Where philosophy goes wrong

by Neil Rickert

Here are a couple of assumptions that philosophers frequently make:

  • There is a certain way that the world is.
  • There is information all around us, telling us the way that the world is.

By “philosopher”, I really mean human.  We almost all philosophize to some extent.

I see those two listed assumptions as mistaken.

What is the mistake?

If your primary concern is getting around in this world, then the assumptions are not unreasonable.  The problem comes when we try to understand human cognition (or, roughly, what is it that the brain is doing?)

If we start with those assumptions, the ones that I consider mistaken, then there isn’t much for a cognitive system to do.  It just has to pick up the information that is all around us, and find out what that information tells us about the world.  That’s what leads to the idea of computationalism (“cognition is computation”).  And our experience with digital computers suggests that computation can be done in a way that is mindless and mechanical.

But a cognitive system has to be far more creative than that.

To say “there’s a way that the world is” is pretty much the same as saying “there exists a correct description of the world.”  This might be using “exists” in a Platonic sense.  That is, it need not assume that we know that correct description.  But it assume that there is such a description even if we do not know it.

The problem here, is that you cannot have a description without some kind of description system.  That is to say, to have a description, you first need something like a suitable description language.  And that’s where the need for creativity shows up.

If there isn’t a way that the world is, then there cannot be information around us telling us the way that the world is.  So our cognitive systems also need to create ways of getting information about the world in a form that is appropriate for the description systems that they have created.

Can it be a natural language?

We do use our natural language as a description system.  And we acquire our natural language from the community.  But that cannot be the full story.  For we cannot be part of a community unless we have some ability to cognize that community.  So we first need some sort of internal description system (which need not be a language), before we can begin to recognize and join a community.  And only then can we begin to use the community natural language as our description system.  So we already need the ability to create our own description system, in order to be able to recognize and then adopt the community natural language.

What about a language of thought?

Fodor has proposed that there be an innate language of thought.  And that would solve the problem.  To  me, it seems implausible.  In any case, that only moves the need for creativity to biological evolution.  It does not completely eliminate that need.

If there is an innate language of thought (or LOT), it is hard to explain why natural languages would not arise directly from that LOT.  But there is too much diversity between different natural languages for that to be a reasonable likelihood.

Creativity and consciousness

The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness arises because people have thought cognition is something like computation.  And we know from our experience with digital computers, that consciousness is not required for computation.  So the hard problem has to do with explaining how we can be conscious when that seems unnecessary.

If, however, cognitive systems are doing something more creative, then we begin to get some other ideas.  In particular, we begin to see that our cognitive systems have to create ways for us to see (or experience) the world as part of creating a description system for the world.  And they have to find ways of developing information about the world, in a form that is suitable for that description system.

We now at least have the beginnings of an answer to the question “what does consciousness do?”

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6 Comments to “Where philosophy goes wrong”

  1. I’m not at all convinced that saying that there’s a way the world is commits us to the existence of a correct description in the robust sense you mean it. But that aside, natural language and LOT really aren’t contenders for describing all that is.

    Physics, however, is a great contender. In fact, physics describes all that is, with the exception of only a few extreme processes (basically just quantum gravity, and dark matter).

    That said, I certainly agree that our cognitive systems have to create ways for us to experience and describe the world. We’re still working on creating a (more) complete physics, for example.

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    • Physics describes matter, energy, space and time. Given that the big bang indicates that matter and the emergent properties;space, time, and energy are both finite and temporal. Since this universe was preceded by nonexistence and will be followed by nonexistence, this begs the question of what endured before and what will endure after it?
      The totality then is a greater set and the physical universe is only a subset of this greater totality! So physics is not a description of everything and to suggest this is arrogant vanity that imposes absurd constraints on what is!

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    • Physics, however, is a great contender.

      Physics cannot tell us how to separate the sheep from the goats — in either the biological sense or the metaphorical sense.

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  2. It seems that the language of words or of math are both limited by definition and will not reveal truth. At best they will point towards truths.
    It may be that quantum entanglement is a more complete truth because it allows for simultaneous synchronization so to occur between two subjects. It produces an entangled state that you may be sharing right now with your dog or spouse. It’s not a descriptive condition but a state of shared being.

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    • It seems that the language of words or of math are both limited by definition and will not reveal truth.

      This presupposes that there is a truth to be revealed. That is to say, it presupposes a particular notion of truth.

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      • I like to think of truth not in absolute terms but in terms of reliability. The truth then is subject to verifications and modifications. It seems on the surface that there is only one history and so it should be knowable and reveal able as absolute truth. But this also fails under the peculiar phenomena of retro-causality as demonstrated in thousands of Quantum Eraser experiments. There also seems that the human brain operates within these strange phenomena!

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