Philosophy: A Just-So Story

It’s silly to think the tiny fraction of philosophy I study, with little or no success, is at all understandable to the general public. This is a fact that has bothered me for some time. Since, although philosopher is a very vague term, it is clear that one ought to try and achieve two separate goals: academic, and social, impact. We judge some philosophers great because of their contribution to one area, or to the other, and it is commonplace for the two to make some contact. But if we believe the value of philosophy to be more than theoretical, we ought to be focusing more on that intersection. We ought to be attempting to impact society with our theories. Even the really bad ones (I’m looking at you, dualists). So, in that spirit, I am going to attempt to make my conception of philosophy, as of this moment, a little more accessible.

If you have any technical questions, although, there are many still to resolve, please check my paper (linked here), and a draft version of my dissertation outline (here).

Philosophy: A Just-So Story

Where Might Language Go? (On Holiday?)

Think of the last time the sun shone on your face. Perhaps, you were at the beach? Well, what makes up that experience? Is it the warmth on your cheeks? The light in your eyes? The smell of the sea? Now consider the words I just used, which are simply lines, dashes, and curves. Somehow, they brought vivid thoughts, images, and concepts, to your mind. How does that work? Well, the short answer is, we don’t really know. But there are a lot of brilliant philosophers, and scientists, working on the problem. Am I one of them? Unfortunately not. I fell in love with philosophy some years ago, and have studied it ever since. But I have a long way to go. Still, I have some thoughts, containing some of my own arguments, and others made by other philosophers, which together, I use to try to explain what it is we are all actually doing. Sometimes, I may take only a piece of a theory, and at other times, a whole chunk. (Perhaps, not for its intended use, but philosophy is reversible that way.)

It seems that in order to make sense of the feedback from the world, our brains would have to order it. And order it in some systematic way, so as not to make each experience a random draw from the lottery of perceptions. But then, if language is generally passed along those systems, it makes sense that language would be ordered in some similar way, too. Perhaps, along the lines of Universal Grammar, which Chomsky once described as an “innate, genetically determined language faculty.”[1] But if language is ordered by such a system, which evolved solely to order stuff, and to tell us what’s going on, is it really a surprise that it has the power to affect our beliefs about the world, too?

When imagining the evolution of language, it is natural to conceive of older languages as being less complex. Say, as some signal based language, with a few commands thrown in (“get me that ___ !”), is what one would expect to see. But how might such a language come about? Daniel Cloud proposes an interesting theory, using something called the Polya-like urn (Brian Skyrms), he argues that if a random sound, or gesture, is met with a neutral outcome, then nothing much will happen. But if that sound is met with a positive, or a negative outcome, an observer will eventually link those two events, and the sound will mean something to the listener. He continues (brilliantly), but that’s all we need to get a decent picture of the first seeds of semantics. So, now we have a loose idea of how simple sounds might end up signifying something. And we think that those sounds are eventually, if not already, ordered by some innate structuring system. What might that order look like?

Following the example of philosophers, and logicians, like Gottlob Frege, and Bertrand Russell, they may have a hierarchical system, similar to (simplified): (Property(Object)), so for example…

“The brown dog.” might look something like, (brown (dog)).

Consider, next: if the world normally presents us with certain information, and then we order it as above… and language becomes more complex, and allows us to manipulate the order of those concepts, ourselves. (Why? Who knows? For predictive power, deception, or perhaps, just to keep ourselves entertained.) Then it is possible that the order of those concepts, may present us with bad pictures of reality. (Or, perhaps we are tricked into making such pictures, because of the past successes of similar formulations.) For example, isn’t it startling, that when certain neurons fire in my brain, recalling some particularly beautiful movement of the violin, I think that I hear it? Well, normally, when those experiences are happening to me, I do hear it. But you hear with your ears. And without the physical vibrations, nor the inclusion of my flappy bits of flesh, I’m not really hearing anything. I’m just drawn to calling it that, because that’s what I normally call those waves of brain activity. So, why am I drawn to ask: “What is the meaning of life?”

To me, it seems analogous to the question about the violin. I can see lots of things, and I can think of a purpose for them (how I might use them), and so it is natural to apply that important question to my own existence, too. I mean, if we are talking survival, what better question is there than the utility of an object as defined by its properties? But does that mean it’s a valid question to invert? To take the above example of the order of language, does it always make sense to take a (property(…)) and make it an (…(object))? [2]

This trend into philosophy as disordered language comes from the school of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who became convinced that these problems were a product of what he called “language gone on holiday”. It was his contention, that philosophical troubles were simply linguistic wrong-turns, or language being pushed beyond its own sense. (Which still causes division amongst academic philosophy.)

Whereas, imagining language as a feed-back system with a certain structure [3], that causes neurons to be fired, and then analysed, in a certain order, so as to present an experience, or a representation, that can be both “ordered,” or “disordered” and so present good and bad pictures of the world?

I suppose that’s both Wittgensteinian, and anti-Wittgensteinian.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar
2. If you need another example, although this analogy might only be a loose fit, think of money, which amounts to our ascribing some trivial value to bits of paper, or metal. We speak of money as if it exists, and in one sense, it does, but in another sense our words seem unable to reference it, without placing it at a higher-order than is epistemically accurate. It may be true that through the extrapolation of the value of one thing, a concept can be re-ordered into another area of thought, say, for example, the value we ascribe to an altruistic act in (value(act)), might be transferred to the concept of value we ascribe to money, in (value(pieces of paper/metal). The change of order, however, when money becomes the object of the proposition (“I need money”) has two possible meanings: (desire(pieces of metal/paper) and (desire(value)). This means that at some points we speak of money in the correct sense (we see bits of paper, and say “I desire that money,”) and at other times, we think of money as the contracted form of two, and it causes us to speak of its value, as if it were an object in its own right. As if it exists in our physical world in the same way the bits of paper, or metal, exist.
3. The ordering of concepts is a really interesting problem, in that it strikes me (similar to what Hacker has argued) that philosophy is in the business of ordering, what one might call, second-order concepts. Hacker doesn’t explicitly state the order in that way, but instead argues that philosophy deals in the clarification of concepts. I would argue along those lines, that if philosophy deals in second-order concepts, science deals with first-order (object) empirical claims, and mathematics, the structure of the ordering system itself.

5 thoughts on “Philosophy: A Just-So Story

  1. Some recent interesting stuff on evolution of modular hierarchies coming out of Clune’s lab.

    Why not explore all this in terms of environmental synchronizations, something that can be readily naturalized? What’s the point of adding to intentional philosophy at this point?

    Wittgenstein understood he had trapped himself, but he had no idea how to sketch out his gestalt in non-normative language. He understood he was misapplying idioms, but those idioms were all he had. What if what are being misapplied are not some perpetually nebulous notion of ‘language games,’ but heuristic modes of cognition that are being mapped as we speak? Once you have a non-normative way to explain how and why intentional modes of cognition take the forms they do, once you have an eliminativist horse in an intentionalist race, the commitments of the latter become an enormous liability. What reason do we have to trust the rationalization of the meagre deliverances of reflection when it comes to these matters? How are we supposed to *ever* determine theories turning on intentional posits?

    You know there’s a bloody reason nothing can be settled: Wittgenstein’s ‘language gone on holiday’ is my crash space.

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  2. Some recent interesting stuff on evolution of modular hierarchies coming out of Clune’s lab. Why not explore all this in terms of environmental synchronizations, something that can be readily naturalized? What’s the point of adding to intentional philosophy at this point?

    I will, and I most certainly appreciate the suggestion.

    What if what are being misapplied are not some perpetually nebulous notion of ‘language games,’ but heuristic modes of cognition that are being mapped as we speak.

    Yes, or what we call language, or cognition more generally, are similar phenomena; and are ordered by the same apparatus (would you prefer ‘cognition games’)?

    Language gone on holiday is my crash space.

    Yet you use those tools to convince me? Being our closest approximation to truth, and being convincing, are two separate things. Any investigation into propaganda, or politics more generally, makes that clear. You reached your position from the former to the latter. To skip the intermediary, even if that’s my intended goal, would be to miss something.

    Don’t you think?

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  3. The great normativist conceit is to assume their wardrobe is always being used, especially by those who call attention to any theoretical nudity!

    Certainly there’s a difference between synchronizing with our fellows vis a vis the world or otherwise. Certainly meaning-talk mediates between these synchronizations. But why should we assume that this mediation, like any other component of any other natural system, can be anything but misunderstood when examined in isolation from the greater mechanism?

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  4. The great normativist conceit is to assume their wardrobe is always being used, especially by those who call attention to any theoretical nudity!

    Firstly, let me thank you for pointing me in the direction of Clune’s lab. Fantastic stuff, and actually, folds quite well with what I have said in the past (Remarks on the Nature of Philosophy), wouldn’t you agree? So, I really appreciate that. Secondly, although I was, at least, attempting to bridge certain truth-conditions with normativity- I don’t feel like I need to anymore. There is a third, more appealing option I’m working on. Although, that isn’t an avoidance of the final question of our last discussion (which I felt was very helpful); so, to answer that question now:

    I don’t really know, nor do I think it’s neccesary too know (considering this third option). I had gestured towards the capability of a large system of normative ‘machines’ reaching something like a good approximation of truth. Still, I don’t think that does the work required. And for now, I’ll admit that reduces the appeal of the normativism/truth trade-off considerably.

    Certainly there’s a difference between synchronizing with our fellows vis a vis the world or otherwise. Certainly meaning-talk mediates between these synchronizations. But why should we assume that this mediation, like any other component of any other natural system, can be anything but misunderstood when examined in isolation from the greater mechanism?

    Can be anything but misunderstood strikes me as too strong. Although I take the point. Still, you have not answered my final question. So, to answer it: No, it would not be the same. To be given information from a person, and to process it, and to see where it fits in the scheme of my work is an excellent, kind thing to do (on their part). To expect to convince me with a paragraph or two, is quite another. It has taken a year for me to admit that the normative goal, more generally, is likely misguided. One step, one thought; one move at a time.

    To give you an idea of the third option: “synchronizing with our fellows vis a vis the world or otherwise,” would be a false distinction under it.

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  5. I had a suspicion you would like their work–I know I do!

    Thing is, you’re only a step away. You agree that understanding components absent understanding superordinate mechanisms is doomed to be difficult. You appreciate the difficulty posed by my question regarding the applicability of normative cognition to the theoretical problem of normative cognition. Do you see how they are actually versions of the same problem?

    The difficulty of understanding components absent understanding superordinate systems is the whole reason our ancestors evolved things like normative cognition in the first place: as a way to cognize subsystems without cognizing superordinate systems. Lacking access to high-dimensional information, we isolate low-dimensional cues, exploit stable correlations between information rendered and systems to be solved to solve those systems.

    So what ‘stable correlations’ obtain between cues rendered for consumption by normative cognition and the system of normative cognition? None. This is why language goes on holiday.

    I appreciate that I’m doing you no favours with this stuff: I’m basically telling you that you’re slaving to prepare yourself for a career largely founded on cognitive illusions!

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