Archive for March, 2012

March 26, 2012

Information storage in the brain

by Neil Rickert

The problem of information storage is raised by Cornelius Hunter in a post at UD and at his own blog.  I’m not quite sure why Cornelius posted that.  He often posts arguments for ID or arguments critical of evolution.  But he fails to connect this particular post with his ideas on evolution and ID.  But never mind.  It’s something to comment on, because my response illustrates my disagreement with the conventional wisdom.

Cornelius poses the issue with: “The problem is that how the brain could store information long-term has been something of a mystery.”

My reaction – as best I can tell, the brain doesn’t store information at all.  So there is no mystery.

Suppose I hear a tornado alert on the radio.  I might react by becoming more alert to the weather conditions outside.  That can be thought of as reconfiguring things.  And that reconfiguration can be said to be a kind of memory.  But, as best I can tell, there would never be a need to actually store the received information (the alert).

The idea of storing information comes from the way that we use computers.  Perhaps it is implicit in the conventional view that knowledge is justified true belief.  I disagree with that view of knowledge, and I disagree with the information processing view of what the brain is doing.  My example of how we react to a tornado warning illustrates why I disagree.

March 20, 2012

Knowledge, empiricism and all that

by Neil Rickert

As previously indicated, I intend giving an outline of my own non-typical views of philosophical topics.  I’ll start by indicating in broad outline, how I look at knowledge.

There’s a traditional division between rationalism (roughly, knowledge is innate but perhaps requires reasoning to uncover it) and empiricism (knowledge is acquired through experience).  Between those alternatives, I clearly select empiricism.  It seems rather obvious that we acquire our knowledge through experience, and I suppose I find it a bit of a puzzle that there are rationalists who deny this.

March 17, 2012

Criticizing philosophy – or not

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post, I suggested that I might start a series critical of philosophy.  I won’t.  I have reconsidered.  It’s not that I have suddenly changed my view of philosophy.  Rather, it is that it is not up to me to tell philosophers what they should study and how they should study it.

Instead of a negative account on philosophy, I plan to provide a positive account of my own views on such matters.  Of course I will be comparing my own positions with the more traditional ones.  But the emphasis will be to provide an account of how I am looking at things.

Why do I bother?  Mostly, this is because philosophy seems to dominate cognitive science.  Because I am interested in cognition, I am interested in some of the same questions that philosophers study.  But my approach is different.  I have been interested in the question of how cognitive abilities might have evolved, and in what that tells us about our cognitive abilities.  As a consequence, I see things very differently from the way that most philosophers see them.

My plan will be to provide a series of posts which, taken together, will attempt to explain how I am looking at things.  In the meantime, I shall also continue to post on other topics of interest.

March 14, 2012

Can epistemology be justified

by Neil Rickert

A recent post at Jerry Coyne’s site, “How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology“, points us to a New York Times debate about whether epistemology is justified.  The actual title of the debate is “Defending Science: An Exchange“.

There is some ambiguity in those titles, as to whether the debate is about justifying science or about justifying epistemology.  So I will discuss both in my typically heretical style.  I’ll start with epistemology.

March 11, 2012

Random confusion

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post “Coordinated Complexity — the key to refuting postdiction and single target objections” at the Uncommon Descent blog, scordova attempts to address some of the objections to the probabilistic arguments used by ID proponents.  He gives an example of the kind of objection that he will address:

The opponents of ID argue something along the lines: “take a deck of cards, randomly shuffle it, the probability of any given sequence occurring is 1 out of 52 factorial or about 8×10^67 — Improbable things happen all the time, it doesn’t imply intelligent design.”

Unfortunately, that post at UD fails to answer the criticism and only further illustrates the confusion that it so common in ID thinking.

March 9, 2012

Semantics and measurement

by Neil Rickert

There are many different conceptions of “information.”  The most important of those is that due to Claude Shannon, and often referred to as “Shannon Information“.  Shannon was particularly concerned with communication and with the problem of avoiding or minimizing loss of information due to transmission over an imperfect channel.

As used today, we typically think of Shannon information being transmitted as a sequence of symbols, often as a stream of binary digits. It is considered to be a theory of syntactic information, since the engineering considerations that motivated Shannon’s work are concerned with delivery of the symbols and questions of what those symbols mean is secondary and outside Shannon’s theory.

March 4, 2012

What do we do next?

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post “Free will: what do we do next?“, Jerry Coyne wonders:

Given that we all agree on these issues, what comes next?

Well, it is really quite simple.  Nothing much comes next.  Given that it is all an illusion, you might as well set back and watch the illusion as it unfolds.  And, if we are unable to choose otherwise, then that is obviously what we shall do.

When thinking about this yesterday, …

Well you weren’t really thinking about it.  After all, thinking is that aspect of our lives where we consider ideas and make choices about them.  But if making choices is an illusion, as your view of “free will” asserts, then that thinking must also be an illusion.

March 4, 2012

The reliability of perception

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post about Plantinga’s argument against naturalism, John Wilkins quotes Plantinga as arguing:

If our cognitive faculties have originated as Dawkins thinks, then their ultimate purpose or function (if they have a purpose or function) will be something like survival (of individual, species, gene, or genotype); but then it seems initially doubtful that among their functions—ultimate, proximate, or otherwise—would be the production of true beliefs.

John Wilkins seems to think that this is an objection that deserves a response, arguing that selection for fitness will provide a perception that generates true beliefs.

I disagree.  Plantinga is quite right.  There is no basis for expecting that perception of an evolved organism will produce true beliefs.  However, that’s a rather  hollow “victory” for Plantinga.  For there is also no basis for expecting that perception will produce false beliefs.  Quite simply, truth or falsity is not a criterion for perception.  As Al Gore might have put it, there is no controlling authority.

March 4, 2012

In the beginning …

by Neil Rickert


Genesis 1:1 – In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

That seems to provide the basis for science, the study of the heaven (cosmology, physics) and the earth (geology, physics, chemistry, biology), the study of material things.

John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And that seems to provide for philosophy and theology, the study of abstract propositions and logic, the study of immaterial things, the basis for dualism.