More on the Confusion regarding ‘Representations’ and the Objects represented

By | December 22, 2011

By Juan Bernal

Something that the neurologist Antonio Demasio asserted reinforced the old belief that our experience of the world is at best an indirect experience of “representations” of that world.


An email correspondent, Spano,  remarked:

Yesterday, in Antonio Damasio’s interview with Ira Flatow on Science Friday, Damasio frequently used the word “representation.” He spoke of the brain as producing a representation of our internal and external environments on the basis of inputs. He apparently assumes that “the represented” is not directly available to us, but is known only indirectly via a representation.”

Moi  Here we go again with this business of “input to the brain” and “represented stuff not directly available to us”!

Far too many people — mainly philosophers and psychologists — and now Antonio Damasio  (of all people!)  —- assume that it makes sense to think of “us” (the knowing subject) as somehow situated inside the brain.  Sure, if you think of the subject (who perceives and has experiences) as located inside the brain or identical to the brain, then a mystery arises as to how the subject (the person?) interprets that input, which may or may not represent external reality.  But why in the world do we have to accept this queer perspective?  None of us are inside our brains (or alternatively, we are not identical to our brains) and then have to try make sense of input from the outside?

The fact that is overlooked is that human beings (the persons) have brains which enables them to learn about their environment.  In other words, the human subject exists and operates in that ‘external’ environment.  Science, neurology and the cognitive sciences, can investigate and analyze the process by which the brain allows the animal (or person, or subject that perceives) to perceive and learn about his environment.  In the process of such an investigation one may speak about “input to the brain.”   But this is not to be understood as “input to the subject or person,” although it may correctly be called “input to the brain.”  The brain is an organ of the body; the person and his embodied mind exist in the world of objects, animals, cities, and apple trees.  They’re already in that world which, according to the ‘skeptical’ perspective is allegedly not directly accessible to us.  The very idea of “gaining knowledge of the world” is an idea which only makes sense in a social context, of an environment in which people exist among other people, in a natural and social environment which they know about and with which they interact.  Given all this, it makes little sense to introduce the fictional subject isolated and entombed inside a brain, trying to make sense of input from outside the brain.

Does all this ignore the function of the brain/mind in “constructing” (at least in part) that which we experience, e.g., the object that we see?

No it does not.  I simply do notn’t draw the inferences that Spano draws.

Spano asks:

“Why does Damasio make a represented/representation distinction? Because the role of the brain/mind in constructing a representation is all too obvious. It was obvious to the British empiricists and to Kant, . . . ”

Moi:   Of course, there is often a call for this distinction between the object as my brain/mind presents it and the object which is not equivalent to my presentation.  For example, suppose that I’m familiar with a particular piece of hardware which is part of a ground radar system.  What I see when I look at it will be very different from what others, who might not be familiar with the equipment, see.  Those who like to talk in terms of the “representation and the represented” will say that different persons looking at the equipment have different ‘representations.’  We could even allow the figurative talk which states that we see different things.  I see that part of the radar receiver which modulates the incoming radar signal, changing its configuration so that the signal can eventually be a visual target at the radar scope.  You might just see a gray box with connections to other gray boxes.

But none of this implies (or logically requires) that none of our visual ‘representations’ can provide information about the real object.  They all do, but at different levels of complexity.  To admit that my ‘representation’ differs from your ‘representation’ is not to imply that any of us are out of contact with the real world.  In my example, the ‘real world object’ is the radar system that radar engineers created; and there is absolutely no reason for concluding that nobody has access (perceptual or otherwise) to this reality.  To the extent that the British Empiricists and Kant inferred ‘non-reality’ from representation, they completely misunderstood the implication of the term ‘representation’ in this context.

Yes, scientific analysis proves that the brain/mind contributes many aspects of the object that we perceive. I might even agree with the statement that the brain/mind constructs much of what I perceive.  In his book, Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett discusses much of this work of the brain in constructing and filling in large parts of what we perceive.  Those of us who call ourselves scientific realists do not deny this.  What some of us deny is that this scientific analysis of the visual-neurological process of perception shows that we do not perceive the real world.  What such analysis discloses are the processes (mostly neurological processes) which make possible our experience of the real world.  To think that we experience only a questionable ‘representation’ of something else which we cannot describe, as Spano seems to do, seems reasonable only when one assumes that we must explain how we access the external world from a strictly subjectivist perspective (we are ‘inside’ the brain or the mind and must explain how we can know anything about external reality?).

But maybe I have all this wrong?  Maybe we are deceived into thinking that the world we know is real, when in fact it is just a fictional story concocted by our brain/mind.  Of course, this scenario is hard to square with the fact that our brain-mind evolved to help the animal survive and flourish in its natural environment, which surely is a real world.

Spano repeats:

Yesterday, in Antonio Damasio’s interview with Ira Flatow on Science Friday, Damasio frequently used the word “representation.” He spoke of the brain as producing a representation of our internal and external environments on the basis of inputs. He apparently assumes that “the represented” is not directly available to us, but is known only indirectly via a representation.  

Moi:  I don’t dispute that the “brain produces representations of our internal states and external environment on the basis of inputs.”

But this neurological fact does not imply that “the represented is not directly available to us,” unless the “us” at issue is the brain itself (or a homunculus inside the brain?) receiving and translating those inputs.

These neurological processes (the brain receiving and processing input) enable the subject (person, animal) to perceive and negotiate the environment in which the subject exists.  In other words, the neurological processes are part of the bodily operations that make the environment directly available to us.  (Is this too easy a reply to all this talk of the representation and the unknowable ‘represented’?)

The subject who experiences and interacts with the world and the world (environment) experienced come as one package. The person, as a corporeal being, has a brain which functions in particular ways to enable the subject to function in his environment.  We should not separate one for the other and then talk about “inputs to the brain which are representations of a reality that the subject cannot directly access.”   Well, you can separate them, but only as a thought experiment.  Descartes indulges his hyperbolic doubt and gives his ‘cogito’ argument for his absolutely certain ‘knowledge’ that the thinking subject alone is real.  But this is just a thought experiment.  It does not show that a thinking subject can exist in isolation from everything else.  Similar statements can be the made about other thought experiments:  John Locke’s claim that we directly experience only ideas, or Hume’s claim that all we have is the subject and his impressions (and the irrational belief that these represents real objects).  Following this is Berkeley’s thought experiment: All that we take to be material reality can be reconfigured as modifications of the subject’s perceptual ideas; i.e. for any perceptual object, to be is the same as “to be perceived.”

The Classical British Empiricists and much of Western Epistemological thought in the 18th – 19th centuries  (even up to the ‘sense datum’ theorists of the 20th century, including Bertrand Russell)  made too much of these thought experiments.    They took on the skeptical problem of showing how knowledge is possible given a subjective perspective, a problem for which Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy offered a possible solution.

These famous thought experiments do not alter the fact that human beings are biological creatures who evolved with a nervous system suitable to the environment in which these beings exist.  The evolved large brain and sense faculties enable the human being to apprehend many features of his environment, interact with it (cause certain changes in the environment;  be affected by external causes and conditions), There is no general skeptical problem of having to show how the human subject’s perceptual experience accesses an external reality, although, of course, there are specific skeptical problems with regard to illusions, delusions, experiences affected by strange conditions (both subjective and objective ones).   But these come up in the context of a generally reliable mechanism (brain, sense faculties) for apprehending and negotiating the environment.

Any thought experiment which proposes that the subject can be conceived in isolation from the external world, which includes the social world of other people, of language, meanings, and concepts, proposes a fictional scenario.  It is a fiction because all of these thought experiments “smuggle in” essential elements form the external, social world.  Primary among these is language. The thought experiments utilize words, meanings, and concepts which require some natural language, which in turn is a social phenomenon.  Language cannot be a private exercise, private to the subject in isolation from everything else.  The notion of a subject existing in complete isolation from its natural and social environment is mostly a philosopher’s fantasy.

In short, all that “floundering about in the swamp” of Western epistemology could have been avoided.

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