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What makes neurophysiology meaningful? Semantic content ascriptions in insect navigation research

Abstract

In the course of investigating the living world, biologists regularly attribute semantic content to the phenomena they study. In this paper, I examine the case of a contemporary research program studying the navigation behaviors of ants and develop an account of the norms governing researchers’ ascriptions of semantic content in their research practices. The account holds that researchers assign semantic content to behaviors that reliably achieve a difficult goal-directed function, and it also suggests a productive role for attributions of semantic content in the process of animal behavior research.

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Notes

  1. Within the functions debate, some philosophers have argued the stronger claim that biological usage warrants a totally ahistorical theory of function, not just a non-etiological theory of function (Amundson and Lauder 1994; Walsh 1996, 558; Boorse 2002, 73). However, Garson (2019) has recently argued that there are no ahistorical theories of biological function on the grounds that purportedly ahistorical theories actually retain a historical dimension. Garson’s point that theories of function can reference history in nonobvious ways is well taken, and this paper addresses the question of how history figures into researchers’ ascriptions of content in “The stilts and stumps experiment justifies a goal-directed notion of function” section.

  2. Neander (2016) concedes that Kitcher’s hybrid account of function has the potential to ground the crucial function/malfunction distinction in objective phenomena, but she critiques Kitcher’s account for leaving important questions unanswered. Namely, how are adaptive capacities assigned to trait types? Within what environmental contexts must a trait type be adaptive? And how are those trait types individuated? A major point of this paper is that researchers do not require comprehensive answers to such questions for their ascriptions of content-bearing functions to play a productive role in the development of a successful research program. Still, as the next section demonstrates, the evidential norms governing researcher’s ascriptions of content-bearing functions suggest partial answers to such questions.

  3. Again, as with researchers’ individuation of trait types, researchers seem to lack an explicit, comprehensive account of how they individuate naturally-occurring contexts. Still, it is clear that researchers recognize the distinction between naturally-occurring and non-naturally occurring circumstances.

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Acknowledgements

This paper has greatly benefited from feedback provided by Beckett Sterner and Steve Elliot. Alan Love, Colin Allen, Max Dresow, Yoshinari Yoshida, and Jeremy Wideman also provided helpful comments on later versions of the paper. I researched and wrote this paper while funded by the Ford Foundation’s Pre-doctoral and Dissertation Fellowships.

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Correspondence to Kelle Dhein.

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Dhein, K. What makes neurophysiology meaningful? Semantic content ascriptions in insect navigation research. Biol Philos 35, 52 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-020-09768-w

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Keywords

  • Biological information
  • Semantic content
  • Scientific practice
  • Ethology
  • Animal navigation