Flies, Frogs, and Fishhooks

by rsbakker

So, me and my buddies occasionally went frog hunting when we were kids. We’d knot a string on a fishhook, swing the line over the pond’s edge, and bam! frogs would strike at them. Up, up they were hauled, nude for being amphibian, hoots and hollers measuring their relative size.  Then they were dumped in a bucket.

We were just kids. We knew nothing about biology or evolution, let alone cognition. Despite this ignorance, we had no difficulty whatsoever explaining why it was so easy to catch the frogs: they were too stupid to tell the difference between fishhooks and flies.

Contrast this with the biological view I have available now. Given the capacity of Anuran visual cognition and the information sampled, frogs exhibit systematic insensitivities to the difference between fishhooks and flies. Anuran visual cognition not only evolved to catch flies, it evolved to catch flies as cheaply as possible. Without fishhooks to filter the less fishhook sensitive from the more fishhook sensitive, frogs had no way of evolving the capacity to distinguish flies from fishhooks.

Our old childhood theory is pretty clearly a normative one, explaining the frogs’ failure in terms what they ought to do (the dumb buggers). The frogs were mistaking fishhooks for flies. But if you look closely, you’ll notice how the latter theory communicates a similar normative component only in biological guise. Adducing evolutionary history pretty clearly allows us to say the proper function of Anuran cognition is to catch flies.

Ruth Millikan famously used this intentional crack in the empirical explanatory door to develop her influential version of teleosemantics, the attempt to derive semantic normativity from the biological normativity evident in proper functions. Eyes are for seeing, tongues for talking or catching flies; everything has been evolutionarily filtered to accomplish ends. So long as biological phenomena possess functions, it seems obvious functions are objectively real. So far as functions entail ‘satisfaction conditions,’ we can argue that normativity is objectively real. Given this anchor, the trick then becomes one of explaining normativity more generally.

The controversy caused by Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories was immediate. But for all the principled problems that have since belaboured teleosemantic approaches, the real problem is that they remain as underdetermined as the day they were born. Debates, rather than striking out in various empirical directions, remain perpetually mired in ‘mere philosophy.’ After decades of pursuit, the naturalization of intentionality project, Uriah Kriegl notes, “bears all the hallmarks of a degenerating research program” (Sources of Normativity, 5).

Now the easy way to explain this failure is to point out that finding, as Millikan does, right-wrong talk buried in the heart of biological explanation does not amount to finding right and wrong buried in the heart of biology. It seems far less extravagant to suppose ‘proper function’ provides us with a short cut, a way to communicate/troubleshoot this or that actionable upshot of Anuran evolutionary history absent any knowledge of that history.

Recall my boyhood theory that frogs were simply too stupid to distinguish flies from fishhooks. Absent all knowledge of evolution and biomechanics, my friends and I found a way to communicate something lethal regarding frogs. We knew what frog eyes and frog tongues and frog brains and so on were for. Just like that. The theory possessed a rather narrow range of application to be true, but it was nothing if not cheap, and potentially invaluable if one were, say, starving. Anuran physiology, ethology, and evolutionary history simply did not exist for us, and yet we were able to pluck the unfortunate amphibians from the pond at will. As naïve children, we lived in a shallow information environment, one absent the great bulk of deep information provided by the sciences. And as far as frog catching was concerned, this made no difference whatsoever, simply because we were the evolutionary products of numberless such environments. Like fishhooks with frogs, theories of evolution had no impact on the human genome. Animal behavior and the communication of animal behavior, on the other hand, possessed a tremendous impact—they were the flies.

Which brings us back to the easy answer posed above, the idea that teleosemantics fails for confusing a cognitive short-cut for a natural phenomenon. Absent any way of cognizing our deep information environments, our ancestors evolved countless ways to solve various, specific problems absent such cognition. Rather than track all the regularities engulfing us, we take them for granted—just like a frog.

The easy answer, in other words, is to assume that theoretical applications of normative subsystems are themselves ecological (as is this very instant of cognition). After all, my childhood theory was nothing if not heuristic, which is to say, geared to the solution of complex physical systems absent complex physical knowledge of them. Terms like ‘about’ or ‘for,’ you could say, belong to systems dedicated to solving systems absent biomechanical cognition.

Which is why kids can use them.

Small wonder then, that attempts to naturalize ‘aboutness’ or ‘forness’—or any other apparent intentional phenomena—cause the theoretical fits they do. Such attempts amount to human versions of confusing flies for fishhooks! They are shallow information terms geared to the solution of shallow information problems. They ‘solve’—filter behaviors via feedback—by playing on otherwise neglected regularities in our deep environments, relying on causal correlations to the systems requiring solution, rather than cognizing those systems in physical terms. That is their naturalization—their deep information story.

‘Function,’ on the other hand, is a shallow information tool geared to the solution of deep information problems. What makes a bit of the world specifically ‘functional’ is its relation to our capacity to cognize consequences in a source neglecting yet source compatible way. As my childhood example shows, functions can be known independent of biology. The constitutive story, like the developmental one, can be filled in afterward. Functional cognition lets us neglect an astronomical number of biological details. To say what a mechanism is for is to know what a mechanism will do without saying what makes a mechanism tick. But unlike intentional cognition more generally, functional cognition remains entirely compatible with causality. This potent combination of high-dimensional compatibility and neglect is what renders it invaluable, providing the degrees of cognitive freedom required to tackle complexities across scales.

The intuition underwriting teleosemantics hits upon what is in fact a crucial crossroads between cognitive systems, where the amnesiac power of should facilitates, rather than circumvents, causal cognition. But rather than interrogate the prospect of theoretically retasking a child’s explanatory tool, Millikan, like everyone else, presumes felicity, that intuitions secondary to such retasking are genuinely cognitive. Because they neglect the neglect-structure of their inquiry, they flatter cunning children with objectivity, so sparing their own (coincidentally) perpetually underdetermined intuitions. Time and again they apply systems selected for brushed-sun afternoons along the pond’s edge to the theoretical problem of their own nature. The lures dangle in their reflection. They strike at fishhook after fishhook, and find themselves hauled skyward, manhandled by shadows before being dropped into buckets on the shore.