Concrete Cognition and the Cogs of the Brain

13 06 2011

It’s somewhat unfashionable in polite circles to refer to the brain as a machine. But I reckon that’s precisely what it is. This isn’t in any way diminishing the wonder of the mind or the brain, but the notion, when understood, dramatically elevates the wonder we ought to feel for machines.

The Difference Engine in the British Science Museum.

And I use the word “machine” deliberately rather than “computer.” It’s actually both, but the machine comes first. It’s in the properties and interactions of the cogs of the machine that we can ultimately find intelligence, and it’s insufficient to refer only to symbol manipulation or cognitive models. We must see that intelligence is built in to the physical properties of the brain. But in a particularly clever way – but not fundamentally much more clever than an abacus.

This approach also sheds light on why I find so distasteful the notion that all knowledge is knowledge-that – i.e. propositional or explicit knowledge that can be captured in propositional form, such as “I know the sky is blue.” I far prefer to start with knowledge-how – concrete knowledge and abilities, and things like “I know how to ride a bike” – as the foundation of knowledge.

Let me explain:

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Top 10 Books of All Time

9 03 2011

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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Introducing Synthesis: the Science and Philosophy of Everything

23 12 2010

There’s an academic discipline missing. Terrible oversight. About time we put it right. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it ‘Synthesis,’ although you can call it whatever you like. In essence, it’s the science and philosophy of everything. All at once.

The interrelation of only a few academic disciplines.

Synthesis is a massively interdisciplinary meta-discipline that seeks to weave together all other fields into a single, holistic tapestry, and which serves to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction between disparate academic disciplines with a vision to share insights and open new avenues of enquiry.

Why do we need Synthesis?

There’s no question that increasing academic specialisation has been a growing trend over the past couple of centuries. Specialisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s the only way we can hope to tackle the deep and complex problems that occur at the fringes of our understanding of the natural world. But there’s an increasing awareness that having dozens – if not hundreds – of siloed disciplines, each with their own language, methodology, sharp boundaries and cadre of specialists, makes fruitful conversation between disparate disciplines more difficult.

Yet, each of these disciplines is attempting to explain some facet of the very same world.

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What Would It Take To Prove You Wrong?

18 06 2010

This is a question I think we all need to ask ourselves (and others) from time to time. And if, for any particular belief, we find the answer is “nothing”, then we need to rethink our reasons for holding that belief.

Not only is this kind of dogma the enemy of rational discourse, but it obscures our own reasons for holding particular beliefs.

Climate change deniers are a case in point. I’d suggest that many deniers hold their explicit beliefs concerning climate change because of other unarticulated implicit beliefs they hold concerning liberty, free markets, the role of humanity in nature and the evils of collectivism. And they likely hold these beliefs for even deeper emotional reasons that are largely obscured from view and rarely reflected upon.

You can see the tell-tale signs of dogma in these individuals because no amount of empirical evidence or rational argument will shake their explicit beliefs, even when this evidence directly challenges their ‘reasons’ for holding those beliefs. In fact, those ‘reasons’ serve merely as proxies for their deeper implicit beliefs and emotional attitudes. As such, arguing with them is largely pointless – at least on the level of explicit beliefs.

To argue with an individual who holds a dogmatic adherence to a particular view one must delve deeper and target the implicit beliefs lurking below the surface. This isn’t an easy process. But it can be fruitful. Often the dogmatist will not even realise these deeper beliefs exist; they’re more assumptions than anything reflected upon.

Yet if one can even form the link between the surface and implicit beliefs, then that can begin to make progress. Then, if one can encourage some reflection of those deeper beliefs, that can begin to erode the surface dogmatism. It’s not easy, but it’s a damn sight more effective than hurling yourself against the wall of dogma.

So, you tell me: what would it take to prove you wrong?





Cartography, Pragmatism and the Liberation of Metaphysics

14 06 2010

All maps are lies. That’s one of the first lessons of cartography, particularly when it comes to the problematic task of representing our 3-D world on a 2-D plane. It just can’t be done. At least, not without some distortion. Yet, even in the face of this necessary distortion, and in the absence of the ‘perfect’ map projection, cartography lives on. Why? Because maps are useful.

I think this is a notion that could lead to a ‘liberation’ of metaphysics, and its daughter disciplines of epistemology and ontology.

To explain why, we need to venture briefly into the world of map projections. Our planet is a globe. Or an oblate spheroid, if you want to be more precise. A world map is typically a 2-D plane. There is, as a matter of fact, no way to represent an oblate spheroid on a 2-D plane in such a way that it doesn’t distort some feature of the original globe.

Mercator projection

This is where map projections come in. The one you may be most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It was developed by Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the mid-16th century, and (obscenely) is still used in schools and travel agencies – not to mention popular representations of the world – to this day.

This is despite the fact that the Mercator projection made a monumental sacrifice – i.e. correctly representing the true relative sizes of continents – in order to preserve ‘constant bearing’. This means that you can draw a straight line between any two points on a Mercator map and derive a bearing that will allow you to easily navigate to that destination – a useful feature for ships exploring the world during the Age of Discovery – but the picture of the world that it offers is grossly distorted as a result.

This is further hampered by the tendency to ‘trim’ Antarctica from the bottom, nudging the equator two-thirds of the way down the map (it runs just under the western ‘bump’ in Africa). The result is that Greenland looks absurdly huge, while ‘diminutive’ Australia is tucked into the bottom corner. In reality, Australia has an area three and a half times that of Greenland, and Sydney, for example, is actually at a similar latitude to Morocco rather than Reykjavík, as it appears.

This makes it great for navigating, but dreadful as a tool for giving us an appreciation for the size and shape of continents. (As such, I strongly recommend that you dispose of all Mercators in your possession – unless used for historical reference – and protest at its use as the default representation of the world. I do in public, frequently, much to my friends’ distress. But some things are more important than dignified behaviour.)

Goode Homolosine

Thankfully, cartographers are well aware of the shortcomings of the Mercator as a general representation of the globe, and there is a flourishing industry in producing new projections of the world that are less obtuse. There are hundreds of alternative projections, from the Peter’s projection (equal area, but distorts shape and bearing), Goode homolosine (equal area, but interrupted), to the Robinson projection (an appealing compromise developed by National Geographic in the 1960s), to the spectacularly named Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection currently endorsed by National Geographic) and many, many more.

You can play around with them, or roll your own, with a brilliant piece of freeware called Flex Projector. My favourite (this week) is a synthesis of the rectangular Equidistant Cylindrical (Plate Carrée) and Sinusoidal (Sanson-Flamsteed). While fiddling with the various knobs and sliders, you’ll soon notice that no matter how hard you try, it’s just not possible to create a projection that doesn’t harbour some compromise somewhere. That’s to be expected.

In fact, one the the main jobs of cartographers is to pick the most suitable projection for your purpose. Need to sail from point A to point B (without GPS)? Perhaps a constant bearing map, like a Mercator, is the most appropriate. Want to see the correct relative sizes of continents? An equal-area projection is what you need. Maybe you need something that simply shows all continents in a reasonably realistic and aesthetically pleasing way. Go for a projection with gently curving meridians, like the Robinson. And so on. But remember, there is no ‘perfect’ map projection of our world.

Now, on to metaphysics.

The world-as-it-is – the ‘objective’, ‘noumenal’, ‘concrete’ world, whatever you want to call it – is our 3-D globe. The world-as-it-appears – the ‘subjective’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘abstract’ world etc – is the map projection.

As such, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ systematised, abstract, propositional representation of the world is folly. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of understanding, or representing, the world-as-it-is.

Robinson projection

Making the concrete world intelligible inevitably requires us to enforce distinctions, to carve things up into x and not-x, to abstract away particulars, leaving us with generalisations. Doing so inevitably results in us shedding some of the unique detail that is fundamental to the concrete world. It flattens the spheroid.

Yet metaphysics and epistemology still strive to find the abstraction that best represents the world – or that is the ‘perfect’ representation of the world. The failure of metaphysics and epistemology to achieve this goal lends evidence to the notion that, like making the ‘perfect’ map projection, it just can’t be done.

However, this doesn’t necessarily lead us to a skeptical conclusion. This is because there’s a difference between ‘distortion’ and ‘error’. An erroneous map projection would seek to represent some aspect of the world in some way, and fail to do so. Placing Australia in the northern hemisphere, for example, would be an error. But ‘distorting’ Australia’s shape in order to preserve constant bearing is different. Providing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena is an error. Employing the empirical method to infer laws of nature that can be used to predict future phenomena is a distortion.

While we may never have an intelligible metaphysics without distortion, that doesn’t mean all metaphysical systems will be in error.

And we choose which distortion we’ll live with depending on the purpose we have on hand, like in cartography; the Mercator is good for navigating, bad for representing the relative size of continents.

I take this to be my (roundabout) definition of metaphysical pragmatism. It’s an approach that is non-skeptical, but acknowledges our inability to perfectly represent the world in an abstract system. Yet it also acknowledges the use of skilfully applied distortions – such as by carving the world into forms, or x and not-x – in order to achieve some practical end.

Moreover, it rejects the claim that the world-as-it-is, the ‘objective’ world, is somehow fundamentally separated from the world-as-it-appears, the ‘subjective’ world. Instead it sees the subjective as being a part of the objective. We are in-and-of, the world, not external observers to it. The subjective is just one projection, but it’s a projection of the objective world.

That is what I call the pragmatic liberation of metaphysics through cartography.





What is Philosophy?

11 06 2010

It’s a chestnut – some would say a kettle of fish – but it’s a question worth reflecting upon from time to time: what is philosophy?

Lieter has compiled a brief list of responses from a number of Names in philosophy (with a little help from the talented photographer, Steve Pyke).

Isaiah Berlin

They make for noodle-scratching reading, particularly for those who call themselves philosophers (or are working towards being a philosopher, like myself). After all, we apparently do philosophy quite regularly, but, clearly, we don’t have one clear, uniform idea of what it is we’re doing. Or do we?

I am tempted to wonder, in my more cynical of moments, whether philosophers almost don’t want to settle on a definition of philosophy. To do so would be to get all presumptuously ontic-ontological (as I believe Heidegger was fond of saying), or metaphilosophical, and raise (if not beg) the question that philosophy seeks to answer before philosophy has even had a chance to have at it. But to think that would just be cynical…

So, I ask, what is philosophy? Tell me your definition. Your motivation. I’m genuinely curious, not because I think there is one robust definition, but more because it informs about other philosophers’ approach to the sport.

While we’re at it, here’s my definition:

Philosophy asks why things are the way they are, and more importantly, why things aren’t the way they’re not.

Or, on a methodological tilt:

Unlike science, which asks ‘why’ to the limits of experience, or religion, which asks ‘why’ until it runs up against the brick wall of faith, philosophy asks ‘why’ until it cannot ask ‘why’ any longer.

Or, on a more sociological level:

Philosophy is the meta-discipline; all other disciplines that involve concepts, abstraction or reasoning – from art, to mathematics, to science, to history, to plumbing – are sub-disciplines of philosophy. Academic philosophy is but one branch of super-philosophy; it’s the philosophy-of-the-gaps that deals with those remaining questions that haven’t been subsumed into these other sub-disciplines of the super-philosophy. That’s why philosophy (of the academic flavour) is so often lambasted or ignored, for many of the triumphs of philosophy now go under the name of science, politics, psychology, economics, or plumbing.

What do you think philosophy is?





Definition(s) of metaphysics

18 03 2010

These come from a quick Google of “define: metaphysics”. I find them all slightly perplexing (except for the last one – I must get that album…).

The common thread appears to be the ‘study of the first principles of reality’. But, in attempting such a study, one falls in to the trap of justifying those particular first principles – particularly if, as the history of metaphysics has shown, there are many possible systems of first principles that might fit with the world as we see it, and we have no way of telling them apart. We don’t even have any way of guaranteeing there are first principles.

In light of this, I’d like to offer a new definition of metaphysics for your consideration:

  • Metaphysics – given what we believe to be true, what else must also be true.

This definition also points towards first principles – but not only first principles, because it also demands the exploration of consequences and implications rather than focussing on assumptions, axioms and presuppositions.

But, crucially, it doesn’t demand that one start with first principles and try to build one’s way to the world as we believe it to be. Instead, it takes a more pragmatic approach and starts with the world as we believe it to be, and works its way back from there.

So if, for example, we believe one moment follows another, then what else must be true? Some possibilities are time, events, memory, belief, perception, concepts, abstraction etc. Say you take time – the question continues: if time exists, what else must also exist? Perhaps a beginning to time? Or infinity? Or time might be bundled up in one moment and it’s only our perception that sees one moment follow another.

Also on a pragmatic note, this definition of metaphysics remains fundamentally contingent – if our beliefs about the world change, then so too can our metaphysics. In fact, the metaphysics can rebound and influence the way we see the world, thus further changing the metaphysics. There are no (necessary) right answers, no indubitable first principles – to assume there are is to assume an answer to some deep metaphysical questions that, arguably, we have no grounds in answering before we begin.

So we have a fundamentally pragmatic empirical metaphysics. It seeks to explore, explain and reveal, but it doesn’t presume the answers before it seeks them out.