PHL471: Some Thoughts on Millikan's "Biosemantics"
Some Thoughts on Millikan's "Biosemantics"
- Here Millikan wants to explain what connects a representation
up with the thing it represents
- Informational theories are based on the idea that there are
some special conditions in which the connection between
representation and its object are fixed; mistakes occur when these
conditions fail to be met
- What are these "content-fixing" conditions? (That is, the
conditions where the connection between the representation and the
thing it represents are fixed.)
- It cannot be statistically normal conditions. There are
many different cases which can be called statistically normal.
And statistically normal causes are too various: is a red
face a sign of sunburn or exertion or overheating or embarrasment?
Any can be a cause.
- A number of views have focussed upon the idea of something
about the way a representation is produced that makes it what it
- Fodor has argued that content is fixed by causal
connection, but the role of the representation in a
functional system is what determines how its content is
fixed. Millikan dismisses this: what is it to "act like a
representation" other than to have fixed content?
- Stampe and Matthen and Dretske say representations
are tokens with a detecting or indicating role. Millikan
dismisses this as unenlightening: what is it to detect or
indicate other than to represent?
- Dretske uses the notion of a natural sign: something
caused by a thing R and thus which we can naturally take as
representing R. But she notes Dretske moves from natural sign
to the claim that this representation has the function of
representing its cause. More important: many representations
are not natural signs. Example's include very cautious
warning signals, which are made when the danger is not
- Millikan's view is that it is the way a representation is
used, not how it is made, that fixes its content. She calls this
the "consumption" of the representation. The content of a representation
thus stands for something not because of some natural information
in that thing, or some particular information-bearing connection
to that thing, but rather because there is some "device" in the
mind that "consumes" that representation as a representation of
- Millikan needs for this the notion of "proper function."
I have and will continue to use the terminology "teleofunction"
- The teleofunction of a device is the role that it was
selected to serve. Millikan also sometimes says the role it
was designed to serve. The selection or design in organisms
is done by evolution.
- Millikan now uses "normal" to mean the role that was
selected. This is a bit confusing since "normal" has so many
other uses. We might instead say something like, "its purpose"
or "its teleofunction."
- The content of a representation is fixed by the role
that the representation plays in the device that it serves.
- Natural information, then, even if it exists, can only
be used if it is exploited by a device that has as a teleofunction
the exploiting of that information.
- Millikan makes the odd claim here that even simple
representations like a beaver slap are "articulate" because they
happen at a time and place. I think what she means might be that
there are several interpretative aspect to the single slap (a time
of occurence, a place of occurence, the meaning of danger).
- Contrast with Dretske's information account: the magnetosomes.
- The interesting issue here is that the oxygen does
not cause the direction of the magnetosomes and thus the
bacterium, but rather the direction of magnetic north
- On a causal approach, or Dretske's information
approach, doesn't this mean that the magnetosomes
indicate "north"? But what use is that?
- When we focus on consumption, we ask, what do
these magnetosomes do for the organism? They move
it away from oxygen rich water. But then that is
- The magnetosomes were selected for this very
role: moving away from oxygen.
- Thus, their content is fixed as something like,
this way is away from the poisonous oxygen.
- Note that the magnetosome represents something
"distal" -- that is, not some direct connection but
something distant or indirectly connected to the
- Note that Millikan's "consumption" approach is
accomplishing two things: first, it is giving us a more
fine-grained account of content (so that we can say that the
beaver slap means danger and not just "big thing" or
something like that), second, it clearly distinguishes
useful contents from not useful possible interpretations
(magnetosomes direct away from oxygen, not towards north).
- Looking ahead: the magnetosome and the beaver
slap are important examples of what Millikan will later
call "push-me pull-me" representations, that both direct
action and also describe the world.
- How could her account explain something as complex as
language? Here Millikan wants to make a general
hypothesis: there are devices in humans that have as their
teleofunction various language consuming functions. It
is, she claims, a very reasonable hypothesis that there
were selection pressures benefitting use of language.
- What is the difference then between bacteria
with magnetosomes, for example, and humans and their
language abilities? Millikan gives six criteria:
- Our language includes representations with
elements that are not self-representing. By this,
Millikan seems to mean that they can refer to
things not directly present in the representation
- Our language includes elements that
can be "stored" -- such as used after they
- Our language can include pure imperatives.
- Our language allows and includes inferences.
- Our language includes identity information.
- Our language allows negation and bivalent