Stephen Mann is a philosopher

Who are you?

I'm a postdoctoral researcher with the CoOL Group in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. I am developing computational models of cultural evolution to answer questions about linguistic diversity among the Oceanic languages.

Previously I was a postdoctoral researcher at the LOGOS group at the University of Barcelona, and at the Surrey Morphology Group. I received my PhD in philosophy of biology from the Australian National University in December 2020.

In addition to computational modelling, I answer questions like

  • in what sense do biological signals carry information? and
  • how are naturally evolved systems like designed systems? and
  • what is the role of selection in cultural evolution?

I won't publish, referee, or do editorial work for Elsevier journals and I am in good company. I have a general :peer-review policy.

What have you written?

2024 Teleosemantics, structural resemblance and predictive processing [with Ross Pain]

:Quick summary

:x 10.1007%2Fs10670-024-00819-2

We show how teleosemantics attributes content to signals in predictive processing hierarchies, and argue for a pluralist account of content that combines teleosemantics with structural resemblance.

2023 The relevance of communication theory for theories of representation

Philosophy and the Mind Sciences 4, 32
:Quick summary

:x %3Cno+value%3E

I correct two common misconceptions about the import of mathematical communication theory for philosophical theories of representation: that Claude Shannon said that the meanings of signals are irrelevant for communication theory (he didn't and they aren't), and that since correlations can't distinguish representations from natural signs, communication theory can't distinguish them either (the premise is true but the conclusion is false; no valid argument can link them).

2023 Joint Evolution of Traits for Social Learning [with Cameron Rouse Turner and 3 others]

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 77, 47
:Quick summary

:x 10.1007%2Fs00265-023-03314-w

To investigate conditions under which animals will evolve the ability to teach others, we introduce a mathematical model that describes conditions on reliable social learning.

2022 Teleosemantics and the free energy principle [with Ross Pain]

Biology & Philosophy 37, 34
:Quick summary

:x 10.1007%2Fs10539-022-09868-9

We relate Karl Friston's free energy principle to Ruth Millikan's teleosemantics, arguing that (i) systems that minimise free energy are systems with a proper function; and (ii) Friston's notion of implicit modelling can be understood in terms of Millikan's notion of mapping relations.

2022 Free energy: a user's guide [with Ross Pain and Michael Kirchhoff]

Biology & Philosophy 37, 33
:Quick summary

:x 10.1007%2Fs10539-022-09864-z

As an introduction to our guest-edited Topical Collection, we describe the free energy principle in layman's terms and summarise its relevance for explanations in biology and cognitive science.

2022 Teleosemantics and the hard problem of content [with Ross Pain]

Philosophical Psychology 35 (1)   22-46
:Quick summary

:x 10.1080%2F09515089.2021.1942814

Teleosemantics, a theory of content, survives recent objections that claim its definition of content is too weak to do required explanatory work.

2020 CHIELD: The Causal Hypotheses in Evolutionary Linguistics Database [with Seán Roberts and 25 others]

Journal of Language Evolution 5 (2)   101-120
:Quick summary

:x 10.1093%2Fjole%2Flzaa001

We present the Causal Hypotheses in Evolutionary Linguistics Database (CHIELD), a tool for expressing, exploring, and evaluating hypotheses about the origin and evolution of language.

2020 Consequences of a functional account of information

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 11 (3)   669-687
:Quick summary

:x 10.1007%2Fs13164-018-0413-4

Defining information with respect to the function of its user opens the door to realist interpretations in cognitive science, microbiology and elsewhere.

2018 Attribution of information in animal interaction

Biological Theory 13 (3)   164-179
:Quick summary

:x 10.1007%2Fs13752-018-0299-5

Responding to scepticism about the use of information theory in behavioural ecology, I demonstrate how quantification of the honey bee waggle dance captures forager accuracy.

2018 [Review of] Studying Animal Languages without Translation by Zhanna Reznikova [with Jessica Pfeifer]

Quarterly Review of Biology 93 (1)   38
:Quick summary

:x 10.1086%2F696753

Short review of Reznikova's book collecting decades of her work on ant foraging and colony intelligence.

Any guest editing?

With Ross Pain and Michael Kirchhoff I guest edited the Topical Collection The Free Energy Principle: From Biology to Cognition in Biology & Philosophy. Our goal was to illuminate the relevance of Karl Friston's free energy principle for explanations in biology and cognitive science. There are twelve articles in total, including our introduction to the collection.

What was your PhD about?

I argued that we can employ mathematical tools and concepts from communications engineering to understand biological signalling, and so interpret empirical results in terms of Ruth Millikan's teleosemantic project.

The manuscript is available at the Australian National University repository and here.

:Full abstract

Communication and cooperation in evolutionary biology
How can the concepts and results of communication theory aid evolutionary biology? This thesis argues for an explanatory framework, evolutionary communication theory, that interprets and illuminates scientific research into the phenomenon of biological signalling. By expanding the theory beyond the models and goals familiar to Claude Shannon and other engineers, real insight is gained into how strategic interplay between senders and receivers shapes signal form. Furthermore, interpreting artificial and natural signals in terms of sender-receiver teleosemantics demonstrates the explanatory role of relations borne between signals and world affairs. One of the major results of the thesis is a rejection of the orthodox distinction between Shannon and semantic information. While there are at least two useful distinctions to be drawn -- between cues and signals, and between statistical and functional content -- the terminological confusion that gave rise to the phrase `Shannon information' should be put aside for good.
  • Chapter 1 outlines a way to capture the relationships between signals and other signal-like interactions using a multi-dimensional conceptual space called a hypercube. I argue that sender-receiver teleosemantics is uniquely well suited to capturing those aspects of communication theory that render it a viable mathematical framework for evolutionary biology.
  • Chapter 2 discusses an early attempt to apply communication theory in evolutionary biology. Haldane & Spurway's informational interpretation of the honeybee waggle dance has recently been criticised on mathematical grounds. These criticisms lend support to scepticism about the relevance of information for evolutionary biology. I argue that the criticisms are themselves mathematically erroneous, so one route to scepticism about information is undercut. [See also my paper Attribution of information in animal interaction.]
  • Chapter 3 explores a related line of scepticism. It is common in the philosophy of biology to treat the concepts and tools of communication theory as insufficient or irrelevant for analysing semantic content. I argue that the grounds of this supposition are based on misinterpretations of some features of communication theory.
  • In chapter 4 I reconstruct Millikan's teleosemantics in a causal-modelling setting, highlighting the explanatory role of semantic content.
  • In chapter 5 I respond to objections to the teleosemantic account, including the claim that the theory renders explanations of success that appeal to semantic content circular. I also argue for an interpretation of important features of communication-theoretic models in terms of teleosemantics.
  • Chapter 6 explores another challenge to applying teleosemantics to biological signals. The theory places emphasis on cooperation between senders and receivers, but biological signals are often fraught with evolutionary conflict. I discuss recent formal work, and argue that prospects for teleosemantics are good.
  • Finally, in chapter 7 I argue that an explanatory framework that draws on communication-theoretic concepts would be beneficial to evolutionary biology. I present case studies of communicative behaviour for which biologists offer explanations that are well interpreted through the principles of communications engineering.

Any conferences and workshops?

Mar 2024 The relevance of communication theory for theories of representation

Presented at Centre for Cognitive Science (COGS), University of Sussex; video here; slides here

March 2023 Degrees of proper function

Presented at Empirical Philosophy Workshop, Bielefeld, Germany

March 2023 Categorical variables and the strength of selection [talk + poster]

Oct 2022 Free Energy: A User's Guide

Sep 2022 The role of communication theory in theories of representation

Presented at Varieties of Information workshop, University of Barcelona; slides here

Sep 2022 Cognition and the stability of complex evolving morphology [with Erich Round and 4 others]

Poster presented at Joint Conference on Language Evolution, Kanazawa, Japan & Online; paper here

Nov 2019 The mechanics of representation: teleosemantics meets the free energy principle [with Ross Pain]

Presented at Mental Representations in a Mechanical World, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

May 2019 We should get rid of the distinction between Shannon information and semantic information

Presented at Philsoc seminar, Australian National University

Dec 2018 Prediction and Uncertainty [with Ross Pain]

Symposium as part of Australasian Society for Philosophy and Psychology 2018 meeting, Macquarie University, Sydney

Sept 2018 Applied cultural evolution: Studying language change with evolutionary methods

Presented at Evolving Minds, Charles Darwin University, Darwin

June 2018 Communication and selection

Presented at Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany

Feb 2018 Unitrackers in artificial and natural cognition

Presented at Naturally Evolving Minds, University of Wollongong

How about a CV?

Here you go!

Have you done any philosophy outreach?

In 2024 with Daniel Gregory I wrote Might text-davinci-003 have inner speech? We asked whether a conversational agent from the same family as ChatGPT could have something like an inner monologue, and what methods can be used to figure out the answer. It was published in a journal called Think, which is in the process of transitioning from a traditional journal to a philosophy outreach publication. The article is open access and a copy of the published version is here.

In 2023 I wrote a popular science/philosophy of biology essay called Major Transitions: A Record of Reorganization of Individuality in the Colonial Organisms of Earth for Life Beyond Us, an anthology published by the European Astrobiology Institute. I discuss how the major evolutionary transitions inform speculation about alien life forms.

In 2022 I co-wrote an article in The Conversation with Ross Pain and Michael Kirchhoff about the free energy principle. It's pitched as a very gentle presentation of the topic, so that readers who want to know more can dig into our guest-edited Topical Collection, starting with our introduction.

In 2019 at ANU I filmed a bunch of interviews with a bunch of smart people on the subject of ethics in artificial intelligence. A few of them are collected in this YouTube playlist.

Why does this site look retro yet elegant?

Because it was built using the theme Would have been cool in the 80s for the website creation tool Hugo. Other nifty tools include Nutshell and MathJax.

What do you look like?

here I am on the right with Hedvig