How Biology Perceives Chemistry: A Causal Analysis of the Stimulus in Olfaction and its Implications for Scientific and Philosophical Theorizing
Ann-Sophie Barwich (Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana University, Bloomington)

April 6, 2022, 3:30pm - 5:00pm
Rotman Institute of Philosophy, University of Western Ontario

WIRB 7107
1151 Richmond St
London N6A 3K7

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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Join the Rotman Institute of Philosophy for a work in progress seminar with Dr. Ann-Sophie Barwich.  This event will be hybrid, with both in-person and virtual attendance options. Advance registration is required.


The central theme of this talk is causality. A significant amount of philosophical and scientific debate on olfaction has focused on the relation of the chemical stimulus in the world to its qualitative perception in the human mind. While the overall causal function of the chemical stimulus in olfaction is uncontroversial, its causal structure and explanatory role remain disputed. This chapter provides a detailed causal analysis comparing and evaluating stimulus-response models in psychology and philosophy with recent insights into stimulus binding from neurobiology.

Olfaction constitutes a sensory response of an organism to the physicochemical properties of its environment. Ordering and classifying these properties rests on notions of causal structure that require renewed analysis of its two key elements and their causal relation: the stimulus and the receptors. What exactly characterizes the relationship between stimulus and receptor behavior? In other words, what is ontologically privileged in causal explanations of olfaction – chemistry or biology? And how does a biological conception of the olfactory stimulus differ from traditional chemical models, if it does at all?

This talk argues that there are significant differences between causal models of stimulus-response relationships in current olfactory science that are critical to scientific modeling and matter also for how we study and interpret odor perception as philosophers. Engaging with the details of causal structure in sensory processing matters especially to philosophical theories of perception because different models of causal structure can tell us a fundamentally different story about perceptual content and variation.

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April 6, 2022, 9:00am EST

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