Archive for November, 2021

November 29, 2021

Two recent jury trials

by Neil Rickert

This past week we saw the conclusion of two high profile jury trials. They were the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse and the trial of those accused of murdering Ahmoud Arbery. I’ll offer my comments on both cases.

I’ll file this post in “politics” because these cases became very political. However, the cases themselves really had more to do with law and justice than with politics.

Kyle Rittenhouse

We first heard of Rittenhouse, when news reports described him as travelling from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha Wisconsin, carrying an AR15 style weapon, and killing two people and wounding another at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. He sounded like a vigilante, meting out vigilante justice to the demonstrators.

That was roughly the picture that I had going into the trial. That he had traveled some distance (I estimate 40-50 miles) to show up at the demonstration was consistent this picture.

As the trial got under way, we began to hear a different version. The defense lawyers were arguing that this was a case of self-defense rather than the actions of a vigilante. Of course we expected the defense team to have a different story from what we had heard. But then one of the prosecution witnesses, the man that Rittenhouse had wounded, admitted that he had threatened Rittenhouse before he had been shot. This was beginning to support the claims that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.

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November 22, 2021

On language

by Neil Rickert

Most of my post related to cognition have been concerned with individual cognition. Language, of course, is very much social, so I have not commented much about it.

There’s in interesting post up at the Electric Agora:

The post is by Mark English, one of the frequent contributors to Electric Agora.

I won’t be saying much about that post, but I do urge you to read it and the comments. I’m using it as an excuse to present some of my own opinions about language.

Syntax and semantics

Noam Chomsky is well known for his ideas about the syntactic structure of natural languages. However, I’m more of a Chomsky skeptic. Chomsky’s work does give very useful insight into formal languages, including computer languages. And it is probably useful in attempts to program computers to deal with natural language. But I do not see it as very useful for understanding human use of language.

My own view is that natural languages are driven by semantics rather than by syntax. I very much doubt that there is a “universal grammar” organ in the brain. I view the brain as a semantic engine, rather than a syntactic engine. And I see our ability to have meaningful relations with the world as arising from biology.


On this view, meaning originates outside of language and has to do with our relations with the world. Once a language is available, we can carve up our meaning into parts which we then attach to various words. So meanings of words is unavoidably related to language, but there can be a broad idea of meaning which does not originate in language.

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November 15, 2021

CRT; what’s all the fuss?

by Neil Rickert

We have been hearing a lot about CRT. Those initials used to be short for “Cathode Ray Tube”, which we were using for television sets and computer monitors. But, these day, the initials stand for “Critical Race Theory”.

Critical Race Theory, itself, comes from legal scholars. And I doubt very much that it is being taught in the elementary or high schools. Yesterday I saw a blog post by Brian Leiter, about what CRT actually is. And I thought it would be useful to provide the link.

What is being taught in the schools does not appear to actually be CRT. But because the name CRT seems to connect to Critical Theory which in turn seems to have Marxist connections, the critics apparently think they can use “guilt by association” to make part of the school curriculum look Marxist.

Part of the fuss has been about the books “White Fragility” (by Robin DeAngelo) and “How to Be and Antiracist” (by Ibram Kendi). I have not read either book, though I have looked at reviews. As best I can tell, those books are not books about CRT. Rather they are responses to CRT — perhaps misguided responses.

System Racism

It is one of the tenets of CRT, that some of the racism we see is systemic rather than due to bad behavior by individuals. Part of what bothers me about those two books, is that they seem oriented more toward fixing individuals than toward dealing with systemic racism. However, keep in mind that I have not read the books, so I might be misjudging them.

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November 8, 2021

Realism, truth and all that

by Neil Rickert

A comment to my last post raised some questions about my views on realism and on truth. This post will be an attempt to respond to those questions.


First, some background. I’m a mathematician and I have spent time doing computer science. I have no doubt that my experience in mathematics and computer science have greatly influenced my thinking on many topics.

Around 1990, or perhaps a year earlier, I asked myself the question of “how does learning work?” This arose, in part, out of pedagogical concerns. It seemed to me that the dominant ways of teaching mathematics did not work well with how we actually learn.

That started me in a project of attempting to understand human cognition. In some ways, this has been very successful. I believe I do have a reasonably good, if imperfect, understanding. But, in other ways, it has been a failure. Much of what I now understand about cognition goes against the conventional wisdom. And that makes it hard to explain to others.

I bring up this background, because I might occasionally mention what was my view before 1990. And by that, I mean what was my view before I started that investigation into cognition.


The comment to which I am responding begins with:

I’m curious to know what you mean when you say that you are a realist.

For many scientists, “realist” and “pragmatist” are almost interchangeable. I guess that’s a good starting point for my own views on realism.

People seem to use the word “real” as if it has a meaning that comes directly from God. But it can only mean what we take it to mean. I like Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. I don’t see how “real” can mean anything beyond what the conventional wisdom takes to be real. There isn’t any magic that gets us to some pure meaning that is independent from how people use the word.

I contrast realism with Berkeley’s idealism. Perhaps I should say that for me, realism is a denial of Berkeley’s realism and a denial of Kant’s transcendental idealism.

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November 1, 2021

A rant about perception

by Neil Rickert

I follow the blog “Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists“. The authors are perceptual psychologists. In the a recent post they attempt to explain the distinction between whether perception is direct or indirect. This post is by Andrew, though both of the blog authors agree that perception is direct.

I happen to agree that perception is direct. But I disagree with a lot of what Andrew says in his post. Hence my comments may look like something of a rant.

I’ll be quoting from Andrew’s blog post. The wordpress software formats quotes in a distinctive way, so I think the reader will be able to tell when I am quoting.

Andrew begins with this:

All theories of perception begin with the fact that we experience a rich, detailed world full of things we can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do. Specifically, we experience a behaviourally relevant world.

I can fully agree with that statement. So at least we begin with agreement.

Indirect perception

Andrew then gives his characterization of indirect perception:

Indirect theories begin with the assumption that the world does not present itself to us in behaviourally relevant terms, and that we therefore need at least one mediating layer between us and the world in order to transform the way the world presents itself into the way we experience the world.

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