Lately I’ve been immersing myself in the writings of Bickhard and his theories of representation since explanation of representation and representational content is a very vital part of an exhaustive theory of consciousness. Even if you believe that a theory of consciousness should mainly focus on the phenomenological aspects rather that the representational, this notion of representation must still be explained somehow.
The main philosophical problem that arises is how any system can instantiate any sort of “aboutness”-relationship with the world. I think that Bickhard has a very plausible approach to the subject matter in his rejection of traditional accounts of representation based on the notion of encoding. That is, accounts that uses explanations based on elements that acts as stand-ins for other elements (in the same way that the morse code “…” acts as a stand-in for the letter “S”). To use this as a basis for an explanation of representation is a fallacy in Bickhard’s view, since any chain of stand-ins must be grounded at some lowest level. Now, if an element at this lowest level is defined in terms of another element, it cannot per definition be at the lowest level. Yet it must carry some kind of representational content. Or, to put it in other words: The system must already have the relevant representational content in order to have the encoding for that content. Hence, a definition of representation in terms of encodings entails that you must have a representation in order to get a representation, which of course is a vicious circularity.
Now, Bickhards suggestion is that we should instead opt for a more promising approach of what he calls interactivism. It is an approach grounded in control theory where an explanation of representation could be based on an analysis of a system’s internal control structure in interaction with the environment. Such an interaction will generate some final state internal to the system; a state whose nature will depend on the characteristics of this interaction (hence on the properties of the environment in question). The idea is that this final state serves to implicitly categorize that class of environments that would yield the same final state if interacted with. Hence, the overall system with its possible final states functions as a differentiator of environments with the final states implicitly defining differentiation categories. However, these differentiators cannot be said to carry representational content in themselves, but in the context of a goal-directed organization they can be a part of a full representational system.
In other words, if a system can internally indicate (in appropriate conditions) that some interaction, X, is possible and that it can be anticipated to yield internal outcome Q if engaged in, this is a (very basic) ground for explaining action selection in organisms. This is what Bickhard’s theories boils down to, basically.
A reflection on my part is that the general “schematics” of Bickhard’s theories can be applied on a phenomenal level as well. As mentioned, the theory can be viewed as being about predications of the environment as a basis for action selection in organisms. Now, whatever the underlying mechanisms, it seems to me that this is precisely what is accomplished through phenomenal experiences. If a certain phenomenal experience (believed to depict reality) matches some internal visualization (“inner image”, drawn from memory), a specific interactive strategy is engaged by the organism. Since this basic structure seems very similar to Bickhard’s schematics, could not the lower level control structure be perceived as a constitutive explanation of the higher level phenomenal experiences? That is, a basic underlying structure for phenomenal experiences at a very low level? Of course, this does not explain how these experiences are generated from this lower level -must likely there is a whole array of intermediate levels that need to be understood in order to get a full picture. But it strikes me as a good hunch of where we should focus our research efforts. I will certainly be looking in to this in the future.