Representation, Reduction, etc. 


OK, sports fans, it looks like we are closing in on the quarry, at last: the remaining core of the debate between materialists and the rest of the world.  I had started this search in the ontology arena, but the action appears mainly in epistemology. 

Representationalism had been the leading epistemic theory at least since Descartes.  But now it is about dead in the water.*  Although the diehard materialists will continue beating on it indefinitely, there is just no life left in its poor bones, as is obvious to the wearied onlookers.  Where does that leave us? 

That leaves us with coherentism, direct realism and connectionism as the only paths forward.  Connectionism is the last gambit for the materialists, but they appear less than happy with its prospects.  Conceptually, connectionism is totally opaque.  Even if it were the answer, we would never be able to know it.  On the other hand, our own minds are conceptually transparent to a miraculous degree.  This gross mismatch in conceptual impedances is what has the connectionists in a funk.  Reverting to the concept of the 'grandmother cell' is a non-starter.  

It is a given that as long as the AI people get funded, they will continue make insubstantial claims while ducking out of every philosophical discussion, along with their camp followers, the transhumanists.  Intellectual conversation about the mind is left with no alternatives besides dualism and idealism.  

Direct realism is compatible with both Cartesian dualism and idealism, but as long as the coherentists can keep a glove in the ring, they will exert a strong pull toward the latter.  And right now, direct realism is getting the most attention.  Its proponents admit that it has a distinctly miraculous tinge, but then whoever said that the cutting of the world-knot would not invoke higher powers.  With immaterialism the miraculousness can be more evenly distributed in a panpsychic fashion.  It then becomes less add hoc.  I doubt that any of the direct realists are unaware of their immaterialist option, they just don't want to raise too many red flags at once.  They are content to be the stalking-horse for the anti-materialists generally.  

After spending most of the last century being beaten over the head by the materialists, the anti-materialists can be forgiven for just wanting to savor the turning of the tables that direct realism represents.  But before long they will have to move on to something more positive, and very likely that will be a version of coherentism, leaving the Cartesians relatively isolated.  However, when they get around to reading this web site, or anything remotely like it, they will have an opportunity for more than a few second thoughts, I'm sure.  

For us, for now, we consider the prospects for participation, or at least for a more creative lurking, and that entails an examination of the status quo and the dispositions of the players. 


Of immediate interest is the presence of a theological dimension to the discussion of epistemology.  It is a rather modest presence, highlighted by Plantinga's early attack on coherentism.  There have been only minor theological counterthrusts.  If Plantinga's authority is allowed to prevail, it will significantly diminish theological participation in this important anti-materialist discussion. 

Behind the theological concerns is the intuition that theology must have a foundation.  Coherentism looks too much like the shifting sands in the desert, too prone to fashion and other human interests.  There are thoughtful theologians who see coherentism and immaterialism as the way to move beyond the fundamentalist mindset, but they do not have the intellectual weight of Plantinga.  Susan Haak's 'Foundherentism' (c. 1993) has received little theological notice.  We'll remain watchful, but this is not where the action is now. 


* My announcement of the death of representationalism may have been a tad premature.  It is now doing business as 'intentionalism'.  In particular see Alex Byrne's defense of it.  According to Alex, it is still the biggest debate in philosophy.  I haven't figured out if the alleged opponents of intentionalism, qua representationalism, have a positive position or not. 

Now I'm looking at Benj's response to Alex. 


I am not finding anything substantially new with Byrne.  Intentionalism is the weakest form of naturalism with respect to the mind.  It is the lowest common denominator of representationalism and all the concomitant varieties of naturalism or physicalism, be they functionalist, computationalist, connectionist, etc.  On top of that, the only intentionalism being actively defended is a 'weak' intentionalism which does not attempt to explain the phenomenal character of imagination, among other obvious oversights.  But even in this most diluted form of naturalism that still has any substance, its counterintuitive quality remains blatant. 

The intuitive bottleneck of intentionalism is its claim that the fullness of experience resides entirely in the thoughts that allegedly comprise that experience.  Our intuition is that phenomenal experience causes thoughts rather than being comprised by them.  This is more than an intuitive bottleneck, it is a logical contradiction, unless one is willing to engage in the lifework of chopping that logic, which appears to be the case with the remaining handful of active intentionalists.  

How can one explain this dogged tenacity of these intentionalists?  What is the dog that is wagging this intentionalist tail?  The dog is plainly the scientific establishment and all those who partake of its worldview.  The vast majority of these folk remain blissfully unaware of this intentionalist structure on which their vast enterprise rests so uneasily.  If the handful of intentionalists were tomorrow to throw up their hands in defeat, would the dog even notice its missing tail?  It could perhaps just be seen as one more postmodern deconstructive encroachment.  But the desperate tenacity of intentionalism's defenders argues for something more intellectually dramatic.  Intentionalism represents the last claim that science has for presenting a coherent and complete worldview.  By default, intentionalism has become the logical corner stone of that world.  

This is my opinion.  I wonder, though, why this putative fact is seldom remarked by either side of this debate.  Am I entirely misconstruing its potential historical significance?  Perhaps the participants and small audience no longer see the possibility of, nor harbor a desire for, any substantive resolution.  As long as the beer flows, this intellectual wake will persist, even whilst the deceased waxes aromatic. 


If there were to be a turning point in this debate, it would come as a combination of internal and external factors.  

On the inside would be an arbitrary but significant shift in the conceptual terms of the debate.  It would be sufficient to motivate some of the observers to finally get involved.  This would include one or more prominent philosophers, and an ample number of concerned laypeople, such as ourselves.  The public scrutiny would be sufficient to bring the diehard materialists to their senses, or to bring the opponents to declare victory and move on.  

However, this scenario has had opportunities to play out in the past, and I believe there has to be one important additional ingredient.  There must be an attractive intellectual alternative, either to the debate or to the naturalism being debated.  Desultory though this debate on intentionalism may be, it is the biggest show in philosophy.  That alternative would almost surely include elements of immaterialism, rationalism and theism.  The locus of the debate might shift from between materialism and dualism, to one between dualism and immaterialism.  Without such an alternative, the debate would eventually fragment and dissolve into the wider postmodern cacophony.  This last possibility is what most observers would likely predict.  


According to Frank Jackson the beer is still cold and flowing: 

Most contemporary philosophers given a choice between going with science and going with intuitions, go with science. Although I once dissented from the majority, I have capitulated and now see the interesting issue as being where the arguments from the intuitions against physicalism—the arguments that seem so compelling—go wrong.

Here is the problem that these materialist philosophers face, even supposing they might possibly be right.  There is a strong correlation between intuition and language.  To go against intuition is to go against language.  The whole intuition of the incorrigibly subjective nature of experience is more deeply embedded in our language than any other intuition.  In order to promote the pure objectivism of science, one must attempt to drive a wedge between language and intuition by redefining a very large portion of that language.  Materialists concede that this is an uphill battle of unprecedented magnitude and that they are making very little headway.  

Philosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline besides poetry, is a verbal discipline.  To attempt to do battle with a radically diminished verbal armamentarium ought to be a debilitating handicap.  One gets a sense of almost tragic heroism in the challenge that these philosophers are taking upon themselves.  But for what cause?  Is this a 'truth' that is worth dying for?  Does not materialism leave our formerly transcendental notions of truth almost unrecognizably mutilated?  Rather I suspect that what is at stake here is professional identity.  This is more like Custer's last stand of 'rationalism' against, well, perhaps primitivism, on their view.  

The is a similar sense of besiegement on the part of scientists attempting to combat various popular beliefs in the paranormal.  And I don't think we can understand the philosopher's predicament outside the context of modernism vs. traditionalism, setting aside the whole postmodern issue.  Ironically we have the spectacle of self-defined 'naturalists' attempting to deconstruct human nature.  And they pretend to be surprised by the resistance they encounter.  

The materialists might have supposed that their battle had been won at the Scopes trial.  Why then is there still this opposition and why is it coming mainly from among their own colleagues, rather than from the hinterland? 


But so much for social psychology, now back to Frank's philosophy.  Why are our compelling intuitions so wrong? 

Here is the crux of Frank's argument [also see this paper]:  he compares redness with squareness.  I can experience squareness without entailing the existence of anything that is square, either internally or externally.  (This seems like a throwback to the adverbial critique of the sense data theory.  I don't have a red sense datum, I am rather just being appeared to redly.)  The squareness is an intensional property of experience, not an extensional nor an instantiated property.  It is a conceptual or functional property as well, perhaps.  If the materialist can justify this intensionalism, not to be confused with intentionalism, then she is off the ontological hook.  Redness is a kind of process, presumably physical, and not some extant being, presumably non-physical.  

I am still having difficulty identifying the key non-materialists in the debate on representationalism.  [Much of the anti-representationalism is just coming from the connectionist direction.]  Donald Davidson is a leading opponent of both representationalism and the correspondence theory of truth.  


The main philosophical critique of representationalism is coming from the Continental phenomenologists, and it was Hubert Dreyfus who imported the criticisms of  Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty: 

For even if, with Dreyfus, we reject the proposition that all successful action requires deliberatively attended-to mental direction (in the form of, e.g., rules recited or a meditation on the specific conditions the agent's behavior must meet), we still need to explain how it is that the capacities associated with G[estalt]-Intentionality are afforded. Such an explanation would seem to require that our action, no matter how absorbed, be underwritten by some kind of mechanism that -- because it deals in highly abstract content -- ultimately is representational.

This sounds rather like the dispute between connectionists and computationalists: not much metaphysics.    

But check out Representationalism and Anti-representationalism - Kant, Davidson and Rorty.  

On the contrary anti-representationalists like Davidson and Rorty do not need mediation between "minds and the world", between beliefs, sentences and the world. Rorty thinks with Davidson that mind and human being are continuous with the world, we could even say, both philosophers ontologize the interwovenness (the impossible distinction) of scheme and content.

Plenty of fodder for immaterialism here. 

There are two characteristic and important figures in the analytic philosophy, who prepare the overcoming of the Cartesian and Kantian epistemology and make possible Rortyan anti-representationalism: Quine and Davidson.


Following the holistic path of Quine, Davidson proposes that analytic philosophers give up the idea, that knowledge should be grounded "on something that counts as an ultimate source of evidence".  He says "A major reason ... for accepting a coherence theory is the unintelligibility of the dualism of a conceptual scheme and a 'world' waiting to be coped with."  Davidson proposes a coherence theory of truth, where belief systems should not be verified by correspondence-seeking confrontational methodologies.


As I have briefly shown, Quine, Davidson and Rorty give up the Kantian idea of epistemology which was central for analytic philosophy and which in Continental context was given up by Hegel.  But as it is mostly the case, philosophical systems not only bear the possibilities and hints of their overcomings, they "bear" also their "overcomers" with the result that philosophical systems which are left behind, leave their traces, their "genetic codes" in the "overcomer" philosophies. 

We can complete this argumentative circle by pointing back to the previous pages on Huw Price and representationalism.  These assorted arguments appear to put representationalism in a small box.  What is surprising is that no one else out there is keeping track of this larger non-materialist case against representationalism and connectionism.  Is this not the last possible stand for materialism?  Why aren't more folks paying attention?  Where are all those alleged new theistically minded philosophers?  

Some sort of phenomenological coherentism seems like the only alternative to this boxed-in materialism.  Biosemiotics is moderately active, but its phenomenological vision is limited to cognitive science.  

We have pretty well scoped out the current materialist debate.  Coherentism is the only comprehensive alternative, and we have a pretty fair grasp of the radical developmental potential of that new opening.  Where are our fellow explorers?  


Searching under coherentism & representationalism I find a useful survey of the various epistemological options from an foundationalist, direct realist point of view. 


Before this is all over, we're gonna have to check out informationalism.  This fella, Floridi, is the best I have seen yet.  Information theory is an excellent test-bed for the various epistemic theories.  It seems to me that there is a consensus among informationalists that information cannot be defined without a semantic agent.  As of now, no artificial agency is foreseen.  Where does this leave the strong AI folk?  With the rug pulled out from under.  

Here is an excerpt from one of Luciano's essays

Because information is a multifaceted and polyvalent concept, the question "what is information?" is misleadingly simple, exactly like "what is being?". As an instance of the Socratic question "ti esti...?", it poses a fundamental and complex problem, intrinsically fascinating and no less challenging than "what is truth?", "what is virtue?" "what is knowledge?" or "what is meaning?". It is not a request for dictionary explorations but an ideal point of intersection of philosophical investigations, whose answers can diverge both because of the conclusions reached and because of the approaches adopted. Approaches to a Socratic question can usually be divided into three broad groups: reductionist, antireductionist and non-reductionist.  Theories of information are no exception.

Not too shabby for a computer nerd, huh?   Luciano classifies himself as a non-reductionist.  (I actually had a job once as a low-grade programmer, well, I was using object-orientation early-on.) 

Reductionists support the feasibility of a "unified theory of information" general enough to capture all major kinds information (from Shannon’s to Baudrillard’s,....).

Now how many US computer jocks have ever heard of Baudrillard?  Am I digressing?  Have I ever heard of Baudrillard, the famous Czech composer? 


There is an important article by Ellen Ullman in the October issue of Harper's, which unfortunately is not available on the Internet.  It is a several page article entitled "PROGRAMMING THE POST-HUMAN".  It is easily the hardest hitting indictment of materialism and Strong AI that I have ever run across.  

Following computer science’s quest to create a sentient machine, Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer and a novelist, is prompted to explore what it means to be human. Considering emotions, consciousness, reproduction, and nutrition, alongside computer science’s dismissals and rebuttals, Ullman arrives at "recognition of our own kind" as the quality that defines human life. "We are creatures whose brains are formed by learning; that is, through experience and social interaction. We don’t merely send out signals to identify ourselves; we create one another’s identity."

This brief summary does not do her justice.  She skillfully captures the personal cynicism motivating too many of the AI researchers, a cynicism that is usually kept just below the surface.  She accuses them of seeing humans as nothing more than 'bags of tricks'.  They are holding nothing over Richard Dawkins besides the express desire to eliminate their own species in favor of the much greater efficiency and rationality of programmed silicon brains.  

Why have we had to wait this long for someone to throw down the gauntlet?  After reading more than my share of dry as dust philosophical argumentation, this was a fresh breeze, indeed.   The AI materialists have been intellectually coddled for much too long in their publicly funded ivory towers.  

The question before us now is whether this mainstream publication was an anomaly, or something more deliberate and political.  If I were in the scientific materialist establishment I would be feeling more than a bit uneasy just now.  Is this a call to battle?  Who is pushing this very visible button?  This virtual arena has every potential to get interesting quickly.  If it progresses too quickly for me to keep up, well, more power to Ellen & Co.  At one point she even feels it necessary to deny any theistic agenda.  And what will happen when the theists catch the scent of blood?  It may not be real pretty.  Some 'sacred' cows will be gored. 


The reaction to the the 'transhumanist' attack on humanity is slow in coming, but I doubt that Ellen's reaction will be the last.  

Anne Foerst has a rather different approach to the same general topic: 

At the AI-Lab, she served as the theological advisor for the Cog and Kismet Projects, two attempts to develop embodied, autonomous and social robots in analogy to human infants which might learn and develop more mature intelligences. She also initiated and directs "God and Computers," a dialogue project initially between Harvard Divinity School, the Boston Theological Institute and MIT and now to be continued at St. Bonaventure. In this function, she has organized several public lecture series and public conferences on Artificial Intelligence, computer science and concepts on personhood and dignity.

Would I be capitulating to cynicism to wonder if her presence represents an awkward bit of CYA on the part of the AI crowd? 

Here is a hostile reaction to her work: 

Anne Foerst's perverse convolution of AI and Christianity is disturbing, to say the least. Mixing one of mankind's greatest goals with the myth of the Fall and concepts of sin and estrangement is more than just an attempt to endow AI with Christian meaning. It is an attempt to sully the grand vision of AI itself and the "hubris" of those who are working to attain that vision. The myth of the Fall (the Edenic myth of Adam and Eve, who fell from God's grace upon eating from the tree of knowledge) is Christianity's declaration of war on science. Nietzsche's analysis of this myth is dead-on: "Science makes [us?] godlike - it is all over with priests and gods when man becomes scientific. The moral is that science is forbidden as such; it alone is forbidden. Science is the first sin, the seed of all sin, the original sin. This alone is morality."

This writer's hyperbole is clear, but he probably captures a popular sentiment, nonetheless.  Invoking Nietzsche does nothing to dispel or soft-peddle the transhumanist 'grand  vision' of Strong AI. 


I had not done a search on reductionism for awhile and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.  There are not many folks publicly advocating reductionism.  

Noteworthy is Gregory Chaitin on the subject: The Decline & Fall of Reductionism in Pure Mathematics.  I had not previously encountered an anti-reductionist interpretation of the crucial Godel and Turing results.  The incompleteness of formal systems implies that important theorems may be improvable and so must be treated as irreducible axioms, much the way new phenomena in physics may be explained with new laws.  Mathematical systems are made more powerful by being extended with optimally chosen axioms.  There need be no limit to this process of extension.  This quasi-empirical process is a version of transfinite constructivism, often motivated by computer experiments.  This constructivism highlights the increasingly subjective aspect of pure mathematics, in that the choice of axioms becomes an exercise mathematical aesthetics.  The demonstrable facility of the human mind with such irreducible intangibles lends considerable credence to its supra-natural character.  Who is volunteering a biological explanation for our ability to hypothesize the transfinite Riemannian distribution of the primes?  Its likely improvability only adds to the mystery. 


Psychoneural Reduction - The New Wave.  This the quasi-non-reductive wave came ashore without leaving much of a trace: Eliminativist Undercurrents in the New Wave Model of Psychoneural Reduction.  

The state-of-the-art of reductionism is surveyed in Physicalism and Its Discontents (2001, CUP), and here is a review of it.  The upshot is very little progress to report in the last several years: "There is a tone of battling programs here rather than detailed argument and reply."  In other words, the physicalists have given up talking even to each other.  The burden, of course, falls on the reductionists.  If they cannot convince each other, what chance do they have with the skeptics? 

Bare reductionism never even got off the ground.  What we see are continuing attempts to compromise with reductionism in ways that would bring it into some resemblance of the mental phenomena it is meant to explain.  These compromises with physicalism, however, are invariably found either to be unphysical or to fall well short of the target phenomena, and so it's back to a very cluttered drawing-board for the would-be neo-physicalist. 

Here we linger until we summon sufficient courage to tackle immaterialism.  No one seems able to muster the will or the authority to call an end to this exercise in futility.  But then there's Mary: 

Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision (1995, OUP) takes the gloves off the reductionism debate, thanks, in part, to its coeditor Mary, Mary, quite contrary:   

Mary Midgley, aged 81, may be the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool. One moment she sits by her fire in Newcastle like a round-cheeked tabby cat; the next she is deploying a savage Oxonian precision of language to dissect some error as a cat dissects a living mouse.

....With two other [books], Science And Salvation, and Evolution As A Religion, she staked out a territory all of her own, examining how science comes to function as a substitute for religion, and how very badly it does the job. 

"It was Lucretius," she writes, "who launched the notion of science as primarily a benign kind of weed killer designed to get rid of religion, and did it in great rolling passionate hexameters which gave it a force it would never have had if it had been expressed in unemotive prose.

She believes that philosophy matters, perhaps especially to the people who think it is merely a garnish on the brute facts of life - "like the bed of tulips in front of a nuclear power station",

Love that Brit wit.  Unfortunately, no ensuing vivisections have been reported.  


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