Phractal filosofi

by Neil Rickert

I will probably be misusing the words “fractal” and “philosophy” in this post, and that’s why I used that funky spelling in the title.  I’ll use the normal spellings everywhere else.

If you are looking for an explanation of fractals, you have come to the wrong place.  Try the Wikipedia article.  If you are looking for a philosophical discussion of fractals, you have probably come to the wrong place.  Perhaps there is some of that in Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach“.  This post is about a fractal way of looking at philosophy.  And yes, I am making it up as I go along.

If you look at something closely enough, you will see what appears to be a kind of disorder in the details.  If you magnify that to see in more detail, then you will see more disorder.  That’s more or less the idea of fractals being everywhere.

School grammar

Let’s start by looking at language.

In grammar school, you learned something about the structure of sentences.  You learned about nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.  And you learned how to parse a sentence, to logically divide it into its parts.  This gave a nice logical structure to language, and helped to explain how language works.  The structure rules were usually called the “grammar” and sentences that did not follow the rules were ungrammatical.

But then you saw some sentence that persuaded you that language didn’t really work that way.  Perhaps you came across:

  • Time flies like an arrow.
  • Fruit flies like a banana.

and you recognized that it was hard to fit those sentences into the ideas of school grammar without making special exceptions.

One way of dealing with this is to move to more complex grammars.  That’s roughly the approach of the Chomsky school of linguistics.  So you end up with complex grammars such as those of X-bar theory.  But they don’t fully account for language use either.  So you try to explain away the remaining problems with the competence/ performance distinction.  Here language competence refers to what the ideal language speaker would use, and performance refers to what is actually used.

From a fractal perspective, what can be seen here is that when we look closely, language doesn’t fit the rules.  The misfit is a kind of fractal.  If we come up with a more complex grammar, it still doesn’t fit perfectly, and the misfit is still a kind of fractal.  So maybe we can never come up with a perfect grammar, though we can use the competence/ performance distinction to paper over the remaining problems (the fractal-like discrepancies), and to allow us to pretend that we have an actual grammar for the language.

My alternative to this is to conclude that language really doesn’t have a grammar at all.  I recognize grammar as a human construct that we use to enable us to organize our discussions of language.  But the grammar is not an underlying part of how language works.  It exists only because we find that it makes it easier for us to discuss language.  So I see grammar as a pragmatic human construct, rather than a part of the natural world.

Natural kinds

I take a similar view of the concepts that we use to describe the real world.  We divide the world up into various kinds of things, such as cats and dogs (to name two).  These are often said to be natural kinds.  However, I have come to the conclusion that there are no natural kinds.  There are kinds, but they come from our pragmatic way of organizing the world so as to make it more comprehensible.  They are not natural kinds, in the sense that nature does not dictate how we should do this organizing.

Let’s back up for a moment, and look at computers.  The computer contains many components that are known as logic gates.  It is the job of a logic gate to decide whether its input signals are logic 0 or logic 1, and to produce an appropriate output signal.  Deciding whether an input signal is a logic 0 or a logic 1 is much like determining the kind of a logic signal.

If we were to take two logic chips, and gradually vary the input signals to see whether classified as a 0 or as a 1, we would probably find that the two logic chips disagree.  For one class of chips, the signal might be classified as a 0 if it is between 0 and 2.5 volts, and as a 1 if it is between 2.5 and 5 volts.  But whether the dividing point is 2.5 volts or 2.4 volts or 2.6 volts can vary between the different chips.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter.  The computers are carefully designed so that the important decisions are made when the input signals are at levels that all gates agree on the classification.  When the input signals are at the intermediate values where there is disagreement, nothing important is being decided.

Now, back to human decisions on dividing the world into kinds.  When I recognize a cat, my perceptual system is presumably making some decision based on the signals it is picking up.  When you recognize a cat, your perceptual system is presumably making such decisions.  If we could carefully test, we would probably find that the way my perceptual system makes its decisions is different from the way that your perceptual system makes decisions.  But in ordinary life, we will not notice that discrepancy as long as our decisions agree for the actual things that exist in the world that we take to be cats.  Yet, how our perceptual systems make those decisions are likely to be part of what we mean when we use the word “cat”.  So we can disagree on meanings yet agree on what actual things we take to be cats.

The relation to philosophy

What does all of this have to do with philosophy?

Just this.  Philosophers are often studying concepts and the subtleties of meaning.  But if those subtleties of meaning are fractal in nature, if they come from the arbitrariness of our concepts and the imperfectness with which they fit the world, then perhaps there is very little to be learned from those fractal subtleties.

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