[SydPhil] Title/Abstract for Brett Calcott March 9

Brian Hedden brian.hedden at sydney.edu.au
Thu Mar 3 14:44:46 AEDT 2016

Hi everyone,

Here's the title and abstract for Brett Calcott's department seminar talk at Sydney Uni  on Wed March 9 from 1-2:30 pm in the Muniment Room of the Quadrangle Building.

See you there!

Signals that Make a Difference

Brett Calcott (in collaboration with Paul Griffiths and Arnaud Pocheville)

ABSTRACT: David Lewis's "Convention" provides a game theoretic approach to thinking about how meaning can emerge when rational agents must coordinate their actions to achieve a common goal. Recent work by Brian Skyrms builds on Lewis's framework in two ways: dispensing with rationality to show the same results can emerge via evolution, and connecting the framework to information theory, thus showing how evolution can "create information". Skyrms' book-long treatment of the subject contains some very provocative ideas about traditional philosophical project of understanding meaning, but here I focus on another project that his work connects to. Skyrms means his framework to apply very broadly across biology---from monkeys barking to bacteria exuding chemicals and neurons firing. These ideas may help shine some light on debates about the usefulness of biological information; a subject that has caused much debate in philosophy of biology. One we step into this realm, however, it becomes clear that Skyrm's formal framework is missing a key element, one that only becames obvious when we look at complex examples of signaling systems, the very kind often found occuring inside bodies and cells. Once we move to these complex examples, Skyrm's formal framework for defining information breaks down, giving non-intutive answers and rendering information a mere epiphenomenon of evolution. The problem, I argue, is that Skyrm's use of information theory fails to capture the causal structure of these complex networks. I then offer a fix, showing how to define a measure of information about that is capable of capturing the causal structure of these networks by using a natural extension of recent work formalising the notion of causal specificity. If this fix is correct, it suggests there may be a number of interesting connections between Skyrm's approach to meaning and work on interventionist accounts of causation.
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