggest that causal relationships alone are sufficient to fix reference. Consider the following standard description of causal theories of reference.

This is the wikipedia account of the causal theory of reference

A name's referent is fixed by an original act of naming (also called a "dubbing" or, by Saul Kripke, an "initial baptism"), whereupon the name becomes a rigid designator of that object. later uses of the name succeed in referring to the referent by being linked to that original act via a causal chain.

In other words, what causation explains, according to this theory, is how references is transmitted once an initial act of naming, an intentional (both in the sense of being intended and in the sense of possessing “aboutness”) is performed. How such actions could be performed in the first place is accounted for in causal terms. It is true, that some have attempted to provide more radical accounts of reference which attempt to stay within the constraints imposed by physicalism; Devitt’s theories are a good example of this. However, I think this attempt has been shown to be a failure in Martin Rice’s essay “Why Devitt Can’t Name His Cat.”


Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:
Don't forget that countless animals (and plants!) engage in active deception to lure their prey within reach, or to mislead other predators. Even my cats practice deception when they rear up and expand their fur to give the illusion that they are larger and more dangerous than they really are.

Victor Reppert said...

But camouflages of various sorts don't involve mental states, do they?

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:
that's an unanswerable question, since we don't know the mode of consciousness for animals. When one of those deep sea fishes that have lures dangling off their foreheads works at deceiving its prey, it is definitely practicing deception (presenting something as reality that the fish knows to be false). But is the fish self-aware? Now THERE is a good question...

Mark Frank said...

I haven't done academic philosophy since the early 1970s. I am amazed that the nature of referencing is still an active issue. I thought a combination of Grice and Wittgenstein pretty much killed it off. Surely the bee's dance is an example of Grice's "natural meaning" - there is no intention. While the used car-dealer is using Grice's "non-natural meaning" which is heavily dependent on intention. The interesting question is whether you can give a physical account of intention.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Causal and informational theories worth their salt would say that certain causal/informational relations are necessary but not sufficient for thought to take place.

If they were sufficient, then thermometers would have thoughts about the temperature.

I like Bennett's book Rationality where he starts with bees, and asks what would you have to add to their waggle dance behavior and such before you would count them as rational agents. Clearly they have some of the hallmarks of rational agents (they represent states of affairs in the world, communicate this to others). But most of us would want to say a lot more would need to be added before we'd say they are acting rationally.

I look at your question about lying as a related topic. What specifically, would we have to add to the bees' behavioral and cognitive repertoires before we would consider them as deceiving?

I agree that bees are a great example of a biological representational system, and I would say they exhibit a protointentionality that points us in the right direction for a naturalistic theory of human intentionality.

Proskop gives a great example from the world of fish. It seems more reflexive and instinctual than intended to deceive. My hunch is this involves no more intention to deceive than a hummingbird drinking deeply from a flower. It's just gathering food.

Note I could be wrong about that, these are all partly empirical questions.

The philosopher Robert Brandom has a lot to say about these questions, especially his essay 'How analytic philosophy has failed cognitive science.' I would basically agree with most of what he says in that essay, but without the arrogance he tends to have that he is right. :)

Blue Devil Knight said...

People might not realize this is a redated post from a rather extended discussion of bees we had over at DI2 about a year and a half ago.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Incidentally, I started in with the bees over at this ost, and frankly I think this comment, and responses to others there, is the most useful thing I've ever said at this site (for what that's worth :)), at least useful for me.