COMPUTATION AND PHILOSOPHY

September 27, 2009

COMPUTATION AND PHILOSOPHY

 

 

The modern mind having been deluded by the dazzling successes of the natural sciences into absorbing unquestioningly the basic scientific tenet, that only the objective, the testable, the measurable, yields knowledge and understanding, was further lured by the tantalizing Leibnizean dream of a perfect symbolic language that would reduce metaphysical and moral problems to problems of computation. Ever since a major sector of philosophic thought has been sold to reductionism, which, I will doggedly maintain, is the death of philosophy.

 

The advent of cybernetics reinforced this harmful trend. Computers could work wonders provided they are fed with information in the form of symbols. This gave birth to Information Technology, a great science that has become all too important for our present-day civilization. But it should be clear that it is, or should be, a science with a strictly defined function: to translate all objective facts into a language that is serviceable for computation. Outside that area it has no competence. It cannot disclose the meaning of anything or determine the value of anything. The confounding of science and philosophy has already done and continues to do grave harm. When we are made to think that it is Information Technology that gives understanding, then – and I mean what I am saying literally – the very being of humanity is threatened. Witness our worthy economists and our worthy generals!

 

To transform information into symbols, the first prerequisite is to determine the purpose which the symbols are to serve. If the purpose is to launch a rocket to the moon, the consideration that lovers have for aeons delighted in walking side by side in the moonlight is of no relevance. For our specific purpose, the moon is nothing but mass, velocity, and I know not what other characteristics that can be expressed digitally.

 

To render information in a form serviceable for a strictly prescribed objective, symbols deplete the words of common language of meaningful content. The more of a symbol a word is, the flimsier in meaning it becomes. Thus while symbols may and do enable us to make use of information for specific purposes,  they are incapable of performing the original and vital function of words in the common walks of life, namely, to enable human beings to communicate with one another as human beings. A living word suggests, alludes. Vagueness is an indispensable feature of a living word. It is not a defect. A word, when not reduced to a symbol, does not stand for a static thing but relates to the flow and tide of the actual world.

 

Marginally, I know that the adepts of logical symbolism vaunt of being able to deal with such puzzles as that of ‘reference to Nonexistents’ and the like. I have no desire to enter into that nest of hornets at this point. The problem of negative statements was raised by Plato in the Theaetetus, but left there standing, to be taken up again and resolved in the Sophist, but our philosophers persevere in keeping the conundrum rolling. The thrashing of logical problems and the problems of symbolism may have useful practical applications, but I do not see them as having any philosophical relevance. I think Wittgenstein was right when he said, “The propositions of logic are tautologies. Therefore the propositions of logic say nothing. (They are the analytic propositions.)” (Tractatus, 6.1 and 6.11.)

 

I do not think that all the labour analytical philosophers expend on the problems relating to truth-value has anything to do with philosophical understanding. It may help in laying down rules for manipulating symbols, but it cannot touch on the content of what the symbols stand for. That is why I shun the word ‘truth’ in my writings. In my view, philosophy proper is not concerned with truth but with insight, and the insight, in the end, if it is genuine philosophical insight, is always insight into our inner reality and our proper value as intelligent (I prefer this word to ‘rational’) beings.

 

The meaning of a word or a sentence is the subjective presence of the word or sentence. That is the great insight in Socrates’ foolish “It is by Beauty that the beautiful is beautiful.” To symbolize a word or sentence is to drain it of its lifeblood, to turn it into a dry shell. That can be very beneficial for certain specific purposes, but it is not the work of philosophy proper, and its utility should not deceive us into thinking that in that way we can gain any understanding.

 

Bertrand Russell, in offering an ingenious technical solution to a problem of logical symbolism, lured analytical philosophers into literally interminable quandaries. Neither Russell nor his followers realized that the genius who first gave us number had anticipated them without falling into their folly. A farmer and a weaver go to market. The weaver knows that one of his woollen shirts is worth two cabbages. He barters two shirts for four cabbages. Both the weaver and the farmer praise the gods for the gift of Number, but they are wise enough to know that Two could not give them warmth nor could Four stay their hunger. (I may one day write an article examining Russell’s classical essay “On Denoting”.)

 

By equating ourselves with computers, by reducing ourselves to information systems, we are in danger of becoming oblivious of our humanity and in the end losing our humanity.

 

The Socratic elenctic examination of ideas, rightly understood, shows that ideas such as love, friendship, loyalty, etc., cannot be reduced even to other intelligible ideas. You can create a digital counter for love and you can use it for making valid deductions. A robot may be able to calculate and simulate how a human being will behave, given that s/he loves her/his child, but the robot will not understand love unless it were endowed with the gift of experiencing love.

 

Cybernetics pundits, having modeled computers on brains, now propose that we see our brains (they have no use for minds!) as computers. We are told that our feelings are the response of our brains to information. My feeling is not a response of my brain to information – my feeling, as a subjective reality, is how the whole of my subjective personality answers to a total situation. I cannot accept the reductive implication of making the brain the author of my feelings and my behaviour. The reductive account cannot explain the spontaneity, the freedom, the creativity that are my birthright as a being endowed with intelligence.

 

Similarly, the attempt to reduce feelings to chemical reactions is equally deluded and equally harmful. I will grant that we can translate feelings into information rendered in terms of chemical reactions, but I would insist that it is morally and intellectually harmful to habituate ourselves to equating our feelings – and the whole of our inner life – with chemical, physical, neurological, etc., processes.

 

My doctor takes my pulse, my blood-pressure, my temperature, etc., etc. These are all given as digits. They are what are called my vital signs. My life depends on them, a few digits more here, a few digits less there, and I am no longer a living thing, let alone a thinking or feeling thing. To my doctor, in her/his capacity as doctor, these digits sum me up. But I would be gravely offended if my doctor regarded me as no more than a collection of digits on her/his laptop or in her/his notebook.

 

Again, to say that emotions are triggered in us by the sound of a phrase spoken to us — not, mind you, by the meaningful content but by the physical phenomenon of sound – is, at best, a damaging simplification. The words “I love you” spoken by my daughter or my granddaughter issues in an emotion distinctly different from the emotion which issues when the same phrase is spoken by someone else. To say that my brain triggers the emotion is a shorthand sign for indicating a slice of reality of inexhaustible interconnectedness. The emotion is not a brain response; it is a creative development in the living medium of my inner reality. By all means use your shorthand signs for computation purposes but don’t mistake them for the real thing. The sun also is a system of chemical formulae and physical equations. But the formulae and equations in your computer, however accurate, will not give light, or warmth, or life.

 

The deluge of information flooding down on humanity from the heights of technological sophistication, even in its positive character, threatens to destroy human civilization. When its pundits tell us that information is not only all the wisdom there is but also all the reality there is, that is no longer a threat; it is sure death.

 

D. R. Khashaba

 

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Against much erudition

August 7, 2009

AGAINST MUCH ERUDITION

Blessed are fools, for they are spared the absurdities of the learned.

 

Learning is a good thing. If anything goes without saying, that statement is as good a candidate for the honour as any other. But too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing. I propose to defend the paradoxical claim that much learning is most of the time more bad than good.

 

I have been reading two learned papers read at two austerely learned conferences. Both papers treat of subjects that touch closely on some of the most ardent of my philosophical interests. Both papers are meticulously researched and carefully argued. Have I come out of them with anything, any insight, any understanding, any enjoyment? Not at all; not through any fault on the part of the author and not through any fault on my part, as I believe.

 

Let me schematize one type of such scholarly papers. Professor N argues that X (a philosopher, say, of the second century BC) believed that Y (of the fourth century) took Z (of the fifth century) to maintain that p. (The pattern can go to any degree of complication; but let us keep it at this simple level.) Now I would say that p, a given verbal formula, has no meaning in itself and by itself, since it cannot speak its own mind. By itself, p is a fish out of water; to vibrate, to send tremors to a receptive mind, it must be put back into the ocean in which it came into being in the first place. That ocean is the total context of a thinker’s life, circumstances, problems, beliefs. It is that living context that determines the meaningful content of p.

 

Now the context in which Z originally formulated p was unique t Z; the context in which Y sought to understand p was unique to Y; the context in which X sought to understand Y’s understanding of Z’s meaning was unique to X; and the context in which Professor N tries to grasp what X thought Y thought Z meant by p is unique to Professor N. The only way in which these diversely unique meanings can be related, compared, calibrated against each other is to turn the terms of the p formula into abstract tokens, lifeless counters.

 

This is a legitimate process for specific purposes, as legitimate as the process by which an employer translates the living energy of a worker into money tokens that are lifeless in themselves but can serve life in a specific way. In the same way, scholars, manipulating their token abstractions, can do useful work. But just as a worker would soon die if s/he thought that money by itself and in itself can provide her/his bodily and spiritual needs, so Philosophy would die – and in many academic circles she is actually dying – if we let the sophistications of scholars take the place of the living thought of original thinkers. Rather than arguing about what X thought Y thought Z meant, I would try sympathetically to envision what meaning, which point of view, each of X, Y, and Z was trying to convey, and I would not presume to say, even then, that I grasped what X or Y or Z meant, but only that I have found for myself some worthwhile meaning in the words of X, Y, and Z.

 

Again, the refinements of the learned may unravel the complications introduced by the learned, may correct the misunderstandings created by others of the learned, but they do not add to the insight that a naïve approach can find in the text of an original thinker.

 

Have I made my case, that much erudition can be a bad thing? Perhaps it is not without significance that the word ‘erudition’ comes from the Latin eruditus, meaning ‘instructed’. It is knowledge coming from outside. Plato in the Republic tells us that true education is the turning of the mind’s eye inside. So erudition and philosophizing are two distinct, opposed, things. Either is needed; either is good. But to put one in place of the other is bad.

Once again, minds and brains

July 13, 2009

Comment on “Disorderly genius: How chaos drives the brain” by David Robson: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227141.200-disorderly-genius-how-chaos-drives-the-brain.html?full=true

 

The marvellous and fascinating work done by neurologists is marred by one basic fault: their refusal to realize that to study the brain is not to study the mind, which in turn arises from their failure to see that the mind is a reality in itself distinct from the objective stuff that is amenable to study by the empirical methods of science.

 

Scientists have no problem with working with the notion of our brain ‘operating on the edge of chaos’ or the notion of a state of ‘self-organized criticality’ as perfectly intelligible, but stall at the notion of a mind that has no being apart from the brain but that yet has a reality of its own and laws of its own.

 

We are supposed to find it not only believable, but in fact intelligible, that ‘the unpredictable world of chaos’ can produce a Mozart sonata, a Shakespeare sonnet, an Einsteinean equation. We are supposed to find that more acceptable than viewing the mind as creative.

 

“Researchers”, we are told, “built elaborate computational models to test the idea [of deterministic chaos], but unfortunately they did not behave like real brains.” Why? Not because they are not sufficiently elaborate or sufficiently refined, but because those fine computational models have no life in them, they may be perfect models of brains but not of minds.

 

Let me just forestall a possible misunderstanding: I am not speaking of a mind or soul separate from our body or brain but of the inner or subjective aspect of our being that is our proper, distinctive reality.

 

D. R. Khashaba

http://khashaba.blogspot.com

Philosophy and science, once more

July 6, 2009

Comment on “Philosophy as complementary science” by Hasok Chang: http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=375&cpage=1#comment-189

 

The embarrassment of philosophers when faced with the successes of science rests on the mistaken assumption that philosophy is required to deliver the same commodity that science delivers. Socrates saw that this was wrong. That was the point of his renouncing the investigation of things en tois ergois and limiting himself to investigating things en tois logois. This is an insight that even Plato wavered in holding to and that almost all following philosophers overlooked to their detriment. Philosophy creates imaginative ideal worlds which infuse meaning and value into the phenomenal world but which can not and should not claim any objective validity. This shares no common ground with science. Kant partly saw this but was not as clear-sighted as Socrates.

 

Philosophy of science is a much needed discipline of thought, but it is distinct from philosophy proper. Its main function is to shake all extant foundations and lay down others, to be broken down in their turn. This is the Platonic dialectic that has to destroy its own hypotheses. Chang’s ‘complementary science’ may possibly be seen as a special development of this.

 

D. R. Khashaba

http://khashaba.blogspot.com

GOD OR DARWIN

July 1, 2009

Comment on “God or Darwin”: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2009/jul/01/evolution

 

The figures are a sad revelation. Not only such unfortunate countries as my own, Egypt, live as if the last four centuries or so of human history have never been, but humanity at large has hardly been touched by the Enlightenment. But much of the fault lies with those who should know better. Three different questions are jumbled together. (1) The principle of evolution. (2) Darwin’s special theory of natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution in the biological sphere. These two are scientific questions where only empirical evidence is relevant. (3) The question whether naturalism adequately explains the reality of life and intelligence: not the question how life and intelligence came to be but what they are. This is a philosophical question in relation to which the methods of objective science lead nowhere. It is the confusion of these three questions that enables the creationists to make a show of supplying the explanation that evolutionists have foolishly undertaken to supply but cannot, by their objective methods, ever supply.

 

D. R. Khashaba

http://khashaba.blogspot.com

Comment on “Farewell to Judgment”

June 9, 2009

Comment on Roger Scruton’s “Farewell to Judgment” in The American Spectator, June 2009: http://spectator.org/archives/2009/06/05/farewell-to-judgment

 

Roger Scruton’s “Farewell to Judgment” raises a question of vital importance for the future of human culture. I only wish he had defined the role of philosophy in the desired “restoration of judgment to its central place in the humanities”. As I see it, part of the debility of the humanities in present-day education is due to the fact that philosophy has lost its central place within the humanities, and that in turn has been due to the failure of philosophers to see philosophy as distinct from and in a sense opposed to science. Philosophy was supposed to seek objective knowledge. When it was seen that only empirical science can yield verifiable knowledge, philosophers imitated science and broke up philosophy into specialized disciplines that at best could only be pseudo-sciences. Philosophy, to play its proper and vital role in human culture, must give up the vain dream of yielding objective knowledge of the external world and go back to its true task of giving us insight into our inner reality by examining our ideals and values. This is a task that philosophy shares with poetry, drama, fiction, and art.

 

D. R. Khashaba

http://khashaba.blogspot.com

Plato’s so-called Theory of Frms

May 12, 2009

Comment in Bryn Mawr Classical Review http://www.bmcreview.org/2009/05/20090533.html#comment-form

 

The fault, to my mind, with all attempts to deal with Plato’s so-called Theory of Forms is that they start from the assumption that Plato had such a completely worked-out theory. If that were the case, it would certainly be strange that so much study of and so much research in the works of one who could think so clearly and could write so lucidly would fail to arrive even at an outline of the putative theory.

 

As I see it, Plato (1) inherited Socrates’ distinction between the intelligible ideas and ideals found only in the mind, on the one hand, and the sensible world on the other hand; (2) extended the scope of these intelligibles first to the mathematical sphere and then beyond that; (3) found in these intelligibles the answer to the Heraclitean challenge to the possibility of knowledge; (4) experimented with various modes of stating how the intelligibles are related to the sensibles, none of which modes he found satisfactory as is clear from the first part of the Parmenides; (5) lost interest in the thankless quest but never lost his faith in the primacy of the intelligible realm as the sole ground and home of true epistêmê and of the mind as the fount and begetter of the intelligible and all intelligibility, of phronêsis and noêsis. This is the position I maintain in Plato: An Interpretation (2005).

 

Because Plato never worked out a completed Theory of Forms the attempt to extract such a theory from his works remains a Holy Grail quest.

 

D. R. Khashaba

APOLOGY FOR METAPHYSICS

May 8, 2009

AN APOLOGY FOR METAPHYSICS

 

Our animal kin, as far as we know, live in, inside, within the natural world. We, human beings, somehow live apart from, outside, facing the natural world. This is our special characteristic. We live in the world and we know that we live in a world that somehow is other than we. The emergence of this realization is the emergence of the human being. And when we come to this realization or when this realization comes to us, it comes, if not with a shock, at any rate with a disturbing, irritating, nagging feeling. It creates a sense of pressing puzzlement. The world as we encounter it is chaotic, formless, meaningless. We need to organize it, pattern it out, make it mean something to us. The first level of this process must have been gone through long before the emergence of humankind. Without it a hare would not recognize a fox as a threat and the fox would not recognize the hare as a meal. At a lower level still in the biological sphere action and reaction perhaps takes place without recognition or awareness but at a higher level, I fancy, the normal run of life would not be possible without recognition. For human beings the differentiation of objects and their elementary classification in groups that serve various practical purposes is completed early in the individual’s life. Then comes the puzzlement, the amazement, the fear that demand a higher level of ordering to appease the puzzlement and the fear and instil a sense of being at home. At this stage humans create myths. Their myths give them comfort and something more than comfort; they give them a refined pleasure, akin to aesthetic enjoyment. In time most of the myths are known for myths. What then? To some the sense of puzzlement is dampened. They are content to live at the level of the ordering of  the natural world into objects and classes of objects enhanced with the introduction of so-called laws of nature and a store of information about the way things behave. This is science, adequate for the material needs of civilized life. With others, puzzlement and awe refuse to go away with the dismissal of the primitive myths. They still need their comforting and enjoyable myths. They create new myths. In place of the old gods and demigods and powers of good and powers of evil they have abstract personae – substances and forms and first principles. They obtain their comfort and their intellectual enjoyment, even when the comfort is, as with a Schopenhauer, grim. Just as the creators of the old myths, having found rest in their myths, believed their myths, so the creators of the new myths tended to believe their myths, forgetting that they were of their own creation. And creators of varieties of these latter myths fought each other, each refusing to concede to others the right to find rest in their particular myths. The feuds went on until the party of those that had easily given up myths for good cried in their face: “Oh, you fools, don’t you see that all your blabbering is sheer nonsense, since it can neither be verified empirically nor demonstrated by reason? That it cannot be verified empirically you yourselves are bound to admit. That it cannot be demonstrated by reason, your in-fighting shows beyond a doubt.”

 

Thus far the detractors of the traditional kind of metaphysical philosophy, even though they may not very much like the earlier portion of what I have written, will give me a big Bravo! for the latter part. But wait: I do not deserve your congratulations; I am not entirely on your side.

 

Given that all metaphysics is myth-making, must we be content with living – to put it briefly – within the domain of fact? In some of us humans there is a deep-seated need to see things whole, to see all things ranged in an intrinsically coherent pattern. This coherent pattern can only be of our own creation and therefore a myth. But it gives us a life, a full life, of a certain quality, that only becomes a delusion when we forget that it is a myth of our own making. When I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or watch King Lear the experience I live through is real, is the fullest reality I know of, but it is not factual. In the same way, when I read Plato or Spinoza or Whitehead I live in a world that has a reality that nothing in the empirical world can match, and the experience I live through then is not a momentary experience as in the case of reading an epic or watching a drama, but gives me a vision that colours and moulds my whole life. And the mythical garb of the experience does not exhaust its reality, for the experience born of the metaphysical myth opens up to me my own inner reality, the reality of my subjective life. That is what I call the philosophic insight and that is what I mean when I say that philosophic insight can only be expressed in myth.

 

Human beings have been variously divided into opposed types. I propose to categorize human beings into physicals who are content with a world made up of what can be seen and touched and weighed and measured, and metaphysicals who are more at home with the creations of their minds and find there and only there what they deem to be real. I believe that the physicals miss a life of a fine quality. But the metaphysicals, when they take their myths too seriously, are enslaved to superstition, sometimes to the point of stultification. In this world things good are not only hard to achieve but they are also always hemmed with danger.

World, Mind, Freedom

May 6, 2009

Comment on “Review: Providence Lost by Genevieve Lloyd” by Erik J. Wielenberg http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=110&cpage=1#comment-36 I find the conception of an “order that does not depend on the will of any orderer” to be incoherent. This does not entail that there must be a personal (transcendent) orderer, a conception which is in turn riddled with insuperable difficulties, but it suggests that intelligence (mind) is an original dimension of reality. That is why I see the current evolutionist-creationist controversy as wrong-headed on both sides. The evolutionists equate their position with outright materialism and the creationists commit themselves to transcendent theism. In my view both these positions fail to give us an intelligible reality. Although I say that only an ultimately intelligent reality is intelligible, yet, at variance with other idealists, I do not consider this position to be demonstrable. But it gives me a vision of reality that is intrinsically coherent, within which I find room for values and for a meaningful life. This position agrees with Spinoza except on the question of demonstrability. Spinoza, accepting without reserve Cartesian rationalism with its implication of stringent determinism left no room for free will. It is true that Spinoza’s conception of freedom as autonomy is superbly noble. But if we see determinism as an empirical hypothesis that works well in general and serves all our scientific purposes but does not rule out creative origination, we can have a broader conception of freedom – a freedom which is to be distinguished radically from choice. Freedom as creativity, I maintain, is a reality that we know immediately in the creativity of thought and the creativity of art – a reality that must be seen as more indubitable than all the empirical laws of natural science. This creative freedom of our inner reality Spinoza had to sacrifice because he needlessly accepted the shackles of Cartesian determinism. Kant moved in the right direction – but did not go the whole way – when he relegated causality to the phenomenal world and seated freedom in our inner subjective reality.

SEEING AND PHILOSOPHY

April 29, 2009

COMMENT ON “HOW TO SEE” BY MARK ROWLANDS
http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=84
I don’t see in what way How We See can be a problem for philosophy. It is a scientific problem to be investigated by the empirical methods of science. The philosopher, the poet, the artist, are concerned with the subjective experience. The only philosophically viable answer to the question about Where We See is, in my view, that it is in the totality where brain, eye, and world are one whole. The locus of experience is he Whole, and that is what is real for the philosopher as for the poet, not atoms or quarks or light rays or neurons or whatever reductionists want to trade our mind for.