Archive for February, 2011

February 28, 2011

On unions and government workers

by Neil Rickert

I have never been a member of a union, and I have voted against unionization a couple of times.  This is partly because university faculty have rather good working conditions anyway.

However, unions are needed for some workers.  In particular, they can protect the workers against arbitrary and unreasonable actions by management.  And it is just such arbitrary and unreasonable action that we see coming from governor Walker, in Wisconsin.  So my support is for the unions in Wisconsin and in other states where they are under similar threats.

February 28, 2011

My problem with ontology

by Neil Rickert

In his post on the role of philosophy, John Wilkins listed three questions that concern philosophers.  The first of those was “What is there? [Metaphysics].”  This is what is often referred to as “ontology”, the study of what exists.

My problem with ontology is that I don’t see much point to it, and that it seems to be used in ways that are problematic.  If there is to be a study of ontology, then I would want it to be part of epistemology rather than part of metaphysics.  And, as epistemology, it should be more concerned with questions of how and why we treat things as separate entities.

My first encounter with ontology was when I bumped into a philosophical discussion of the ontology of mathematical entities such as numbers.  Some mathematicians see these entities as existing in a platonic realm of ideal forms, others see numbers as fictions, and some see numbers as having a physical existence as pencil marks on paper.  I was puzzled as to why philosophy should care.  The mathematics works the same way, and has the same usefulness, regardless of one’s ontological view.  I was given an explanation of why it was important, but I did  not find that explanation at all satisfying.

So here’s my skeptical view, in abbreviated form.  Suppose it turns out that elves and goblins exist.  Since none of us can detect these creatures, and since they do not in any way affect our lives, it should not matter at all whether they or not they exist.  And suppose somebody tells me that a reflection doesn’t exist, that it is merely an appearance.  That would not alter the fact that I use a reflection when shaving.  So whether or not that reflection is said to exist has no consequences for me.

The history of science is a history of conceptual change.  The trouble with ontology as metaphysics, is that it suggests that there should be a fixed set of concepts and no conceptual change.  And that is inconsistent with our experience.

Perhaps my attitude toward ontology is why I don’t see much point in the atheist arguments that God does not exist,  nor in the theistic arguments that God does exist.

February 25, 2011

Operating systems and updates

by Neil Rickert
stickycomics cartoon on updates

An update is available

I don’t have experience with Macs, but I thought this cartoon said it very well for Windows vs. linux.

On windows, I find updates annoying.  I normally use Windows as a limited user.  But I have to be an Administrator in order to update.  Having to login as an Administrative user is already somewhat disruptive.  Windows 7 does fix that problem – you can set it to do updating even when logged in as an ordinary user.

It’s not just the administrator issue.  I install an update, and then I find that I have to reboot.  Soon after that, I am told that there’s an Adobe Acrobat reader update.  And sometimes I have to reboot after that.  And then I’m told that there’s a java update, though I usually don’t have to reboot for that.  I sometimes think I spend more time updating the system than actually using Windows.

I mainly use linux (currently openSuSE 11.3).  And with linux, updates are not seriously disruptive.  I am notified of an update.  I click the install button, and enter the administrative password as prompted.  And then the update process quietly does its thing without further interrupting me.  Adobe and jave updates are all included – any software installed from the distro repository is updated this way.  Reboot is rarely required.  And even when reboot is required (as for kernel updates), it is less of a concern.  The update is fully installed without the reboot.  It isn’t necessary to reboot to complete the install.  The reboot is only needed so that I will start using the updated version rather than the previous version.

The cartoon is from Sticky Comics.

February 21, 2011

The trouble with philosophy

by Neil Rickert

This is a somewhat belated reaction to the post The nature of philosophy and its role in modern society by John Wilkins.  In that post, Wilkins was discussing the role of philosophy, and its relevance.  The comments to that post were mixed, with some agreeing that philosophy is relevant and others doubting the relevance.

As a self-declared heretic, it will be no surprise that I am in the camp that questions the value of philosophy.

We need to be clear about what we are discussing.  There’s a sense in which philosophy is a natural human activity.  We all ponder about some of the big and hard questions.  And there’s a philosophical component to scientific theorizing.  I want to be clear that I am not discussing those.  This post is about what professional philosophers do, most of them as faculty in philosophy departments at universities and similar institutions.

The trouble with philosophy is that it is something of a religion (the religion of the academy).  By that, I mean that there is a heavy dependence on tradition and very little dependence on data or on testing of philosophical theses.

Wilkins mentioned some parts of philosophy that he thought particularly relevant.

  • What is there? [Metaphysics]
  • How do we know? [Epistemology]
  • What is its value? [Aesthetics, ethics and political philosophy]

I don’t have much to say about the last of those.  But I will be commenting on the others (ontology and epistemology) in future posts.  I can grant that, in principle, those could be important.  But the trouble with philosophy is that, in this commenter’s opinion, it does both rather poorly.

In his post, Wilkins mentioned that philosophy programs “are being downgraded or even closed around the world.”  Although I am a critic, I am not wanting philosophy departments to be closed.  I don’t want academic philosophy to go away; I want it to get better.

February 19, 2011

Online consciousness conference

by Neil Rickert

There’s an online conference going on over at the Consciousness Online site.  I have been lurking there (and posting a comment or two).  Those interested in the topic might want to take a look.

February 15, 2011

Purpose (7) – summary and index

by Neil Rickert

I have been pondering whether to continue this series with more posts.  But I think I’ll end it here for now.  I will later have some independent posts that are related.


One of the arguments that we repeatedly see from creationists, is that there is something missing from a purely mechanistic view of the world, and that is where they want to put their deity or intelligent designer.  What they see missing, is an explanation of an apparent purpose.

Part of that missing purpose is a backward construct from their theology, and their wish that they (or humankind) be a product of purpose.  I cannot find any basis for that.  However, there does seem to be a basis for seeing apparently purposeful behavior in biological systems.  And that’s what I have been discussing.

My main emphasis has been to show that there is an adequate natural account for this apparently purposeful behavior, so there is no need to call on theology for a pseudo-explanation.


For ease of future reference, here’s an index to the posts in this series:

February 7, 2011

Purpose (6) – background

by Neil Rickert

For this post, I want to go over how I became interested in purpose.

It all started with a personal interest in understanding how humans learn, so I spent some time studying the problem of learning.  I tried to combine two approaches.  One of those was to use the methods of AI, which would require modeling learning as a computational problem.  The other was to look at natural learning such as occurs in biological systems.  The aim was that ideas I might glean from looking at natural learning systems could perhaps provide guidance for computation learning.

Computers are versatile, so when you have a specific problem, you can usually come up with a way of solving it.  But the general problem for learning is that we don’t start with specific problems; we somehow just learn without being told what to learn.  And the general problem that I ran into was one of setting direction.

One of my grad school professor, S. Kakutani, would sometimes ask “Pick a number. Square it.  Is that a theorem?”  The idea was that if I pick a large number x, and square it (multiply it by itself) to yield y, then the statement “y is a perfect square” is a true statement that has probably never been stated before.  But no mathematician would consider that a worthy result.  We don’t just come up with true beliefs; we come up with interesting true beliefs.  And that leaves the difficulty of deciding what is interesting.  Hubert Dreyfus, a sometime critic of AI, expressed the general problem this way.

Using Heidegger as a guide, I began to look for signs that the whole AI research program was degenerating. I was particularly struck by the fact that, among other troubles, researchers were running up against the problem of representing significance and relevance – a problem that Heidegger saw was implicit in Descartes’ understanding of the world as a set of meaningless facts to which the mind assigned what Descartes called values and John Searle now calls function predicates.

So I went looking for sources of such direction.  I remember some particularly useful online discussions with Chris Malcolm of Edinburgh University, and those discussions were part of what set me looking for a good account of purpose, eventually leading me to the position that I have been presenting in this series of posts.