Meaning – Holism, Externalism, Derrida

January 27, 2007

If minds exist at all, it would seem that thoughts have to mean something. But what does it mean to mean something, and how does that meaning come about? Central to the debate on what meaning is, is the fight over whether meaning is an internal phenomena to the mind, or whether it’s external.  One intuition says that how thoughts appear to us are all that matter. Another intuition suggests that what things are in the real outside world must also play a part in what a thought means. Among those outside world, external theories, there is the idea that the external relation incorporates space, in an abstract sense, how the ideas mean something over a fixed period of time. More radical theories include time, the history of the thought and perhaps even its future.

Key to how meaning comes about is found in the debates on atomism and various forms of holism. Can a thought mean something in and of itself? Or does it only have meaning in the context of other thoughts – holism?

There is a spectrum of positions incorporating both of these aspects. To the extreme left, pulling for orthodoxy to straightforward  representational metaphysics is Jerry Fodor’s account which holds thoughts to be both internal and atomistic. On the extreme right, thoroughly rejection representationalism would be Jacques Derrida who holds a convoluted holism that is both spacially and temporally external while at the same time entangling those two axis. In the middle somewhere, would be externalists on the analytic side who followed the linguistic turn while trying to avoid driving over the edge of the cliff, Quine and Davidson, and the key continental being Saussure. Holistically committed, but synchronically externalists only.

Internal and atomistic representation are strightforward to grasp in essence, a key advantage. They are also lower maintenance, needing less exotic theory to maintain. But the complicated world might demand more. Sort of like, believing in absolute moral standards is nice and clean, but then you visit Africa and feel like maybe it’s a bit naive.

Holism has a couple of problems. First, with regard to meaning holism, many articulations have been put forward which don’t clearly capture the ‘meaning’ part. One clear conception that seems common to Fodor and Saussure, is that the meaning of one word is a product of the contrast, or difference between it and all other words. But on the face of it, it’s possible to give meaning holism as an output of a related non-meaning holism so that while meaning holism might follow, it remains unexplained. Another problem with holism is keeping the entire system from collapsing when one word changes since all others are related to it. Or keeping two people on the same page when they have different vocabularies. 

In Sassure’s semiotics, meaning is tied to the community, but synchronically so. Externalists on the analytic side seem to analyse the situation in a similar way, looking for spacially represented ways to relate concepts to each other holistically. Derrida thought meaning couldn’t be fixed so easily, and a synchronic snapshot sufficiently articulated whould leave clues behind as to how it acheived its apparent victory. He aped Heidegger’s temporal externalism and showed that meanings are unstable and that can all be borne out by relating snapshots to other snapshots. The snapshots are a spacialization of time, and their interrelated history is a temporalization of space.  He went beyond Heidegger by arguing that no concept – including Being or difference – could sum up the situation adequately as a metatheory, being parts of the mix themselves.

Fodor’s atomism even though on a superficial level pretty straightforward,  in the details, is certainly beyond the time I have to try and understand it. Semantic holism just as a general formulation is excruciatingly difficult if not impossible. What the details would be like worked out? But semantic holism combined with Derrida’s externalism would be pure hell. Out of the five people who have ever lived that understand Heidegger and Derrida, only God would be able to understand a detailed semantic Holism in their world.

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Supervenience and Reductionism

January 25, 2007

In a previous post I noted that supervenience is probably the most popular conceptual tool used to explore the ontology of mind. The notion was introduced into mind by Donald Davidson who had a very interesting solution to some of the vexing problems of the time. I won’t go into that here, but let’s just say the target for him was to keep the universe sane, only exhibiting a single personality, while at the same time getting out of causal reduction. Supervenience allows us to see a way in which everything must be, in this case physical, without pressing the issue as to how it accomplishes this. It’s kind of like, I can see that Jones is clearly guilty and can clearly place him at the scene of the crime, even though I don’t have the slightest idea how he accomplished it.

 The bankrobbery supervened on Jones, his mask, cloak, and bag of tools caught clearly on tape. But how he cracked the safe is an utter mystery.

 While a great tool to explore the idea of physicalism with greater precision, it’s not universally accepted as having the ability to accomplish the goal of monism without reduction. J. Kim in particular makes a strong case that physicalism ultimately can’t survive absent causal reduction.


Some Aspects

January 23, 2007

Main points I’m trying to work out in my understanding of mind:

1) How physicalism overcomes qualia theoretically. My intuition leads me in the directions of a) New Science b) Language and semiotics. In other words, a or b or combination will bridge the gap.

2) What is or isn’t qualia? I’m not shooting for elimitivism, but I’m interested in how informational complexity might play a strong role in what we think of as experience (while keeping the door closed for intelligent design).

3) All three of these points being related, what is the relation between tacit and propositional knowledge? Thought experiments strike me as absurd that gap between absolute metaphysical knowledge of bicycle riding and actually riding a bike.


Bats – The Weaker Case

January 23, 2007

Chalmers’ Zombie argument is the most surgically precise rejection of physicalism. Other thought experiments leading up to this one, aren’t necessarily exhausted by it. And it is in fact, wrong to assume that the target has remained exactly constant.

 If there is something it is like to be a bat, we can’t infer physicalism is false outright.  There are ontological, epistemic, and semantic aspects of the problem of qualia which have to be taken into account. Nagel had a problem it seems with science explaining everything, but held to a layered view of the physical world and his aim seems to me to be epistemic. The layers, epistemically isolated, but not necessarily ontologically. Nagel believed there could be “bridge laws” which translate the layers into each other.

So it would seem that the verdict on whether we can know what it’s like to be a bat isn’t exhausted in this thought exercise.


What makes You You?

January 19, 2007

One popular thought experiment, usually to explore the possibilities of functionalism, is to replace one neuron with a “functionally equivalent” silicon part and note that it wouldn’t change phenomenal experience. So the question then is, if you keep doing that, and replace all neurons with silicon, what happens?

The possibilities seem to be, you, phenomenally in every way remain the same, a zombie, or a “Sixth Day” you. Let’s take another spin on this thought experiment. What about replacing all neurons with exact physical replica neurons?* Is it still you? Does it matter how fast these neurons are replaced? What if neurons are replaced one by one sequentially, a real neuron is killed, and another one replaced, within a matter of seconds? What about two neurons at a time? A hundred? What about destroying all of them and replacing them within planck time constraints? What about everything in the last sentence, plus re-materializing ten feet away?

If we think that wouldn’t make a difference, then it should be the case that an atom for atom exact replica of you could be created and you’d have two phenomenal experiences simultaneously. If that’s absurd, then it seems YOU are tied to your specific neurons. There might be some. or a lot of truth to the folk wisdom that neuron longevity and development constancy plays a part in continuity of experience. It might be that over the course of many years, depending on what neuroscience discovers, that you are your own Sixth-Day you.

*I’m ignoring quantum interpretations of consciousness. Physicists can inform better here, but I believe there are entanglement issues which might hold an impossibly high standard to making true exact replicas.


Kim on Qualia

January 18, 2007

I stumbled accross this blog the other day. Looks like one of Kim’s former students posts here and Jaegwon Kim himself is responding. So it’s been fun to read. I hadn’t got into Kim’s latest position on physicalism yet. David Chalmers a few months ago delighted in Kim’s rejection of physicalism on his blog but I wasn’t sure what that entailed.

Kim’s rejection appears to be (from one or two blog entries I’m reading) weaker than Chalmers’. Kim holds that qualia aren’t reducible but he thinks that there are relations between qualia that are. Dr. Kim argues:

But I don’t see any obvious inconsistency in the claim that although X and Y are each physically irreducible, that X stands in R to Y is physically reducible.

Interesting position huh? His reviewers on the blog claim this position doesn’t make any sense. They say something along the lines that if we get burned, we feel pain, we react to the pain, therefore pain plays a causal role. Kim prefers an example with less going than in the above, a simple scenario where we can’t discern the difference between two quale, q1 and q2 – the colors of two lemons – and that this indescernibility is functionalizable (reducible) even if q1 and q2 aren’t.


My Theory

January 16, 2007

I wouldn’t normally consider myself qualified to have a theory on matters others far more capable than me have explored in minutia. But given the controversial nature of the subject matter, for better or worse, I’m left with my own abilities and by exploring one path rather than another implies I’ve taken a position. So this section will be to update, revise, and work out either my beliefs on mind or my gut feelings.