Stephen Mann is a philosopher

Who are you?

I'm a postdoctoral researcher at the Surrey Morphology Group and guest at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where I live. I received my PhD in philosophy of biology from the Australian National University in December 2020.

I am applying for postdoctoral positions in philosophy of science in central and western Europe. If you hear of any, let me know!

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.

What have you written?

2021 Teleosemantics and the hard problem of content [with Ross Pain]

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

What are you writing now?

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

Biology & Philosophy (invited; in progress)
Quick summary 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.

Are you guest editing any Topical Collections in the journal Biology & Philosophy?

Funny you should ask. With Ross Pain and Michael Kirchhoff I am guest editing the Topical Collection The Free Energy Principle: From Biology to Cognition. The point is to illuminate the relevance of Karl Friston's free energy principle for explanations in biology and cognitive science. There will eventually be 10-12 articles and you can read them as they are published.

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.

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?

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 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.

How can I get a site like this?

Just email me. I own the domain and am happy to create new sites for philosophers for free. There are loads of themes to choose from.

What do you look like?

here I am on the right with Hedvig