Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Fools Rush In

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I rashly sent a note off to Bill Vallicella of the Maverick Philosopher blog yesterday; and evidently he found it stimulating. I am playing out of my league, here; but his response to my note is on his blog. (I have to thank him for his courtesy to a philosophical newbie.)

Software and the Philosophy of Mind

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Some ideas I was pondering over lunch today, whilst reading Edward Feser’s Beginner’s Guide to Aquinas. I was at the chapter on Psychology, reading about the immateriality of concepts and the consequent immateriality of the intellect. And I got to thinking about software, because, hey, that’s what I do.

On a materialist account of mind, the brain is something like a computer, and the mind is something like software running on that computer. This is the fundamental principle for folks pursuing Strong AI: we know, they say, that it’s possible; all that’s left is to work out the engineering details. But anyway, I took what I know about software, and started trying to apply it to the mind, on the assumption (yes, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate, here) that the brain is a computer and the mind is simply the software running on it.

In this view, a concept must be something represented in the brain, say in the form of neuronal firing patterns. As such, it’s effectively data: either a program executed directly upon the brain’s hardware, or data operated upon by some program that executes directly upon the brain’s hardware.

Now let’s switch gears, and consider a statement written in a programming language—Tcl, say.

    set pi 3.14159
  • The efficient cause of the statement is the programmer. That would be me.
  • The material cause of the statement is the source code, entered in a file on a computer or written on paper: a sequence of characters.
  • The formal cause of the statement is its syntax: that which dictates how the characters are arranged to be valid Tcl code.
  • The final cause of the statement is its semantics: what it’s supposed to do.

Feser points out that the efficient cause and the final cause are always linked. In this case, the link is obvious. I wrote the line of code because I wanted the final cause: in this case, to assign the value 3.14159 to the variable “pi”.

Now, what gives the statement its semantics? There are two answers to that question.

First, the semantics are defined by the program that executes the statement: the Tcl interpreter. When the interpreter reads executes the statement set pi 3.14159, it does something like the following:

  • The first word of the statement is the command, set.
  • The first argument to set is a variable name.
  • Create the variable if it does not exist.
  • The second argument to set is a value.
  • Assign the value to the variable, replacing any previous value.

Second, I do. I want to express that the value 3.14159 should be assigned to the variable “pi”, and that statement means that operation to me. In other words, Tcl is an intelligible language whether a program that interprets exists or not.

But consider the Tcl interpreter again. It gives the statement its meaning, its semantics. But how does it do this? The Tcl interpreter is itself a computer program. The set command is defined as a function in a programming language called C. Each statement in the function is written in the C language, and has its own semantics; the collection of the statements implement the semantics given above.

The efficient cause of the set is another programmer (a man named John Ousterhout, as it happens); and the semantics are what he intended, but also the semantics of the C language.

The thing to note, here, is that a statement in a programming language, or an entire program, has semantics—meaning—only in the context of an interpreter: the Tcl interpreter, the C compiler, the microprocessor, the mind of the programmer.

One could continue to trace the semantics back along a number of branches. The Tcl interpreter is written in C, but the C code is compiled into machine language; at run time, the machine language is interpreted by the microprocessor. And the machine language has semantics. The C code is given its semantics by the C compiler, which is also a C program that compiles to machine code. There are programs interpreting programs interpreting programs, all of them ultimately running on a piece of hardware; and each program and the hardware itself were all designed and implemented by a human being.

In short, program semantics ultimately come from people.

The efficient cause of the semantics of a program is the programmer who wrote.

The final cause of the semantics is what the programmer wants the program to do.

Now, let’s switch back to the mind, once again from the materialist point of view. A concept is like a statement in a programming language. It has some representation: neuronal firings instead of a bit pattern. And it has meaning, or it isn’t a concept. It has semantics.

So where did the semantics come from?

As we’ve seen in the case of a computer program, the semantics ultimately comes from the programmer—and, though I haven’t developed the idea above, the end user. That is, from people. So the semantics of the program in my head must come from people. That is, from outside.

And yet, the concepts in my head clearly have meaning to me. It’s absurd to think that they don’t.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but it certainly strikes me as absurd that a program can give itself meaning, which implies that I am not a program.

The Principles Giveth and the Principles Taketh Away

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

In Chapter 1 of Book I of the Physics, Aristotle touches on the nature of a science, by which he means a body of knowledge.  A science is anything about which you can have certain knowledge as opposed to mere opinion.  Both philosophy and geometry are sciences in Aristotle’s sense.

But the point he makes, or rather makes use of, is this.  Every science has certain principles on which it is founded.  By its nature it takes these principles as given.  For example, geometry assumes certain definitions and axioms; physics presumes multiple beings in motion.

A science is responsible only for those conclusions that can be drawn from its principles.  Indeed, it is only competent to judge propositions that purport to be drawn from its principles.  Other propositions are outside of its field of view, and it cannot address them.

Among these propositions is the one that says, "This principle, upon which you base your science, is wrong."  No science is competent to pass judgment on the principles upon which it is based.  This is not to say that this is a question of no importance to the practitioners of the science in question; clearly, it’s crucial.  But it cannot be addressed in terms of the science itself.  It must be addressed on some higher, prior basis.

And this is why, of course, that experimental science as it is practiced today is not competent to address questions such as the existence of God, or the nature of human consciousness, neither of which are explainable in terms of controlled experiments involving the movement of atoms. 

As a blog post I read recently pointed out, modern experimental psychology and neuro-biology takes great pains to eliminate the effects of rational human choice from its experiments.  Such experiments are testing Man not as Rational, but as Animal, and naturally they miss the mark here too.

Tunnel Vision

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

There are times when I really feel like the proverbial ten blind men studying the elephant. I focus on one thing, and miss how it is connected to everything else, or focus on one sense of a word and miss the richness inherent in it. Today, though, a number of things came together, and my thanks are due to Jacques Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy, which was the proximate cause.

I’ve spent a great deal of time recently focussed on the notion of essence, and in particular the essence of a substance, and on essence as that which the intellect apprehends. Socrates is a man; that is his essence, and when I contemplate Socrates, “man” is what I apprehend.

This is all true, but the full picture is ever so much richer than that. Let us contemplate, not Socrates, but someone known personally to me. My father, for example. You can contemplate your father. When I contemplate my father, what do I apprehend?

Here’s the first thing I’ve been ignoring. As intelligible, my intellect apprehends essence; but as existing, my intellect apprehends substance. So the first thing, really, that I apprehend when I see my father is my father as a substance, something that exists in itself. He has identity. He is a real thing, a person, he has his own identity that continues through time. And then, as intelligible, I apprehend his essence, that he is a man.

But I know much more about my father than that. If that were all I could apprehend, there’d be no reason to honor my father over any random man in the street. But substance isn’t all that exists, and it isn’t the only thing that has essence.

In addition to his substance, my father also has many accidents, beings that exist within him, that exist with the support of his substance. That’s where the “sub” in “substance” comes from: substance stands under the accidents and supports him. Thus, my father is smart, strong, skilled, possessed of various experiences and relationships including that of being my father; these are accidents, but they are significant accidents. In point of fact, most of what makes my dad important to me are these accidents. Though they are not substances, my intellect can apprehend them as beings existing in the substance is my father. And these beings have essences; our relationship as father and son, for example, is a being in the genus of relation.

I can and do apprehend a vast constellation of beings and essences when I contemplate that single substance, my father. What a great and glorious thing that is!

Being and Change, Potency and Act

Monday, December 8th, 2008

The two poles of metaphysics are Being and Change. In our daily life we see things that are, and we see them change. Yet how can change be reconciled with existence? If a thing changes it is no longer what it was. So said Heraclitus. If thing remains what it is, it cannot change. So said Parmenides.

For Heraclitus, all was change, constant flux. Being is therefore an illusion: the billiard ball that lands in the pocket is not the billiard ball that was struck, and the man who held the cue is not the man who sees the ball come to rest. There is no identity, there is no being. All is one thing, that is, nothing. The billiard ball has no identity.

For Parmenides, being was pre-eminent. Change is therefore an illusion. The billiard ball did not roll, was not struck. All that is, is One Being. The billiard ball has no identity.

Aristotle found the happy medium between these extremes. A being may have existence in actuality, and a special kind of non-existence called potency. The billiard ball is actually on the table; but in potency it is in the pocket. It is part of the billiard ball’s nature to be capable of being struck, to be capable of rolling across green felt, to be capable of coming to rest in a pocket. The ball can undergo these changes, and yet remain the same ball: it loses the actuality of being at rest on the table and gains the actuality of being at rest in the pocket, it loses the potency of being at rest in the pocket and gains the potency of being at rest on the table. The billiard ball has identity, persistence through change.


Philosophy vs. The Real World

Friday, November 28th, 2008

I’ve been reading Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and it has prompted a question that I’m sure Pieper did not intend.

What, if anything, have movements in philosophy to do with the day-to-day life of people in general?

Some background: in this book, Pieper argues that we have lost the notion of leisure. We have entered the “total world of work”, where everything must be related in some way to useful, productive work. Even vacations are not an end in themselves, but are intended to refresh us so that we can get back to work with renewed vigor. And in this, he finds the term “intellectual worker”, that is, one who works with his intellect, to be particularly significant. At one time, he says, the realm of the intellect was seen as the realm of the Muses, of the Liberal Arts, of all that was essentially human without being strictly necessary for the preservation of human life. But now, the notion of work has invaded even this space, with the notion of the “intellectual worker”.

Now, here’s the kicker. Pieper traces the notions of “intellectual work” and the “intellectual worker” back to Immanuel Kant, who said that all knowing is discursive, i.e., involves active labor. The implication seems to be that without Kant’s work, this idea would not have arisen. This strikes me as simply absurd.

I cannot deny that intellectual work is a prominent feature of the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m a software engineer by profession; almost all of my work is mental in one way or another. And certainly many people are classified as “knowledge workers” or “mind workers” or what have you. And yet, it seems to me extremely unlikely that the cause of this has anything to do with Immanuel Kant, or with any abstract notion that every human activity must involve effort, or practical use, to be worth doing. We don’t have a vast number of intellectual workers these days because of something a philosopher said, but because certain forms of intellectual work have been made to pay.

In short, Pieper writes as though developments in society follow developments in philosophy. I’ve run into this fairly often in my historical reading; I first recall noticing it while reading Will Durant’s Story of Civilization many years ago now.

So here, at least, is my question: to what extent is this true? To what extent does society change due to new trends in philosophy? And to what extent do fashions in philosophy simply reflect the thinking of the masses: that is, the spirit of the age?

I’ve been toying with the notions of “explicit” vs. “implicit” philosophy. An explicit philosophy is simply a philosophy as such: the philosophy of Kant, or Descartes, or Aquinas, or Aristotle. There are as many explicit philosophies as there are philosophers, though they tend to be grouped into schools. An implicit philosophy is the philosophy implied by a man’s actions and values, whether he has reflected on them or not. This is not necessarily the philosophy he would arrive at if he did reflect on his actions and values; I suspect many of us would be greatly ashamed if our implicit philosophies were made plain to us.

Given these definitions, it makes sense to talk about the implicit philosophy (or philosophies) of a culture, a society, or a nation. And then my question becomes, to what extent can a nation’s implicit philosophy really be caused by or traced back to an explicit philosophy?