December 5, 2016

Are conventions arbitrary?

by Neil Rickert

Well, yes (to the title question).

I chose that title for its brevity.  This post is intended to explain what it means to say that conventions are arbitrary.  But that’s a bit long for a title.

We generally adopt conventions for a reason.  For example, the convention that we drive on the right side of the road was adopted to reduce the likelihood of head-on collisions.  But it would work just as well to drive on the left side of the road (as they do in Britain and Australia).  So there was a choice to be made between the two.  That particular choice was an arbitrary choice — it would not matter which way you chose, at least with respect for the reason that the convention was adopted.

There are all sorts of other options that could have been chosen.  It could have been decided to drive on the right for one mile, then on the left for the next mile.  Or it could have been decided to drive on the right on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and on the left on the other days.  But these kinds of choices would have been confusing and would therefore have been less effective in reducing head-on collisions.  Pragmatically speaking, it boiled down to only the two choices — left or right.

The use of the word “arbitrary” seems confusing at first, because it seems to suggest “random”.  But conventions are not random.  What we mean, when we say that they are arbitrary, is just that they are not fully determined by reality.  Adopting a convention usually means some kind of choice.  But, although not fully determined by reality, that choice is still guided by the goals that have led us to adopting a convention.

November 26, 2016

Conventionalism

by Neil Rickert

A while back, I indicated that I would start posting about my own ideas on philosophy.  But I have not posted much since then.  This is an attempt to resume that effort.

My own philosophy appears to be a variety of conventionalism.

I have previously stated that I am a behaviorist.  That does not change.  I see social conventions as, primarily, behavioral conventions.  A simple example is the convention that we should drive on the right side of the road.  This is a convention about behavior.

What is conventionalism?

According to Wikipedia:

Conventionalism is the philosophical attitude that fundamental principles of a certain kind are grounded on (explicit or implicit) agreements in society, rather than on external reality.

Conventionalism appears to be controversial within philosophy.  There is fairly broad acceptance that language is conventional, though there are disagreements about that, too.  Henri Poincaré was conventionalist about geometry, which seems right to me.  Some have argued that mathematics is conventional.  That is more controversial, and many philosophers believe that Quine refuted that position in his “Truth by convention”.  I’ll not that I disagree with Quine, and perhaps I’ll discuss that in a future post.

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November 9, 2016

The election results

by Neil Rickert

When a heavy snow storm dumps two feet of snow, some people blame on abortion; some folk blame it on sexual promiscuity; some folk blame it on global warming; some folk blame it on scientific experiments gone awry.

Me?  I just start clearing my driveway.  The blame game doesn’t achieve anything.

I won’t try to place blame for the election results.  I’ll just work on how best to cope with the world that we find ourselves in.

August 3, 2016

Hillary Clinton for president

by Neil Rickert

The political conventions are over.  It is time to think about voting in November.

I expect to cast my vote in favor of Hillary Clinton.  Or, technically, in favor of the electoral college delegates who support Hillary Clinton.

I’m not a huge fan of Clinton.  I was also not a huge fan of Bernie Sanders.  But I would have supported Sanders, had he won the Democratic nomination.  The realistic alternative is Donald Trump, the Republican candidate.  But that alternative would be a nightmare.  From my perspective, Trump is the singularly most unsuitable candidate to ever be nominated by a major party.

According to president Obama, Clinton is the most qualified candidate we have ever seen.  That’s probably correct.  But qualifications are not everything.  What matters more, in my opinion, is the judgment skills that a president will use for issues that unexpectedly arise.  In 2008, and again in 2012, I voted for Obama because I trusted his judgment.  I have not agreed with all of his decisions.  Yet, overall, he has exercised wise judgment in making those decision.

I’m not as sure about the judgment skills of Hillary Clinton.  But, given the alternative, they will have to do.  As best I can tell, Donald Trump’s judgment skills are abysmal.

July 20, 2016

This blog is 6 years old

by Neil Rickert

I received notification from WordPress, earlier today, that it is now 6 years since I started this blog.

My posting rate has slowed down recently.  But it has not completely stopped.  The slowdown is partly because I’m frustrated with the weirdness of philosophy.  (Hmm, maybe that would make a good title for a future post).

I have not posted much on politics.  That’s mostly because few people are likely to be interested in my opinions.  But this has been a strange political season, so I’ll probably be posting some comments before the November elections.  I will at least wait until after the conventions.

July 17, 2016

Animals and abstract thought

by Neil Rickert

There’s recently been something of an argument between Michael Egnor and Jeffrey Shallit, over whether animals can think abstractly.

Egnor’s most recent post is here:

and it contains (near the beginning) links back to he earlier posts on the topic.  Shallit’s most recent post is here:

and the last line links to his earlier post in the dispute.

There is a simple answer to the question.  Humans are animals, and humans can think abstractly.  But that misses the point.  The argument was really about non-human animals.

Abstract thinking

For myself, I don’t really have an answer.  The problem that I see, is that we do not have a clear definition of “abstract thinking” that we could attempt to apply to animals.  There’s a good chance that Egnor and Shallit are talking past one another, using incompatible meanings of “abstract thinking.”

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May 31, 2016

The unexplained intellect — does it exist?

by Neil Rickert

This is my reaction to a post that I saw today at The Brains Blog:

(that post title is really in all caps, so I had to retype to make it look reasonable).

At first glance, that title looks good.  The statement that the mind is not a hoard of sentences fits with my repeated criticism of the idea that knowledge is justified true belief.  However, as I read further into that blog post, I realize that I still have a lot of disagreement with the author.

The blog post is written by Christopher Mole and, in part, it is saying something about Mole’s book “The Unexplained Intellect”.  I have not read the book itself.  It comes in at $54.95 for the Kindle edition, which is a bit pricey for me.

On minds

Here’s the second paragraph of that blog post:

We do not currently have a satisfactory account of how minds could be had by material creatures. If such an account is to be given then every mental phenomenon will need to find a place within it. Many will be accounted for by relating them to other things that are mental, but there must come a point at which we break out of the mental domain, and account for some things that are mental by reference to some that are not. It is unclear where this break out point will be. In that sense it is unclear which mental entities are, metaphysically speaking, the most fundamental.

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May 18, 2016

Differences in scientific viewpoint

by Neil Rickert

There’s a weird post at the ENV site:

For those who don’t know, ENV is a blog from the Discovery Institute, the organization that does three things: (1) it pushes “Intelligent Design”, (2) It attempts to have ID taught as science in the schools, and (3) it denies that it tries to have ID taught as science in the schools.

So when the Discovery Institute says that we should tolerate differences in scientific viewpoints, I’m inclined to take that as an argument that alternative science should be taught in the schools.  Here, “alternative science” could mean ID, or it could mean global warming denial (and the Discovery Institute does appear to be a hotbed of global warming denial).  It could possibly also mean vaccination denialism, though I don’t think that they themselves have supported the anti-vax proponents.

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May 16, 2016

Information systems

by Neil Rickert

As suggested in the previous post, I think of a cognitive system as an information system.  In this post, I want to look at a particular information system, namely a video camera.

Let me be very clear here.  I do not think that a cognitive system is very much like a video camera.  Rather, I see them as very different.  However, by looking at a video camera, we can examine some basic principles that seem to be common to all information systems, including human cognitive systems.

In particular, we want to look at:

  • the input phase, where data is gathered;
  • the organization phase, where the data is assembled together;
  • the output stream — the final output information.

The input phase

For the video camera, the data is gathered into a pixel map.  I am going to describe this as categorization.  That might seem a strange term to use for generating a pixel map, so I should first explain why I am using that term.

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May 15, 2016

Cognition and information

by Neil Rickert

As cognitive agents, we inform ourselves about the world and we use that information to control our behavior.  We also report information to others, as I am doing in this blog post.  This post is part of a series on my own philosophy.  It will mainly be about the meaning of the word “information” as I use it when discussing cognition.

Shannon information

I shall be using “information” to refer to what is often called Shannon Information, after the work of Claude Shannon.  The term “Shannon Information” has come to mean information in the form of a structured sequence of symbols, such as a natural language sentence or a data transmission stream on the Internet.  Shannon’s own research was not limited to the use of transmission in discrete units (such as words or bits), but its main use is with discrete units.

Shannon information is often criticized as being an entirely syntactic view of information.  Shannon was concerned with communication, with getting the stream of discrete symbols from the source to the destination.  His theory is not concerned with issues of meaning or semantics.

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