February 20, 2018

What is truth?

by Neil Rickert

Pilate famously asked the title question (John 18:38).  I expect people have been asking that question for as long as they have been asking questions.  For a good discussion of theories of truth, check the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Truth is a central concept in philosophy.  But I am not at all satisfied with the way that it is used.  Hence this post.

Correspondence

If you ask about truth, you may be answered with the correspondence theory.  But the idea of “correspondence” is usually left unexplained.  I sometimes see statements similar to:

  • A sentence is true if it corresponds to the facts.
  • A sentence is true if it expresses what is the case.
  • A sentence is true if it expresses the state of affairs.

The trouble with all of these, is that they seem to be roundabout ways of saying “A sentence is true if it is true.”  And that does not say anything at all.

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February 18, 2018

Guns don’t kill people

by Neil Rickert

Republican politicians kill people, with their failure to enact sensible laws

It is time to put the lives of our children ahead of the profits of the gun merchants.

It is well past time for politicians to stop accepting blood money from the NRA.

February 13, 2018

On scientism

by Neil Rickert

I’m never quite sure what “scientism” is supposed to mean.  It often seems to be little more than a strawman, or a punching bag used by some theists and some philosophers.

In any case, a recent blog post by Larry Moran:

drew my attention to an argument against scientism by Massimo Pigliucci.

I suggest you start by reading Larry Moran’s post.

Pigliucci’s questions

In his argument, Pigliucci gives a list of questions that he sees as philosophical questions rather than scientific questions.  I shall quote the questions here, and then give my comments on them.

  • In metaphysics: what is a cause?

Why should any scientist care about this?  Yes, causation is important to science.  But for science, we test causation be seeing what we can cause in our experimentation.  We attempt to narrow down causes.  And we tend to extrapolate that knowledge by way of predictions.  It is not at all clear that this has anything much to do with the metaphysics of cause.

  • In logic: is modus ponens a type of valid inference?

I’m not sure why any scientist would even care about this.

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February 6, 2018

Where philosophy goes wrong

by Neil Rickert

Here are a couple of assumptions that philosophers frequently make:

  • There is a certain way that the world is.
  • There is information all around us, telling us the way that the world is.

By “philosopher”, I really mean human.  We almost all philosophize to some extent.

I see those two listed assumptions as mistaken.

What is the mistake?

If your primary concern is getting around in this world, then the assumptions are not unreasonable.  The problem comes when we try to understand human cognition (or, roughly, what is it that the brain is doing?)

If we start with those assumptions, the ones that I consider mistaken, then there isn’t much for a cognitive system to do.  It just has to pick up the information that is all around us, and find out what that information tells us about the world.  That’s what leads to the idea of computationalism (“cognition is computation”).  And our experience with digital computers suggests that computation can be done in a way that is mindless and mechanical.

But a cognitive system has to be far more creative than that.

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January 30, 2018

Dennett’s book “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”

by Neil Rickert

This post will be mostly rambling notes, rather than a review.

The subtitle of the book is “The Evolution of Minds” and that perhaps better describes what Dennett is trying to do in this book.  I started reading this book almost a year ago.  And then I put it down to take a break.  I have recently resumed reading, starting again from the beginning.

I mostly disagree with Dennett.  Yet I see this as an important book, particularly for people with an interest in minds and consciousness.

Dennett is, himself, some sort of heretic.  He disagrees with conventional view of the mind.  But his disagreement is not enough for me, nor is it is a direction that fits my views.

Cartesian thinking

Dennett is critical of the dualism coming from Rene Descartes.  This is not particularly surprising.  Many philosophers and scientists have rejected dualism.  Descartes argued that the mind could not work in the mechanistic way that we see with human inventions (such as clocks, for example).  So he idea was that minds were constituted of an immaterial substance.

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January 22, 2018

Avoiding free will discussion

by Neil Rickert

Jerry Coyne has posted a question on his blog site:

I’ll comment here, because I think I am banned from posting comments to Coyne’s site.

People avoid these discussions because they know, perhaps from experience, that such discussions produce a lot of heat but very little light.

Here’s the problem:

  • There cannot be any credible evidence against free will.  For any such evidence would already demonstrate that the evidence was not freely obtained.  And if the evidence was not freely obtained, then it cannot make a credible case against free will.
  • There cannot be any credible evidence for free will.  For we cannot rule out the possibility of hidden variables, so that what looks free is really determined.

And that leaves arguments at an impasse.

In my experience, arguments about free will are pretty much disagreements over the meaning of “free will”.

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January 18, 2018

Generalization in science

by Neil Rickert

According to most treatments of philosophy of science, or at least most of those that I have looked at, science advances by means of inductive generalizations. Inductive generalizations are often assumed to be the basis for scientific laws (such as laws of physics).

To me, that seems wrong.  I do not see the evidence that science is using induction.

I can agree that there are generalizations in science.  But it does not seem to me that they are inductive generalizations.

Induction

First an example of induction, to illustrate what is meant by the term.

All the many crows that I have seen are black.  Therefore all crows are black.

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January 16, 2018

Quote of the day

by Neil Rickert

From a post on Frank Schaeffer’s blog:

White evangelicals take note: If Trump is president because of “God’s will,” then your God must be a white trash, philandering, money-laundering, Putin-stooge, hate-filled, racist liar, too.

Well, no, I am not planning to have a daily “quote of the day” feature.  But this stood out as worth repeating.

January 16, 2018

Generalization in mathematics

by Neil Rickert

Generalization is an important part of mathematics, and I shall discuss that here.  My discussion will mostly consist of examples with commentary on those examples.

I’m planning a future post on generalization in science.

Numbers

The simplest example has to do with numbers.  And our use of numbers presumably started with counting.  By assigning names, from a fixed sequence (1,2,3, …), we could count objects.  And then we could compare the results from counts of different collections of objects. This turned out to be useful for keeping track of quantities.

Rules were developed to deal with counting of groups of objects.  If we knew the counts of each of two groups, we could combine those with addition rules, to get the combined count.  And if we has several groups of the same count, we could combine those with multiplication rules.

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January 9, 2018

How I became a heretic

by Neil Rickert

It was somewhere around 1988.  For various reasons, I became interested in trying to understand learning.  I already new from my own experience at growing up, that human children can be excellent learners.  And my experience as an educator (university professor) supported this view.

I also knew, as a practicing computer scientist, that machine learning did not work at all well.  The kind of machine learning that worked best was reinforcement learning.  But the difficulty was you had to give a direction to the learning system, and come up with a reward system for the reinforcement.  So it was hard to judge how much of the learning was due to the programmer, rather than to the software.

My starting assumptions

When I started this project, I did not expect to succeed.  I knew it was a difficult problem.  I did better than I had expected.  And that is probably because of my starting assumptions.  However, my starting assumptions were apparently quite different from those of epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge).  So I guess my starting assumptions were the start of my philosophical heresy.

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