Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bees, Used Car Salesmen, and Misrepresentation

Now if we are working on the level of simple representation, the perhaps some solution to the problem of misrepresentation can be generated. Let us consider, for example the case of bee dances. Bees perform dances which “represent” the positions of flowers in a garden. The bees, based on this information, go out to the garden only to find no flowers, because in the intervening time between the bees’ discovery of the flowers and the time when the bees performed the dance, a child had picked all the flowers and taken them indoors. We might be able to cash out this fact of misrepresentation in causal terms: there is a normal casual relationship between the bees’ dance and the location of pollinated flowers, so the bees represented flowers in that location, but the representation was incorrect, because the flowers had been picked in the meantime.
But other kinds of misrepresentation seem more difficult to deal with at the level of simple representation. Let’s consider the kind of misrepresentation that goes on in, say, a used car dealership. Can we really imagine a bee from a competing hive going “sneaking in,” giving a dance which would send the swarm of bees to a place where there are no pollinated flowers, in order to secure the real flowers for its own hive? This kind of misrepresentation seems to require that the fifth-columnist bee, like the used car dealer, know that the dance was misleading, in other words, understand what it is that their own dance and know that it was a misrepresentation. This seems to be beyond the capabilities of bees, and requires a radically different set of abilities. Can we account for the difference between being sincerely mistaken an lying in terms of causal relationships? I rather doubt it.
There have, certainly, been causal theories of reference which have been advanced. But these do not suggest that causal relationships alone are sufficient to fix reference. Consider the following standard description of causal theories of reference.
This is the wikipedia account of the causal theory of reference
A name's referent is fixed by an original act of naming (also called a "dubbing" or, by Saul Kripke, an "initial baptism"), whereupon the name becomes a rigid designator of that object. later uses of the name succeed in referring to the referent by being linked to that original act via a causal chain.

In other words, what causation explains, according to this theory, is how references is transmitted once an initial act of naming, an intentional (both in the sense of being intended and in the sense of possessing “aboutness”) is performed. How such actions could be performed in the first place is accounted for in causal terms. It is true, that some have attempted to provide more radical accounts of reference which attempt to stay within the constraints imposed by physicalism; Devitt’s theories are a good example of this. However, I think this attempt has been shown to be a failure in Martin Rice’s essay “Why Devitt Can’t Name His Cat.”

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