December 24, 2021

Merry Christmas and a happy new year

by Neil Rickert

I’m posting a bit early this week, so as to be in time for Christmas. And I’m already late, because Christmas day is under way in some parts of the world (Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific islands).

Best wishes to all.

December 20, 2021

Mathematics and science

by Neil Rickert

In his blog post today:

thonyc gives some interesting history on the use of mathematics in science. I found this quite interesting, and it corrects some of my own misunderstandings. Popular books which touch on the history of mathematics tend to gloss over much of the detail.

We tend to see the use of mathematics in science as relatively sudden. But thonyc’s account shows that it was actually more gradual. In a way, that makes a lot of sense and is perhaps what we should have expected.

The experimental method

Discussions of the scientific method usually emphasize the idea of experimental testing. That’s how I was introduced to science in elementary school. Many internet discussions of science emphasize the experimental method. This can be a way of distinguishing between science and religious creationism, because the so-called scientific creationists do not use the kind of experimental testing that we see in science.

In reality, though, experimental testing is not limited to science. A good cook tests her concoctions. A tennis player tests his strokes. Experimental testing is ubiquitous in life, and is better thought of as part of pragmatism. Even a religious creationist tests his ideas by seeing how his intended audience responds to his stories.

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December 13, 2021

Two trials

by Neil Rickert

I don’t normally comment on trials, though I did in a recent post. And now I’ll comment again on another two somewhat high profile cases. These are the case of Josh Duggar and the case of Jussie Smollett.


The Duggar family is known for their roles in the TV reality show “19 kids and counting”. That TV show came to an abrupt end, when it was found out that Josh Duggar had been molesting his younger sisters. And then, more recently, Duggar was charged in connection with child pornography. On Thursday, a jury found him guilty.

We do not know what sentence he will receive, though this was a serious crime. I do not rejoice at the idea of him spending a long time in jail. Yet it seems that Duggar needs to learn some lessons of life. He had the opportunity to turn his life around after the molestation became known. But apparently he failed to do that.

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December 6, 2021

Reviewing “How to be an antiracist”

by Neil Rickert

I did not initially intend to read Kendi’s “How to be an antiracist”. I had seen a lot of criticism of Kendi’s ideas, so it did not seem like a good way to spend my time. However, somebody persuaded me to actually read it. So I purchased the Kindle edition. And I’m glad that I did.

I’ll break this discussion into two parts. First I will give an overview, and say what I liked about it. And then I will discuss Kendi’s ideas on racism.


The author presents many anecdotes from his experiences, starting from elementary school and onto high school, college, graduate school. These anecdotes illustrate the way that Kendi has personally experienced racism. He presents the anecdotes in an interesting way, and this is part of why I found the book worth reading.

Of course, I have my own experiences. But because I am not black, I have not experienced racism in the way that Kendi has. So these presentations did help to give me a better picture of what racism looks like to an African American.

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November 29, 2021

Two recent jury trials

by Neil Rickert

This past week we saw the conclusion of two high profile jury trials. They were the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse and the trial of those accused of murdering Ahmoud Arbery. I’ll offer my comments on both cases.

I’ll file this post in “politics” because these cases became very political. However, the cases themselves really had more to do with law and justice than with politics.

Kyle Rittenhouse

We first heard of Rittenhouse, when news reports described him as travelling from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha Wisconsin, carrying an AR15 style weapon, and killing two people and wounding another at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. He sounded like a vigilante, meting out vigilante justice to the demonstrators.

That was roughly the picture that I had going into the trial. That he had traveled some distance (I estimate 40-50 miles) to show up at the demonstration was consistent this picture.

As the trial got under way, we began to hear a different version. The defense lawyers were arguing that this was a case of self-defense rather than the actions of a vigilante. Of course we expected the defense team to have a different story from what we had heard. But then one of the prosecution witnesses, the man that Rittenhouse had wounded, admitted that he had threatened Rittenhouse before he had been shot. This was beginning to support the claims that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.

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November 22, 2021

On language

by Neil Rickert

Most of my post related to cognition have been concerned with individual cognition. Language, of course, is very much social, so I have not commented much about it.

There’s in interesting post up at the Electric Agora:

The post is by Mark English, one of the frequent contributors to Electric Agora.

I won’t be saying much about that post, but I do urge you to read it and the comments. I’m using it as an excuse to present some of my own opinions about language.

Syntax and semantics

Noam Chomsky is well known for his ideas about the syntactic structure of natural languages. However, I’m more of a Chomsky skeptic. Chomsky’s work does give very useful insight into formal languages, including computer languages. And it is probably useful in attempts to program computers to deal with natural language. But I do not see it as very useful for understanding human use of language.

My own view is that natural languages are driven by semantics rather than by syntax. I very much doubt that there is a “universal grammar” organ in the brain. I view the brain as a semantic engine, rather than a syntactic engine. And I see our ability to have meaningful relations with the world as arising from biology.


On this view, meaning originates outside of language and has to do with our relations with the world. Once a language is available, we can carve up our meaning into parts which we then attach to various words. So meanings of words is unavoidably related to language, but there can be a broad idea of meaning which does not originate in language.

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November 15, 2021

CRT; what’s all the fuss?

by Neil Rickert

We have been hearing a lot about CRT. Those initials used to be short for “Cathode Ray Tube”, which we were using for television sets and computer monitors. But, these day, the initials stand for “Critical Race Theory”.

Critical Race Theory, itself, comes from legal scholars. And I doubt very much that it is being taught in the elementary or high schools. Yesterday I saw a blog post by Brian Leiter, about what CRT actually is. And I thought it would be useful to provide the link.

What is being taught in the schools does not appear to actually be CRT. But because the name CRT seems to connect to Critical Theory which in turn seems to have Marxist connections, the critics apparently think they can use “guilt by association” to make part of the school curriculum look Marxist.

Part of the fuss has been about the books “White Fragility” (by Robin DeAngelo) and “How to Be and Antiracist” (by Ibram Kendi). I have not read either book, though I have looked at reviews. As best I can tell, those books are not books about CRT. Rather they are responses to CRT — perhaps misguided responses.

System Racism

It is one of the tenets of CRT, that some of the racism we see is systemic rather than due to bad behavior by individuals. Part of what bothers me about those two books, is that they seem oriented more toward fixing individuals than toward dealing with systemic racism. However, keep in mind that I have not read the books, so I might be misjudging them.

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November 8, 2021

Realism, truth and all that

by Neil Rickert

A comment to my last post raised some questions about my views on realism and on truth. This post will be an attempt to respond to those questions.


First, some background. I’m a mathematician and I have spent time doing computer science. I have no doubt that my experience in mathematics and computer science have greatly influenced my thinking on many topics.

Around 1990, or perhaps a year earlier, I asked myself the question of “how does learning work?” This arose, in part, out of pedagogical concerns. It seemed to me that the dominant ways of teaching mathematics did not work well with how we actually learn.

That started me in a project of attempting to understand human cognition. In some ways, this has been very successful. I believe I do have a reasonably good, if imperfect, understanding. But, in other ways, it has been a failure. Much of what I now understand about cognition goes against the conventional wisdom. And that makes it hard to explain to others.

I bring up this background, because I might occasionally mention what was my view before 1990. And by that, I mean what was my view before I started that investigation into cognition.


The comment to which I am responding begins with:

I’m curious to know what you mean when you say that you are a realist.

For many scientists, “realist” and “pragmatist” are almost interchangeable. I guess that’s a good starting point for my own views on realism.

People seem to use the word “real” as if it has a meaning that comes directly from God. But it can only mean what we take it to mean. I like Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. I don’t see how “real” can mean anything beyond what the conventional wisdom takes to be real. There isn’t any magic that gets us to some pure meaning that is independent from how people use the word.

I contrast realism with Berkeley’s idealism. Perhaps I should say that for me, realism is a denial of Berkeley’s realism and a denial of Kant’s transcendental idealism.

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November 1, 2021

A rant about perception

by Neil Rickert

I follow the blog “Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists“. The authors are perceptual psychologists. In the a recent post they attempt to explain the distinction between whether perception is direct or indirect. This post is by Andrew, though both of the blog authors agree that perception is direct.

I happen to agree that perception is direct. But I disagree with a lot of what Andrew says in his post. Hence my comments may look like something of a rant.

I’ll be quoting from Andrew’s blog post. The wordpress software formats quotes in a distinctive way, so I think the reader will be able to tell when I am quoting.

Andrew begins with this:

All theories of perception begin with the fact that we experience a rich, detailed world full of things we can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do. Specifically, we experience a behaviourally relevant world.

I can fully agree with that statement. So at least we begin with agreement.

Indirect perception

Andrew then gives his characterization of indirect perception:

Indirect theories begin with the assumption that the world does not present itself to us in behaviourally relevant terms, and that we therefore need at least one mediating layer between us and the world in order to transform the way the world presents itself into the way we experience the world.

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October 25, 2021

Are analytic sentences tautologies?

by Neil Rickert

An analytic sentence is one which can be seen to be true by virtue of the meanings of its terms. An example that is often given is:

  • A bachelor is an unmarried man.

A widely held view, among academic philosophers, is that analytic sentences are tautologies. I disagree with that assessment. I am not saying that the philosophers are wrong. I am just expressing my disagreement. Maybe we don’t have the same idea as to what “tautology” means.

It is widely agreed that language is conventional. That is to say, there are social conventions that underlay language. That different societies have different languages points to this conventionality.

Among the various conventions, there can be syntactic conventions which set how words should be arranged in sentences. There can also be semantic conventions, which set the meanings of words. And, of course, there can be mixed convention that combine both syntactic and semantic aspects.

To my way of thinking, a tautology is a sentence that is true by virtue of syntactic conventions. But once we bring in dependency on semantic conventions, I don’t think we should use the term “tautology.”

Iowa and Illinois

Here’s an example.

Apparently there is an agreement between the states of Iowa and Illinois, setting the boundary between the two states as the Mississippi river (the center of the Mississippi river). According to that agreement, we can say “Iowa is to the west of the Mississippi.” From my perspective, that sentence looks analytic but I would not consider it to be a tautology.

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