July 1, 2015

Two recent supreme court cases

by Neil Rickert

I’m perhaps a bit late here.  I have been discussing these case in other forums, so  I thought I would summarize my view here.

I’ll start by reminding the reader that I am not a lawyer.  But I am a citizen of the USA, and that should be enough to entitle me to express an opinion.

Obamacare (King v. Burwell)

While this was an important case, it is difficult to understand why there was a case at all.  This was the case where some people took a very literalist view of the ACA legislation, and claimed that it excluded subsidies to people in states with federally run exchanges.

In my opinion, this was a completely bogus issue from the start.  It was clear enough what was intended by those who drew up the legislation.

The Supreme Court had little choice in taking up the issue, because a lower court had ruled in favor of that bogus reading of the law.  And, thankfully, the supreme court reached the sensible decision.

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June 18, 2015

Making sense of a strange world

by Neil Rickert

In my prior post, I suggested that the role of perception was to allow an organism to make sense of the strange world where it finds itself.

We actually know something about how to do this.  We have examples from history to guide us.

Explorers

Perhaps the best examples are explorers.  They go into unfamiliar territory, and attempt to make it more familiar, more understandable.  And perhaps their most important way of doing this is by making maps.

Their map may start as little more than a blank sheet of paper.  As they explore, they look for major features such as mountains and rivers.  And then enter those onto the map in the appropriate relation to one another.  As then add features, the map begins to take shape and the structure of the territory begins to emerge.

Later another explorer, or perhaps the original explorer, may reenter the territory.  And, as they spot the major features, then can orient their location to what is shown on the map.  They can now add minor features to help further flesh out what we can know about the territory that they are exploring.

June 11, 2015

An alternative to design thinking

by Neil Rickert

In the previous post, I criticized Searle’s design thinking.  Today I want to suggest an alternative.

The trouble with design thinking

Design thinking seems to be common in philosophy and in AI.  The problem is that we end up attempting to design ourselves.  We look at ourselves as the intended finished product.  And we want what we design to have the same concepts, the same beliefs, the same ideas of truth.

There is a lot of talk about autonomous agents.  But can an agent be truly autonomous if we require it to have our own concepts and our own beliefs?  This, I think, is why we often have the intuition that an AI system won’t really be making decisions — it will, instead, be a mechanization of the designer’s intended decision making.

An alternative

The alternative is to try to understand the problem than an organism or a perceptual system is attempting to solve.  And then, once we understand the problem, we can look into ways of solving that problem.

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June 3, 2015

Searle’s design thinking

by Neil Rickert

While reading Searle’s perception book, I came across this passage:

Think of the problem from a designer point of view. Suppose you are God or evolution and you are designing organisms capable of coping with their environment in spectacularly successful ways. First, you create an environment that has objects with shapes, sizes, movements, etc. Furthermore, you create an environment with differential light reflectances. Then you create organisms with spectacularly rich visual capacities. Within certain limits, the whole world is open to their visual awareness. But now you need to create a specific set of perceptual organizations where specific visual experiences are internally tied to specific features of the world, such that being those features involves the capacity to produce those sorts of experiences. Reality is not dependent on experience, but conversely. The concept of the reality in question already involves the causal capacity to produce certain sorts of experiences. So the reason that these experiences present red objects is that the very fact of being a red object involves a capacity to produce this sort of experience. Being a straight line involves the capacity to produce this other sort of experience. The upshot is that organisms cannot have these experiences without it seeming to them that they are seeing a red object or a straight line, and that “”seeming to them”” marks the intrinsic intentionality of the perceptual experience. (page 129)

I’m not surprised by that kind of design thinking.  I have long thought that such design thinking is the background to much of philosophy.  It is, however, a little strange to be calling on evolution as a designer and as having a designer point of view.  Even worse is the idea of evolution wanting to “create organisms with spectacularly rich visual capacities.”

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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.

Biology

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.

Mechanism

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, TheBestSchools.org 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.

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