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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May 18, 2016

Differences in scientific viewpoint

by Neil Rickert

There’s a weird post at the ENV site:

For those who don’t know, ENV is a blog from the Discovery Institute, the organization that does three things: (1) it pushes “Intelligent Design”, (2) It attempts to have ID taught as science in the schools, and (3) it denies that it tries to have ID taught as science in the schools.

So when the Discovery Institute says that we should tolerate differences in scientific viewpoints, I’m inclined to take that as an argument that alternative science should be taught in the schools.  Here, “alternative science” could mean ID, or it could mean global warming denial (and the Discovery Institute does appear to be a hotbed of global warming denial).  It could possibly also mean vaccination denialism, though I don’t think that they themselves have supported the anti-vax proponents.

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May 16, 2016

Information systems

by Neil Rickert

As suggested in the previous post, I think of a cognitive system as an information system.  In this post, I want to look at a particular information system, namely a video camera.

Let me be very clear here.  I do not think that a cognitive system is very much like a video camera.  Rather, I see them as very different.  However, by looking at a video camera, we can examine some basic principles that seem to be common to all information systems, including human cognitive systems.

In particular, we want to look at:

  • the input phase, where data is gathered;
  • the organization phase, where the data is assembled together;
  • the output stream — the final output information.

The input phase

For the video camera, the data is gathered into a pixel map.  I am going to describe this as categorization.  That might seem a strange term to use for generating a pixel map, so I should first explain why I am using that term.

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May 15, 2016

Cognition and information

by Neil Rickert

As cognitive agents, we inform ourselves about the world and we use that information to control our behavior.  We also report information to others, as I am doing in this blog post.  This post is part of a series on my own philosophy.  It will mainly be about the meaning of the word “information” as I use it when discussing cognition.

Shannon information

I shall be using “information” to refer to what is often called Shannon Information, after the work of Claude Shannon.  The term “Shannon Information” has come to mean information in the form of a structured sequence of symbols, such as a natural language sentence or a data transmission stream on the Internet.  Shannon’s own research was not limited to the use of transmission in discrete units (such as words or bits), but its main use is with discrete units.

Shannon information is often criticized as being an entirely syntactic view of information.  Shannon was concerned with communication, with getting the stream of discrete symbols from the source to the destination.  His theory is not concerned with issues of meaning or semantics.

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May 14, 2016


by Neil Rickert

Recently, my posts have been infrequent.  That’s partly, because of frustration.

Scientists often criticize philosophy.  And, when they do, philosophers retort that scientists do a lot of philosophy themselves.  That’s true.  But it misses the point that the kind of philosophy that scientists do is often very different from what analytic philosophers do.

I’ve decided to try a new track.  Instead of pointing to disagreements with analytic philosophers, I shall attempt to outline my own ideas of how philosophy should be done.  In particular, it will be a guide to how I look at the questions related to human cognition.  And then, I will contrast that with what analytic philosophers appear to be doing.  I’ve created a new category “My Philosophy” to use for these posts.

To me, the kind of philosophy that I see coming from academic philosophers resembles religion.  I sometimes think of it as the religion of the academy.  What makes it look like religion is a strong emphasis on preserving ancient traditions.

Philosophers tend to be bright people.  The posts on my philosophy will be suggesting where I might hope that they will redirect their analytical skills.

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.


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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April 12, 2016

That must have been a rhetorical question

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his blog, Bill Dembski asks whether listening to an audio book counts as reading.

Comments are closed, so it is impossible to give an answer.  I guess that must have been a rhetorical question.


It’s been a while since I last posted.  I’m going to try to get back into the posting habit.

February 19, 2016

Apple, the FBI and cryptography

by Neil Rickert

This is about the case in the news, where Apple is refusing to comply with an FBI request to help them access an iPhone.

I side with Apple on this, and that’s the main thrust of this post.

I described what I see as the technical issues in a post on my technical blog.


When I was growing up, everybody knew everybody.  The shopkeeper knew what kind of food we normally purchased.  The neighborhood butcher knew what kind of meat we purchased.  In some sense, there wasn’t a lot of privacy.  However, what they knew was not written down.  The cash register receipt listed only the amount paid.  It did not list the items purchased.  It would have been very difficult for anybody to use that knowledge to construct a detailed dossier on our family.

Today, we are in a very different world.  Everything thing is record, and some records are archived where they will be available for long periods of time.  My relation with the shopkeeper (really, the supermarked manager) is far more impersonal.  But he has recorded data about the items that I have purchased with my credit card.  I probably should pay cash, to make it hard to identify me from the recorded data.

Today, it is far easier to build a detailed dossier.  And identity thieves do just that, as a way of stealing identities and then using the stolen identity to steal from bank accounts.

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February 5, 2016

Denton: “Evolution: still a theory in crisis” — a review

by Neil Rickert

Michael Denton has a new book, “Evolution: still a theory in crisis“.  So I picked up a copy, and will review it in this post.  I actually purchased the Kindle version of the book.

Structuralism vs functionalism

Denton outlines the main gist of his argument in chapter 1, where he explains that he is a structuralist rather than a functionalist.  He expands on that in later chapters.

Denton seems to be using “functionalism” to describe what I would call “pan-selectionism” or “pan-adaptationism”.  So he would see Dawkins, and probably Jerry Coyne, as functionalists.  Denton himself prefers structuralism, which is an emphasis on the forms or body plans (he uses the term “bauplan”) of organisms (or groups or organisms).

I’m inclined to say “a pox on both of their houses”.  I am not a pan-selectionist.  I usually say that I am not a Darwinist, for I see Darwinism as an over-emphasis on natural selection.  To me, Denton’s preference for structuralism seems strange.  Surely the structural features are their because of their functional role.

In section 1.1, Denton writes:

It is hard to imagine two scientific frameworks as diametrically opposed as structuralism and functionalism.  Whereas functionalism  suggests that function is prior and determines structure, structuralism suggests that structure is prior and constrains function.

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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.


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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