May 27, 2015

Searle on direct realism

by Neil Rickert

As I hinted in my previous post, I want to discuss some aspects of Searle’s theory of perception.

Searle makes a good start with:

I believe the worst mistake of all is the cluster of views known as Dualism, Materialism, Monism, Functionalism, Behaviorism, Idealism, the Identity Theory, etc. The idea these theories all have in common is that there is some special problem about the relation of the mind to the body, consciousness to the brain, and in their fixation on the illusion that there is a problem, philosophers have fastened onto different solutions to the problem. (page 10).

I agree that those are mostly mistakes.  Searle continues with:

A mistake of nearly as great a magnitude overwhelmed our tradition in the seventeenth century and after, and it is the mistake of supposing that we never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world, but directly perceive only our subjective experiences.

That is Searle’s statement about his direct realism.  I do support the view that perception is direct, but I avoid the term “direct realism” because the word “realism” seems to carry some unnecessary metaphysical baggage.

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May 23, 2015

Searle’s book on perception

by Neil Rickert

I have been reading Searle’s recent book “Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception”.  I have left a review of the book at Amazon.  HERE’s a link to that review.

I am tentatively planning a future post about Searle’s theory.

May 10, 2015

Biology and mechanism

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I wrote “Living things don’t fit with what I consider to be mechanism.”  In today’s post, I’ll discuss what I see as the distinction between biology and mechanism.

The meaning of “mechanism”

The term “mechanism” is hard to define.  The Wikipedia page is a disambiguation page linking to several alternative meanings.  The page on the engineering meaning comes closest to what I think of when I use the word “mechanism.”

A mechanical system, as I use that term, is a passive receiver of energy.  What we call “mechanical” is the way in which that energy percolates through the system via motions of parts and the forces that they apply to cause motions of other parts.

When people mention “determinism”, they often have in mind the apparent determinism of such mechanical systems.  I’ll use the expression “mechanical determinism” to refer to that, even if it might not be completely deterministic.  Those who deny that there is any possibility of free will, are probably thinking of something like that mechanical determinism.


So where does biology differ from this idea of mechanism?

Quite simply, biological organisms are not passive receivers of energy.  Rather, biological organisms are active seekers of energy.  They have found ways of finding energy to meet their needs, and have thereby achieved some degree of energy independence.

With this energy independence, biological systems have been able to give themselves some independence from mechanical determinism.  Biology does use mechanism.  It uses that for control, particularly self-control.  But,  because of its autonomous ability to acquire energy, it is not limited by mechanical determinism in the ways that passive receivers of energy are limited.

Free will

It is still unclear what people mean by “free will.”  But what they do mean seems to include some ability to make autonomous decisions.  Our ability to make autonomous decisions is linked to our ability to be autonomous energy seekers.  Those two autonomous behaviors are mutually dependent on one another.

May 5, 2015

Granville Sewell on conscious typewriters

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at ENV, Granville Sewell suggests that if computers could be conscious, then why not typewriters:

Sewell is, of course, attempting to ridicule the idea of a conscious computer.  But I don’t think his ridicule succeeds.

Those in the AI community who perhaps hope to produce a conscious computer, would have ready answers to Sewell’s argument.  They would see a typewriter as far too simple a device for there to be any possibility of consciousness.

Consciousness and AI

Sewell’s argument against conscious computers similarly misfires.  He seems to be arguing that any conscious computer would have to be something like the Eliza program, based on using preprogrammed canned responses.  However, most people in the AI community would readily grant that Eliza is not conscious and not even intelligent.

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May 2, 2015

Why I am not a materialist — take 2

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post (almost three years ago), I asserted that I am not a materialist.  I have had people argue with me about that, and suggest that I was being disingenuous.

In the debates between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer, Shedrake’s opening statement includes a bunch of questions related to materialism, that he poses to Shermer.  So I thought I would give my answers to those questions.  And then you can decide for yourself whether I should be considered a materialist.


Sheldrake’s first question: Is nature mechanical?

I have never thought so.  I take biological organisms to be an important part of what we mean by “nature”, and biology has always seemed very different from mechanics.  Rocks, earthquakes, etc — yes, I consider those to be mechanical.  But not living things.

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May 1, 2015

The Sheldrake — Shermer debates

by Neil Rickert

“Through the months of May, June, and July of 2015, is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer.”

That’s quoted from “Sheldrake-Shermer, Materialism in Science, Opening Statements“.  I found it an interesting read.  I plan to keep my eye on this debate over the next few months.  Perhaps I’ll post something based on what I read.

April 26, 2015

ID vs. evolution

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his blog, Jason Rosenhouse wrote “Truly, ID is dead.”  In response, Vincent Torley (vjtorley), at Uncommon Descent, has posted “Is Intelligent Design dead?“.

Rosenhouse was mainly commenting on his observation that the UD blog has deteriorated to the point where it is posting some rather silly arguments.  In his response, Torley doesn’t actually say much about that.  Instead, he gives some of the tired old arguments that evolution is impossible (never mind the evidence for evolution).

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April 23, 2015

Today is open secular day

by Neil Rickert

It’s still Wednesday in Chicago.  But blog time is UTC, so for the blog it is Thursday April 23, which is Open Secular Day.

People who have been following this blog will already know that I am not religious.  I have never tried to hide that.  Here, I’ll describe what it means to me.


As an educator, I have endeavored to keep religion out of the classroom.  (My teaching was at university level in mathematics and computer science).  I don’t think most of my students would have had any inkling as to my religious view.  Perhaps, for my last few years of teaching, some might have seen my blog and worked it out from there.  But I have never mentioned this blog in class either.  For that matter, I have also kept my political views out of the classroom.

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April 14, 2015

Philosophy of mind is weird

by Neil Rickert

More correctly, philosophy of mind seems weird to me. Perhaps that’s because I think more like a scientist than like a philosopher.

I have been reading “Intentionality and Myths of the Given: Between Pragmatism and Phenomenology” by Carl Sachs. In the first few chapters, the author reviews the positions taken by a number of philosophers, and I am already seeing weirdness.

Take this quote:

Perceptual experience is passive as opposed to active, in McDowell’s vocabulary, because he follows Kant in thinking of `activity’ in terms of freedom. I can freely endorse or withhold assent from judgements, but I cannot freely endorse or withhold assent from perceptual episodes — if what I see is a salt-shaker on the table, then I cannot not see that there is a salt-shaker on the table. My concepts of `salt-shaker’ and `table’ are passively actualized in the shaping of sensory consciousness as it relates to the objects experienced. (Kindle location 3164)

And that seems weird.

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April 5, 2015

Three for Easter

by Neil Rickert

For Easter, I’ll comment on three blog posts that relate to religion (to Christianity).

Jason Shaw

I’ll start with the easy one.  Jason Shaw suggests that peer pressure is behind both smoking and religion.  There may be some truth to that.  I’m reasonably resistant to peer pressure, which is probably why I never did take up smoking and why I found it not too hard to drop religion.  It was parental pressure that got me started in religion, and that’s a  bit harder to resist.

Jerry Coyne

I disagree with Jerry Coyne.  I don’t go as far in criticizing religion.  He objects National Geographic having an article on Francis Collins and religion.  I don’t see the objection.  National Geographic has a tradition of articles on cultural anthropology, so why not one on that of western Christians.

Coyne also criticizes Collins for defending religion as compatible with science.  I’ve never seen the point in that argument.  For sure, science is compatible with some forms of religion, such as that involved in YEC creationism.  But I don’t see that as an essential incompatibility.  Many scientists find a way of maintaining their Christianity without compromising their science.

Michael Egnor

This is where I disagree the most.  Egnor disagrees with Coyne, but for different reasons.  According to Egnor, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a fundamental question about ultimate purpose.

Perhaps Egnor is right, that Coyne misunderstood the question to be mechanical rather than teleological.  But I see the question as foolish and pointless.  There is no useful answer that we could ever give to that question.  Any answer that is suggested will be one made up by humans to satisfy their own psychological needs.


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