A Couple of Links

Over at Brain Hammer, Pete Mandik is cooking up two compilations… One is Neurosemantics Bibliography, and the other is a list of references to definitions for key terms from philosophy of mind at couple of online philosophical encyclopedias.

Oh, and the Greek philosopher/mathematician that I mentioned in the post on Rationalism and Einstein, which is supposed to have calculated the height of the pyramids in Egypt is Thales (scroll to chapter 9).

And something scary… Richard from Et.Cetera said few things, and the result is bunch of angry scientismists (this is not really how do you call proponents of scientism, is it?)

Einstein, friend or foe of Rationalism?

By ‘Rationalism’ here it is meant the view that we can figure out truths about things in the world through application of reason alone, without learning those truths from experience.

Rationalism is obviously connected to the possibility of what is usually called ‘a priori knowledge’, but it seems to me is better put simply in terms of understanding. I mean, it seems much better to say that we understand that whenever there are two things there is one and one more thing (and vice versa), instead of saying ‘we know a priori that whenever there are two things there is one and one more thing (and vice versa)’. Though, ‘understanding’ has the problem that we mean other things by it, like understanding a sentence, etc… But, seems to me instead of trying to figure out another word because of possible ambiguity, it will be much better to figure out why is ‘understanding’ used in both situations? Does it mean the same thing in both situations, or is it family resemblance thing… something else maybe? OK, I went on a tangent here.

Cut to 18th century, and Kant’s phenomena… Kant started Critique of Pure Reason from the point of rationalism, by asking – ‘How are a priori synthetic truths possible?’, and he included claims of math, geometry and physics in those truths. Now, Kant’s view is somewhat specific because those claims which we can know a priori are not supposed to be about the world ‘in itself’ (or “noumena”), but should only be true about the things as they appear in our experience of the world (employing what I called bad sense of ‘experience’, the sense that is still used today in philosophy), or the so called ‘phenomena’. But nevertheless, things like math, geometry and physics ARE the things over which rationalists and empiricists would tend to disagree, so I think it is non-problematic to say that Kant’s view is rationalist on those subjects.

Of course one can be rationalist about math, but empiricist about physics. And most of the discussions of possibility of a priori knowledge seem to be over the possibility of intuiting (yet another word used because of the ambiguity of ‘understand’) truths in math or logic. The idea (present in Kant) that one can intuit physical laws is probably seen as one of those ‘solved questions in philosophy’ that Richard of Et. Cetera was talking about some time ago. So, if Rationalism is to be taken as a more general stance that will include not just math and logic, but also physical laws, it is apparently dead.

As one thing which shows that our intuitions are not proper guides to how the world is, often it is pointed to the two most known physical theories of the 20th century, those of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics (QM), each of which, it is said, tell us truths about the world which are ‘unintuitive’.

Note: ‘Unintuitive’ is used often to mean that things are not as we expected. But, ‘going against expectations’ won’t really do as a claim against Rationalism. Given ‘naive thinking’, even in math one could be surprised by the fact that a square with sides twice longer will have area four times bigger (or one can be surprised that when you have multiple numbers to add, the sequence in which you add them doesn’t matter). But, for sure, this doesn’t show anything against rationalism about math. Rationalism wouldn’t claim that any idea, or any expectation (however shallow is the thinking it is based on) will be true about the world. On contrary, it will claim that only one is the real understanding, but that there is very big (even infinite) number of mistakes to which one can come through thinking or applying analogy, association etc (as sometimes it is said that something is unintuitive also if it goes against what we expected based on some analogy we applied based on experience). So when pointing to Relativity and QM, and against Rationalism, ‘unintuitive’ has stronger meaning, that not just that nobody expected it, but that nobody could expect it base on reasoning alone. (On first look there seems to be even stronger meaning of “unintuitive”, where it is to mean that the truths of Relativity and QM are simply incomprehensible, and that most we can do in forming an idea of those truths is in some positivist/ pragmatic/ instrumentalist way. But, I will try to explain later, why I don’t think this goes against Rationalism.)

… … …

So…, back to the general topic. Kant gave few claims about the space and time, said that these were synthetic a priori truths. Einstein came and provided the theories of Relativity, which made also testable claims (more on this later), but which went against the Kant’s claims. And because the measurements were more inline with Einsteinian theory than with Newtonian/Kantian one, it is pretty safe to say that Kant was wrong. Those supposedly synthetic a priori truths, which were supposed to transcend all possible experience, don’t really do so. So, if all rationalists were to agree with Kant’s claims – if all rationalists said that they did in fact intuit the same truths that Kant ‘intuited’, this would really spell death do Rationalism. But all is not that bleak.

We can turn the whole thing upside/down and make Einstein a friend, instead of a perceived foe of Rationalism.

First let us relate to the thing that was already mentioned in the note up there – the idea that the theories of Relativity (and QM) can only be understood in instrumentalist /positivist/pragmatic way. This assumes that besides this one, there is yet another way in which we can understand notions or relations of notions present in those theories, but that this way (whatever way it is) doesn’t work here. The neat thing a rationalist can do here is this – she can deny that there is something else which is meant when we talk about space, time, movement and quantities of those, and which is unrelated from the measurements of those we can make.

And given that we made this step, she can then point to a)the development of theories of Relativity and b)development of empirical predictions of those theories. As for (a), she can say that the theories were developed in an a priori manner based on couple of premises (invariance of physical laws from the movement of observer and constant speed of light). Being a rationalist, of course she will claim that any logic and math which are included in the reasoning are also a priori. And the rationalist can say the same for (b). That is, the predictions of the theory are good, only if they are to follow from the theory, and for them to be able to “follow” we need a priori relation. Thinking of it, (b) and (a) are instances of the same process. Starting from something which is taken to be true, new truths are deduced about the world (though they don’t include just mere logical and mathematical deduction, but also conceptual cleaning up, in relating the notions like space, time, movement and acceleration to our measurements). And for sure there will be some empiricists, which will not have problem of this. Mostly those who don’t have problem with math and logic being a priori. They will say – Well, yes, trough thinking we can get to new truths about the world, like Einsteinian relativity, but we shouldn’t forget that we have those starting premises (invariance of physical laws on movement of the observer, and the constant speed of light), to which we came through empirical research. So, that (a) and (b) were a priori, though impressive, isn’t enough for the claim of Rationalism. Let’s call this Objection One. There is also another objection, which we will call Objection Two, and that will go like this: We know that General Relativity (GR) is contradictory with Quantum Mechanics, and QM has been more empirically confirmed than GR. And while QM might not be the whole truth, GR can’t be the ‘whole truth’ also. So, GR as it is now is wrong. Hence Rationalism, even if one does away with Objection One, is wrong. And of course, there is the another kind of empiricists, that don’t believe in any a priori understanding, be it math, logic or wherever. I’m not attempting to show that empiricists view is irrational however, so I won’t give objections to that view. The goal here is much more smaller (and sounds funny) – pointing that Rationalism is rational (given the GR and QM).

Objection One: While the process of going from the premises to the theory and predictions is a priori, the premises (invariance of the laws from the movement of observer and the constant speed of light) are themselves result of the empirical research.

Now, I think that for the first premise isn’t implausible that someone could argue for it on a priori base. I won’t try to do it here, but it seems to me that invariances/symmetries present rather easy target for Rationalism. I hope that empiricist would agree at least that the invariance claim is not obviously empirical. The other premise, that of constant speed of light, is the problematic one for the Rationalism. However I think it can be dealt with, given that we make the mentioned move, to deny that we can properly think of space and time as entities, but only through the idea of measurements of those (which is, I would claim a Hegelian move – seeing time and space as abstraction from richer notions like that of change, and further of thing. I wrote about this in other posts, and I think it is important to show that this rationalist ‘response’ isn’t ad hoc, but has roots in the direct philosophical responses to Kant’s ideas. Not to mention that it may be related to Aristotelian responses to Zeno, that also go into direction of seeing positions in space and time as abstractions (or potential measurements)). The rough idea would be then this:

When an observer X moves from A to B, the observer will be at A before being at B. Observer to be at A before being at B, means that there will be possibility of quantification of time between X being at A, and X being at B. The time, measured from X, can never be 0, (even for ‘jump’, it can’t be 0 if we are to distinguish jump from A to B, from the jump from B to A, or alternatively we need to accept that X can be both at A and B at same time). Anyway, T as measured by the observer, can’t be 0, but given bigger and bigger speed, T can become smaller as much as we want. Given the distance AB, and traveler’s measurement of time, and calculate traveler’s speed St as AB/T, we will come to see a priori, that the speed St is not limited, but that it can’t get to infinity.

How will this look from third person measurements? We empirically know that what I described as impossibility for X to travel with infinite speed from A to B, from third person perspective is seen as an impossibility for X to travel with speed equal with the speed of light. However, given the first premise – invariance of the laws, and relations between the measurements of time and space among observers traveling with different speed, it is not implausible that one can translate that a priori impossibility to the one we know on empirical basis, and from there come to the conclusion that this limit is constant even for different observers. Now, I don’t know how this exactly would be done, but just so to support plausibility of the proposal, I can point to few places on internet, that seem to go in the direction of a priori deduction of Special Relativity written by people that seem to know much more on the topic than me (here or here).

Let’s turn now attention to Objection Two. The objection was that General Relativity is incompatible with QM, and QM tells us many truths about the world (empirically confirmed to great amount), so even if we expect that some new theory will take place of QM and GR, it means that GR doesn’t tell us *the exact* truth about the world.

The Rationalist response to this one is pretty easy. The claim, that the rationalist will say we come to through reason alone, is in the following form – If f is true about some X, then g is also true about that X. So, it is ‘universal claim’, and g will be true about X just so much as f is true about it. So, in terms of Relativity, because it deals with simplifying abstractions (among other things – dimensionless points of mass, if I remember right), the resulting laws of the theory will be true just so far as we can ignore other properties of things, and take them as dimensionless points of mass. One can make an analogy with math claims. For example… we can treat the shadow that a big building throws on the ground, the building itself, and the “line” which connects the top of the building and the most distant point of the shadow as forming a right triangle. And more so, we can treat that triangle as similar (having same angles) with any such “shadow triangle” formed by some smaller thing in the same time, in the same place (e.g. a stick sticked vertically in the ground) . And on base of the mathematical laws of similarity, and measuring only the shadow of the big building, the shadow of the stick and the height of the stick, we can figure out the height of the building. (Wasn’t it some Greek philosopher/mathematician who figured out the height of the Pyramids in Egypt like this?). Anyway, this is of course not *the whole truth* about the height of the real object, but it is only true in the terms of the a priori truth – For two similar triangles a1/b1=a2/b2; and us being able to treat for pragmatic purposes two systems as similar triangles. So, in same way, theories of Relativity can be a priori, and still not be “the whole truth”. (I guess the mathematical idea of limits also is important here)

I concentrated here on the theories of Relativity, in the context of more general question of Rationalism, and it’s possible “revival”. This of course is not enough. The other main ‘theory’ of the modern physics, that of Quantum Mechanics, also should be included. But, in the light of Rationalism going into “instrumentalist/pragmatic/positivist” direction, and the QM dependence on such things as invariances and symmetries, Rationalists, I think, have a right to expect that QM might show also ‘signs of apriority’.

UPDATE (Mar.31): corrected some mistakes, and rephrased few things.

To be updated in the videos post

Via Methods of Projection, I found out about the good flame0430 person on YouTube who has uploaded a bunch of very interesting videos. They include interview with John Searle on Wittgenstein, interview with Ayer on Frege and Russell, and interviews with Quine and Searle about their work. It seems that there will be more interviews coming. Many thanks to flame0430!

The other thing is an episode from UC Berkley’s “Conversations with History”, hosted by Harry Kreisler, where he interviews Hubert Dreyfus about Heidegger, M.Ponty, AI, and such things. Very interesting stuff. (via Continental Philosophy)

If you didn’t have enough of Searle, there is also his talk on Authors@Google series, where he talks about his book “Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, and Political Power.”, and explains in what way he thinks free will might be related to Quantum Mechanics. (BTW, I just noticed that there is one by Pinker from the same series, haven’t watched that one. It says that he talks about his book “The stuff of thought”)

Second Birthday! Yay!

Yesterday A Brood Comb had it’s second birthday.
I guess little statistics is in order then. In those two years I’ve written 349 posts and got 866 comments (technically, probably half of those I got, and half of those I wrote). I would like more comments of course, I would be probably be satisfied with 10000 comments…. Maybe.

As of now, it says 235,559 visits (not visitors), and most of them have come for few posts actually. 66,400 visits are to the page with philosophy videos (I think there is around 50-100 visits a day I think to it these days). 62,790 visits are to a post that doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy – but is about how to extract a song from YouTube. And then, another part of the blog with significant amount of visitors is the Power Blogroll aggregator which had 20,558 visitors. The rest of the posts have insignificant numbers in relation to these, and together have around 90,000 visits. For example the Philosophers’ Carnival I hosted has all in all 2,668 visits, Comprehending 1=0.99(9) has 1,523 visits, and Why a neural network can’t be conscious has 1,112, Simple Explanation of Hegelian Dialectic has 1,083, and so on….

56 blogs linked to A Brood Comb in the past six months according to Technorati. And there is around 80 people that read this blog through feed readers, according to the reported numbers at Googgle Reader (62) and Bloglines (18).

So, thanks everyone for visiting and special thanks for people who have been so nice to leave a comment on the posts.

My Respect to Harry and Chris and Other Wise Atheists

I probably won’t say anything which wasn’t said better already in the posts at Mixing Memory and Crooked Timber on the topic of respect for religious and non-religious people. But hopefully will translate what they said into more personal perspective, because so it happens that I’m theist, and that I agree a lot with what they said.

It is really tiresome to read disrespectful comments about theists all over the web. I was an atheist when I was a teenager, but changed to theist in my early twenties. Who knows, maybe I will change in my believes again if my understanding of the world changes. But, as it is the situation now, it seems to me more plausible that there is such thing as God rather than not. Is it the God of the Christianity? I don’t know, it might be, I believe it is, but I’m less sure about that.

Anyway, why does it bothers me when those my beliefs are disrespected?

First, *I know* how I came to those beliefs. I know I wasn’t indoctrinated with them, but got to those by myself. This country was “socialistic country” so dialectical materialism, and ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ is what we were indoctrinated with, and not religion. So, I was an atheist from the early childhood and through my high school. I wasn’t also bothered with absurdity of life, it didn’t bothered me that the life could be absurd. So, what? If it is absurd, it is absurd, who cares?

Also, I know that I came to those believes through sincere thinking trying to make sense, to understand the world. See, even when I started believing that there was God, my prayers were for him to help me understand the world. Because that is the thing I most wanted.  When I was getting to sleep, that is what I was thinking about. Since then, I feel that I really understand a lot more things about the world. But it seems that my belief that there could be God only went stronger. Of course, maybe I’m not understanding it, maybe I’m misunderstanding it, I can’t be sure, but I try to be sincere the best I can. I try to seek the inconsistencies within my view, to keep them on mind in order to address them further and so on…

So, now, if a person is disrespectful to this belief, what does that mean? Are they saying that I’m insincere, that I lack critical thought, and that that is why I came to this belief? How is this supposed to make me feel, given that I highly respect being sincere and critical thought, given that my thought is guided by those things?  Are they saying that I’m stupid, so that even with best intentions, I was destined to get to this wrong belief? But *I know* I’m not stupid. (How? I don’t want to brag here :).) Also, I’m sure I’m not the most knowledgeable guy, but I’m sure I’m not ignorant either.

So, given that I was not indoctrinated, given that I was sincere in my thinking, given that I’m not stupid nor ignorant, could I still be wrong?  Of course. But if I’m none of those things, and if I spend a big time of my life thinking about those things, it can’t be that my belief is so bad, that it should be disrespected by others. What can I then think about disrespectful comments about my beliefs, and people that make them? I will just say, that probably I end up thinking of them, some of those things that would be implied about me.

Now, lot of people have beliefs which are not inline with mine. Like, some of them are atheists. But I would be really silly to to judge most of those people as a)stupid, b)insincere, c)ignorant, or d)indoctrinated just because they disagree with me. On contrary I think that most of the atheists that are neither of those. So, I *have no right* to disrespect atheism.

As I see it, those who are disrespectful to others are either overestimating themselves, or underestimating the complexity of the world.

Am I a Product of my Imagination?

I bought a Nintendo Wii gaming console few weeks ago, and both me and my family (kids and wife) have spend good time playing Wii sports (especially Tennis, though lately I find Bowling Training mini-game with obstacles very challanging). So, I thought I buy some new game for the Wii, and went to Amazon.de. I usually shop Amazon.com for books, but Wii games are region specific, so if you have an European Wii, you need to buy European versions of the games. I added one game to the shopping basket, and went to the check out, but there it said that they don’t send games to the place where I live. Which is this place? Well, it is a state, which lot of people refer to as Macedonia, lot of people refer to by FYROM. It is the Republic Whatchyamacallit.

Why Watchyamacallit? I guess you’ve heard about the problem with this state’s name already. The short story is that its name and the name for the people here came century or two ago from the name of the territory on part of which it resides. And the territory is called Macedonia. HOWEVER another part of the territory called Macedonia is in Greece, and a small part in Bulgaria. And Greece doesn’t like that we (that are ethnic Slavs) call this country Republic of Macedonia, and ourselves Macedonians, as those were the names for the ancient Macedonians, and ancient Macedonia belongs to the Greek cultural history. So, now we are under pressure to call ourselves differently. I was thinking about this, and I concluded that probably in Greece no two people share the same name, and that’s why some of them find this confusing. But anyway that is another weird story, which in this few last months includes a treat from Greece to stop Macedonia entry into NATO unless the name issue is solved (read – that we agree to change our name). The bad thing is that given the ethnic tensions in the region, entering the NATO is expected to give an assurance to prospective foreign investors, so we would really like to enter NATO. This is whatchyamacallit – “blackmail” maybe?

Anyway, back to the story… I wasn’t too surprised that Amazon doesn’t deliver to Macedonia. I searched for other sites that sell games, and found Gameseek. Macedonia wasn’t in the list there, even they say that they deliver to UK and Europe. Now, this ‘Europe’ can’t mean European Union, as they deliver to countries like Ukraine and Croatia which are not part of the union too. So, it appears, this place where I live – the Republic Whatchyamacallit isn’t on the continent where it should be. And that is where I started to suspect a possible Matrix scenario. Well, just that here not just that the things you thought are real are not real, but the names of those unreal things don’t mean those things also!

So, I sent an email to the Gameseek, asking them if it is possible to buy a game from here, and they said it is, just that I need to open PayPal account, and then send them an email, and they will process the order manually. I didn’t quite like that, but it sounded better than nothing, and a new game would make my kids happy (not to mention me and my wife). So, I went to PayPal. And there my suspicions that I am just a product of my imagination were confirmed. There is a hundreds of countries there, but Macedonia is nowhere on the list. Nor FYROM. So, no new game for me for the time being. Though, I start to feel some strange urge to install a mod chip in the Wii, so I could just download “backups” for games I don’t own, and play the backups until there is possibility to buy the originals.

Few More Thoughts on Relation Between Thinking and Language

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the relation between thinking and language where I was comparing language practices to computer games, in relation to the inner speech phenomenon. After a short discussion in the comments with Dave from Duck Rabbit here and on his blog, I though I clear up my view on this issue somewhat more…

First, I don’t think that we are thinking in language. I don’t even know what it would mean for one to think in language, or to think in anything for that matter. How does one think in something? The simplest truth is, I think, that we are thinking about things. And those things of which we think usually aren’t words – we are thinking of apples, of playing consoles, the coffee in the cup, our children and so on. And, in general, I don’t need language, to become aware of something. I become aware of something new, and only then I baptize it.

There are however two things to keep on mind in relation to this separation of thinking and language, because I think the situation is little more complex:

1. That we don’t think in language, doesn’t mean that there are non-linguistic thoughts. Same as we don’t think in language, I don’t think that we think in thoughts. I think that ‘thought’ is a name for the sentence through which we are expressing what we were thinking about. So, in that sense, while I don’t think that we think in language, I don’t also think that there are non-linguistic thoughts.
Maybe there is a root of possible misconception. One can easily think in this direction – We are thinking in thoughts. And because thoughts are something which can’t be psychological (namely the same thought can be had both by me and you), and because in its intersubjective form is expressed by language, then we are thinking in language.

2. Being raised in different societies, and taking part in different practices, we become aware of the possibility of some things. We become aware that some things can be done in some way, that some things should be done in some way. Of course, we are not total idiots, so that without other people we won’t be aware of anything, but I think that still, the amount of things that we are aware of because other people shown us those things, or because we happen to be in a society, in which we can observe people using those possibilities, is much much bigger than things that we would be aware of if we were outside of the society. Anyway… one of those things, is the practice of communication. We might see it abstractly merely as language, but it seems to me, it is something which is in general part of almost all social practices. Lot of things that we can do, we can do because of this practice of communication. So, now to my point. Even we don’t think in language, our thinking is about things of which we are aware, including there what we are aware that can and should be done. So, we can say that:  a)language as part of the communication is big part of the practices, and on another side b)those practices in big part define how we think about the world (simply because the possibilities we of what can and should be done are related to already established practices in which we learned to take part). Given those things then, it should be expected for the language to be related to a way of thinking. But again, not simply because we think in language, but because language is a big part of practices in terms of which we think about our relation to the world.

So… that’s about it, I guess.

123 Meme

J.M.C.Dow of Spontaneity and Receptivity tagged me with the 123 meme. The rules are:

  • Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
  • Open the book to page 123
  • Find the fifth sentence on that page
  • Post the next three sentences
  • Tag five people

*Looks below the Wii Operations manual* – Aha! Here is the winner!

The book is Mapping The Mind – Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture (editors:Lawrence A. Hirschfeld and, Susan A. Gelman) and is a collection of essays on, well, domain specificity. I started reading it the other day. Let me see what’s on the page 123…

Thereafter, each subsystem can develop in parallel. My discussion concentrates upon the first of these levels, mechanical Agency, and deals with the other two levels only to mark off what else I think comprises the core notion of Agency that is not dealt with at the first level. I begin then with the emergence of a processing mechanism (probably somewhere around 3 or 4 months of age) that equips the infant to attend to the mechanical properties of objects and events.

There is no excuse for mentioning the phrase ‘processing mechanism’ on this blog. I don’t have against processing mechanisms, but the idea that the people are some sum of processing mechanisms for different domains is just not something that should be included on a family friendly blog. I will tag this post as PG-13 or NC-17.

BTW, related to the topic of knowledge domains, I’m eagerly waiting for Young Children’s Thinking about Biological World by Giyoo Hatano. The description on Amazon:

This book is a study of young children’s naive biology. It examines such theoretical issues as processes, conditions and mechanisms in conceptual development using the development of biological understanding as the target case. Based on the review of recent studies in the North America and Australia as well as in Japan, the authors claim that children as young as five years of age, that is, before formal schooling, possess a naive theory of biology, which is differentiated from naive theories of psychology and physics. They characterize this initial form of biology as personifying and vitalistic. At a more general level, the authors try to offer an integrative and moderate model of conceptual development as a domain-specific construction of theory-like knowledge systems under cognitive and sociocultural constraints.

Exciting, right?

Back to the meme thing… As I seem to have been the last person on Earth that wasn’t tagged in this meme, there isn’t anyone else to tag, so I declare this meme FINISHED! *Applause*