Why I am not a materialist

by Neil Rickert

More properly, my title should probably be “Why I claim that I am not a materialist.”  I say that, because I am often called a materialist, usually by creationists or id proponents whom I have engaged in debate.  So I guess that I should allow the possibility that I am mistaken about whether I am a materialist.

While there are some differences between materialism, physicalism and naturalism, most of what I say in this post will apply to all.

For those who are not sure what materialism, physicalism and naturalism entail, may I suggest that you check the entries in Wikipedia, SEP (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy) and other online sources.  When you have finished reading those, you might still be unsure what these isms entail, but your time reading them won’t have been wasted.

Take 1:

I am not a materialist, because materialism is a metaphysical position, and I don’t do metaphysics.  As best I can tell, metaphysics is impossible.  The only method available for doing metaphysics appears to be making stuff up, and one should distrust what is made up.

Take 2:

I am not a materialist, because I don’t know what material is.  Our current ideas about the nature of material are very different from those of the Newtonian scientist.  It would seem to be bad form to commit oneself to materialism, yet retain the freedom to change what we mean by “material.”  Since honest science requires a willingness to change what we mean by “material”, it seems wiser to not commit oneself to materialism.

Take 3:

I am not a materialist, because there is too much that is important to us, that has no adequate material account.  Take mathematics as an example.  The last time that I asked a self-proclaimed materialist for an account of mathematics, his response was “pencil marks on paper.”  I find that grossly inadequate.  We cannot give a satisfactory account of mathematics in the form of a theory of pencil marks on paper.

For myself, I am a fictionalist with respect to mathematics.  That is, I take mathematical objects (such as numbers) to be useful fictions.  Of course, one can say that a fiction is maintained by the human mind, so can be explained in terms of the material that constitutes neurons.  However, I am dubious of the adequacy of that approach.  We pass those useful fictions around from one mathematician to another, and it is doubtful that there could ever be a wholly material account of that passing around.

It is not just abstractions, such as mathematics, that I see as posing a problem.  Take an ordinary every day object such as a chair.  And for sure, the chair is made of material.  However, I doubt that we can give a definition of chair in purely material terms.  Whatever definition we come up with today might be proven wrong tomorrow when a chair shows up that is made of a new material that we had not considered in our definition.  We probably cannot adequately define chair in terms of shape, either.  For chairs of novel shape often show up.

A note on the supernatural

Some people seem to take materialism to be a denial of the supernatural.  I do not make any claim that there is a supernatural realm.  Nor to I claim that there isn’t.  I’ll say only that there are no known supernatural causes, and if the history of science is any indication then it is unlikely that any supernatural causes will show up.

Whether or not there actually is a supernatural realm – that seems to be a metaphysical question.  And, as already said, I don’t do metaphysics.  The most I can say, is that if there is a supernatural, then it has no relevance to the way I live my life.

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48 Responses to “Why I am not a materialist”

  1. Hi Neil,

    Take 1:

    “I don’t do metaphysics.” – Really?

    “As best I can tell, metaphysics is impossible.” – You’re doing metaphysics right there.

    I’d say we all do metaphysics. Metaphysics is, after all, merely speculations or hypotheses about what might be the case at some level of reality that don’t yet have firm science to explain, and that’s pretty much what most interesting philosophy is about, after it has taken care of the technical details of argumentation.

    I do see a distinction between better and worse metaphysics. Better metaphysics is not straying too far from what science does tell us; or, if we really want to do wild speculation then making it clear that our speculations are wild is good enough. Worse metaphysics is wild speculation passed off as reality, or as having some degree of certainty – e.g. religion.

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    • If you are only speculating, then you are not making claims. And if you are not making metaphysical claims, then metaphysics is irrelevant.

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      • It isn’t necessary to make claims when doing metaphysics. Speculating beyond current science is doing metaphysics. Making claims based on those speculations is making metaphysical claims, which is a dodgy business.

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        • Speculating beyond current science is doing metaphysics.

          Speculation about string theory, or about multiple worlds, by physicists has a metaphysical component, though I think they would be better off skipping the metaphysics.

          Speculating by Steve Jobs on the future of personal computing was probably not at all metaphysical.

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  2. Take 2:

    “I am not a materialist, because I don’t know what material is. Our current ideas about the nature of material are very different from those of the Newtonian scientist.”

    When we discovered that material objects are not solid, using our particle physics understanding of matter, it did not mean that we had discovered some new realm that was not material from which the material was constituted. We simply changed the way we think about the material world and what makes it up. This continues now. The quantum world is not non-material. It’s still the material world, but we now have to re-think what makes up the material world.

    Materialism is merely a classification into which we put things we discover, starting with macro level objects, such as rocks, plants, animals, people, and moving on to molecules, atoms, sub-atom particles. Then, with the discovery that particles aren’t quite as obviously ‘material’ as larger objects appear to be, we can still categorise them as material by including them in that category. So far, there is no reason to think that an electron does not actually exist as a material entity. Rather, we just have to adapt what we count as material, how we model it.

    Under this framework it’s conceivable that everything we discover just keeps on being added to the material category. If we discover there is some ‘intelligent’ entity that creates universes, and one of those entities created ours, and hence us, then that entity has some causal (I’ll get back to this) relationship to our universe, and so, whatever that entity is constituted of becomes part of our understanding of the universe and extra-universe, part of our science, part of our material understanding.

    This might seem like a cheat. Science and materialism always win, as it were. It begs the question of what the distinction is between materialism and non-materialism. The point is that whatever is classified as material has been discovered (or at least conjectured based on existing science). So materialism only remains as a productive counterpoint to claims that there is something other than the material – e.g. the supernatural.

    Specifically, ‘supernatural’ has historically been associated with religious views relating to events and powers outside common understanding, but even more specifically with claims to knowledge about those events and powers. Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with hypothesising about events and powers that might be possible. Imaginative sci-fi writers have come up with all sorts of ideas, as have fantasy writers, as have religions.

    These speculations and fantasies only become a problem when their existence is taken as true, without evidence – in other words, claims to knowledge about the existence of these speculations and fantasies. The religious may invoke their God and his supposed powers, without evidence, and this has political consequences when they use this supposed knowledge to dictate how others behave. If some science conspiracy fantasists organised into groups that could affect legitimate government to the extent that religious groups very obviously do, then it would be more obvious to most that this would be problematic. That religion gets away with political manipulation that matches their flaky metaphysics is a matter of historical convention – as is the deference and respect shown to religious views, though this is now being challenged.

    So, in summary, there exists whatever exists, but we are in a position to talk about it with some degree of confidence determined by what we discover. We have historically called all this the material world. Materialism as a philosophical position is merely an adherence to those principles and a rejection of flakier ways of claiming knowledge. That’s the main use of ‘materialism’ today. While actually doing science at the boundaries of our understanding scientists have no need for the distinction between materialism and non-materialism. But it’s still convenient to use the term materialism for these purposes of describing a method of viewing reality that is in opposition to flakier methods.

    So…

    “Since honest science requires a willingness to change what we mean by “material”, it seems wiser to not commit oneself to materialism.”

    OK, but committing to materialism is only something we do in order to ask theists, or proponents of some idealisms, what it is they have found that is non-material. As you say, in other respects being a materialist is just saying we’ll adapt our description of relaity to what science tells us.

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    • If we can remain materialists, yet keep changing what “material” means, then materialism isn’t really an “ism”. It becomes more of a naming convention.

      In any case, what the critics of materialism most attack is the reductionism. And that’s what I mainly discussed.

      I guess I will take you as saying that I am a materialist anyway, even if I deny it. That’s not anything that bothers me. I already allowed that I might be mistaken. However, you have not yet persuaded me of that.

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      • I think the issue of reductonism is a red herring. Reductionism is a tool that is misrepresented by those who suppose that sceintists don’t have the wit to be able to use reductionism to analyse detail and yet see the big picture. The whole point of reductionism is to see the detail in order to explain what makes up the big picture, to give a better understanding of the big picture. Feynman dismisses all this ant-reductionst nonsense: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28.

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  3. Take 3

    “…too much that is important to us, that has no adequate material account”

    There might be much that is waiting for a good material account in terms of the relationship between current physics and some human condition, but that’s mostly a matter of detail. It is a mistake to suppose that the wispier aspects of the human condition would have some non-material explanation without good evidence for thinking that. Even the notion that there might be ‘evidence’ for something non-material is strange one, given that all we have observed so far suggests we are entirely material beings.

    So, though I too say that mathematics is abstract I think we need to consider what that itself means. Something is thought of as being abstract if is considered not part of some physical reality, or is not part of some specific object. But this is only a historical perspective that we have inherited from times when most concepts about things you couldn’t touch were abstract, and when some untouchable unexplained phenomena were labelled supernatural.

    Today I think we have a better grasp of the abstract. Something is an abstract idea or system only if the conceptual formulation of it is so vague or general that it cannot be tied to a particular. The abstract concept of ‘car’ can cover all cars, and yet as we mull over the concept various features of real cars (or even cartoon cars) will flit through our thoughts. So, the better question is not about what is this vague notion of abstractness, but what is going on when we process abstract ideas.

    To me it all seems like information processing in brains, where due to the transformations that go on as data enters, is processed and eventually expressed by humans, there are many complex and variable representations of the external world in brains. So, the mathematical concept of number from counting is merely the brain’s vague recognition of patterns. Counting apples has some pattern to the process that is similar to counting oranges, even though apples and oranges differ. And counting fruits is yet another parallel common pattern that is similar to counting cars, even though fruits are different from cars. It’s such a complex mess of patterns within patterns, that we pluck out the similarities and label them as abstract ideas. But it’s still all physically represented in brains.

    The same applies for any aspect of the human condition, including examples like ‘love’. The very nature of the simplicity of the word ‘love’ hides a massive complexity of human emotion, bonding, evolution, and so on that makes the single word totally inadequate. So, we call the term and abstract one, or a term that represents an abstract quality. This is a mistake. The actuality of love is real in its instantiation in a massive variety of forms in a massive variety of individuals.

    Similarly for mathematics. It’s only abstract in the sense that each bit of mathematics is the distillation of common patterns found in reality. We have become so god at this very physical process of manipulating patterns in our brains that to us ‘mathematics’ appears to take on some other world non-material ‘abstract’ reality. But it has no reality outside our heads, or in the other representations in which we instantiate it: books, computer programs.

    An ant crawling across a math text does not stumble across mathematics, only across ink on paper. That text is just patterns of ink on paper. If we look deeper, into your Take 2 take on reality, there isn’t even any ink or paper, only sub-atomic particles of a limited kind – they are just arranged into patterns that form ink and paper, which in turn form patterns that describe patterns of mathematics. But, because patterns in our brains ‘get’ those patterns of ink on paper we see the pattern, we recognise it.

    To tie this in with your other points about the material we have to note that the very brains that are holding these abstract concepts are doing so by maintaining and changing patterns of neurons and their signalling mechanisms, and these in turn are constituted of atomic particles, and so on down to the more ‘abstract’ representations of reality. In other words, it’s all much of the same. There is no reason to think of anything being non-material, no matter how deep we go, and there’s no need to invent some abstract non-material realm in which abstract systems such as mathematics reside.

    Everything is all the same stuff – whatever that stuff happens to be. Our descriptions of it, at various levels, we label as material descriptions – even the weirder stuff of the quantum world. Note that the quantum world hasn’t been discovered to be something in addition to the material world, but something which constitutes the material world – that’s what the material world appears to be made up of, so far. Tucked away in all of that everything are abstract systems, which are merely patterns of information that sweep over the human interface to reality in the form of dynamic neuronal patterns in living brains and recorded patterns in books and computers emitted from currently living and once living brains.

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    • Something is an abstract idea or system only if the conceptual formulation of it is so vague or general that it cannot be tied to a particular.

      There is nothing vague about mathematical concepts.

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      • If mathematics is not vague, then is it precise? Mathematics is precise on what scale? The precision we see is assumed to be significant. But that’s only relative to our common experience.

        1 planck length = 1.616199 × 10^-35 metres

        What about “1 x 10^-1000” meters? Sure, we can invent numeric values. But to what extent do they represent reality. Between the quotes there are only 12 characters, and that represents some very specific numeric value to us, because we define the way in which this very small example from one particular representational system maps to what we think is a very precise value. But how far can we go? Surely your concept of the precision of maths is relative to human experience, and in particular to relative to human natural evolved experience.

        What about infinity. Is there any more vague concept? The infinitesimally small? We know that whatever numeric value we invent there will always be an infinite extent of numbers beyond that. We have no real sense of the number “1 x 10^-1000”. Multiple infinities? Divide 1 by any of them and you get the apparently precise zero?

        What about simpler counting numbers, are they precise? What do they count. One apple? That seems precise. But what is one apple? Any real apple is changing all the time, as atoms evaporate off its surface during the processes of life and death. Any actual physics always includes error bounds, statements of precision – one apple, plus or minus a gazillion atoms, at this instant, plus or minus a nanosecond. We know that all our numeric representations are vague representations of reality.

        Do we actually experience anything that has the real and persistent value of ‘one’? And ‘one’ is very vague indeed. So many very different things can be described, counted, by ‘one’. There’s one apple. There is another one, quite different, but now there are two. Number is only a vague mapping of groups of things – and here ‘one’ represents some two different groups of cells or groups of atoms, that are in sufficient proximity for us to assign the notion of ‘one’ to each.

        What about mathematics itself, without any reference to anything in reality? Your abstract mathematics? Can you provide evidence for it as an existing thing? Tell me something *non-vague* about mathematics that is not simply an expression of the difference in precision between the vague human sensory capacity and what is, I agree, a *less vague* representational system, but which is still vague.

        We may think of mathematics as colloquially non-vague, for our human purposes. But really it’s just a bunch of vague concepts strung together by mappings that to us on our human scale seem precise.

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        • If mathematics is not vague, then is it precise?

          Mathematics is not merely precise. It is exact. Mathematicians don’t use 3.14, or 3.14159 as approximations. They use \pi so that they can be exact.

          What about “1 x 10^-1000″ meters?

          But you are not talking about mathematics itself. You are talking about applying mathematics to empirical problems. The limits of precision come from the nature of the empirical problem, not from the mathematics.

          What about infinity. Is there any more vague concept? The infinitesimally small?

          Mathematicians are very precise when talking about the infinite. Our colloquial talk of “infinity” and “infinitesimal” is vague, but within mathematics itself we do not allow that vagueness.

          What about mathematics itself, without any reference to anything in reality? Your abstract mathematics? Can you provide evidence for it as an existing thing?

          Nobody (or no mathematician) claims that mathematics is empirical. So it does not require empirical evidence. We value it for its usefulness, and there is much evidence of that usefulness.

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  4. Take 4 (mine)

    There is either a dichotomy of there being material and non-material or there isn’t.

    So far we have only found the material.

    The notion of the non-material has been used to include the supernatural, and some ideas we call abstract.

    But it seems the non-material notion is itself a material pattern in a material brain used to represent things for which that brain can’t quite discover the material explanation in sufficient detail to satisy us.

    The non-material is an invention of a material brain, existing as material patterns flooding across the material brain. The non-material, as a concept, has an entirely material existence.

    The non-material does not exist as something counter to the material.

    The material is all there is.

    The material/non-material dichotomy is also a material pattern in a material brain, since dichotomies are themsleves concepts, and concepts exist as brain patterns. So, the material non-material dicotomy does exist; it does represent two distinct concepts; but both those concepts have material instantiation. The non-material is its own self-sustaining concept, but represents nothing found in reality.

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  5. As far as we can tell concepts consist of patterns in human brains. Common concepts are mappings between similar patterns in different brains, or in the same brain at different times, or stored outside brains as patterns on paper in other media. Distilling the common nature of these patterns appears to give them an existence of their own, when really there is no corresponding actual existence that we know of. Pi is another vague concept that is made to appear exact, by *defining* it as a ratio, for example, or by that other vague notion of an infinite series. Defining one vague concept in terms of another doesn’t make it any more exact in actuality, only in our minds, and our minds are full of vague notions that we feel are exact, when in actuality they consist of fleeting patterns in the brain.

    Pi is an irrational number that we can’t pin down except by this definition. It’s as exact and real as Plato’s forms, or God. It’s utility is a separate issue, as is the difference between the existence of God and the utility of belief in God. The utility of the assumption of an ideal triangle is not a claim that there exists an ideal traingle ‘form’ in some perfect reality. We are still struggling to understand reality down to the level of the Plank length, and yet for some reason we assume mathematics has some reality that is comparable to notions of the forms, or the divine?

    “That is, I take mathematical objects (such as numbers) to be useful fictions.”

    I agree that amthematics has great utility, an indispensible utility to science. So, defining pi for me has greater utility than defining God in any of the various ways that theists do. It happens that pi is far more secular and doesn’t carry with it any of the religious and political baggage that God does. Defining some sort of creator entity, as a hypothesis, as a metaphysical speculation, is fine, though it has no utlility I can think of (providing we dismiss the utility of religious and political manipulation). But that greater utility doesn’t make it any more real. It reamins, as you say, a useful fiction.

    I also think that pure mathematics is a fantastic conceptual exercise that even without direct utility is interesting. It’s worth investigating what it is about it that makes us feel it is exact. It may be that has something to do with what reality is. It may be that the patterns of data, the information that makes up reality, at the point where we get the feeling that the ‘material’ disappears, where our common (and vague) notions of the solidity of the material vanish in uncertainty. But so far the exactness of mathematics remain a psychological experience, and like psychological experiences of God or Plato’s forms may seem more real than it is.

    But all this is metaphysics, and you don’t do metaphysics. Except for this: “There is nothing vague about mathematical concepts.” That is a metaphysical claim because it is not an empirical one. “Nobody (or no mathematician) claims that mathematics is empirical.” So what are you claiming it is? A fiction? Our dispute then remains about whether finctions can be exact.

    So, to get back to materialism momentarily, I agree it is a label; one we give to describe a world view that doesn’t admit anything that cannot be verified by the senses. And here I include indirect sensing through instruments, and the contribution of mathematical models that allow us to describe more precisely the correspondence between our various sensings of reality.

    I also include the sensing that is constituted of the neurons in our heads where all these patterns are strung together. This is still all material stuff; all very vague and messy, and different from one brain to another, or within one brain moment to moment. There is nothing in our current understanding of reality that is exact. We only feel it is. Perhaps I could rephrase it as: There is nothing in our current understanding of reality that is *complete* – and being incomplete it is inexact; it is vague, approximate.

    “Since honest science requires a willingness to change what we mean by “material””

    I agree. This does express the point that we don’t really have a grasp of reality because our understanding of it does change. We have a vague understanding of reality. This might even be by necessity. A finite brain made up of a finite and changing number of particles (particles we can’t really say exist as the ‘solid’ entities the word ‘particle’ expresses). There’s not enough room in the brain to represent all the details of reality that would be requried to make up reality. We can’t even hold all the details on (relatively) simple objects like a house. Our brain only holds simplistic models of houses. We even have to make simplistic external models (e.g. an architects model of a building) so that our brains can appreciate the intended appearance of the eventual real object: we need an intermediate external model because our brains can’t construct and hold all the details in an internal model. We need ‘blueprints’ to hold all the detail that we put together because our brains can’t hold it all.

    Our mental world is a vague representation of reality. We construct vague concepts that model reality, and we often feel these internal models are an exact representaion of reality, when really they are just simplistic patterns in a biological network of neurons. I think it is important to keep coming back to this question of what it is, this brain, that is actually holding all these concepts that feel vast and exact. It is a small and finite collection of stuff that can’t possibly hold the detail it feels it holds.

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    • As far as we can tell concepts consist of patterns in human brains. Common concepts are mappings between similar patterns in different brains, or in the same brain at different times, or stored outside brains as patterns on paper in other media.

      I believe that to be almost entirely wrong.

      For the rest of your comment, I can only conclude that you have some difficulty understanding mathematics (or what mathematics is). I did an earlier post on how I look at mathematics.

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  6. You don’t say why you find it almost entirely wrong. How do you suppose brains work? What is their physiological make-up? How do they store information? How does the information, as stored in the brain, map to things outside the brain? Unless you can account for some as yet un-discovered entity/process/realm then it’s all physical. And though the medium is mushier, and the details are different, there is no principled difference in the way brains and other systems store information. They store is as states of matter. In a computer the simple binary state may actually be stored as a static charge one an element – details differ according to the type of memory: http://www.howstuffworks.com/ram.htm, http://computer.howstuffworks.com/flash-memory.htm. Human memory, essential to the processing of information (and doing mathematics is the processing of information) isn’t a lot different in principle (http://www.human-memory.net/intro_what.html) except state is recorded by connections between neurons. The interesting bit though is that human brains didn’t evolve to process information in as regular a fashion as computers do.

    But it’s all very messy, with the same neurons potentially used in the recoding of a number of what we think of as ‘concepts’, and that number variaing dymanically as the memory is stored, recalled, processed. There’s a good chance that every time you think of pi your brain will be invoking different neurons, and also triggering different groups of other neurons that stimulate other thoughts, images, as you think of pi – pi the symbol, pi the ratio of a circle’s diameter and circumfirance, apple pie, … – we have far less control over what our brains do than we like to think. That’s why it’s hard to think logically. So, human processing of information is messy, vague. There is no known precision in the brain’s processing of concepts. Unless you want to make a metaphysical statement to the effect that maths exists out there, as some platonic forms (and you say you don’t want to do metaphysics) then all we are left with are on the one hand the utility of maths, which I think we agree on, and what constitutes maths, which you too think of a s a fiction. Well, brains make up fictions, and fictions, in brains, are messy, inprecise, vague.

    I’ll comment on your maths post on maths specifically.

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    • How do you suppose brains work?

      I have been unsuccessful in previous attempts to explain it.

      What is their physiological make-up?

      I doubt that there is any serious disagreement about the physiology.

      How do they store information?

      The “store information” view of the brain is a complete misunderstanding of what the brain does.

      Yes, the brain uses information, but it does not store information.

      The real problem for the brain, is that there is no such thing as information. Perhaps I should reword that as “there is no such metaphysical or ontological thing as information.” So the brain and person have to start by inventing information. Once they have invented information, they can start to use it. But I see no need to store it.

      How does the information, as stored in the brain, map to things outside the brain?

      That’s the whole point of inventing information. The brain has to invent ways of representing aspects of the external world. Having thus invented it, the brain is well able to map its internal representations into what is represented. Being able to do that mapping is part of the invention process.

      Unless you can account for some as yet un-discovered entity/process/realm then it’s all physical.

      I am not suggesting anything non-physical.

      And though the medium is mushier, and the details are different, there is no principled difference in the way brains and other systems store information.

      If brains do not store information at all (as I suggest), then that is completely consistent with their being no principled difference in how they store information, unless you count not storing information as a principled difference.

      The interesting bit though is that human brains didn’t evolve to process information in as regular a fashion as computers do.

      As I see it, brains do not process information at all. So it isn’t a problem that they did not evolve to process information.

      By now you can probably surmise why I chose the particular name that I use for this blog.

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  7. First we need to make sure we are not at cross purposes on the meaning of information, since it has two or three main meanings. Perhaps you are thinking of the semantic use of information, which we use to measure, crudely, knowledge; or that used by Shannon, as a measure of the information content of a message.

    But more simplistically there is simple information that comes from variation and distinction in reality. It may be that all that we consider to be matter is nothing more than variation in some aspect of reality. Collections of distinctions may be considered to be data. When data forms regular patterns that can be repeated, stored transferred, then this becomes this basic information – though to this extent it has no meaning beyond the context in which it exists. So, sub-atomic particles may be considered as collections of amorphous data, which when occurring regularly constitute individual particles, collections of particles, atoms, elements, molecules. So, information, in this sense, is just the form that the data takes, the form of the variation in reality.

    The transmission of this basic information may consist of one set of particles taking on the form of another. So, atoms of oxygen and hydrogen, and the sub-atomic particles that make them up, when they come together in a particular way form water molecules. All chemical reactions consist of this type of interaction. Photons being transferred and absorbed perpetuate patterns – so light striking a retina will result in particular corresponding patterns in the emission of action potentials in the neurons. The same external ‘image’, the same external source, will tend to generate similar patterns in the action potentials of the same corresponding neurons – but this applies in both space and time domains.

    An important point here is that the expression ‘transmission of information’ need not involve the transmission of specific pieces of data, such as a particle. When a pattern of photons is absorbed by the retina the corresponding pattern in the neurons is not constituted of those photons, but of the wave motion of ions across the neuron’s membrane, and later the emission of more complex chemicals at the synaptic junction. So, the transmission of information in this case consists of the variation in one medium resulting in a corresponding variation in another medium. In that simplistic sense there is no ontological stuff that is information; but the transmission of information, as if it had ontological existence is a good model, and one we all use all the time.

    When I think the word ‘horse’ and I type the word ‘horse’ on my keyboard, and some time later you read it, there is a real correspondence between what left my brain, resulted in keyboard presses, was stored in my computer, posted as a comment, read on the screen by you, and eventually triggering the notion of ‘horse’ in your brain. The notion of ‘horse’ has been transmitted (and any transmission involves processing and storing). If your brain didn’t store information you wouldn’t ‘remember’ anything and would not be able to function. All biological systems have memory. Even those without a central nervous system have memories: such as the physiological memory of a membrane that will let some chemicals through but not others. If you deny this then I’m not sure how you think your fictional maths is actually used, how it achieves the utility you claim for it. If you don’t deny it then I still don’t know what your objection is to what I’ve said, or in what way you think brains don’t store or process information.

    But, to continue, the brain, over time, adapts to these patterns. And it does store this basic information – these patterns, in the form of synaptic states and other conditions. This is all basic and well understood physiological stuff. Brains do store information. You’d be at odds with I would guess all of neuroscience if you rejected this.

    The issue comes when we try to interpret this basic information semantically. This is the area in which there is a lack of precision in the connection between what we understand as semantic concepts and the basic storage and processing of information. But that lack of understanding is one of complexity. There is nothing known in neuroscience, as far as I know, that would even suggest there is anything else at play. Every aspect of human cognition, and emotion, is governed by these basic neurological processes – which are also influenced of course by prior states of the brain, and the chemical state of the brain as determined by other bodily processes, such as the emission of hormones, the influence of alcohol and other drugs.

    Semantic information is just basic information contextualised specifically for the entity which ‘understands’ that information. Odours, consisting of airborne chemicals, will trigger semantic information for animals for which it has context. So cats may get real semantic information from the scents of other cats, and yet maybe little or none from that of a horse. For humans entering a foreign country for the first time the smells may seem strange, but otherwise may have no semantic content, until they acquire familiarity with the place. Then even some smells back home may trigger memories and emotions of the foreign land, when prior to their visit they would not. Semantics comes solely out of familiarity, context.

    Generally then it’s this mapping of basic information in the brain onto the semantic concepts that we are conscious of that is vague. But there is nothing else. All of human mathematics is processed in that system. External representations of the same information, and external processing, are just alternative systems for representing the same semantic information. But because our semantic lives are so variable, and because there is not a one-to-one mapping between such semantic content and the informational content as described by the instantaneous variable state of the brains cells, let alone these external systems, there is nothing available to us to assure us that any of it is exact in any way. It only feels that way to our very limited conscious selves, because that’s all those limited conscious selves are used to.

    A glass full of water looks full, in relation to the glass; but pour that water into a bucket and the bucket looks near empty. Compare a ruler marked off at just the centimetre lines to the precision of a micrometre, and the latter looks precise, until you look at the gratings of the latter with an electron microscope. Our limited scale of perspective fools us into thinking that the precision and exactness that we feel is absolute rather than relative. But there is no evidence that supports the notion that we think in exact concepts; it’s only a feeling.

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    • First we need to make sure we are not at cross purposes on the meaning of information, since it has two or three main meanings.

      At one time, I struggled with that. But I have since come to understand that Shannon information is what is appropriate here.

      But more simplistically there is simple information that comes from variation and distinction in reality.

      But that cannot work, unless you take perception to be magical. Having information about the world is prior to any possible awareness of variation and distinction.

      When data forms regular patterns that can be repeated, stored transferred, then this becomes this basic information – though to this extent it has no meaning beyond the context in which it exists.

      As best I can tell, what you are calling data never forms regular patterns. You would, instead, get what William James referred to as “a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion.”

      When I think the word ‘horse’ and I type the word ‘horse’ on my keyboard, and some time later you read it, there is a real correspondence between what left my brain, resulted in keyboard presses, was stored in my computer, posted as a comment, read on the screen by you, and eventually triggering the notion of ‘horse’ in your brain.

      Why?

      Among other problems, you are assuming that my notion of horse is identical to your notion of horse. I can’t find any basis for that, and I think it unlikely.

      That gets to why I object to ontology. You start with a standard ontology that includes horse, and you assume the same ontology for me as for you. Because of that, you assume that your notion of horse is the same as my notion of horse. So you come up with a story that is no more likely to be true than is the Adam and Eve story.

      If your brain didn’t store information you wouldn’t ‘remember’ anything and would not be able to function.

      This does not follow at all.

      The clock on my wall does not store anything, yet it seems to keep good time.

      All biological systems have memory.

      The clock on my wall can be said to have memory in the form of the mechanical position of its moving hand. But it still does not store anything. There is no explicit store operation going on. There is no sequence of symbols (i.e. fragment of Shannon information) that is ever stored.

      You are basically telling me the standard view that comes from philosophy. As best I can tell, it consists entirely of made up stories that have not been examined with sufficient skepticism. There is no way that it could work.

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  8. I suppose your use of the term heresy can be viewed in one of two ways. One would be that you have a genuine hypothesis about how the world is, and that you would express it, which would be helpful. Another would be that you simply reject current ideas without offering anything in their place, but that would seem to be more obstinate contrariness rather than constructive heresy. I read much of the latter into your blog generally, though I do agree with many other parts of it. Your main post here, for example, expresses why you are not a materialist, and that you don’t do metaphysics. But I can’t see anything that that strays too far from materialism, other than a hint of idealism; and you do do metaphysics regularly; and I don’t see you offering any real explanation of what you do think, beyond your commitment to the abstract nature of mathematics.

    “If brains do not store information at all (as I suggest)” and “As I see it, brains do not process information at all.” So, what do you think is going on in a brain? How would you use the terms ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ in the context of states of the brain and the external world?

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  9. One would be that you have a genuine hypothesis about how the world is, and that you would express it, which would be helpful.

    I am more or less a naive realist, so you have missed the target there.

    My issue is not one of “how the world is” but of “how do we get to know how the world is.” And that’s where I think philosophy has gone astray. And yes, I do express that. But that part of what I say is ignored, or not even noticed.

    So, what do you think is going on in a brain?

    I actually gave a partial answer to that in my previous comment, but you seem to have not noticed. I wrote “So the brain and person have to start by inventing information. Once they have invented information, they can start to use it.”

    How would you use the terms ‘data’, ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ in the context of states of the brain and the external world?

    As best I can tell, the expression “states of the brain” is meaningless.

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  10. You say Shannon information is appropriate here. But Shannon information already presupposes semantic meaning to some degree, the very notion you are objecting to when you say “Why? Among other problems, you are assuming that my notion of horse is identical to your notion of horse.” Well, I am assuming your notion of horse is similar to mine (i.e. vaguely similar at least) otherwise you wouldn’t have said “assuming that my notion of horse is identical to your notion of horse”. I do assume when I wrote ‘horse’ that you didn’t think of a bus, for example, though you may have thought of a clothes horse perhaps. Are you saying the word ‘horse’ as I wrote it meant nothing to you, that there was no common ground? I mentioned ‘Shannon information’ and that concept seemed to have triggered some vaguely similar concept in your mind because you responded with it.

    The very fact that we are having a conversation requires common semantic ground, as vague as it might be.

    “Among other problems, you are assuming that my notion of horse is identical to your notion of horse.”

    No I am very specifically not claiming they are exact. My whole point about the vagueness of human perception and the instantiation of concepts is that they are vague; but sufficiently similar to be generally useful. What you perceive as the exactness of mathematics is a feeling that comes from this correspondence that two people can possess, or that one person can possess over time. How would you fair at some of the more esoteric mathematics if your brain did not remember, did not have memory, of the methods you use in basic algebra, or number?

    “But that cannot work, unless you take perception to be magical.”

    I wasn’t even talking about perception at that point. I was suggesting that matter might consist of some variation in reality (without knowing what that might ultimately consist of, if anything). The very least we have to assume for later understanding of semantic information is that there is some medium of information, and I’m suggesting that everything (whatever you find in your realism) is composed of variation. That the element hydrogen differs from helium is due to a variation, a distinct difference, in how the particles that make them behave when in that formation. That our brains, that are perceiving, are made up of interacting elements, and that perception consist of nothing more than more variations, that we perceive as interactions, that result in the very act of perception. Biology is chemistry, is physics, is …. we don’t really know, but must have distinction at its core. The notion of the heat death of the universe is the opposite of this, where there is no distinction anywhere.

    “Having information about the world is prior to any possible awareness of variation and distinction.”

    I’m not talking about semantic information. However, I do see the whole process as cyclical, evolving, both at the level of the species and the individual. The individual starts as a single cell, but eventually acquires a brain, and the brain acquires indirect (through the senses) experience of the world and forms corresponding patterns – that’s what learning is, and it requires memory. As a species a similar long term process goes on. The memory of the species consists of the evolved biology that can reproduce the species individuals (we don’t, as far as I know, get a cat giving birth to a mountain, as might be possible by a completely random buzzing confusion – had there been any cats or mountains in a world of buzzing confusion).

    The variation in reality that forms elements, us, and our brains, has resulted in brains that perceive that reality. So simple variation in reality that results in brains results eventually in perception. In this sense perception is basically the recognition of patterns by one system, the brain, that it has experienced before, based on vaguely corresponding patterns in the external world.

    This requires no magic. This is the basis of evolution. Some change comes about, by whatever means, which to us may appear random. Some of those changes are repeated or persisted because there is nothing that counteracts them sufficiently to destroy them. A molecule is copied rather than destroyed, a cell replicates, and organism reproduces. All this being the flow of energy, which is again simply variation, the dynamic interchange of difference in reality, dynamic basic information (not semantic information).

    “As best I can tell, what you are calling data never forms regular patterns.”

    Then what is an element? Is there no oxygen, or hydrogen? Do they not form water under some conditions? Where is the reality that your realism experiences? What is your naive realism experiencing?

    And yes, to some extent it is a buzzing confusion. But if that’s all it ever was then galaxies of stars would not have distilled out of it all; the solar system would not have formed planets, the earth would not have formed a biosphere, brains would not have evolved. I’m not claiming any guided or directed process here, just that reality does appear to form order amidst the chaos – even if, in cosmic terms, that order is temporary, and even if that order only appears ordered to our human brains.

    “The clock on my wall does not store anything, yet it seems to keep good time.” – “The clock on my wall can be said to have memory in the form of the mechanical position of its moving hand.”

    You contradict yourself, or you change the meaning of the words. But yes, that’s all human memory is; like the momentary position of the hand, the momentary state of the synapse records an event. Biologically the synapse may be a temporary connection, or under different conditions may form a more persistent connection. Memory, when considering the more basic form of data, the patterns that form information, is nothing more than the temporary persistence of a state of information.

    Not only is there the memory of the data (e.g. a binary state of ‘1’ in a memory chip that is being used by us to record a representation of semantic information, but also memory in the form of the very memory cell itself. If the physical electronic component that forms the memory cell does not maintain its state (remember its operational function), then it cannot maintain the state of the data it is storing for us. Similarly with the brain. If aging disease prevents the neurons retaining their function, remembering their function, then they cannot store our personal memories and the human person begins to fade into a biological machine. Of course we are biological machines anyway, but I think you get my meaning here: the persisting state that we experience as a person is lost, while much of the bodily biological function remains.

    The state of a memory cell in a computer will eventually fade; the state of the synapse will eventually fade. But in the meantime, on time scales humans are familiar with, both may persist long enough to be recognised again when a similar event occurs. So, I may remember and then forget someone’s name within seconds when I’m introduced to them, because the memory is not persisted, the biological process has not laid down connections that persist. Yet I can recall events from childhood with very little prompting. The biological states in my brain, the physical memory, can be re-triggered to invoke the conceptual experience of semantic memory.

    “There is no explicit store operation going on [in a clock].”

    Of course there is, by design. It’s a state machine. A mechanical clock’s memory consist of the mechanism that holds it’s state steady for a period of time – a second. A digital clock clearly uses memory. Even a candle clock has memory, in the form of the marks made on it. The memory state (e.g. 12 marks) reduces to eleven, ten, …, marks over time, reflecting back to us the semantic meaning we put into the candle in applying the marks.

    “There is no sequence of symbols (i.e. fragment of Shannon information) that is ever stored.”

    Of course there is. The position of the hands hold the state, by virtue of the mechanism driving them. The digits on the face are the representations of cells of storage that provide semantic meaning to us. The sequence of symbols is conveyed to us by the movement of the hands over the symbols. Even if we glance at a clock without seeing it move, we have already remembered and associated the direction of motion of the hands, and the size of each hand, so we can see that the big hand on 11 represents five-to the hour and not five-past.

    We are so familiar with the workings of a clock that we now don’t even need digits. Some fashion clocks have no marks at all, and the user infers the time from the position of the hands alone. But that’s only possible because there is already a learned correspondence in those humans that use them.

    Some of these are unrecognisable as clocks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Usu5cmYsOb0, until you learn they are clocks and make the associations between their state and the time of day.

    Look at another instrument, such as a sextant. To many people it’s a contraption that has no significance; but to those vaguely familiar with it it has an association with seafaring and finding your way, and one may even make an educated guess as to how it works; but real semantic understanding of a sextant comes only through the users brain becoming accustomed to its use, and remembering that detail.

    “As best I can tell, it consists entirely of made up stories that have not been examined with sufficient skepticism. There is no way that it could work.”

    Well, yes, it does consist of made up stories. All models do. Including your mathematics. So, there’s no way maths works? You’ve been telling of its utility. So yes, there is utility in our models, our made up stories, if they work, if they appear to correspond to reality as we experience it. And the models of biological memory, described by people like Eric Kandel, have passed the empirical tests that they’ve been subjected to. Your use of language suggests memory in brains does work.

    “I am more or less a naive realist” – So you do do metaphysics.

    “My issue is not one of “how the world is” but of “how do we get to know how the world is.””

    This presumes there is a world that is, in order to make it worth trying to get to know how the world is. Metaphysics again. I agree that figuring out how we know how the world is is significant, and one point I do agree with you on is the failure in philosophy of epistemology (e.g. JTB). That’s why I go back to actual human experience, the examination and scepticism of the mind’s capacities using Cartesian doubt, the arbitrary selection of experienced realism (that I come to call empiricism and materialism, for convenience) over solipsism and the primacy of mind that comes with rationalism. We are experiential beings, and what we have learned so far is that we are made of the same stuff as everything else, and that we do stumble through our experience, making models of it, which are vague representations of whatever reality might be out there.

    I have one objection to naive realism, and that is that it is indeed naive. You seem to express a degree of scepticism that expects us to be wrong to some extent about most things we discover (and I agree), as we go on to discover more. Naive realism seems content to say what we experience directly is what is, and that is how it is and that’s all it needs to be. So a flame is a flame in its own right, and we need look no deeper to see the chemical processes in the gas of which it is made.

    I would say that in our day to day lives we live a naive realism. When I see a flame I’m not always analysing its composition; and when I look at my arm I’m not contemplating the relative emptiness between the atomic nuclei that would suggest a lack of solidity. But the scepticism, when I apply it, let’s me see through naive realism, to look for what lies beneath.

    “So the brain and person have to start by inventing information. Once they have invented information, they can start to use it.”

    They invent the concept of information as a model of the exchange of ideas, yes, as a systematic building of ideas. But what’s happening when two male lions meet and roar at each other, rather than fight? By the time human brains evolved information was already being exchanged by animals, plants, even inanimate material. When a small rock rolls down hill and hits a big rock the latter hardly moves; but when hit by a bigger rock it moves significantly. This is the exchange of information (not semantic information, the invented information of humans). There is a difference in what is exchanged, a different pattern.

    “As best I can tell, the expression “states of the brain” is meaningless.”

    I’m not sure how to respond to this without your clarification. Are you saying, for example, that a synapse cannot connect to another neuron and maintain that state over time? There is a trivial but important sense in which it is always dynamics as the neurotransmitters wash around the synapse and the portals open and close when it is fired, and so on. But broadly, vaguely, it maintains state. I use the term ‘states of the brain’ very loosely, and vaguely, to represent all this dynamic activity. But, your memory of what concepts you have learned in mathematics relies on the physical states of the brain persisting over time. What is memory otherwise? What is your understanding of what is going on physiologically? Do you see no correspondence between the physics and the physiology of the brain and the conceptual memories we have? What do you think is happening, physically, during your experience of perception in naive realism?

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    • You say Shannon information is appropriate here. But Shannon information already presupposes semantic meaning to some degree, …

      No, it doesn’t. Shannon’s theory is a theory of communication. Information is defined as a sequence of symbols. The sequence of symbols can be communicated regardless of whether they carry any meaning.

      …, the very notion you are objecting to when you say “Why? Among other problems, you are assuming that my notion of horse is identical to your notion of horse.”

      Sigh!

      No, I am not objecting semantic meaning. I am objecting to your taking it for granted and using it as some kind of unexplained magic. Meaning is something that needs explaining, and that I am trying to explain.

      Well, I am assuming your notion of horse is similar to mine (i.e. vaguely similar at least) …

      What does it even mean to say that two notions (held by two different people) are similar? How is comparison even possible? Do you have a theory of notions or a theory of similarity that supports this?

      Are you saying the word ‘horse’ as I wrote it meant nothing to you, that there was no common ground?

      That is why these arguments get nowhere. I raised a very specific point, namely that you are appealing to unexplained magic. And you then turn around and hint that I must be nuts, or something. I am merely asking you to explain that unexplained magic (if you can), or to stop appealing to it.

      My whole point about the vagueness of human perception and the instantiation of concepts is that they are vague; but sufficiently similar to be generally useful.

      Again, I’ll ask what does “sufficiently similar” mean in that context? How do you compare concepts?

      I wasn’t even talking about perception at that point. I was suggesting that matter might consist of some variation in reality (without knowing what that might ultimately consist of, if anything).

      So you were appealing to the unknown? I don’t see how that helps your case.

      The individual starts as a single cell, but eventually acquires a brain, and the brain acquires indirect (through the senses) experience of the world and forms corresponding patterns – that’s what learning is, and it requires memory.

      That’s what you take learning to be. It is not what I take learning to be. I once thought that was how learning worked. But the more I have studied it, the more obvious it has become that it is a mistaken view of learning.

      This requires no magic. This is the basis of evolution.

      Waving your magic wand, and saying that evolution performs the magic somewhere out of sight, does not explain anything. What is required, is an actual explanation of how it works. And that you do not have.

      Then what is an element? Is there no oxygen, or hydrogen?

      You were talking about data. Now you have suddenly switched to talking about atoms.

      My comment was about data, not about atoms. I cannot provide an explicit criticism of what you are saying about data, because you are using “data” is such a fuzzy manner. That’s why I put the “as best I can tell” part in my previous comment.

      You have a proposed account (pretty much the standard one). But nothing is carefully defined, and nothing is explicit. I doubt that it could ever work. AI researchers have been trying to implement something along those lines for around 60 years, and they have very little to show for it.

      “The clock on my wall does not store anything, yet it seems to keep good time.” – “The clock on my wall can be said to have memory in the form of the mechanical position of its moving hand.”

      You contradict yourself, or you change the meaning of the words.

      There is no contradiction at all, and no change of meaning.

      I have been quite explicit. What I disagreed with, was the storing of information, and I have been clear that by “information” I mean Shannon information. I have not said that there is no memory. I have not said that there are never any physical changes.

      “There is no explicit store operation going on [in a clock].”

      Of course there is, by design. It’s a state machine. A mechanical clock’s memory consist of the mechanism that holds it’s state steady for a period of time – a second.

      There is still no store operation.

      The physical position of the hand stays still for a brief period. So let’s call that a symbol. When is that symbol ever stored? And where is it stored? And what would be the purpose of storing it?

      I agree that the position of the hand can be considered to be memory. But again, my explicit comment was about storing, not about memory. I don’t see that any symbol was stored.

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  11. “sufficiently similar”

    If I go into a butchers and ask for a pound of rump stake he offeres me what I think is rump stake. He doesn’t offer me pork chops. Our common understanding, the behaviour of our two brains, is sufficiently similar that life works. If he brings me rump stake, and I say “No, I mean that other stuff; you know often served up as medalions.”, “Ah, do you mean fillet steak?”, “Maybe, let me see it.”

    Thse are all different degrees to which cocnepts are sufficiently similar to actually work. They have utility. Same applies to your maths. Without some ‘sufficiently similar’ accord between matehmaticians there would be no communition.

    “So you were appealing to the unknown? I don’t see how that helps your case.”

    In that case you don’t have a case. You seem to be rejecting all common models of understanding on the basis that they are incomplete. The whole point of models is to describe something partially, for the purposes of getting to an understanding, or conveyng one person’s understanding to another, looking for ‘sufficient similarity’. Without any absolute access to knowledge this is the mode of progress we ar stuck with.

    “It is not what I take learning to be.”

    OK, what do you take learning to be?

    “What is required, is an actual explanation of how it works. And that you do not have.”

    There are lots of gaps in human understanding of reality. What are you expecting? You offer offer trivially obvious negative statements, but little else.

    “You were talking about data. Now you have suddenly switched to talking about atoms.”

    We can consider atoms, or any other particle or component particle, as data. The data that is a bit in some types of cimputer memory is nothing more that the collection of electrons in a particular position in the device. Data is nothing more than the state of matter, however complex the devices might be that are used to represent it. Within the context of a particular memory bit location, say down to a single transistor, the ‘data’ has no context other than the distinction in charge. But when combined with other components it represents a collection of bits, which in turn have a context relevent to the users of the computer. But it’s so complex that if I think about just one character on the computer screen, I know that somewhere in one of the memory chips there is a corresponding bit, without know exactly where it is. This is the nature of layers of data, that become information, that become concepts. So, yes, this is my point. All data, all information, all concepts, are instantiated in what we undeerstand as physical particles and their current location – even though this exteremely dynamic (e.g. a particular electron that here in my PC only momentarily reprsents a portion of a bit in a byte of a character).

    “because you are using “data” is such a fuzzy manner.”

    It is fuzzy, inprecise, vague. There is nothing particularly precise about the exitence of data. It is an abstract concept that we apply to the momentary states of reality that we experience. An animal might not think of the scent of its prey as data, but we might use the model of data, as a concept, to explain how the animal follows the ‘signal’ left by the prey. We might even categories the ‘strength’ of the ‘signal’, according to how much scent is laid down and remains for the animal to follow. And this model, this description, has utility because the model is ‘sufficiently familiar’ to use to be able to follow the description.

    “There is still no store operation.”

    Yes there is.

    The symbol is the mark of the digit on the face (or the implied mark where the digits are abscent – which works because of ‘sufficient similarlity’ of operation, for those humans that are familiar with clocks). The positions of the hands of the clock are indeed momentary. But that has nothing to do with the information content of the face and the hands combined. In a computer network wire transmitting the time of day a similar objection to yours would be, ah well, the electrons are only momentarily present at any particular location, such as the at the receiving sensor, so nowhere at the receiving sensory detector is their any Shannon information relating to time? This is even more of a fleeting ‘store’ of information.

    This is because the word ‘memory’ is a relative one. It has to be. We have the concept of the instantaneous, but no experienced reality that corresponds to it. So ‘memory’ applies to the duration of the retention of data (instantiated in physical state) in one system or component in comparison to some other. Dynamic RAM in a computer has very fleeting ‘memory’ in human terms – a bit would normally decay away in microseconds. It requries a specific mechanism to refresh the state of the memory cell – so one could suggest, being trivially critical of the concept of ‘memory’, that the ‘bit’ never exists, because the specific electrons are always in a state of motion in and out of the cell. Remove the power and dynamic RAM loses state, the ‘memory’ fades. So, despite the dynamic nature of the system there are scales where we can consider a DRAM chip to be in dynamic change, and scales where we can consider it to be holding state, remembering, having memory, performing the function of memory.

    Getting back to the clock. The ‘state’ of the data is transient, yet we are ‘sufficiently familiar’ with clocks so that when the minute had is on or around one digit, closer to that digit that the others on either side, then it is notionally in the temporary state of being on that digit. This is of course a vague representation of state, and this gets back to my whole point about our vague perception of reality – we don’t need exactness to get by, to get utility.

    You didn’t respond to my example of a digital clock, that uses digital memory to record state. On what trivial grounds do you reject the notion of memory being used there? No matter how transient it might be, on some scales of modelling it has ‘memory’.

    The whole of physics relies on this notin of vagueness and inprecision. Any good physics 101 course will make a point of stressing the concepts of precision, accuracy, error bounds, +/-. We have no absoluteness available to us.

    “my explicit comment was about storing, not about memory. I don’t see that any symbol was stored.”

    It is stored momentarily. The state of computer memory is momentary. As is everything we understand on some scale. If we lived near a star that suddenly obliterated the Earth, then all human memories, all computer memories, would go out – those transient states of utility to us would change to other transient states of the system. The solar system would still be going through dynamic motion, and on some momentary approximate scale (even resorting to using the unrealistic concept we have of ‘instantaneous’) it would be going through ‘states’ – at least conceptually if there were any beings around that used such concepts at a safe distance to witness the unfolding change.

    Our very concept of memory is vague. Again, this is my point. What you seem to be explaining away as the abscence of memory seems to be rejecting a concept that has utility, without really explaining why you reject it. Much of your ‘heresy’ seems to be the rejection of useful human concepts in some vague philosophical quest, but without any clear purpose to that quest. And, paradoxically, you claim exactness for your own particular discpline of mathematics?

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    • Our common understanding, the behaviour of our two brains, is sufficiently similar that life works.

      You started off talking about similarity of concepts (or notions), which I see as meaningless.

      Now you are talking about similarity of brain behavior, which I suspect is also meaningless.

      As part of that, you talked of similarity or dissimilarity of behavior of two people when reacting to a piece of meat. At least there might be some hope of coming up with a meaning of “similarity” there, though you have used it without actually explaining what it is.

      Sure, similarity is important to us in everyday life. But when you are trying to explain how we get to be the kind of organism that can have an everyday life, you can’t just use concepts that only make sense in that final everyday life. It becomes entirely circular. I am trying to prod you to break out of that circle.

      You seem to be rejecting all common models of understanding on the basis that they are incomplete.

      No, not at all. I am rejecting them because they are completely circular, and therefore entirely vacuous. You need to break out of that circle.

      OK, what do you take learning to be?

      There are different kinds of learning. An important one, relative to the issues we are discussion, is inventing concepts and/or inventing information.

      I’ll illustrate. Our concept of mass was unknown to Aristotle, though he did have a concept of weight. Our concept of mass arose primarily from the work of Galileo and Newton, and probably others who worked with them. Newton gave us standards for measuring mass, and measurements of the mass of an object is therefore a new kind of information that was not known to Aristotle. The concept, and the associated information are related, which is why I used that “and/or”. Some people prefer to say that we discover new concepts, rather than invent them. I prefer to avoid arguments about that. I suggest “invent” because it highlights the way in which a few individuals were engaged it coming up with the new concept.

      There are lots of gaps in human understanding of reality. What are you expecting?

      Something that actually breaks out of the vicious circle and actually says something.

      We can consider atoms, or any other particle or component particle, as data.

      That seems completely at odds with our normal meaning of “data”. I will admit that it seems to be something said by people who declare themselves materialists. (That’s one of the reasons that I deny that I am a materialist).

      The data that is a bit in some types of cimputer memory is nothing more that the collection of electrons in a particular position in the device.

      Actually, no, it isn’t.

      “There is still no store operation.”

      Yes there is.

      But then you go on and talk about memory. You appear to be conflating “store” with “memory”. The word “store” is a verb, implying an action (or it can be noun, designating the destination of that action). When I deny that the clock on my wall does a store operation, I am denying that there is any such action. So you explain how there is memory, but you don’t say what is the store action. I have already granted that there is memory. I never questioned whether there is memory. What I have questioned, is whether there are store actions. There surely are in computers, but I am doubting that you will find any in the brain.

      In a computer network wire transmitting the time of day a similar objection to yours would be, ah well, the electrons are only momentarily present at any particular location, such as the at the receiving sensor, so nowhere at the receiving sensory detector is their any Shannon information relating to time? This is even more of a fleeting ‘store’ of information.

      But I have not made that kind of objection. You must be completely misunderstanding my point.

      You didn’t respond to my example of a digital clock, that uses digital memory to record state. On what trivial grounds do you reject the notion of memory being used there? No matter how transient it might be, on some scales of modelling it has ‘memory’.

      Sigh!

      “Store” and “memory” are different things. Maybe you like vagueness, but I try to be as precise as possible. I have not, in any way, denied the notion of memory. I have been discussing “store” as a verb, implying an action. And I haven’t been denying the notion of store. I have been saying that the brain has no need for that type of action.

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  12. “I am objecting to your taking it for granted and using it as some kind of unexplained magic. Meaning is something that needs explaining, and that I am trying to explain.”

    You are missing the point here. I don’t know what you expect from ‘meaning’. It’s a relative term, that is also vague. Start with an animal following the scent of prey again. That scent, that physical emission of molecules as they evaporate and are collected by the nose of the animal, triggers a recognition of a pattern that the animal has become ‘sufficiently familiar’ with. It triggers behaviour that might, for example, re-enforces the hunger reaction (using positive feedback: in biological systems negative feedback is used for homeostasis, positive feedback re-enforce reactions), drives the animal on to hunt the prey (and satiation cuts the positive feedback loop). In this context we humans might use the concept of ‘meaning’ to say the understands, knows the ‘meaning’ of, its hunger and its quest for food.

    [aside: human biological homeostasis is a useful concept. The body a system that has state, a memory of a viable working state, that is maintained in that state entirely by dynamic processes.]

    But does the animal impart such ‘meaning’ on its behaviour? Do any animals other than humans?

    Given the implications of the common physics and much of the common biology between animals, our understanding of evolution, and the very lack of a God of the gaps, or of the magic you suppose I’m invoking, then the implication is that ‘meaning’ has no ‘meaning’ in any detailed. Human concepts, and meanings, are merely biological and ultimately physical manifestations of behaviour.

    I am suggesting that our feedback system, that consists of a brain that can examine and analyse its environment and constructs models of its environment, also examines and analyses itself, constructs models of itself. And one of the models it constructs is that of ‘concepts’. Concepts are themselves concepts of themselves. An entirely circular self-sustaining brain system – modelled often as a mind. I say self-sustaining, but of course I mean only transiently, as a hurricane is self-sustaining. The brain, and its ‘mind’ model, requires energy input to sustain it and follows the laws of thermodynamics just as everything else does, and will, eventually, fade, or be driven out of existence, out of its operational dynamic state, by external factors, including the death of the organism.

    This is why elsewhere, including on my blog, I object to world views that suggests the human mind to be capable of things (transcendence, out of body experiences, etc.) that are belied by the physical limitations of the brain that creates the mind.

    And this is why ‘meaning’ only has meaning, can be explained, either in terms of itself, which is where we do struggle, when we try to do that, or in terms of this outcome of dynamic matter, or dynamic data, change, variation, distinction.

    This suggestion is no more magic that anything you have offered. It’s built entirely on the contingency of our understanding. What else could it be built on?

    It’s no more magic than ‘mathematics is exact’. Where did you pluck that rabbit from?

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    • aside: human biological homeostasis is a useful concept.

      I readily agree with that.

      Here’s a suggestion to AI researchers. Take all of your logic chips, and toss them into the scrap heap. Now try building an AI system out of homeostats. You are likely to be far more successful.

      I don’t know what you expect from ‘meaning’. It’s a relative term, that is also vague.

      You introduced that into the discussion, with several mentions of “semantic”. I would be just as happy to leave it out, if you can stop bringing it up.

      Given the implications of the common physics and much of the common biology between animals, our understanding of evolution, and the very lack of a God of the gaps, or of the magic you suppose I’m invoking, then the implication is that ‘meaning’ has no ‘meaning’ in any detailed.

      I don’t agree with that at all. If you abolish meaning, you will thereby also abolish physics.

      Human concepts, and meanings, are merely biological and ultimately physical manifestations of behaviour.

      It is more likely the other way around, that behaviors of biological organisms are manifestations of meaning.

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  13. You say that brains: (a) invent information, (b) use it, (c) but do not process it (d) and do not store it, (e) and yet have memory. Could you reconcile those five points.

    “So the brain and person have to start by inventing information”, “That’s the whole point of inventing information. The brain has to invent ways of representing aspects of the external world.”

    I can see that humans have invented the term ‘information’ and even the quantifying description of it(Shannon). If that’s the case what term do you use for what came before human brains, whether animal brains, or even plants, or even inanimate matter? How would you describe the ‘transmission’ of neurological ‘signals’, ‘electrical’ ‘impulses’, that travel from an animal brain’s motor cortex to it’s muscles to make it move? Or the ‘transmission’ of sunlight to Earth? These ‘informational’ terms are just metaphors that humans use. But surely, prior to human brains inventing these terms those animal neurons still did what they did? And surely what they did varied, quantifiably, in ways we now describe using ‘information’, whether there were human brains there to do the quantifying and describing or not? And the quantity of matter, energy, information (quantifiable non-semantic) travelled from Sun to Earth before humans invented these terms and concepts?

    Can you explain what you mean by the brain using information but not processing it. The term ‘process’ has taken on a computational meaning, but has non-computational roots. Simple non-semantic information as data enters the brain through the senses, is ‘processed’ (and here you can take your pick of a computational model or the mere biological changing of the form of the data), is mapped (either creatively for novel information, or recognised for information already experienced) onto internal representations:

    “Having thus invented it, the brain is well able to map its internal representations into what is represented. Being able to do that mapping is part of the invention process.”

    I can’t see much difference here from what I’ve already said. The only thing invented is the term ‘information’ and its more structured use. But again, brains, doing what brains do, including their implantation of memory (memory of patterns as neuronal states) already occurred before humans ‘invented’ the concept of information. We merely invented the term to describe, to categorise, what was taking place already. I don’t suppose you think humans didn’t remember stuff before we invented the term or the concept of information. So, again, I’m using the term ‘information’ in a perfectly common way, and I’m even being more precise in what it includes – that is: any data.

    The mapping ‘being part of the invention process’ only makes sense to me as part of the process of learning – learning new concepts (as an active process of a human agent or a passive process in some animal behaviour). Some people create new concepts by inventing categories, and so self-learn as they create; while others learn of these concepts from the creators; and so it is passed on: “We pass those useful fictions around from one mathematician to another”. But this isn’t philosophically challenging.

    I’m trying to identify your use of terms like ‘information’ with regard to human mind, and the physical reality that underpins it, and how your use of information (referring to meaning) as invented by humans differs significantly from information as data (quantifiable by Shannon).

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    • You say that brains: (a) invent information, (b) use it, (c) but do not process it (d) and do not store it, (e) and yet have memory. Could you reconcile those five points.

      I don’t see that there is anything to reconcile.

      I’ll think about a possible future post on the topic of information.

      How would you describe the ‘transmission’ of neurological ‘signals’, ‘electrical’ ‘impulses’, that travel from an animal brain’s motor cortex to it’s muscles to make it move?

      You seem to have described them quite well without using the word “information”.

      But surely, prior to human brains inventing these terms those animal neurons still did what they did?

      Of course.

      And surely what they did varied, quantifiably, in ways we now describe using ‘information’, whether there were human brains there to do the quantifying and describing or not?

      Signals are signals. Signals are not information.

      In a strictly materialist account of the world, there is no such thing as information. There are only signals.

      Can you explain what you mean by the brain using information but not processing it.

      I am not sure what’s to explain here.

      Let’s go back to that example of the clock on my wall. We agreed to treat the physical position of the clock hands as symbols. With that perspective, the clock is using information, but not processing it. Specifically, the clock is presenting information. And that’s all we need from the clock, that it present that information. We don’t expect it to do anything with the information, beyond presenting it.

      A strictly materialist account of what the clock is doing should not mention the word “information.”

      In case you haven’t got it yet, I am saying that the word “information” refers to intentional objects, not to physical objects. It is appropriate to use the word “information” in theoretical models, but it does not belong in materialist descriptions.

      Simple non-semantic information as data enters the brain through the senses, is ‘processed’ (and here you can take your pick of a computational model or the mere biological changing of the form of the data), is mapped (either creatively for novel information, or recognised for information already experienced) onto internal representations

      But that is precisely what I am disagreeing with.

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  14. Now ‘store’ and ‘memory’:

    Can you explain what memory contains, if not information? Whatever it contains, can you explain how it gets in there if it is not stored?

    You seem OK with ‘memory’, but not with ‘store’. Whether the action is active (at the hands of an ‘agent’) or passive (a consequence of dynamic reality) for there to be memory there needs to be a container, and something to put in that container.

    This is why I offered the following:

    “The data that is a bit in some types of computer memory is nothing more that the collection of electrons in a particular position in the device.”

    To which your response was: “Actually, no, it isn’t.”

    So could you expand on that, perhaps telling me how you think computer memory works in this regard. Because it was part of my description of the relationship between ‘store’ and ‘memory’, the ‘processing’ of ‘information’, the ‘use’ of information. So if you think computer memory works in some other way I’d be interested to know. Because your response wasn’t precise I don’t know if you were objecting to it technically, or on some philosophical grounds. Anyway, you can search on something like DRAM, and you’ll find tons of stuff, like this:

    http://electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/18676/how-does-a-ram-work-with-a-cpu: “This is a representation of a DRAM array, where data is stored in the charge of the capacitors, each capacitor is one bit.” It’s about stored charge – electrons (or their absence, creating positive charge, on the other side of the junction). Are you objecting to these descriptions of how computer memory works?

    “I never questioned whether there is memory. What I have questioned, is whether there are store actions. There surely are in computers, but I am doubting that you will find any in the brain.”

    Given the physical nature of brains, computers, clocks, I don’t see sufficient distinction with regard to ‘memory’ and ‘store’.

    Do you have an objection to my description of the transient nature of all memory? I’d be interested to know, because I still can’t tell if you object to the idea that a clock ‘stores’ the time transiently, over short a period, by virtue of the approximate and changing position of the hands in relation to the digits – in other words, are you objecting to the term ‘store’ being used in this context? Since all reality that we know of is transient, can you explain a use of the word ‘store’ that is at odds with my using it to refer to the temporary position of a clock’s hands?

    If it’s just the hands of the clock that concern you, with regard to ‘store’, how about the escape mechanism in a mechanical clock? Do you not think that it ‘stores’ state, even momentarily? This store of state, in relation to the motion over time is how a clock delineates time periods. It has to remember, store state, from one moment to the next. A clock’s hands do not, for example, take up random positions from one moment to the next.

    I wondered if your objection to ‘store’, as a verb implying action, was related to your view of agency. But given a computer is not usually considered an agent in the same sense as a human is, and yet a computer can store information, how is this use of ‘store’ related to what happens physically when a human actively tries to remember a fact? Aren’t they storing the fact? And doesn’t the physical process that goes on in that activity consist of information, as data, being stored in neurological states? And by virtue of the complexity of the human brain, isn’t it storing, remembering, the semantic information by this physical process?

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    • Can you explain what memory contains, if not information? Whatever it contains, can you explain how it gets in there if it is not stored?

      I pour some water into a glass. That glass now contains water. We can say that the presence of that water is a kind of memory of the pouring of water into the glass. But the glass still contains water, not information.

      Now suppose that I have a bunch of glasses. I decide to treat an empty glass as a binary 0, and a somewhat full glass as a binary 1, and I plan to use them for a computational algorithm. At that stage, we are now treating the content of the glasses as information. And when I pour water into the glass, I could now be said to be storing a 1 in the glass. When I empty the glass, I could be said to be storing a 0.

      At the material level, the glasses still only contain water, not information. But, in terms of the role that they play in my computation, we can say that they contain information.

      Whether something can be considered information, depends on the role that it is playing in some sort of information processing. This is why “information” is not an appropriate term for a materialist. It belongs only in an intentional account of what is happening (in this case, with the glasses). It does not belong in a materialist account.

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  15. Your other main objection to common models and understanding of reality seems to be because they are circular. But they are circular, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. They have to be. We are components of a universe, and we are trying to understand that universe. Being part of it we are also trying to understand ourselves and our part in it. But the instruments we use (including the brain) to try to achieve that understanding are also part of that same universe. It’s all self-referential. We inevitably use components of the system to describe the system. It would take some entity outside the universe to describe the universe without being self-referential.

    In response to my description of concepts as mappings between brains you said, “I believe that to be almost entirely wrong.” Perhaps you could explain what you think concepts are, how we come to share them, what is going on here: “We pass those useful fictions around from one mathematician to another”. How are they passed around? Are they ‘stored’ anywhere? Are they stored in books, by one mathematician, to be read by another? Is a book a form of memory? Since you don’t object to ‘memory’ with regard to a clock I take it you are not restricting ‘memory’ to mean human memory of semantically meaningful concepts?

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    • Your other main objection to common models and understanding of reality seems to be because they are circular. But they are circular, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. They have to be.

      No, they don’t have to be circular. That they are circular, is a flaw in philosophy. Science manages to break out of that circle, which is why science works (in the sense that it can lead to airplanes, computers, etc).

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  16. Me: “I don’t know what you expect from ‘meaning’. It’s a relative term, that is also vague.”

    You: “You introduced that into the discussion, with several mentions of “semantic”. I would be just as happy to leave it out, if you can stop bringing it up.”

    Introduced what? ‘meaning’? But you said earlier:

    “No, I am not objecting semantic meaning. I am objecting to your taking it for granted and using it as some kind of unexplained magic. Meaning is something that needs explaining, and that I am trying to explain.

    So, are you trying to explain semantic meaning? Were you objecting to me bringing up semantic meaning, or to my suggestion that it’s a relative and vague term? Or something else? I’m not sure why you object to me bringing it up if it’s something you want to explain, if it’s something that’s up for discussion.

    And again, I’m not taking it for granted. Perhaps you now do mean semantic meaning, in relation to information after all, when you say humans had to invent it. But if that’s the case my point has been that we didn’t invent it out the the blue. Surely the brain would have to know it wanted the concept in order to invent it. The terms and use of ‘information’ in the semantic sense emerged unguided from an evolutionary past where animals and precursors were only ever natural processors of data, and only later did we humans theorise about information and data and build more abstract descriptions of it.

    Perhaps I misunderstand your use of the term ‘invent’. That’s why my preferred explanation is that it’s all part of an emerging complexity that wasn’t invented but just happened, uninvited, unguided. I accept that this relies on other contingent descriptions of simple (i.e. not semantic) information, as instantiated in the dynamic states of matter. I accept that the whole thing is self-referential and circular. I don’t see a problem with that, and as I said before, it seems inevitable.

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    • “No, I am not objecting semantic meaning. I am objecting to your taking it for granted and using it as some kind of unexplained magic. Meaning is something that needs explaining, and that I am trying to explain.

      Okay, I see the source of miscommunication there. I did not intend to imply that I am trying to explain meaning in the comments of this particular thread. Rather, it is something that I am trying to explain in my broad study of communication, and that study is part of what has led me to take very non-traditional views.

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  17. “As best I can tell, the expression “states of the brain” is meaningless.”

    Could you be more precise here. Do you take no meaning from it at all? Using the material model, the biology, the physiology that you have said you don’t object to (“I doubt that there is any serious disagreement about the physiology.”), do you have any description of the biological components of the brain, as when, for example, a neuron establishes new synaptic connections in response to the action potentials and neurotransmitters that cause them to form, in a way that cannot also be described by the term ‘state’, in its usual sense of the persistence of a physical condition. You seem to accept the term ‘memory’, but object to ‘store’. In what sense is the formation of a synaptic junction not ‘storing’ state? In what sense is the collective behaviour of a brain as it does this all over the brain not amenable to the term ‘states of the brain’?

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    • Could you be more precise here. Do you take no meaning from it at all?

      I find it far too vague to be useful.

      We talk about states (computational states) when discussing computing. But in that case we have a systematic way of identifying all of the possible computational states.

      A few years ago, I drove from Illinois to California. At one part of the trip, I could say that the state of my travel was that I was in Utah. In that case, I would have been using geographic states to identify states of my travel. What we see with geographic states, is that division into states is arbitrary. And I believe that to always be the case. Any time that we try to describe something with a state diagram, we have made an arbitrary division into states, with probably a pragmatic basis for those arbitrary division points. That the division into states is arbitrary, does not rule out that it might be systematic.

      It seems to me that an expression such as “states of the brain” is hopelessly vague unless we can come up with a systematic way of dividing into states. And for the way that the expression “states of the brain” is used, we would need a systematic approach that could be applied to all brains (or all brains of normal humans). I doubt that we will have any such systematic methodology any time soon.

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  18. “It is more likely the other way around, that behaviours of biological organisms are manifestations of meaning.”

    This sounds more like forms of rationalism/idealism rather than the realism you take to elsewhere. “I am more or less a naive realist, so you have missed the target there.” Can you see why I’m missing the target?

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  19. Can you see why I’m missing the target?

    No. But perhaps you can now see why I am not a materialist.

    A bird catches and eats a fly. It isn’t deciding to eat that fly because of the particular kinds of atoms that are in the fly. Rather, it eats the fly to satisfy its hunger. Satisfying hunger is meaningful to the bird. The atomic constituents of the fly are not meaningful to the bird.

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  20. Very amusing thoughts on Why you are not materialistic person , & the most interesting part are the logical reasons that you used ,which are actually not so logical , but there is something in the manner you expressed that i just was not even convinced , but still didn’t feel that urge to argue either .
    😉

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    • My aim was just to explain my own view, not to convince others.

      The trouble with materialism, is that there are many other views that materialists hold, and that are said to be implied by materialism. And I disagree with quite a few of those other views.

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