June 3, 2018

Truth and reference

by Neil Rickert

I recently posted this in a comment on another blog:

We cannot just take a sentence and ask if it is true. We first have to inquire about everything referenced by that sentence. If people don’t agree on the references, they won’t agree on the truth of the sentence.

It’s a rather obvious point.  Yet it is often overlooked.

Earlier this year, I proposed a modest theory of truth, in which I suggested that we judge the truth of a sentence based on whether it conforms with standards.  What I mainly had in mind, and what my example illustrated, were the standards that we follow for settling questions of reference.  Likewise, my posts about carving up the world are really all about how we go about finding ways to reference parts of the world.

Consciousness

In a way, the problems of consciousness are also closely connected with reference.  The so called “hard problem” arose because people thinking about AI (artificial intelligence) did not see how a computer could possibly be conscious.  Well, of course it cannot be conscious.  For to be conscious is to be conscious of something, to be conscious of a world.  Consciousness depends on reference.  Or, as philosophers usually say that, it depends on intentionality.

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May 17, 2018

The reasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences

by Neil Rickert

In 1969, Eugene Wigner wrote what has become a famous paper, titled “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”  There’s a pretty good summary of the related issues in the Wikipedia article of the same  name.

As you might guess from the title of this blog post, I disagree with Wigner.  In my view, the effectiveness of mathematics is entirely reasonable.  And it has long seemed reasonable to me.  I thought about it either in high school or as a graduate student in mathematics (I’m not sure which), and came up with what I found to be a satisfactory explanation.

Perspective on mathematics

I’ll start with my broad perspective, which I have probably mentioned before on this blog.  I often say that mathematics is not about reality.  The mathematician Kronecker famously said “God gave us the natural numbers.  All else is the work of man.”  I almost agree, except that I think Kronecker gave God too much credit.  As I see it, the natural numbers are also the work of man.  That’s part of why I am a mathematical fictionalist.

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May 6, 2018

Carving up the world with science

by Neil Rickert

In previous posts, I have discussed how we carve up the world, and how that carving up is what allows us to express true statements about the world.  Science also expresses true statements about the world.  In this post I will discuss how that relates to carving up.

Yes, science also carves up the world in its own way.  And it does that in order to be able to make true statements about the world.  So the basic idea is the same.  But the method is very different.

Which science

Unsurprisingly, different sciences carve up the world in different ways.  Biology is concerned with living organisms.  So it wants to carve up the world into organisms, and then to further carve up those organisms into organs, cells, proteins, genes, etc.  At a larger scale, it wants to look at populations of organism.

In this post, I shall mainly be looking at how physics carves up the world.  That’s partly because the physics way of carving is most different from our ordinary way of carving.  And, additionally, all sciences borrow from physics, at least to some extent.

Measuring

Take a look at a ruler, such as we use for measuring length.  I have a ruler in front of me know, as I write this.

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April 27, 2018

Analysis and synthesis

by Neil Rickert

I’ll start with some definitions, from Dictionary.com:

  • synthesis: the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity;
  • analysis: the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements.

In order to carry out a synthesis, you must start with the component parts.  Otherwise there is no way to proceed.

In order to perform analysis, you must start with some sort of methods for separating into parts.

In recent posts, I have been discussing the idea of carving up the world.  That more or less fits the definition of analysis.

My starting assumption, based on what I know about biology, is that an organism starts its life without much knowledge of what exists in the world, but with some innate abilities (methods).  So it would seem that analysis, rather than synthesis, should be the basis of learning how to cope in the world.

An example

As a child, maybe at around 12 years of age, I remember taking my bicycle completely apart.  And then I reassembled it.  That would be an example of analysis, followed by a synthesis.

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April 18, 2018

Meaning and reference

by Neil Rickert

I take the view that meaning is subjective.

Many people argue that meaning is objective.  Putnam, in effect, was arguing that in his “The meaning of meaning.”  But it has seemed to me that Putnam’s argument was really about reference rather than about meaning.

In this post I shall discuss both meaning an reference.  And I shall attempt to relate them to my posts about carving up the world.

Intension and extension

It is common to discuss meaning related topics in terms of extension and intension.  The extension of a word is the set of things that it can refer.  So the extension of “cat” would be the set of all cats.  The term “intension” is supposed to be something internal, related to the word.  The intension of “cat” might consist of all properties that characterize cats.

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April 12, 2018

Sharing concepts with the culture

by Neil Rickert

In my previous post, I discussed carving up the world.  The idea is that we carve the world and give names to some of the parts into which we carve.  Those named parts become the concepts that are part of the true statements we make about the world.

In an earlier post, I indicated that how we carve up the world needs to be a social convention.  And the naming that we use also needs to be a social convention.  That these are social conventions is what allows us to communicate with one another.

In this post, I will be discussing how these social conventions can be established.

The culture

By the culture we mean, roughly speaking, the society and the social practices of people within that society.

We cannot share  things with the culture until there is a culture.  Picture the problem for young child.  She needs to learn how to carve up the world in order to fill her world with details.  So the need to carve up the world starts before the child has much of a world.  In particular, the child needs to start carving up the world before she can become aware that she is part of a society.  In other words, the carving up must begin without access to any carving conventions from the culture.  The child must initiate carving by herself, and not wait until she learns what are the social conventions.

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April 4, 2018

Carving up the world

by Neil Rickert

It is said that we carve up the world at its seams.  I doubt that there are any seams.  We carve up the world in ways that are easy enough and that we find useful.  But those requirements — that it be easy enough and that it be useful — underdetermine how the world is to be carved.  So it is a matter of pragmatic decision making.

As we saw in my last post, carving up the world is what gives us the entities that we can talk about and is what allows us to say true things about the world.

I should say at the outset, that carving up the world isn’t an entirely conscious and deliberate activity.  Much of the work is done behind the scenes by our perceptual systems.  So, in part, this post is related to how perception works.  So when I talk about us carving up the world, I am not restricting this to conscious activity.

Why it is hard

We cannot just look around and see what are good ways of carving up the world.  To be able to look around and see, then what you are looking at has to have a lot of detail.  But the detail that we see gets there because of how we carve up the world.  So we cannot presuppose that it is available before we do any carving.

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March 29, 2018

Morality and Quantum Mechanics

by Neil Rickert

Quick editorial comment:  the connection that I make between morality and quantum mechanics is entirely metaphorical.  I am not proposing that quantum physicists work on moral philosophy.

This post is mostly a response to Dan Kaufman’s post at The Electric Agora:

I am posting it here, because my response is a bit long for a comment on Dan’s post.

I have usually avoided moral theories, because it has seemed obvious that they could not work.  In his post, Dan is pretty much arguing that.  He is arguing that moral theories don’t work and probably cannot work.  This is refreshing, given that we are so often bombarded with arguments that propose moral theories.

Description

Dan is discussing the difficulties of a rules based approach to moral issues.  We have, with science, a pretty good rules based approach to description.  And that’s where my metaphor arises.  So I’ll start with a rough overview of science as description.

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March 28, 2018

Saying true things about the world

by Neil Rickert

This continues my series of posts on truth.  Up to now, my discussion has mainly been technical.  But truth matters to us because we want to be able to say true things.  We use natural language statements about the world (where “world” is understood broadly) in order to say those true things.

Linguistics is not my area, but I cannot avoid it completely.  Chomsky’s linguistics is based on the idea that language is a syntactic structure.  Presumably the semantics are an add-on to that underlying syntactic structure, although Chomsky doesn’t say much about how semantics makes it into language.

I very much disagree with Chomsky’s view of language.  As I see it, language is primarily semantic.  I see the rules of syntax as mostly an ad hoc protocol used for disambiguation.  So today’s post will be mainly about semantics or meanings.  This has to do with how words can refer to things in the world, or how words can be about something.  This is related to the philosophical problem of intentionality (or aboutness) of language statements.  Here I will be presenting only a broad overview.  I expect to get into more details in future posts.

Carving up the world

I hinted at the idea when I presented my modest theory of truth.  There, I said:

Similarly, if I were to say “the cat is on the mat”, you would see that as true provided that I had followed the standards of the linguistic community in the way that I used the words “cat”, “on” and “mat”.

According to my theory of truth, we need standards for the use of words such as “cat”, “on” and “mat”, and we judge the truth of a statement based on whether it conforms to those standards.

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March 21, 2018

Truth and pragmatics

by Neil Rickert

We make decisions.  That’s a good part of what we do.  For example, I have just decided to compose a post about decision making.

But how do we make decisions?  How do we decide?

Generally speaking, we make some decisions on the basis of what is true.  And we make other decisions on the basis of what works best for us.  That latter kind of decision is usually said to be a pragmatic choice.

Examples

If I am solving a mathematical problem such as balancing my checkbook, then I am making decisions based on truth.  If I am working on a logic problem, again that is going to be making decisions based on truth.

I walk into a restaurant, look at the menu, and decide what to order.  That’s normally a pragmatic choice.  It need not be.  Perhaps I have created a rule for myself that if it is Sunday I should order the first item on the menu, if it is Monday I should order the second item, etc.  If I am exactly following those rules, then I am making a decision based on truth.  But that isn’t what we normally do when ordering a meal at a restaurant.

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