Archive for ‘My Philosophy’

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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October 4, 2021

Meandering thoughts on consciousness

by Neil Rickert

This post might wander all over, as I jot down thoughts that seem relevant.

Ding an sich

Kant used the expression “Ding an sich,” which is usually translated as “the thing in itself”. Kant’s idea was that we cannot know the world in itself; we can only know the world as we experience it.

This has turned out to be a controversial view. Many people disagree with Kant about this. However, I am inclined to agree, though perhaps my reasons are different from those of Kant.

In Genesis 1:2, we read “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” I am inclined to see that as a pretty good description of the world in itself, although I doubt that I am using that in the way the author(s) of Genesis intended.

If we attempt to describe the structure or form of the world, we may find ourselves using words such as “texture”, “height”, “color”. We use these words to express human concepts. When we talk of the world in itself, we should limit ourselves to what can be said without depending on human concepts. And there isn’t much at all that can be said.

As for that “darkness” part of the Genesis text, we can reasonably assume that the earth was bathed in electromagnetic waves. But most electromagnetic waves are not visible to us. Our sight depends on a narrow range of wavelengths. That we happen to be able to sense those wavelengths is part of our biology. So we should exclude that as part of what we consider the world in itself.

Kant contrasted this with the world of appearances, or the world that we experience. It seems entirely reasonable to me, that the way we experience the world is very different from the way that an ant experiences the world, or the way that a bird experiences the world or the way that a bat experiences the world. So when we talk of the world in itself, we should consider only what is observer independent. But we cannot know anything apart from observation. Hence my agreement with Kant’s view.

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September 27, 2021


by Neil Rickert

Most people are probably familiar with dualism. It is the claim that the mind exists as an immaterial substance. It is often called “Cartesian Dualism”, because of the way that it was formulated by Descartes. However, the idea of a spiritual soul seems to be much older.

Apparently, Descartes was familiar with the workings of a clock, and saw that the kinds of mechanisms used could possibly explain motions and other visible behaviors of animals and people. But he did not believe that it could explain thinking. So he argued for two substances. The physical motions would be explained by extended stuff (or material substance), while thought would be explained by thinking stuff (or mental substance), taken to be distinct from extended stuff.

Modern views

Since the time of Descartes, much has been learned about anatomy and about the brain. And our experience with computers shows how intricate behavior can be controlled without requiring any immaterial substance. As a result, dualism is now rejected by many people. However, many religious folk still like the idea of a spiritual soul, so continue to cling to some kind of dualism.

These days, most people of a scientific bent point to the brain as responsible for what Descartes attributed to an immaterial mind. And most academic philosophers agree, though there seem to be a few holdouts.

Passive perception

Descartes took the view that perception is passive. That is, we just perceived the world the way that it actually is. This seems a reasonable conclusion for a dualist such as Descartes. If the mind was assumed immaterial, it could do magical things.

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September 13, 2021

Against mechanism

by Neil Rickert

The title might be a tad misleading, so I will need to clarify. But perhaps I should start by pointing out that we really don’t have a good definition of mechanism. So people might disagree about what the word means.

I have a car, clocks, a wrist watch, a cell phone, and many other such things. I am not against that kind of mechanism. I will note, however, that all of those kinds of mechanisms eventually fail. Mechanical things break.

And then there are our scientific laws. Newton’s laws were often described as “Newtonian mechanics”, and Einsteins newer theory is often described as relativistic mechanics. We normally do not expect scientific laws to fail. Of course, these days we normally see relativistic mechanics as having superseded Newtonian mechanics. But that wasn’t because Newton’s laws failed in the way that real mechanisms fail. Rather, it was because relativistic mechanics was better than Newtonian mechanics. And, of course, Newtonian mechanics is still very much in use, because it is easier to use than relativistic mechanics, and in most cases it works well enough.

Ideal mechanisms

Because scientific laws are not expected to fail, we might consider them to be ideal mechanisms. They are abstract, rather than composed of physical gears and levers such as we see with physical mechanisms.

Again, to be clear, I am not in any way opposed to the kind of ideal mechanisms that we see in science. They not what I am against. After all, I am a mathematician, and much of mathematics is about such ideal mechanisms.

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September 6, 2021

Subjective and objective

by Neil Rickert

I have been reading Nagel: “The view from nowhere“, where Nagel attempts to give an account of objectivity. Here’s the book summary from Wikipedia:

The View from Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere”, one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Nagel emphasizes the idea of becoming more detached. But I did not find a good account of what it means to become detached. I’m not at all sure that one can become detached without going into clinical depression. But perhaps I misunderstand what Nagel is suggesting.

An alternative

I will suggest a different idea as to what distinguishes subjective from objective.

In my last post, I discussed the idea of standards. And I suggested that there can be several sets of standards. In particular, we can have personal stands. And, additionally, there can be community standards. Here, I considered scientific standards as being a particular case of community standards, where “community” refers to the scientific community.

My suggestion is that we make subjective judgements when we base those judgements on our personal standards. And we make objective judgements when we base them on community standards.

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August 30, 2021

The importance of standards

by Neil Rickert

A long time ago, as a teenager, I spent time reading about science. One of the things that I noticed, was that the Newtonians put some effort into giving as a unified system of weights and measures. That is to say, they established standards for the measurements that scientists make, and the attempted to unify standards internationally.

That always seemed important to me. I took it to be part of how science works, especially so when we notice that measurement is very important to scientists.

When I look at books in the philosophy of science, I do not recall ever seeing the authors mention this standardization of measurement systems. Perhaps the philosophers of science do not see it as important.

Artificial intelligence

One of the things that AI researchers have been concerned about, is learning. And one of their theories of learning has been based on the physical symbol system hypothesis. The idea seems to be that the world is full of naturally occurring physical symbols, and an AI system can pick them up and compute with them. I don’t think there are any naturally occurring physical symbols. It seems to me that symbols are human constructs, and we depend on our own standards on how to use those symbols. So there’s that word “standards” again.

The idea, for that AI hypothesis, was that the symbols constitute information and an information processing system can use them as the basis for artificial intelligence. But I say “no information without standards.”

The problem

Imagine a young child who has learned the word “doggy”. As he walks away, a gust of wind rustles his hair. Oh, another doggy? If the child has no standard as to what constitutes a doggy, then he cannot tell that the gust of wind isn’t a doggy. In order to make sense of the world, we need to make distinctions. And we apply some kind of criteria when making those distinctions. How we apply our criteria are, in effect, our standards for perceiving the world.

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August 23, 2021


by Neil Rickert

People use the word “information” in a variety of ways, some of them mutually inconsistent. In this post, I shall describe how I prefer to use the term. My own usage is partly informed by my study of perception. And, of course, as a retired professor of computer science, my usage is partly informed by the use of information in technology.

The word “information” is used a lot in information technology. We talk about information being communicated or copied or transmitted. But we also think of newspapers as being sources of information. Likewise, human speech is normally considered to be information.

Shannon information

Claude Shannon is famous for his theory of information. He actually called it a theory of communication. People use the expression “Shannon information” in somewhat inconsistent ways. I shall try to stay close to what Shannon discussed.

Shannon was concerned with the question of transmitting information over a noisy channel, and with the problem of minimizing the errors that are due to noise in the channel. Shannon considered the use of both analog signals and digital signals. But the bulk of his work has to do with digital signals, and that will be my main emphasis in this discussion.

Shannon did much of his work at Bell Labs. And, of course, a major concern of Bell Labs was with telephone communication. These day, largely due to the work of Shannon and others, most telephone communication is done by encoding voice signals in a stream of binary digits. It turns out that this kind of digital communication can better deal with noise in the channel.

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August 16, 2021

About perception

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post, I suggested that perception is an important part of perception. One commenter disagreed, and wrote “Perception is simply raw sensory impressions”. That’s actually a common view. A lot of the literature on empiricism suggests that it starts with impressions.

I’m actually not quite sure what people mean by “impression” when they make such statements. I expect that they are probably thinking of conscious impressions — something that we can think about. However, it seems to me that much of perception is prior to conscious experience.

The expression “raw sensory impression” could also mean the forming of an image (in the visual case). I’m doubtful that we form images. I cannot see any good reason why an ability to form images would evolve, because it is hard to see much benefit from having such an ability. What really matters to an organism, is getting useful information about the immediate environment. So my own thinking about perception has tended to emphasize that information problem.


One of the problems for visual perception, is that we are moving. We move our bodies. We also move our heads relative to our bodies. And our eyes move (in saccades) relative to the position of our heads.

If you have ever tried taking a picture with a moving camera, you probably know that this can result in a blurry picture. A high shutter speed can reduce the problem. However, the response of retinal sensory cells is slower than high speed shutters, so that method is not available to the visual system.

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August 9, 2021

There are no foundations

by Neil Rickert

This post is, in part, a response to the post “In the first place …” on another blog. The author of that post writes:

It’s really strange having fallen from faith to now be starting to wonder if faith is the only way to underpin the very thing I used to push faith away with in the first place (rationality).

Here I am using “foundation” as the same as “underpinning”. So this post has to do with foundationalism in epistemology. To a first approximation, foundationalism is the idea that there is a starting set of assumptions from which all knowledge can be logically derived. And I guess that’s similar to the “presuppositional apologetics” which we see in religious circles.

Sam, the author of the post to which I am responding, goes on to write:

Does there have to be rational arguments for God? There are many rational people that believe in God. If we assume anyone who believes in God is irrational and has no root cause of belief, then we label all believers with the same brush. I’ve grown to hate this.

You can see Sam’s concern. From my point of view, there are no rational arguments for God. But that does not imply that believers are irrational.

To put this in perspective, consider the concept of mass from physics. It is a rather central concept. Yet there are no rational arguments for mass — depending, of course, on what you mean by “rational”.

I sometimes toy with the idea of writing a post “Logic is illogical; rationality is irrational.” The problem here is that both words (“logic” and “rational”) can have different meanings, and those different meanings can be in conflict. For example “logic” can be used to refer to a formal method of deductive inference. As a mathematician, that’s my preferred meaning for the term. But “logic” can also refer to using ordinary good sense in making decisions, and quite often ordinary good sense does not involve any formal inference.

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July 25, 2021

The world is not a logical place

by Neil Rickert

Let’s start with some definitions:

  • logical: in accordance with the laws of logic;
  • illogical: contrary to the laws of logic;
  • alogical: the laws of logic are not applicable.

My title is suggesting the last of those — that the laws of logic are not applicable to the world.

Of course, we do use logic. But we have to do some preparatory work to make it possible to use logic.

A logical world is a world of immutable objects. I’ll refer to those as “logical objects”. When doing mathematics, the numbers are examples of logical objects. In logic, we use the idea of “identity”, where A and B are identical if those are really just different names for the same logical object. So 3+1 is identical to 2+2, because those are both ways of referring to the same number 4.

In the world we live in, there are no immutable objects — see my earlier post about change. And what we mean by “identity” and “identical” can sometimes be confusing. Those are because our world isn’t really a logical world.


How do we deal with this situation? We categorize. That is to say, we divide the world up into parts (i.e. categories), and treat those categories as if they were logical objects.

Some people think of categories as collections of individual objects. I prefer to think of categories as arising from carving up the world into parts. What we think of as individual objects are themselves categories. We think of a person as an individual. But a person changes. The atoms which constitute that person today will soon be gone, and replaced by different atoms. A person’s appearance changes due maturing and aging processes. But we see these variations as the same person, because when we carve the world up into categories we place the variations of that person into the same category.

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