Archive for the ‘Aristotle’ Category

Three Principles

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

When Aristotle says in Chapter 6 of the Physics that there must be three principles, a pair of contraries and something underlying, is he saying that these same three things are the principles of everything that is; or is he saying that when anything comes to be, there must be three principles involved: something underlying the change, what the thing was, and what it now is? The specific three things might then be different in each specific case, but there are always three.

And if it’s latter, which makes much more sense to me, how do these three principles relate to the four causes?

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.

Counting Coup and the Virtue of Courage

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Life’s Private Book has a post on the changes in the lives of the Crow indians as they moved onto the reservation, when their traditional way of life no longer made any sense. He contrasts the Crow notion of courage with Aristotle’s…and explains why Western civilian has been able to survive so much change. Fascinating.

No Infinite Regress

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Aristotle and St. Thomas both tell us that there must be First Cause; otherwise there would be an infinite regress.  By why is an infinite regress a problem?  I’ve been wondering about this for some time; I know that the integral and differential calculus were controversial at one time precisely because of their reliance on limits as x goes to infinity, but this is now a commonplace.  Is an infinite regress of causes a similar case?

Aristotle and Thomas would doubtless say not; and John C. Wright explains why.

Infinity vs. Infinity

Monday, July 13th, 2009

In Chapter 2 of Book I of the Physics, Aristotle says that if being is One in the sense of being only substance, then it can’t be infinite, for to be infinite is in the category of quantity, and quantity is an accident that subsists in a substance.

This leads me to a couple of questions.

First, I understand that accidents subsist in a substance.  Now, suppose you’ve got a thing whose nature it is to be infinite.  It’s part of the thing’s essence, its species.  Is this infinity still an accident?

Second, God is One, and perfectly simple; if I understand it correctly, God has no accidents.  Yet God is said to be infinite.  I would gather, then, that this is an analogical use of the word "infinite".  The infinite of quantity and the infinite of God are distinct, but related analogically.  Not so?

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.

Physics, or Natural Blogging

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

You can’t study Aquinas for long without realizing the need to come to grips with Aristotle.  James Chastek over at Just Thomism recommends starting with Aristotle’s Physics; and more particularly with Glen Coughlin’s translation, Physics, or Natural Hearing.  The introduction to Prof. Coughlin’s translation has this to say:

…it is not reasonable to begin one’s study with commentaries; we should first read the text and then turn to the commentators when our own powers of comprehension fail.  This will not take long.

Nor did it.  I’ve been wrestling with Prof. Coughlin’s translation on and off for some months, and gotten some notions, but I’ve not gotten far.  Prof. Coughlin goes on to say that the best commentary on the Physics is that of St. Thomas Aquinas, and particularly recommends this edition, published by Dumb Ox Books.  I’ve since received this, and I’m liking it a lot.

The book includes the complete text of the Physics, in comfortably sized sections interleaved with Thomas’ commentary.  Thomas doesn’t settle for merely explicating the text; he puts the passage in context, and also gives considerable background that Aristotle assumes.  And since Aristotle’s own words are separate, it’s possible to give them a good study before moving on to what Thomas has to say about them.  Good stuff.

I don’t intend to blog my way through Aristotle the way I’m doing through the Compendium Theologiae, though I’ll undoubtedly have a few reflections to make as I go along.