Neural Representations Beyond “Plus X”

Minds and Machines 28 (1):93-117 (2018)
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In this paper we defend structural representations, more specifically neural structural representation. We are not alone in this, many are currently engaged in this endeavor. The direction we take, however, diverges from the main road, a road paved by the mathematical theory of measure that, in the 1970s, established homomorphism as the way to map empirical domains of things in the world to the codomain of numbers. By adopting the mind as codomain, this mapping became a boon for all those convinced that a representation system should bear similarities with what was being represented, but struggled to find a precise account of what such similarities mean. The euforia was brief, however, and soon homomorphism revealed itself to be affected by serious weaknesses, the primary one being that it included systems embarrassingly alien to representations. We find that the defense attempts that have followed, adopt strategies that share a common format: valid structural representations come as “homomorphism plus X”, with various “X”, provided in descriptive format only. Our alternative direction stems from the observation of the overlooked departure from homomorphism as used in the theory of measure and its later use in mental representations. In the former case, the codomain or the realm of numbers, is the most suited for developing theorems detailing the existence and uniqueness of homomorphism for a wide range of empirical domains. In the latter case, the codomain is the realm of the mind, possibly more vague and more ill-defined than the empirical domain itself. The time is ripe for articulating the mapping between represented domains and the mind in formal terms, by exploiting what is currently known about coding mechanisms in the brain. We provide a sketch of a possible development in this direction, one that adopts the theory of neural population coding as codomain. We will show that our framework is not only not in disagreement with the “plus X” proposals, but can lead to natural derivation of several of the “X”.



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Alessio Plebe
Università degli Studi di Messina

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Understanding Structural Representations.Marc Artiga - forthcoming - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

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