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Departmental Colloquia

Nick Shea, 'The Which? approach to theories of content: consumers need information'


An ambitious project in philosophy of mind aims to specify how non-intentional properties determine (metaphysically) the content of a mental representation. Two families of theory are most prominent in this search for a naturalistic theory of content: teleological and informational accounts. Teleological theories identify content with conditions for the successful performance of an evolutionary function. This paper will consider two challenges to that approach. First, there are very many evolutionary functions with corresponding success conditions; why, in principle, do only some count as contentful? Second is a challenge formulated by Peter Godfrey-Smith (1998, ch. 6): if the content of a representation is linked to its success condition, how can we make sense of the idea that having true representations can explain successful behaviour.

The same move answers both queries: states are only representational where, as well as a success condition for the behaviour they prompt, there is some production mechanism such that they carry information about that condition obtaining. Relying on information in this way also avoids the central difficulty faced by theories in the indicator family, namely that of specifying which of the information that is ubiquitous in nature is content.

Teleosemantics provokes controversy because it relies on evolutionary functions, with the consequence that historical conditions determine content. However, it exemplifies a broader class of theories in which the way a representation is consumed plays a role in determining its content. That is a promising idea, but this paper suggests that it can be profitably combined with the idea that representations carry information.