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of Paul Churchlandʼs attempt to reconcile scientific realism and a Prototype Vector Activation (PVA) theory of content in Chapter 1 of Nihil Unbound (Brassier 2007). Though I am reasonably familiar with the work of Paul and Patricia Churchland, I recall finding the argument in this section tough to disentangle first and second time round. But enough people out there seem convinced by Rayʼs position to warrant another look. This is my first attempt at a reconstruction and evaluation of Rayʼs position in Nihil (it does not yet take account of any subsequent changes in his position – I suspect that others will be better placed than me to incorporate these into the discussion). In what follows Iʼll briefly summarize the PVA theory in the form familiar to Ray at the time of Nihilʼs publication. The second section will then attempt to reconstruct his critique of Churchlandʼs attempt to reconcile his theory of content with a properly realist epistemology. 1. The Prototype Activation Theory of Content Firstly, what is the PVA theory of content? As many will already be aware, the term comes from the argot of neural network modeling. Artificial Neural Networks (ANNʼs) are a technique for modeling the behaviour of biological nervous systems using software representations of neurons and their interconnections. Like actual neurons, the software neurons in ANNʼs respond to summed inputs from other neurons or from the 'world' by producing an output. Many ANNʼs consist of three layers: an input layer which is given some initial data, a hidden layer that transforms it, and an output layer which presents the networkʼs ʻresponseʼ to the input. Learning in Neural Nets usually involves reducing the error between the actual output of the network (initialized randomly) and the desired output, which might well be the allocation of an input pattern to some category like 'true' or 'false', 'male' or 'femaleʼ, ʻcombatantʼ or ʻnon-combatantʼ or ʻaffiliation unknownʼ, represented by activations values at the output. One of the key properties adjusted during the training of ANNʼs are the 'weights' or connection strengths between neurons since these determine whether a given input generates random noise (always the case prior to training) or useful output. In ANNʼs there are supervised learning algorithms that tweak the NNʼs weights until the error between the actual output and that desired by the trainers is minimized. Some ANNʼs (for example, Kohonen Self-Organizing Feature Maps) use more biologically plausible unsupervised learning algorithms to generate useful output such as pattern identification, without that pattern having to be pre-identified by a trainer. One example is the “Hebb Rule” which adjusts connection weights according to the timing of neuron activations (neurons that fire together, wire together). So ANNʼs donʼt have to be spoon-fed. They can latch onto real structure in a data set for themselves. Learning in ANNʼs, then, can be thought of as a matter of rolling down the networkʼs “error surface” – a curve graphing the relationship of error to weights - to an adequate minimum error. An error surface represents the numerical difference between desired and actual output, against relevant variables like the interneuron weights generating the output.
However. viii. where the relevant syntactic elements are held to reside inside our skulls. Theoretically. It is geometric insofar as conceptual similarity is a matter of structural conformity between sculpted activation spaces. The Euclidean distances between the prototypes do not need to of the same magnitude but they need to be proportionate between corresponding or nearly-corresponding points. and (2) its causal relations to stable and objective macro-features of the external environment (Churchland 1998. I will not consider this possibility further since it is not directly relevant to Brassierʼs . For Churchland. 103. then. However. but rather as a function of (1) its spatial position relative to all the other contentful points within that space. according to Churchland. Churchlandʼs internalism is a little more equivocal. In most neural net architectures all the inter-neural weightings of the trained up network are involved in generating its discrepant outputs (Ramsey. arguably. Such representations can capture propositional structure. he argues. it is also holist rather than atomist. but need not represent it propositionally. 8). Thus conceptual content for Churchland is a species of narrow content. for this. The account is internalist insofar as it is syntactic. the stored information in the inter-neural weights of the network need not exhibit the modularity that we would expect if that information were stored in discrete sentences. conceptually identical prototypes could track entirely disparate environmental features so long as they exhibited the relevant structural conformity. Two trained up neural nets. than his antisententialism. The other components are the abstract but physically embodied universals tracked by sculpted activation spaces: A point in activation space acquires a specific semantic content not as a function of its position relative to the constituting axes of that space.Categories acquired through training are represented as prototype regions within the “activation space” (the space of all possible activation values of its neurons) of the network where the activations representing the items falling under a corresponding category are clustered. In effect. allows conceptual similarity to be measured across networks that have different connectivities and numbers of neurons (Churchland 1998). the neural network learns concepts by “squishing” families of points or trajectories in a high-dimensional input space onto points or trajectories clustered in a lower-dimensional similarity space. 77. Information about the real world features or structures tracked by prototypes plays no role in measures of conceptual similarity at all. Fans of active-externalist or embodied models of cognition might argue that this syntactic viewpoint on conceptual similarity might need to be subsumed within a wide process externalist conception to allow for cases in ethology and robotics where the online prowess of a neural representation depends on the presence of enabling factors in an organism or robotʼs environment (Wheeler 2005). The resultant theory of content is geometrical rather than propositional and. For one thing. can be thought of as having acquired similar concepts if the prototypes in the first net form the vertices of a similar geometrical solid to those in the second net. Itʼs important for Churchland that the distance-similarity metric is insensitive to dimensionality. prototypes represent a structure-preserving mapping or “homomorphism” from uncategorized input onto conceptual neighborhoods within the n-dimensional spaces of neural layers downstream from the input layer (Churchland 2012. 81. internalist rather than externalist. Churchland regards conceptual narrow content as but one component of the “full” semantic content in PVA. Stich and Garon 1991). 105).
discussion. The first. or 2) a metaphysical account whose claims go beyond mere pragmatic efficacy.” (Brassier 2007. This also seems to be Churchlandʼs position in the van Fraassen essay. . he writes. concerned only with functional effectiveness of organisms who instantiate these prototype frameworks in their nervous systems. or folk psychology (FP). on the one hand. for distinguishing information from noise. B2. according to Brassier. Brassierʼs gloss might seem to confuse epistemology and semantics. Brassier claims that Churchlandʼs attempt to express superempirical criteria for theoretical virtue . Brassier 2007. B1 supports B2. here. 23) Churchlandʼs claim in context is not that these are better criteria for theory choice than truth but that they are preferable to the goal of empirical adequacy favoured by van Fraassenʼs constructive empiricism. This is because his revisionary account of the superempirical virtues is either 1) essentially pragmatic. concerns the capacity of Churchlandʼs naturalism to express the epistemic norms that might distinguish between competing theories – most relevantly. According to Brassier.“ontological simplicity. because Churchland – who Brassier regards as one of the most brilliant. B1.6 of Nihil Unbound – “From the Superempirical to the Metaphysical” centers on a relatively short text by Churchland on Bas van Fraassenʼs constructive empiricism (Churchland 1985). Superempirical truth is a putative aim of scientific enquiry not a criterion by which we may independently estimate its success (albeit an aim that is question both by Churchland and van Fraassen). In the context of our familiar folk-distinction between epistemic criteria for beliefselection and semantic relationships between beliefs and things. Brassier thus sees Churchlandʼs philosophy as “symptomatic of a wider problem concerning the way in which philosophical naturalism frames its own relation to science”. Brassierʼs Critique Brassier argues for two important claims. 18) – in neurocomputational terms leaves his account vacillating between competing theories or ontologies. conceptual coherence and explanatory power” (Brassier 2007.18). is the more programmatic and general. and explanatory power.” (Churchland 1985. Much of Brassierʼs argument in section 1. The superempirical virtues are. “some of the brainʼs criteria for recognizing information. The second. B2 is the claim that naturalism and empiricism are each unable to provide a normative foundation for the scientific destruction of the “manifest image”. since the latter is committed to an ultimately unprincipled distinction between modal claims about observables and unobservables. radical and revisionary of naturalist metaphysicians – is unable to support his vaulting ontological ambitions without sacrificing his pragmatic scruples. From this we might infer that the superempirical virtues are not alternatives to truth but ways of estimating either truth or the relevant alternatives to truth that could be adopted by post sententialist realisms. different theories of mental content or processing such as PVA. Churchland uses this text to propose replacing the “normative aegis of truth-as-correspondence” with “ʻsuperempiricalʼ virtues of ontological simplicity. on the other. conceptual coherence. 2.
if we are to move away from the more naive formulations of scientific realism. bats. therefore. dendritic growth and new synaptic connections and the selective atrophy of old connections effected in the day-upwards range – then van Fraassenʼs term “construction” begins to seem highly appropriate. When a neural network is trained up orbits whose vectors include a large variety of input states will evolve towards some preferred prototypical point – that is just how the network extracts categories from complex data sets. . When we consider the great variety of cognitively active creatures on this planet – sea slugs and octopi. but just as plainly the connection is not going to be direct. If we are to reconsider truth as the aim or product of cognitive activity. . . we should note that it is far from obvious that sentences and propositions or anything remotely like them constitute the basic elements of cognition in creatures generally. . Natural selection does not care whether a brain has or tends towards true beliefs. . 45-6). Churchlandʼs claim that sentential or linguaformal representations are not basic to animal cognition is supported by the two claims: 1) that natural selection favours neural constructions attuned to the dynamical organization of adaptive behaviour and 2) that this role is not best understood in sententialist terms. Plainly there is going to be some connection between the faithfulness of the brainʼs ʻworld modelʼ and the propriety of the organismʼs behaviour. This allows trained up networks to engage in a process that Churchland calls ʻvector completionʼ: embodying .Churchland questions the status of scientific truth not (as in van Fraassen) to restrict sentential truth claims to correlations with their “empirical sub-structures” but because truth is a property of sentences or a property of what sentences express (propositions or statements) and he questions whether sentences are the basic elements of cognitive significance in human and non-human cognizers. . Indeed . 45). Prototypes points or trajectories are cases of dynamical entities called attractors. we may have to reconceive our basic unit of cognition as something other than the sentence or the proposition. and not just in some arbitrarily or idiosyncratically segregated domain of 'unobservables. changes in the response characteristics of large systems of neurons made in the seconds-to-hours range.' That is. . so long as the organism reliably exhibits reproductively advantageous behaviour. we should move in the direction of pragmatism rather than in the direction of positivistic instrumentalism (Churchland 1985. epistemology and psychology of folk. An attractor is a limit towards with orbits within a region of a phase space tend as some function (an iterative map or differential equation) is applied to them. When we are considering cognitive activity in biological terms and in all branches of the phylogenetic tree. . and reconceive its virtue as something other than truth (Churchland 1985. There is nary a mention of concepts derived from theories of neurocomputation in the 1985 text but it is pretty easy to see that the PVA model is at least a candidate for Churchlandʼs notional alternative to the semantics. dolphins and humans – and when we consider the ceaseless reconfiguration in which their brains or central ganglia engage – adjustments in the response potentials of single neurons made in the microsecond range. If we are ever to understand the dynamics of cognitive activity. it is highly unlikely that the sentential kinematics embraced by folk psychology and orthodox epistemology represents or captures the basic elements of cognition and learning even in humans . I think we must reconsider its applicability across the board.
pigeons. when seeing a dolphin as a fish – with the result that other prototypes (e. abductive inferences about the state of their world. He argues reasonably that prototype frameworks are the kind of capacious cognitive structure that can be routinely redeployed from the narrow domain in which they are acquired. they are also potential controllers for an organismʼs behaviour – with vector completion offering the benefits of graceful degradation in a noisy.g. For example. Since attractors also reflect a flexible. dynamical response to varying input. 68-9). Moreover. But within the FP framework. can produce new varieties of creature – Evolution is natural selection! But is our capacity for fast and fairly reliable abduction consistent with the claim that beliefs are “sentences in the head” or functionally independent representations some other kind. but the basic idea seems worth pursuing. So the take-home moral of the excursion into the biology of neural adaptation. so as to reorganizes some new cognitive domain. is that truth is not a necessary condition for the adaptive organization of .g. 102). the PVA system provides a semantic substitute for truth in the form of the aforementioned homomorphism or structural conformity between prototype neighborhoods and the structure of some relevant parts of the world. • • • Smoke is coming out of the kitchen – the toast is burning! There are voices coming from the empty basement – the DVD has come off pause! Artificial selection of horses. concedes that this makes abduction hard to explain because it requires our brains to put a “frame” around the representations relevant to making the abduction – information about the Highway Code or the diameter of the Sun probably wonʼt be relevant to figuring out that burning toast is causing the smoke in the Kitchen.expectations about the organization and category of the input data set which may tend towards a correct assay even when that data set is degraded somehow (Churchland 2007. For example. Humans and higher nonhuman animals regularly make skillful. Children and adults regularly misapply concepts – e. for one. for Churchland. Itʼs possible that Churchland is being massively over-optimistic here. glitchridden world. This suggests a potential cognitive and cybernetic advantage over sententialist models. and occasionally very fast. according to Churchland. 188-9). can PVA theory convincingly account for the kind of analogical reasoning that is being employed in case of Darwin's inference to the best explanation? Churchland thinks it can. But which ones? How do our brains know where to affix the frame in any given situation without first making a costly. The details of this account are a thin as things stand. relevance is a holistic property beliefs have in virtue of their relations to lots of other beliefs. Jerry Fodor. mammal) end up having to be rectified and adjusted (Churchland 2012. pigs. etc. unbounded search through all our beliefs. inspecting each for its relevance to the problem? Churchland thinks that the PVA model can obviate the need for epistemically unbounded search because the holistic and parallel character of neural representation means that all the information stored in a given network is active in the relaxation to a specific prototype (Churchland 2012.
as Churchland emphasizes even here.behaviour and that if we are to understand the relationship between cognitive kinematics and the organization of behaviour we may need to posit units of the cognitive significance other than sentential/propositional ones. In fact. Brassier seems to read Churchland as making a quite different claim in the quoted passage: namely that the superempirical criteria of theory choice or prototype-framework are reducible (somehow) to the adaptive value of trained networks in guiding behaviour: On the one hand. However. seem to be evolutionarily favoured in many instances (See Wheeler 2005). ease of acquisition and energy consumption would also need to be factored into any ethological assessment of competing schemesʼ costs and benefits. it does not follow that Churchland precludes a neurocomputation-friendly understanding the superempirical virtues. (Brassier 2007. Strangely. according to the greater or lesser degree of efficiency with which they enable the organism to adapt successfully to its environment. is liable to be constructive because it will make possible a closer understanding of the connection between the morphogenesis of neuronal systems. They are equal insofar as there is nothing in a partitioning of vector space per se which could serve to explain why one theory is ʻbetterʼ than another. it does not remotely follow that these virtues should be identified with “the greater or lesser degree of efficiency with which they enable the organism to adapt successfully to its environment” since. All are to be gauged exclusively in terms of what Churchland calls their ʻsuperempiricalʼ virtues. he thinks. the functional value of a prototype scheme for an organism is only indirectly related to its representational prowess or accuracy – factors like speed. fast and dirty representational schemes which work in a reliably present-at-hand environmental contexts. This new conception of cognitive significance. the dynamics of representation and the dynamical organization of behaviour. For example. as we have seen. 19) It is implicit in Churchlandʼs account that the superempirical virtues must be virtues applicable to neural representational strategies – since these are the more basic elements of cognition to which he alludes in his discussion of van Fraassen. He also implies. there is nothing in this passage that suggests that Churchland thinks that the superempirical virtues must be reduced to evolutionary-functional terms at all – evolutionary theory just does not play this constitutive role in his theory of content or his epistemology. Churchland states as much when he . Of course. viz. while lacking rich representational or conceptual content. as they did in the predominantly folk psychological acceptation of theoretical adequation – which sees the latter as consisting in a set of word-world correspondences – there is an important sense in which all theoretical paradigms are neurocomputationally equal. there is only an indirect relation between “the faithfulness of the brainʼs ʻworld modelʼ” and its organizational efficacy. He claims that they need to be as applicable to the understanding of epistemological systems that do not incorporate cultural or linguistic components as to those that do. that these systems should be understood as engaged in a constructive activity evaluable according to criteria that can be generalized well beyond the parochial sphere of propositional attitude psychology. since ʻfolk-semanticalʼ notions as ʻtruthʼ and ʻreferenceʼ no longer function as guarantors of adequation between ʻrepresentationʼ and ʻrealityʼ. As work in artificial intelligence shows.
Now. as a realist. in some form. clearly. Brassier agrees but thinks that this requires Churchland to either embrace a neurocomputational version of idealism – which. Quite obviously. This is a recurrent trope in Churchlandʼs work: some conceptual frameworks mesh the ontology of natural science with our experience better than others. to neurocomputational structures it does not follow that every constituent of reality must necessarily be accessible to neural coding strategies. coherence and explanatory power need to be interpreted in a generalized manner consilient with the PVA theory of content (See also Brassier 2007. From the claim that the superempirical virtues are ascribable. If we are dualists or if we believe that conceptual content is not a property of neural states. Brassier does not explain why one should reject the claim that conceptual content is a property of neural states in his critical discussion of Churchland. he argues if the superempirical virtues are “among the brainʼs most basic criteria for recognizing information” then all conceptual frameworks that fail to maximize representational adequacy – like FP – would have been eliminated. This seems wrong for at least two reasons. 34. 202). 23). as Churchland amusingly . Does Brassier have any other arrows in his quiver? Well. then we will deny that this is possible. 20-1). 23). Thus Kelvin has greater superempirical distinction than the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales. PVA-friendly account of the superempirical virtues. a partial mapping or homomorphism from abstract prototype structure onto abstract world-structure) and these must be embodied in thinkerʼs neural states. Learning to discriminate temperatures according to the Kelvin scale. The nearest any contemporary realist comes to this idea is the claim on the part of Ontic Structural Realists that to be is to be a pattern and that a pattern 'is real' if the compression algorithm required to encode it requires a smaller number of bits than 'bit string' representation of the entire data set in which the pattern resides (Dennett 1991. coherence and explanatory power are constitutive of representational success: “all theories are neurocomputationally equal inasmuch as all display greater or lesser degrees of superempirical distinction” (Brassier 2007. in order to frame this thought the cognizer must have a concept of reality and a concept of what it is to represent it (e. allows us to map our experience more directly onto the regularities expressed in ideal gas laws. no realist worth her salt will want to commit to the claim that reality is constituted by it being a possible representatum of a neurological process.or to posit a “pre-constituted physical reality” and thus to “forsake his neurocentric perspective” by adopting a metaphysics which cannot be secured from within a naturalistic framework (Brassier 2007.claims that they are the brainʼs “criteria” for distinguishing information from noise: simplicity. But a) this is a far more general constraint on existence than Brassierʼs touted neurological variant and should in no way be confused with a commitment to a kind of transcendental subjectivity. he would not want . Indeed he specifically disclaims this critical option earlier on when rejecting Lynn-Rudder Bakerʼs criticism that Churchland-style eliminativism rejection of propositional attitudes involves a self-vitiating performative contradiction (Brassier 2007. somehow. Ladyman and Ross. for example. Well. b) there is no reason why Churchland has to embrace anything like it (though he might for all I know). Churchland thus needs generalized. However. though. if superempirical distinction is an ordinal concept (as Brassier concedes in this passage) some theories can have more of it than others and will not be neurocomputationally equal. 17). for sure.g. Thus if simplicity.
'Real Patterns'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. I conclude that Brassier fails to establish B1. 2005. Lawrence Erlbaum. be theories with disparate ontologies that are equally good by way of whatever variants of simplicity. Churchland. References: Brassier. Stich. M. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. P. Ladyman James. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.). Churchland and C. In William Ramsey. Hooker. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ʻConnectionism. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press. Rumelhart (eds. J. Platoʼs Camera: How the Physical Brain Captures a Landscape of Abstract Universals. Journal of Philosophy 88: 27-51. but this is not the same as all theories being on equal terms. William. in principle. Churchland. There could. Churchland. Michael (2005) Reconstructing the Cognitive World: the Next Step. Stephen P. Churchland. (2007).recounts in Platoʼs Camera: somewhat less cultural heft in common rooms of the University of Winnipeg (Churchland 2012. Of course. PalgraveMacmillan. But if B1 is not established then B2 – the claim that naturalism is unable to provide a satisfactory account of science – is not established in this reading. Nor. Stich & D. Dennett 1991. Ray (2007). Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. edited by P. Philosophy and Connectionist Theory. eliminativism. Paul (1985). 5-32. Ross Don.A. coherence and explanatory power are applicable to the PVA model. & Garon. and the future of folk psychologyʼ. Paul (1998) ʻConceptual similarity across sensory and neural diversity: The Fodor/Lepore challenge answeredʼ Journal Of Philosophy 95 (1). Neurophilosophy at Work. This seems to be right. it is always possible that the empirical and structural virtues of theories might underdetermine theory choice and thus choice of ontology in certain situations. The PVA model does not leave Churchland unable to say why some theories are better than others. Wheeler. And it does not preclude Churchland or the fan of the PVA model from having a naturalistically constrained ontology. does this obviously preclude the naturalist framing an ontology that is constrained by these virtues in some way. . Paul (2007). Paul (2012). “The Anti-Realist Epistemology of van Fraassenʼs The Scientific Image”. Ramsey. MIT Press. 227). (1991). in Images of science. Stephen.
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