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I was thinking about this as a problem of so-called social epistemology -specifically, of what a person ought to believe when her or his beliefs contradict someone else's. It seems obvious to me that -other things being equal- the rational approach to take when encountering someone who appears rational and well-informed and who disagrees with you, is to take seriously that person's thoughts. Since the abstract authors fit the description, it's obvious, I think, that what they say deserves at least some consideration -ie, what they say is not obviously worthless (ie., to be dismissed with a one liner).

Is this fair?

I realize the situation is more complicated here, as there's the question whether a whole discipline has gone off the rails, which I think the OP has convinced himself is the case with philosophy (so, maybe other things aren't equal). I've tried a few times without success to recommend some epistemic humility on this point.

This is an interesting post but, I have to say, kind of frustrating. I have tried to follow the discussions between Esar and RobbBB and your substantial elucidation as well as many other great comments, but I remain kind-of in the dark. Below are some questions which I had, as I read.

This question doesn't feel like it should be very hard.

What question? What exactly is the problem you are purporting to solve, here? If it is, "What is the truth condition of 'If we took the number of apples in each pile, and multiplied those numbers together, we'd get six.'", then doesn't Tarski's disquotation schema give us the answer?

Navigating to the six requires a mixture of physical and logical reference

Not sure why you obscure matters with idiosyncratic metaphors like 'navigating to the six', but never mind. Can we infer from the distinction between logical and physical reference that there is a distinction between logical and physical truth? It appears you countenance the Analytic/Synthetic distinction - precisely the distinction which is usually considered to have undone logical positivism. Do you have a preferred response to Quine's famous argument in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism', or do you have a reason for thinking you are immune to it? I think you think you aren't doing philosophy, so it doesn't apply, but then I really don't know how to understand what you're saying. If your problems are just computational, then surely you're making matters much harder for yourself than they should be (not that computational problems aren't sometimes very hard).

Next we have to call the stuff on the table 'apples'. But how, oh how can we do this...?

How about by saying "Those are apples"? What exactly is the problem, here?

...when grinding the universe and running it through a sieve will reveal not a single particle of appleness?

Here's my best guess at what is exercising you. You reason that only those properties needed to account for the constitution and behaviour of the smallest parts of matter are real, that being an apple is not among them, and hence that being an apple is not a real property. Assuming this guess is right, what exactly is your reason for accepting the first premise? It is not immediately obvious, though I know there are traditionally different reasons. The reason will inform the adequacy of your answer.

Standard physics uses the same fundamental theory to describe the flight of a Boeing 747 airplane, and collisions in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. Nuclei and airplanes alike, according to our understanding, are obeying special relativity, quantum mechanics, and chromodynamics.

So far so good...

We also use entirely different models to understand the aerodynamics of a 747 and a collision between gold nuclei in the RHIC. A computer modeling the aerodynamics of a 747 may not contain a single token, a single bit of RAM, that represents a quark. (Or a quantum field, really; but you get the idea.)

Nothing controversial here, but it of course has nothing to do with our understanding of the problem. If the understanding is correct, the problem exists regardless of whether anyone or thing ever imagines or represents or refers to apples or anything else. To introduce representations and models into the discussion is only to confuse matters, no?

So is the 747 made of something other than quarks?

Where does this question come from? If my guess about the problem is correct, it is irrelevant. It may be that the property of being a 747 (apple) is not identical to the property of being in any very complicated way composed of quarks, bosons and leptons, even though a given 747 (apple) is made only of these particles. The (philosophical) thesis about properties is different than the scientific thesis about the constitution of physical objects.

No, we're just modeling the 747 with representational elements that do not have a one-to-one correspondence with individual quarks. Similarly with apples.

Please clarify - what precisely does the relation between a computer model of a 747 and a 747 have to do with the metaphysics of properties?

To compare a mental image of high-level apple-objects to physical reality,

Can you say what you mean by this? For myself, this is someting I only ever do very rarely -conjure a mental image, then see how it agrees or differs from what I'm looking at. To be sure, sets of neurons in my brain are being activated all the time by patterns of light hitting my retinas, but there's a lot of explanatory distance to cover to show these (the story about neural events and the story about images) are the same thing. In any case, this seems entirely irrelevant to the present concerns.

for it to be true

Are mental images the sorts of thngs which can be true (in the sense in which a sentence or proposition can be, as opp. merely accurate)? Suppose I have a mental picture of a certain cat on a certain table and that the cat is indeed on the table. Is my mental image true? Even if the cat in my image is the wrong colour? Or is sitting when the cat is standing? As far as I can see this isn't just nit-picking. You have some kind of AI model which involves mental images and which you seem to think needs a semantic theory, and it's just not clear how it all fits together.

...doesn't require that apples be fundamental in physical law.

If my guess is correct, your answer to the problem as far as I can see is something like "The problem is not a problem".

A single discrete element of fundamental physics is not the only thing that a statement can ever be compared-to. We just need truth conditions that categorize the low-level states of the universe, so that different low-level physical states are inside or outside the mental image of "some apples on the table" or alternatively "a kitten on the table".

Can you give an example of a low-level state being 'inside a mental image' of "some apples on the table"? I really don't know what this means.

Having gone through this once, here's a second pass at a gloss. You accept, reasonably, that "That is an apple" is true in English iff that (pointing to a certain apple) is an apple. The referent of the "that" we can take to be a certain object. The question arises, however, as to what the referent or other semantic value is of "is an apple". Plausibly, it is the property of being an apple. But, we may reasonably ask, what sort of thing is being and apple? I understand your answer is as follows:

Just as an individual apple is nothing more than a quite large number of quarks and leptons and bosons interestingly assembled, being an apple is nothing more than being a quite large number of quarks and leptons and bosons assembled in a certain interesting way.

Is this roughly a fair understanding? If so, please consider:

1) You will need to augment your story to include so-called etiology. The property of being a 10-dollar bill is not equivalent to the property of being in a certain way composed of matter - causal origin/history matters, too (perfect counterfeits).

2) The problem of vagueness often seems like a paradigm of philosophical futility but it is a real problem. Suppose you could cross-breed apples and pears, and have a spectrum of individuals ranging from unproblematic apple to unproblematic pear (= non-apple). What will the truth-condition be of the statement 'That is an apple', pointing to the piece of fruit in the middle? Do you give up on bivalence, or do you say that the statement is determinately true or false, but there are deep epistemological problems? Neither answer seems satisfactory, and where you come down may affect your theory.

3) If this story is correct, it will presumably apply to the whole very large hierarchy of properties, ranging from being a quark through being a proton and being a carbon atom up to being an apple and beyond. And the high-level properties will have at a minimum to be disjunctions of lower properties, even to accomodate such mundane facts as the existence of both green and red apples. And you may find ultimately that what is in question is more like a family-resemblance relation among the cases which constitute being an apple (if not apples, then tables and 747s, very likely). And then aren't you in danger simply of laboriously re-capitulating the history of 20th c. philosophical thought on the subject?

This is all philosophy, which you've repeatedly said you aren't interested in doing. But that's what you're doing! If you're just doing AI, you really shouldn't be wasting your time on these questions, surely. Research into neural nets is already making great progress on the question of how we make the discriminations we do. Why isn't that enough for your purposes?

A last thought: there's something of a debate on this site about the value of traditional philosophy. I think it has value, a big part of which is that it encourages people to think carefully and to express themselves precisely. I don't claim always to be as careful or precise as I should be, but these are values. Doing analytic philosophy is some of the best rationality training you can get.

Following the sequence link at the top, I found this similar post, which has an impressive list of references. You include there this paper by Timothy Williamson. It seems to me an oversight you don't mention the paper's argument at all, as it's a sustained critique of the position you're representing.

The basic idea is that the kind of doubts about intuitions you raise are relevantly similar to more familiar forms of philosophical scepticism (scepticism about the external world, etc). I understand Williamson sees a dilemma: either they are mistaken for the same reasons familiar scepticism is mistaken (Williamson's position, to which most of the paper is dedicated), or the doubts undermine way more than its proponents think they do.

It'd be great to hear your summary of the argument there, and what you consider to be its flaw(s).

If you like Williamson, check out also this excellent bit on naturalism.

The issue is whether a sentence's meaning is just its truth conditions, or whether it expresses some kind of independent thought or proposition, and this abstract object has truth conditions. These are two quite different approaches to doing semantics.

Why should you care? Personally, I don't see this problem has anything to do with the problem of figuring out how a brain acquires the patterns of connections needed to create the movements and sounds it does given the stimuli it receives. To me it's an interesting but independent problem, and the idea of 'neurally embodied beliefs' is worthless. Some people (with whom I disagree but whom I nevertheless respect) think the problems are related, in which case there's an extra reason to care, and what exactly a neurally embodied belief is, will vary. If you don't care, that's your business.

This seems to me a reasonable question (at least partly - see below). To be clear, I said that reading the work of experts is more likely to produce a good understanding than merely writing-up one's own thoughts. My answer:

For any given field, reading the thoughts of experts -ie, smart people who have devoted substantial time and effort to thinking and collaborating in the field- is more likely to result in a good understanding of the field's issues than furrowing one's brow and typing away in relative isolation. I take this to be common sense, but please say if you need some substantiation. The conclusion about philosophy follows by universal instantiation.

"Ah", I hear you say, "but philosophy does not fit this pattern, because the people who do it aren't smart. They're all at best of mediocre intelligence." (is there another explanation of the poor understanding you refer to?). From what I've seen on LW, this position will be inferred to from a bad experience or two with philosophy profs , or perhaps on the grounds that no smart person would elect to study such a diseased subject.

Two rejoinders:

i) Suppose it were true that only second rate thinkers do philosophy. It would be still the case that with a large number of people discussing the issues over many years, there'd be a good chance something worth knowing -if there's anything to know- would emerge. It wouldn't be obvious that the rational course is to ignore it, if interested in the issues.

ii) It's obviously false (hence the 'partly' above). Just try reading the work of Timothy Williamson or David Lewis or Crispin Wright or W.V.O. Quine or Hilary Putnam or Donald Davidson or George Boolos or any of a huge number of other writers, and then making a rational case that the leading thinkers of philosophy are second-rate intellects. I think this is sufficiently obvious that the failure to see it suggests not merely oversight but bias.

Philosophical progress may tend to take the form just of increasingly nuanced understandings of its problems' parameters rather than clear resolutions of them, and so may not seem worth doing, to some. I don't know whether I'd argue with someone who thinks this, but I would suggest if one thinks it, one shouldn't be claiming it even while expounding a philosophical theory.


As far as I can see, your point is something like:

"Your reasoning implies I should read some specific thing; there is no such thing; therefore your reasoning is mistaken." (or, "unless you can produce such a thing...")

Is this right? In any case, I don't see that the conditional is correct. I can only give examples of works which would help. Here are three more. Your second part seeks (as I understand it) a theory of meaning which would imply that your ' Elaine is a post-utopian' is meaningless, but that 'The photon continues to exist...' is both meaningful and true. I get the impression you think that an adequate answer could be articulated in a few paragraphs. To get a sense of some of the challenges you might face -ie, of what the project of contriving a theory of meaning entails- consider looking at Stephen Schiffer's excellent Remnants of Meaning and The Things we Mean or Scott Soames's What is Meaning? .

1) I don't see that this really engages the criticism. I take it you reject that the subjects of truth and reference are important to you. On this, two thoughts:

a) This doesn't affect the point about the reliability of blogging versus research. The significance of the irrationality maybe, but the point remains. You may hold that the value to you of the creative process of explicating your own thoughts is sufficiently high that it trumps the value of coming to optimally informed beliefs - that the cost-benefit analysis favours blogging. I am sceptical of this, but would be interested to hear the case.

b) It seems just false that you don't care about these subjects. You've written repeatedly on them, and seem to be aiming for an internally coherent epistemology and semantics.

2) My claim was that your lack of references is evidence that you don't accord importance to experts on truth and meaning, not that there are specific things you should be referencing. That said, if your claim is ultimately just the observation that truth is useful as a device for so-called semantic ascent, you might mention Quine (see the relevant section of Word and Object or the discussion in Pursuit of Truth) or the opening pages of Paul Horwich's book Truth, to give just two examples.

3) My own view is that AI should have nothing to do with truth, meaning, belief or rationality - that AI theory should be elaborated entirely in terms of pattern matching and generation, and that philosophy (and likewise decision theory) should be close to irrelevant to it. You seem to think you need to do some philosophy (else why these posts?), but not too much (you don't have to decide whether the sorts of things properly called 'true' are sentences, abstract propositions or neural states, or all or none of the above). Where the line lies and why is not clear to me.

A criticism - somewhat harsh but hopefully constructive.

As you know, lots of people have written on the subjects of truth and meaning (aside from Tarski). It seems, however, that you don't accord them much importance (no references, failure to consider alternate points of view, apparent lack of awareness of the significance of the matter of what the bearer of truth (sentence, proposition, 'neurally embodied belief') properly is, etc.). I put it to you this is a manifestation of irrationality: you have a known means at your disposal to learn reliably about a subject which is plainly important to you, but you apparently reject it in favour of the more personally satisfying but much less reliable alternative of blogging your own ideas -you willingly choose an inferior path to belief formation. If you want to get a good understanding of such things as truth, reference and mathematical proof, I submit that the rational starting point is to read at least a survey of what experts in the fields have written, and to develop your own thoughts, at least initially, in the context they provide.

The comments of yours I've read are always clear and insightful, and usually I agree with what you say. I have to disagree with you here, though, about your supposed second fallacy.

Arguments against the existence of subjective experience (consciousness, qualia, etc.) generally take the form of arguing against other people's arguments in favour. Since no-one has a good account of what it is, it is not difficult to demolish their bad accounts. This is like refuting the phlogiston theory to prove that fire does not exist.

I disagree. Arguments against qualia typically challenge the very coherence of anything which could play the desired role. It's not like trying to prove fire doesn't exist, it's like trying to prove there is no such thing as elan vital or chakras.

I deny the existence of UFOs. It's pretty clear what UFOs are - spaceships built and flown to Earth by creatures who evolved on distant planets - and I can give fairly straight-forward probabilistic reasons of the kind amenable to rational disagreement, for my stance.

I (mostly) deny the existence of God. Apologies if you're a theist for the bluntness, but I don't think it's at all clear what God is or could be. Every explication I've ever encountered of God either involves properties which permit the deduction of contradictions (immovable rocks/unstoppable forces and what-not), or are so anodyne or diffuse as to be trivial ('God is love' -hence the 'mostly'). There is enough talk in our culture about God, however, to give meaning to denials of His existence - roughly, 'All (rather, most of) this talk which takes place in houses of worship and political chambers involving the word 'God' and its ilk, involves a mistaken ontological commitment'.

Do I deny the existence of consciousness, or subjective experience? If my wife and I go to a hockey game or a play, we in some sense experience the same thing -there is a common 'objective' experience. But equally we surely have in some sense different experiences - she may be interested or bored by different parts than I am, and will see slightly different parts of the action than I. So clearly there is such a thing as subjective experience, in some sense. This, however, is not what is at issue. Roughly, what we are concerned about is a supposed ineffable aspect of experience, a 'what it is like'. I deny the existence of this in the sense in which I deny the existence of God. That is, I have yet even to see a clear and coherent articulation of what's at issue. You imply the burden of argument is with the deniers; I (following Dennett and many others) suggest the burden is with defenders to say what it is they defend.

Are qualia causally efficacious, or not? If they are, then they are in principal objectively detectable/observable, and hence not worthy of the controversy they generate (if they have a causally efficacious 'aspect' and a non-efficacious, one, then just factor out the causally efficacious aspect as it plays no role in the controversy). On the flip side, of course, if qualia are not causally efficacious, then they aren't responsible for our talk of them - they aren't what we're presently talking about, paradoxically.

It seems to me the best case for exponents of consciousness is to force a dilemma - an argument pushing us on the one hand to accept the existence of something which on the other appears to be incoherent (as per just above). But I have yet to see this argument. Appeals to what's 'obvious' or to introspection just don't do it - the force of the sort of arg above and the several others adduced by Dennett et. al., clearly win out over thumping one's sternum and saying 'this!', simply because the latter isn't an argument. The typical candidates for serious arguments in this vein are inverted spectrum or Black and White Mary type-arguments, but it seems to me they always just amount to the chest thumping in fancy dress. Would be interested to hear of good candidate arguments for qualia, though, and to hear any objections if you think the foregoing is unfair.

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