Archive for ‘philosophy’

May 31, 2016

The unexplained intellect — does it exist?

by Neil Rickert

This is my reaction to a post that I saw today at The Brains Blog:

(that post title is really in all caps, so I had to retype to make it look reasonable).

At first glance, that title looks good.  The statement that the mind is not a hoard of sentences fits with my repeated criticism of the idea that knowledge is justified true belief.  However, as I read further into that blog post, I realize that I still have a lot of disagreement with the author.

The blog post is written by Christopher Mole and, in part, it is saying something about Mole’s book “The Unexplained Intellect”.  I have not read the book itself.  It comes in at $54.95 for the Kindle edition, which is a bit pricey for me.

On minds

Here’s the second paragraph of that blog post:

We do not currently have a satisfactory account of how minds could be had by material creatures. If such an account is to be given then every mental phenomenon will need to find a place within it. Many will be accounted for by relating them to other things that are mental, but there must come a point at which we break out of the mental domain, and account for some things that are mental by reference to some that are not. It is unclear where this break out point will be. In that sense it is unclear which mental entities are, metaphysically speaking, the most fundamental.

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April 28, 2016

The way the world is

by Neil Rickert

Right now it is a cloudy, rainy April day.  And if that’s the kind of thing one means by “the way the world is” then I have no problem with that.  However, people often use that expression in a different sense.  Typically, they are talking about some metaphysical point, and they say “there’s a certain way that the world is”.  And they go on to ask questions such as whether our current science agrees with “that certain way that the world is” (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I’ll use the expression “the metaphysical way the world is” for that usage, though I’ll mostly abbreviate that as MWWI.

It seems that MWWI is supposed to refer to some presumed linguistic description of the world which is independent of personal and cultural viewpoints and is language independent.

I’m inclined to think that MWWI is incoherent.  I don’t think that there can be such a thing.  And that’s what this post is about.

Reality

Let’s start with reality.  When I deny that there could be a MWWI, some people take me as being something of an idealist.  That is, they take me to be denying that there is a human independent reality — that what we call reality is something that we make up in our heads.

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January 19, 2016

Understanding and the Chinese Room

by Neil Rickert

Coel has a recent post

about Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument.  My response is a bit long for a comment, so I’ll respond here.

Understanding

Here’s how Coel frames the issue:

You’ve just bought the latest in personal-assistant robots. You say to it: “Please put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then hoover the lounge, and then take the dog for a walk”. The robot is equipped with a microphone, speech-recognition software, and extensive programming on how to do tasks. It responds to your speech by doing exactly as requested, and ends up taking hold of the dog’s leash and setting off out of the house. All of this is well within current technological capability.

Did the robot understand the instructions?

My answer would be “obviously not.”  So, according to Coel, that makes me a Searlite.  If I had agreed that the robot understood, then he would say that I’m a Dennettite.

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October 9, 2015

Love, pain and chemistry

by Neil Rickert

We sometimes hear people saying that love is just chemistry.  Apparently Zach Weinersmith, the SMBC cartoonist, doesn’t agree.  He gives his ironic reaction in one of his cartoons.  I agree with the cartoonist, though I would not react in the suggested way.

Jerry Coyne thinks the cartoonist is profoundly misguided.  So I’ll have to disagree with Coyne.

Computation as an analogy

I’ll use computation as an analogy, to illustrate why I disagree with Coyne.

If you see somebody doing computation, you may see them making pencil marks on paper.  But it would be a serious mistake to say that computation is just making pencil marks on paper.

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June 18, 2015

Making sense of a strange world

by Neil Rickert

In my prior post, I suggested that the role of perception was to allow an organism to make sense of the strange world where it finds itself.

We actually know something about how to do this.  We have examples from history to guide us.

Explorers

Perhaps the best examples are explorers.  They go into unfamiliar territory, and attempt to make it more familiar, more understandable.  And perhaps their most important way of doing this is by making maps.

Their map may start as little more than a blank sheet of paper.  As they explore, they look for major features such as mountains and rivers.  And then enter those onto the map in the appropriate relation to one another.  As then add features, the map begins to take shape and the structure of the territory begins to emerge.

Later another explorer, or perhaps the original explorer, may reenter the territory.  And, as they spot the major features, then can orient their location to what is shown on the map.  They can now add minor features to help further flesh out what we can know about the territory that they are exploring.

June 11, 2015

An alternative to design thinking

by Neil Rickert

In the previous post, I criticized Searle’s design thinking.  Today I want to suggest an alternative.

The trouble with design thinking

Design thinking seems to be common in philosophy and in AI.  The problem is that we end up attempting to design ourselves.  We look at ourselves as the intended finished product.  And we want what we design to have the same concepts, the same beliefs, the same ideas of truth.

There is a lot of talk about autonomous agents.  But can an agent be truly autonomous if we require it to have our own concepts and our own beliefs?  This, I think, is why we often have the intuition that an AI system won’t really be making decisions — it will, instead, be a mechanization of the designer’s intended decision making.

An alternative

The alternative is to try to understand the problem than an organism or a perceptual system is attempting to solve.  And then, once we understand the problem, we can look into ways of solving that problem.

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June 3, 2015

Searle’s design thinking

by Neil Rickert

While reading Searle’s perception book, I came across this passage:

Think of the problem from a designer point of view. Suppose you are God or evolution and you are designing organisms capable of coping with their environment in spectacularly successful ways. First, you create an environment that has objects with shapes, sizes, movements, etc. Furthermore, you create an environment with differential light reflectances. Then you create organisms with spectacularly rich visual capacities. Within certain limits, the whole world is open to their visual awareness. But now you need to create a specific set of perceptual organizations where specific visual experiences are internally tied to specific features of the world, such that being those features involves the capacity to produce those sorts of experiences. Reality is not dependent on experience, but conversely. The concept of the reality in question already involves the causal capacity to produce certain sorts of experiences. So the reason that these experiences present red objects is that the very fact of being a red object involves a capacity to produce this sort of experience. Being a straight line involves the capacity to produce this other sort of experience. The upshot is that organisms cannot have these experiences without it seeming to them that they are seeing a red object or a straight line, and that “”seeming to them”” marks the intrinsic intentionality of the perceptual experience. (page 129)

I’m not surprised by that kind of design thinking.  I have long thought that such design thinking is the background to much of philosophy.  It is, however, a little strange to be calling on evolution as a designer and as having a designer point of view.  Even worse is the idea of evolution wanting to “create organisms with spectacularly rich visual capacities.”

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May 10, 2015

Biology and mechanism

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I wrote “Living things don’t fit with what I consider to be mechanism.”  In today’s post, I’ll discuss what I see as the distinction between biology and mechanism.

The meaning of “mechanism”

The term “mechanism” is hard to define.  The Wikipedia page is a disambiguation page linking to several alternative meanings.  The page on the engineering meaning comes closest to what I think of when I use the word “mechanism.”

A mechanical system, as I use that term, is a passive receiver of energy.  What we call “mechanical” is the way in which that energy percolates through the system via motions of parts and the forces that they apply to cause motions of other parts.

When people mention “determinism”, they often have in mind the apparent determinism of such mechanical systems.  I’ll use the expression “mechanical determinism” to refer to that, even if it might not be completely deterministic.  Those who deny that there is any possibility of free will, are probably thinking of something like that mechanical determinism.

Biology

So where does biology differ from this idea of mechanism?

Quite simply, biological organisms are not passive receivers of energy.  Rather, biological organisms are active seekers of energy.  They have found ways of finding energy to meet their needs, and have thereby achieved some degree of energy independence.

With this energy independence, biological systems have been able to give themselves some independence from mechanical determinism.  Biology does use mechanism.  It uses that for control, particularly self-control.  But,  because of its autonomous ability to acquire energy, it is not limited by mechanical determinism in the ways that passive receivers of energy are limited.

Free will

It is still unclear what people mean by “free will.”  But what they do mean seems to include some ability to make autonomous decisions.  Our ability to make autonomous decisions is linked to our ability to be autonomous energy seekers.  Those two autonomous behaviors are mutually dependent on one another.

May 2, 2015

Why I am not a materialist — take 2

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post (almost three years ago), I asserted that I am not a materialist.  I have had people argue with me about that, and suggest that I was being disingenuous.

In the debates between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer, Shedrake’s opening statement includes a bunch of questions related to materialism, that he poses to Shermer.  So I thought I would give my answers to those questions.  And then you can decide for yourself whether I should be considered a materialist.

Mechanism

Sheldrake’s first question: Is nature mechanical?

I have never thought so.  I take biological organisms to be an important part of what we mean by “nature”, and biology has always seemed very different from mechanics.  Rocks, earthquakes, etc — yes, I consider those to be mechanical.  But not living things.

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April 14, 2015

Philosophy of mind is weird

by Neil Rickert

More correctly, philosophy of mind seems weird to me. Perhaps that’s because I think more like a scientist than like a philosopher.

I have been reading “Intentionality and Myths of the Given: Between Pragmatism and Phenomenology” by Carl Sachs. In the first few chapters, the author reviews the positions taken by a number of philosophers, and I am already seeing weirdness.

Take this quote:

Perceptual experience is passive as opposed to active, in McDowell’s vocabulary, because he follows Kant in thinking of `activity’ in terms of freedom. I can freely endorse or withhold assent from judgements, but I cannot freely endorse or withhold assent from perceptual episodes — if what I see is a salt-shaker on the table, then I cannot not see that there is a salt-shaker on the table. My concepts of `salt-shaker’ and `table’ are passively actualized in the shaping of sensory consciousness as it relates to the objects experienced. (Kindle location 3164)

And that seems weird.

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