About Neil Rickert

Mathematician and computer scientist who dabbles in cognitive science.

Categorization and measurement

In a recent comment, BruceS suggested that I do an OP on categorization and measurement, so here it is. I’ll try to keep this short, but later extend it with posts in the thread. If my post in the thread begins with a bold title, then it is intended to extend the OP. And I may then add a link, if I can figure out this blocks editor.

I’ll start with a link to a paper by Stevan Harnad (this blocks editor is annoying).

Cognition is categorization

Harnad’s paper is not quite how I am looking at it, but it gives a good introduction to the idea.

Red, blue or green? That’s a question about categorizing by color. We also categorize by size. Measurement is just a mathematical way of categorizing by length or by voltage or by pressure — by whatever we are measuring.

We categorize as a way of getting information. Within science, information is often acquired by measuring, which is a type of categorizing. I can get information with a digital camera. The digital camera, in effect, categorizes the world into pixel sized chunks and provides data for each of those.

What is categorization?

Categorization just means dividing up into parts. We divide up in accordance with features. Harnad discusses this in an appendix near the end of the linked paper.

There’s an alternative view of categorization, suggested by Eleanor Rosch, where categorization amounts to grouping things in accordance with their similarity to some sort of prototype or family resemblance. Harnad looks at that in the appendix, and he does not agree with Rosch. I concur with Harnad on that.

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Evolution does not select for veridical perception

The title is from a blog post by Brian Leiter. Leiter links to an article in the LA Review of books: Imitation and Extinction: The Case Against Reality. The article is written by Donald Hoffman.

We have discussed the general topic before, in several threads. So maybe this is a good time to revisit the topic.

Hoffman asks: “I see a green pear. Does the shape and color that I experience match the true shape and color of the real pear?”

My take is that there is no such thing as the “true shape and color of the pear.”

It is a common presumption, that there is an external standard of truth. Here, I mean “external to humans”. Truth is presumed to come from somewhere else. And our perceptual systems evolved to present us with what is true.

As I see it, this is backwards. Yes, our perceptions are mostly true. But this is not because perception is based on truth. Rather, it is because our human ideas of truth are based on what we perceive.

Open for discussion.

Dembski – Disillusion with fundamentalism

A very interesting blog post by William Dembski:

The old Dembski returns — the one was an old earth creationist before his run-in with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I don’t find this surprising.  I never really believed his capitulation to the fundamentalists.  It always looked like saving his job rather than changing his beliefs.

Still, I found the post quite interesting.  And maybe it will give some folk something better to do than flinging poo at Dawkins’ software.

Burden tennis

Burden tennis is an intellectual parlor game, wherein the players “hit” the “burden of proof” across the net from one side to the other.  We see this expressed as “the burden is in your court” or “the burden of proof is yours”, with often both sides making similar statements.

Burden tennis can be a fun game to watch, but it is sometimes wiser to avoid being a participant.

Note:  I did not invent the term “burden tennis”.  I saw that being used on the net somewhere many years ago.  But it seems like a good term.

This post is really a reply to Patrick’s post in the moderation thread.  I’ve started a new thread, because the discussion really doesn’t belong there.

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God said “Let there be light”

No, this isn’t a religion thread.  It’s a response to some posts in the intentionality thread.

Quoting from Genesis:

1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

I’m going to take that as a metaphor.  I’ll take “let there be light” to stand for the evolution of light sensitive cells in some biological organisms.  Once they had light sensitive cells, they had the possibility of distinguishing between light and dark.

1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

I was taught that the most basic step in geometry is to draw a line, and divide the world into the part on one side of the line and that on the other side of the line.

So, what we see here can be considered geometry.  It is also an example of what philosophers describe as “carving the world at the seams”, except that there are no seams.  We divide the external world on the basis of an internal criterion (the state of the light sensitive cells).

This dividing can also be called “categorization”.  That’s one of the possible meanings of “categorization”, and I see it as the important one.

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Reality and realism

Let’s have a new topic, preferably one that is not Christian apologetics.

This is mostly intended as a response to a comment by KN, but I think it deserves its own thread.

There’s a recent blog post elsewhere that is related:

Personally, I think of myself as a realist. But I agree with some of Dan Kaufman’s criticisms of traditional views of reality.

Now my response to KN. The quotes will all be from KN’s comment (linked above). Continue reading


Some of the discussion on the “Edward Feser and Vincent Torley” thread seems to have drifted way off topic.  So I’m starting a new thread for further discussion on realism.

I’ll just quote part of a recent comment by BruceS:

1. A complete description of the world is a scientific description (or has a large component that is a scientific description).

2. Science is in principle reducible to physics.

3. Physics requires mathematics.

4. Mathematics is “unreasonably effective” when used in physics, which is saying that somehow the world is describable by mathematical concepts.

5. The (parts of the) any two separate complete description of the world (eg by us and some alien species) in mathematical physics will hence involve the same (or at least mathematically equivalent) concepts.

I realize all of these statements are quite questionable, although I would have thought that #3, the need for mathematics in physics, would have been among the least questionable premises!

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Facts as human artifacts

BruceS suggested that I start a thread on my ideas about human cognition.  I’m not sure how this will work out, but let’s try.  And, I’ll note that I have an earlier thread that is vaguely related.

The title of this thread is one of my non-traditional ideas about cognition.  And if I am correct, as I believe I am, then our relation to the world is very different from what is usually assumed.

The traditional view is that we pick up facts, and most of cognition has to do with reasoning about these facts.  If I am correct, then there are no facts to pick up.  So the core of cognition has to be engaged in solving the problem of having useful facts about the world.

Chicago Coordinates

I’ll start with a simple example.  I typed “Chicago Coordinates” into Google, and the top of the page returned showed:

41.8819° N, 87.6278° W

That’s an example of what we would take to be a fact.  Yet, without the activity of humans, it could not exist as a fact.  In order for that to be a fact, we had to first invent a geographic coordinate system (roughly, the latitude/longitude system).  And that coordinate system in turn depends on some human conventions.  For example, the meridian through Greenwich was established as the origin for the longitudes.

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New body plans — a thought experiment

Since there’s been some discussion on new body plans, here is my understanding of how they come about. Note that I am not a biologist. I’m sure someone will correct me if I am wrong. Most of this has to do with how branching processes work.

To explore how new body plans arise, we are going to travel back in time with my trusty time machine. I obviously don’t have a time machine, which is why this is only a thought experiment. As I travel back in time, I take along a passenger, whom I shall call “William”. We want to find out where the octopuses, with an obviously different body plan, arose.

We start our journey in the present, looking at a person — perhaps at William himself. Then we go back in time to look at the ancestors. Well go fast, or this would take for ever.

As we go back in time examining ancestors, we see earlier vertebrates, such as fish. We keep on going, and get to the early chordates. They had a neural bundle, but no vertebrae. We have to go further back to find the ancestors of the octopus. As we go back, we see ancestors without even a neural bundle. Eventually, we get back to the point where the ancestors of the octopus branched off.

At this point, we see two sibling organisms. One of those is an early ancestor of us, and the other is an early ancestor of the modern octopus.

I hand William a microscope, and ask him to examine both as closely as possible, and to describe the body plan that he can see in each. “What body plan” says William. “I don’t see any body plan.”

That’s where the phylum branching occurred. The body plans came later. The whole idea of “macro-evolution”, as that term is used by creationists and ID proponents, is just a complete misunderstanding.

Ball State University – my answer to vjtorley

I expect that most here have heard about the situation at Ball State University (in Muncie, Indiana), where a physics professor was apparently including some Intelligent Design in a science class.  There was a public fuss.  And, more recently, the president of Ball State wrote a letter to the faculty about the situation.  It seems to have been a classy letter.  She described the issue as one of academic integrity, rather than one of academic freedom as a few commentators had suggested.  She apparently agreed that there were first amendment issues, as others suggested.  But she saw academic integrity as the main issue.  Incidentally, I also thought academic integrity was the issue.

The ID people don’t like what she wrote, because she was blunt about ID not being science.  Over at UD, vjtorley has a post “An open letter to BSU President Jo-Ann Gora” where he raises some questions that he would like the Gora to answer.  I’m giving my answers here, rather than in a comment at UD, because I think the issues warrant more discussion, and I’m sure others here will want to join in. Continue reading

AI Skepticism

In another thread, Patrick asked:

If it’s on topic for this blog, I’d be interested in an OP from you discussing why you think strong AI is unlikely.

I’ve now written a post on that to my own blog.  Here I will summarize, and perhaps expand a little on what I see as the main issues.

As you will see from the post at my blog, I don’t have a problem with the idea that we could create an artificial person.  I see that as possible, at least in principle, although it will likely turn out to be very difficult.  My skepticism about AI, is because I see computation as too limited.

I see two problems for AI.  The first is a problem of directionality or motivation or purpose, while the second is a problem with data.


Interestingly Patrick’s message, where he asked for this thread, contained a picture of Spock from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek character, Spock was known to be very logical and not at all emotional.  That’s what I think you get with computation.  However, as I see it, something like emotions are actually needed.  They are what would give an artificial person some sense of direction.

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Lines of reasoning as opposed to scientific evidence

In a recent comment, Robert Byers said:

Yes lines of reasoning as opposed to scientific evidence is a criticism I strongly make!!

I’m not quite sure what is going on in Robert’s way of thinking.  I am not sure what he means by “scientific evidence”.  Here I want to explore what Robert appears to be arguing.

Let’s take crossword puzzle solving as an illustration.  The puzzle has a grid where one can enter words.  And then there are the clues.  There is a list of “Across” clues and a list of “Down” clues.

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Hacking and access woes

Some folk might be having problems trying to login to the site.  I don’t know much about this, but here’s what I do know:

  • When I tried to login today, I received a response “WordPress administrator area access disabled temporarily due to widespread brute force attacks.”  As far as I know, you can neither login nor logout.  However, your current login will still expire (as did mine).
  • Here’s a report that is probably related: Brute Force Attacks Build WordPress Botnet.

In case you are wondering how I managed to post this – I was actually logged in with two different browsers.  My login with “firefox” (my preferred browser) has expired.  My login with “rekonq” has not yet expired.  I think it has another week to go.  So I am posting this from “rekonq”.

On the malleability of language

Barry Arrington has a new post at UD:

where he objects to the discussion, particularly by thaumaturge, on an earlier thread:

The earlier thread is based on the accusation that Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins “believe the fundamental questions in biology have been settled and all that is left is to suss out the details.”

Suppose that I were to argue that

  • water is wet;
  • therefore roses are red.

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