Archive for ‘intentionality’

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.


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.

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.”

March 19, 2014

An intentionality discussion

by Neil Rickert

A quick note, and a link.

There’s a discussion of intentionality at a site where I participate:

I did not start the topic, but I am one of the participants.

November 10, 2013

Convention (5) – objections

by Neil Rickert

In this post I’ll respond to some of the objections raised by John Wilkins, as best I understand them.  John raised objections during our discussions in comments to his blog post “Are species theoretical objects“.  I want to be clear that I am not picking on John.  It is my impression that many philosophers have similar views, and I have come across that sort of disagreement in discussions elsewhere.

I’ll start with a quote from that discussion, which I think reasonably summarizes John’s position.

As to conventions, again we may mean different things. I am basing my understanding on a read through of Lewis’ Conventions a while back. Consider correctly driving on the left side. Yes, if we all did the same things we’d all be driving on the left, but there is no fact of the matter which is best, left or right. In the same way, we may all choose to classify using the same conventions, but there need be no fact of the matter tracked in virtue of it being a conventional classification. If all we are doing is following conventions, then the ranks or categories so constructed are flatus vocus. There is nothing “out there” that is being tracked.

July 30, 2012


by Neil Rickert

Some of the readers of this blog are of a scientific inclination, and are probably confused, or even troubled, by my mention of “intentional objects” in my last post.  I am not a real philosopher (except in the broad sense that everybody is a philosopher), so I have some understanding of why readers might be troubled by the terminology of intentionality.

In this post, I will attempt to clear up some of the possible confusion.  That’s not all that easy to do, but I shall try.

May 27, 2012

What is knowledge?

by Neil Rickert

I have made no secret of my disdain for the idea that knowledge is justified true belief, as is often asserted in the literature of epistemology.  In this post, I want to say more about my own view of what constitutes knowledge.

I recently posted a parable, “The blind man and the cave” in to illustrate what is required in order to have knowledge.  To my surprise, one of the comments dismissed everything that I thought important in that parable, and insisted that knowledge is just facts.

All the blind man needs to know is WHAT he is measuring (a fact), and then know the measurement (a fact). Then the facts that he gains (height of the cave) will be the newly acquired knowledge because he understands the facts based on previous facts learned.

That leaves me wondering why philosophers seem to miss (or gloss over) what I see as important.

March 9, 2012

Semantics and measurement

by Neil Rickert

There are many different conceptions of “information.”  The most important of those is that due to Claude Shannon, and often referred to as “Shannon Information“.  Shannon was particularly concerned with communication and with the problem of avoiding or minimizing loss of information due to transmission over an imperfect channel.

As used today, we typically think of Shannon information being transmitted as a sequence of symbols, often as a stream of binary digits. It is considered to be a theory of syntactic information, since the engineering considerations that motivated Shannon’s work are concerned with delivery of the symbols and questions of what those symbols mean is secondary and outside Shannon’s theory.

July 16, 2011

Knowledge and belief

by Neil Rickert

In a comment on John Wilkins’ blog, I expressed disagreement with John’s assertion “knowledge is a species of belief.”  The purpose of this post is to continue that discussion, and to attempt to further explain why I disagree with most philosophers on this topic.

I’ll start by trying to be clear that this is not a personal disagreement with John.  As best I can tell, most philosophers get this wrong.  Thomas Kuhn got it wrong, in spite of his training in physics.  In an earlier post, Why do philosophy of science John attempted to make the case for philosophy of science.  I chose not to comment, though I had considered posting “The trouble with philosophy of science is that it is done so badly.”  I am not sure why, but philosophers seem to be unable to understand what science is, and how it works.

Getting back to the comment I posted to John’s recent post, I there mentioned three statements that I held when in high school:

  1. Newton’s f=ma (it should really be f=d(mv)/dt, but let’s avoid techicalities).
  2. Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Mt. Everest is around 29,000 ft in height.

Comparing those statements, I find that there is a kind of tension involved in the second and third of those.  That tension is because they could be wrong.  I see that tension as involving a kind of psychological commitment, which I see as at the heart of belief.

For the first (the Newtonian statement) there was no tension, and it seems to me that there was no psychological commitment.  The statement just seemed obvious, so it required no commitment and generated no tension.  The obvious explanation is that the Newtonian statement is analytic.  That is to say, it is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms.  Most contemporary philosophers resist that view, much as they resist the idea that data is theory laden.

A typical view of analytic statements is that they have no content (or no descriptive content, or no informative content).  That’s doubtless true, and that is why f=ma requires no commitment and generates no tension.  But it does not follow that there is no knowledge.  If f=ma is true by virtue of the meanings of its terms, then the associated knowledge is to be found in those meanings, rather than in the statement itself.  My high school physics teacher did a superb job of conveying the meanings needed to understand Newtonian physics, and it was because of that knowledge of meanings that f=ma was itself trivially obvious.

In the traditional philosophical account we can say that statements, such as the three listed above, are abstract propositions.  Those propositions are then said to be connected to reality via something called “intentionality.”  In his Chinese Room arguments, John Searle has said that intentionality is due to the causal properties of the brain.  As a rough approximation, I say that science is chiefly concerned with intentionality rather than with propositions.  Science is engaged in generating the causal connections that are needed for intentionality.

In my comment to John’s blog, I suggested a duality between belief and knowledge.  I see knowledge as the causal connections to reality that make it possible to have beliefs about reality.  And that’s the basis for the duality.

I’ll finish with a shift of gears.

I want to cross a busy road.  I look around at the traffic.  It can reasonably be said that I form beliefs (or at least that I form representations) about that traffic, and I use those beliefs or representations to decide whether it is safe to cross the road.

Once I have crossed the road, I can discard those beliefs or representations.  They are of no further use to me.  When I next cross that road, the traffic will have changed and the older representations won’t be applicable.  So there is no point at all in putting those representations in my belief box (I think Fodor likes to talk of a belief box).  I refer to those as ephemeral beliefs.  I hold them for only a short period of time, then discard them when I am done.  In order to do that, I must have an underlying set of capabilities to form these ephemeral beliefs or “just in time” beliefs.  I want to use “knowledge” to refer to that underlying set of capabilities, rather than to the beliefs themselves.  If I have a 6 year old child, I will be holding his hand while crossing that busy road.  I don’t expect that child to have yet developed the capabilities needed to form the beliefs used for safe crossing of that road.

In his 1983 book “Intentionality”, at around page 150, John Searle discusses learning to ski.  He suggests that we might start with some beliefs.  But as we learn, we become more skillful.  And the beliefs become irrelevant to us.  Searle sees us as developing causal connections, such that we no longer need the representations (or beliefs).  Searle’s account seems about right to me.  I am using “knowledge” to refer to those causal connections that we develop, rather than to the beliefs that became irrelevant.

March 6, 2011

The trouble with epistemology

by Neil Rickert

My view of epistemology is probably colored by the fact that I am a mathematician.  We mathematicians seem to think differently about such things.  For example, nothing could be clearer to a mathematician, than that it is possible to know the axiom of choice, yet at the same time to not believe it.  Thus mathematicians are likely to see something wrong in the “knowledge is justified true belief” that philosophers often assume.

If we go by what the epistemology literature tells us, we might conclude that “truth” is the name of an immaterial magical substance that permeates the universe and that people search for.  We might conclude that the universe is filled with immaterial objects known as propositions.  We might also conclude that perception is a magical system for picking up such propositions, and that it has a builtin magical filter that allows it to mainly pick up true propositions.

Well, okay, that was a bit overstated.  The main point is that epistemology gives a very artificial account.  It comes across as an account of what would constitute knowledge for an ideal rational agent living in an imaginary Platonic universe.  Knowledge is defined in terms true beliefs, but “true” and “belief” are never really defined.  So we are left with true beliefs as something like abstract objects.  This leaves epistemology as a kind of logical calculus of abstract objects, so it has something of the appearance of mathematical Platonism.  Because the knowledge is in terms of abstract objects, it does not relate to reality.  But never mind — the epistemologist comes up with a property of intentionality which is supposed to provide that otherwise missing connection.  But intentionality is left as unexplained, so either mysterious or magical.

By contrast, when I look at science, the scientists are very concerned with connecting their scientific statements with reality.  Epistemology has a problem with intentionality, and that problem carries over to scientific epistemology (the philosophy of science).  But science itself does not seem to have that intentionality problem, for it carefully defines its terms in ways that connects it to reality.  It should be obvious from this description, that I see a serious mismatch between scientific epistemology and the science that it is supposed to explain.

The real problem of knowledge is expressed in the question “How is it possible to have knowledge at all?”  This can be further elaborated as “How is it possible for a sequence of letters to say something about reality?” and “How is observation even possible?”  In short, the real problem of knowledge is the problem of intentionality.  That is the problem that drives science.  Epistemology massively avoids dealing with that problem.

February 15, 2011

Purpose (7) – summary and index

by Neil Rickert

I have been pondering whether to continue this series with more posts.  But I think I’ll end it here for now.  I will later have some independent posts that are related.


One of the arguments that we repeatedly see from creationists, is that there is something missing from a purely mechanistic view of the world, and that is where they want to put their deity or intelligent designer.  What they see missing, is an explanation of an apparent purpose.

Part of that missing purpose is a backward construct from their theology, and their wish that they (or humankind) be a product of purpose.  I cannot find any basis for that.  However, there does seem to be a basis for seeing apparently purposeful behavior in biological systems.  And that’s what I have been discussing.

My main emphasis has been to show that there is an adequate natural account for this apparently purposeful behavior, so there is no need to call on theology for a pseudo-explanation.


For ease of future reference, here’s an index to the posts in this series: