George Ellis on top-down causation

In a recent OP at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley (vjtorley) defends a version of libertarian free will based on the notion of top-down causation. The dominant view among physicists (which I share) is that top-down causation does not exist, so Torley cites an essay by cosmologist George Ellis in defense of the concept.

Vincent is commenting here at TSZ, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to engage him in a discussion of top-down causation, with Ellis’s essay as a starting point. Here’s a key quote from Ellis’s essay to stimulate discussion:

However hardware is only causally effective because of the software which animates it: by itself hardware can do nothing. Both hardware and software are hierarchically structured, with the higher level logic driving the lower level events.

I think that’s wrong, but I’ll save my argument for the comment thread.

540 thoughts on “George Ellis on top-down causation

  1. And there’s no reason to think any of your Weasel programs came about by “bottom-up causation,” whatever that means.

    🙂

  2. Mung,

    And there’s no reason to think any of your Weasel programs came about by “bottom-up causation,” whatever that means.

    I agree, because I don’t think that true inter-level causes exist at all, whether top-down or bottom-up.

    You had no idea, did you?

  3. We urge that interlevel causation should feature centrally in explanatory hypothesis of evolution.

    – Vrba & Eldredge (1984, 146)

  4. Mung,

    Are you prepared to defend the existence of true interlevel causation in evolution?

    (That’s a rhetorical question.)

  5. keiths: Are you prepared to defend the existence of true interlevel causation in evolution?

    If physicalism is true, why do you care? I honestly don’t much see the point of trying to defend any point of view to a physicalist. What is the physicalist theory of truth?

  6. Mung: If physicalism is true, why do you care? I honestly don’t much see the point of trying to defend any point of view to a physicalist. What is the physicalist theory of truth?

    This is a nice example of what I’ve called “normative violence” (arguably WJM and Barry Arrington are the masters of this little game): a refusal to engage in dialogue unless the interlocutor agrees to accept your terms of the debate. It’s the “if you don’t play my way, I’m going to take my bat and ball and go home!” gesture. “I don’t see the point of arguing with someone who disagrees with me!”

    This particular example of normative violence also relies on a bit of amnesia. This is not the first time we’ve heard the need for a naturalistic theory of truth. The first times this call was heard, even at TSZ, it was answered — by myself, by BruceS, by Reciprocating Bill, and by Glen Davidson. Every single time a naturalistic theory of truth is articulated, the person who demanded it conveniently disappears from the conversation. And then they come back and pretend that their demand wasn’t met, and never even pretend to engage with any criticisms. Again and again and again.

    So when someone says that they don’t know what a naturalistic version of the theory of truth looks like, or why a naturalist would care about truth — when these issues have been exhaustively discussed already — it is really hard to believe that they are arguing in good faith.

    And I’m saying that even though I do think that keiths specific version of reductive physicalism actually cannot accommodate truth. I think he has the same problem that Alex Rosenberg does:

    Giving up original intentionality is the easy part for disenchanted naturalism. The hard part is crafting an alternative account of how the brain acquires, stores, and deploys information nonpropositionally. It’s easy to go dispositional about beliefs and desires. Maps store information nonsentenially and so perhaps nonpropositionally, and these may provide a model for how the brain does it .But the question remains whether a radical eliminativism about intentionality has to get along without truth or falsity altogether.

    I for one cannot see how we can make sense of the notions of truth and falsity once we eliminate intentionality, which is one of the major reasons why I think intentionality has got to be naturalized rather than eliminated. But I don’t see how we could avoid eliminating intentionality if we were to insist on reductive physicalism. The line between reductive physicalism and outright nihilism is razor-thin.

  7. keiths: Are you prepared to defend the existence of true interlevel causation in evolution?

    (That’s a rhetorical question.)

    Never mind whether it is rhetorical. What does it even mean?

  8. Mung: If physicalism is true, why do you care? I honestly don’t much see the point of trying to defend any point of view to a physicalist. What is the physicalist theory of truth?

    Kantian Naturalist: This is a nice example of what I’ve called “normative violence” (arguably WJM and Barry Arrington are the masters of this little game): a refusal to engage in dialogue unless the interlocutor agrees to accept your terms of the debate. It’s the “if you don’t play my way, I’m going to take my bat and ball and go home!” gesture. “I don’t see the point of arguing with someone who disagrees with me!”

    I think this is unfair to Mung.

    (Yes, it’s unusual for me to be defending Mung.)

    What has really happened here, is that communication has broken down. We have keiths demanding an answer from Mung. But the question doesn’t even make sense to Mung.

    That’s why Mung is, in effect, walking away. He cannot see a way to break the communication barrier.

    This is not the first time we’ve heard the need for a naturalistic theory of truth. The first times this call was heard, even at TSZ, it was answered — by myself, by BruceS, by Reciprocating Bill, and by Glen Davidson.

    Perhaps you are referring to me there. When I asked for a theory of truth, I had hoped that maybe we could get into a thoughtful discussion of what is involved. Instead, I was given several worthless definitions. I walked away, because I could not see how to break through the communication barrier.

    This is the major flaw in analytic philosophy. It has no adequate theory of truth, yet everything else depends on truth.

    I for one cannot see how we can make sense of the notions of truth and falsity once we eliminate intentionality, which is one of the major reasons why I think intentionality has got to be naturalized rather than eliminated.

    And yet truth works quite well in formal logic, no intentionality required.

    I’ll note here that I am not an eliminativist. But I’m also not a naturalist. We won’t find truth in nature. We do find original intentionality, at least in human nature, but just saying so doesn’t solve any problems. If you want to understand intentionality, try to understand how science actually works (as distinct from how philosophy of science says that it works).

  9. KN,

    Every single time a naturalistic theory of truth is articulated, the person who demanded it conveniently disappears from the conversation. And then they come back and pretend that their demand wasn’t met, and never even pretend to engage with any criticisms. Again and again and again.

    It’s annoying and dishonest. What’s even worse in this case is that Mung is using it as an excuse to avoid the topic he just brought up, which is interlevel causation in evolution.

    And I’m saying that even though I do think that keiths specific version of reductive physicalism actually cannot accommodate truth. I think he has the same problem that Alex Rosenberg does…

    I for one cannot see how we can make sense of the notions of truth and falsity once we eliminate intentionality, which is one of the major reasons why I think intentionality has got to be naturalized rather than eliminated.

    It’s original intentionality that needs to be eliminated, not intentionality in toto. But that’s a topic for another thread. I’ll start one sometime next week unless someone else beats me to it.

  10. keiths: It’s original intentionality that needs to be eliminated, not intentionality in toto. But that’s a topic for another thread. I’ll start one sometime next week unless someone else beats me to it.

    Whereas I think that original intentionality can be naturalized. Please, by all means start a new thread on that! I think it would be certainly be interesting for both you and me — maybe others as well?

  11. Mung:

    We urge that interlevel causation should feature centrally in explanatory hypothesis of evolution.

    – Vrba & Eldredge (1984, 146)

    keiths:

    Mung,

    Are you prepared to defend the existence of true interlevel causation in evolution?

    Neil:

    What has really happened here, is that communication has broken down. We have keiths demanding an answer from Mung. But the question doesn’t even make sense to Mung.

    Mung is the person who brought up the topic, Neil. If my question doesn’t make sense to him, then his Vrba and Eldredge quote doesn’t either.

  12. Kantian Naturalist: This is a nice example of what I’ve called “normative violence” (arguably WJM and Barry Arrington are the masters of this little game): a refusal to engage in dialogue unless the interlocutor agrees to accept your terms of the debate. It’s the “if you don’t play my way, I’m going to take my bat and ball and go home!” gesture. “I don’t see the point of arguing with someone who disagrees with me!”

    Your observation is interesting, but I’d reserve the word “violence” for actual, physical violence. There are too many special snowflakes in American universities claiming that the expression of contrary opinions constitutes violence and makes them “feel unsafe.” That nonsense deserves no respect.

    This particular example of normative violence also relies on a bit of amnesia. This is not the first time we’ve heard the need for a naturalistic theory of truth. The first times this call was heard, even at TSZ, it was answered — by myself, by BruceS, by Reciprocating Bill, and by Glen Davidson. Every single time a naturalistic theory of truth is articulated, the person who demanded it conveniently disappears from the conversation. And then they come back and pretend that their demand wasn’t met, and never even pretend to engage with any criticisms. Again and again and again.

    They do the inverse as well. When I was participating at UD and asking for examples of the calculation of CSI I was told “Sure, sure, we can calculate it.” They then went straight to “We’ve calculated it, piss off.”, skipping the step of the actual calculation.

    This must be an example of a documented logical fallacy. The intelligent design creationists are not known for their creativity.

  13. Patrick: Your observation is interesting, but I’d reserve the word “violence” for actual, physical violence. There are too many special snowflakes in American universities claiming that the expression of contrary opinions constitutes violence and makes them “feel unsafe.” That nonsense deserves no respect.

    I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on whether “violence” involves physical intimidation or injury or rather any systematic imposition of the will of one person or group on the will of other persons or groups.

    (And speaking as someone who does actually teach in an American university, I think that there really are not all that many “special snowflakes” who are made uncomfortable by the expression of contrary opinions. There are a lot of real, serious problems in higher education, but this one is more myth than fact.)

    Patrick: They do the inverse as well. When I was participating at UD and asking for examples of the calculation of CSI I was told “Sure, sure, we can calculate it.” They then went straight to “We’ve calculated it, piss off.”, skipping the step of the actual calculation.

    Yes, I’ve seen them pull that stunt as well. In that case they fail to actually giving the evidence that they claim to have (in the “we can calculate CSI — look, we just did!”), whereas in the case I mentioned, they fail to acknowledge that an argument they requested has been provided. In both cases they are refusing to play the game of giving and asking for reasons.

    (And this from the same people who banned Elizabeth because she failed to pay obeisance to “the Rules of Right Reason”!)

  14. I have already pointed out that keiths is playing a game he cannot lose. Am I the only one to notice? He denies it, but then goes on to do it again. Oh the violence!

    keiths claims that truth is physical. He simply declares it to be so. By fiat. It’s up to others to show him wrong. If truth is physical, how many truths are there and what are their properties?

  15. Mung,

    You brought up interlevel causation in evolution. Why are you now afraid to talk about it?

    Would it be, by any chance, that you simply Googled “interlevel causation” and posted a quote that you found among the search results, despite not understanding it or being able to defend it?

    (That’s another rhetorical question.)

  16. Neil Rickert,

    Speaking as someone who is a liberal naturalist (but neither a reductive physicalist nor a non-reductive physicalist), I don’t see any special problems with truth.

    I think that the correspondence theory of truth as basically right: truth is the adequacy of intellect and reality. To avoid dualism, a naturalist need only provide an alternative specification of how this adequacy relation is causally implemented. And that can be done in terms of the homomorphic relations between the representations instantiated in an animal’s neurocomputational states (which in turn can be cashed out as the actual neurophysiological processes described in computational terms) and the causal structures mapped by those states and which are present to the animal as the affordances detectable by its cognitive capacities.

    If one were to insist that (1) only propositions can have truth-value, (2) no animal can think in terms of propositions unless it has acquired a language, and (3) the cognitive states and processes of non-linguistic animals are not described in terms of anything like a language — i.e. basically agreeing with Churchland against Fodor — then the naturalist can offer a more sophisticated account on which there are basically two kinds of cognitive relations between animals and their environments, one for non-linguistic animals (as described above) and another for linguistic animals in which a natural language allows for shared conceptual contents between physically isolated cognitive systems.

    In other words, the naturalist need only appeal to embodied-embedded cognitive neuroscience and a pragmatic theory of language (whether Brandomian inferentialist semantics or something similar) to account for the causal implementation of the adequacy between intellect and reality.

    Maybe I’m being superficial or naive, but I don’t see why this isn’t all that a naturalist needs to say about truth.

  17. Your observation is interesting, but I’d reserve the word “violence” for actual, physical violence. There are too many special snowflakes in American universities claiming that the expression of contrary opinions constitutes violence and makes them “feel unsafe.” That nonsense deserves no respect.

    Kantian Naturalist: I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on whether “violence” involves physical intimidation or injury or rather any systematic imposition of the will of one person or group on the will of other persons or groups.

    (And speaking as someone who does actually teach in an American university, I think that there really are not all that many “special snowflakes” who are made uncomfortable by the expression of contrary opinions. There are a lot of real, serious problems in higher education, but this one is more myth than fact.)

    From just this past month:

    Bowdoin creates “safe space” for students offended by a tequila party

    Pitt students “in tears” and “hurting” after speech by gay conservative

    A similar response to the same speaker at Rutgers

    I hope where you teach the students are more supportive of free speech.

  18. Kantian Naturalist: I think that the correspondence theory of truth as basically right: truth is the adequacy of intellect and reality. To avoid dualism, a naturalist need only provide an alternative specification of how this adequacy relation is causally implemented.

    Okay. But then you are presupposing original intentionality. So you won’t be able to “naturalize intentionality” because it is a required presupposition before you can get started.

    To avoid dualism, a naturalist need only provide an alternative specification of how this adequacy relation is causally implemented. And that can be done in terms of the homomorphic relations between the representations instantiated in an animal’s neurocomputational states (which in turn can be cashed out as the actual neurophysiological processes described in computational terms) and the causal structures mapped by those states and which are present to the animal as the affordances detectable by its cognitive capacities.

    That amounts to your presupposition of intentionality, in the form or presupposing homomorphic relations.

    If one were to insist that (1) only propositions can have truth-value, (2) no animal can think in terms of propositions unless it has acquired a language, and (3) the cognitive states and processes of non-linguistic animals are not described in terms of anything like a language — i.e. basically agreeing with Churchland against Fodor — then the naturalist can offer a more sophisticated account on which there are basically two kinds of cognitive relations between animals and their environments, one for non-linguistic animals (as described above) and another for linguistic animals in which a natural language allows for shared conceptual contents between physically isolated cognitive systems.

    That’s better. But I would go further. I would insist that only formal propositions can have the kind of truth-value that matters for logic. So that puts humans in the same place as other animals, because natural language is not a formal language and “truth” as used socially is a mess (with inconsistencies).

    And that gets you to the heart of the intentionality problem. For, quite clearly, there is no original intentionality for formal languages. Formal language terms get a meaning only by an outside definition (typically coming via natural language).

    The question of intentionality becomes the question of how can a formal language be connected with reality. Scientists seem to manage to do this. So the best people to solve the intentionality problem ought to be the philosophers of science (and perhaps the sociologists of science).

  19. Patrick: Your observation is interesting, but I’d reserve the word “violence” for actual, physical violence.

    Why? What’s special about physicality that this term should be reserved for “actual physical violence”?

    It hasn’t meant only “actual physical violence” in at least five centuries of use – and in fact entered English via French from a Latin root meaning “vehemence, impetuosity”. So KN”s usage is clearly legitimate, linguistically (and presumably philosophically).

    Why do you want to use this as an excuse to gripe about some “special snowflakes” (who as far as I know, didn’t even use the term “violence” to describe the situation they wanted redressed)?

    But what’s it to you if someone does complain about a tequila party? Why is their complaining something you think deserves no respect at all?

    One would think with your supposed respect for free speech, that you would respect the free speech rights of the complainers (and their rights of free association and petition for redress of grievances) to air their thoughts/demands that the University should not be in the business of providing party space for racists.

    What’s wrong if their anti-racism argument is persuasive to the University leaders? What’s it to you if the racists have to find another space (not on campus) to express their own free speech and free association? Why aren’t you on the side of the Mexican-American students who have successfully used their free speech rights to argue their case? Why aren’t you congratulating them for standing up and making their voices heard against appropriation and negative stereotyping?

    Strange that you seem to support free-speech rights only for the careless bigots and their partying friends.

  20. I respect the free speech rights of f complainers, right up to the point where they use force to supress dissenting opinions.

  21. hotshoe_,

    Your observation is interesting, but I’d reserve the word “violence” for actual, physical violence.

    Why? What’s special about physicality that this term should be reserved for “actual physical violence”?

    There is a qualitative difference between words and physical attacks. Kantian Naturalist used the term like this:

    This is a nice example of what I’ve called “normative violence” (arguably WJM and Barry Arrington are the masters of this little game): a refusal to engage in dialogue unless the interlocutor agrees to accept your terms of the debate. It’s the “if you don’t play my way, I’m going to take my bat and ball and go home!” gesture. “I don’t see the point of arguing with someone who disagrees with me!”

    While one might use “violence” as a metaphor in this case, e.g. “Doing violence to the spirit of rational discussion.” there is nothing violent about such rhetorical devices.

    It hasn’t meant only “actual physical violence” in at least five centuries of use – and in fact entered English via French from a Latin root meaning “vehemence, impetuosity”. So KN”s usage is clearly legitimate, linguistically (and presumably philosophically).

    It’s legitimate as a metaphor, but it cheapens the word and has the effect of disparaging the real harm of actual, physical violence.

    Why do you want to use this as an excuse to gripe about some “special snowflakes” (who as far as I know, didn’t even use the term “violence” to describe the situation they wanted redressed)?

    I saw a parallel to some news stories I’ve read over the past month and commented on that.

    Those special snowflakes do use the same overwrought language. For example:

    “The Assembly, representing the entire student body of Bowdoin, stands by all students who were injured and affected by the incident,”

    “Raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by Milo Yiannopoulos. Unless you’re male and white, you should be raising your hand.” Then they vandalized the auditorium while trying to disrupt his talk.

    “So many of us shared in our pain. I felt I was in danger, and I felt so many people in that room were in danger,”

    This is the kind of nonsense you get when you equate speech with violence.

    But what’s it to you if someone does complain about a tequila party? Why is their complaining something you think deserves no respect at all?

    I see it as an example of outrage culture run amok. The issue is particularly bad in the Bowdoin case because students are being punished for doing exactly what the college itself did just last year.

    One would think with your supposed respect for free speech, that you would respect the free speech rights of the complainers (and their rights of free association and petition for redress of grievances) to air their thoughts/demands that the University should not be in the business of providing party space for racists.

    I absolutely support their freedome of expression, despite them not supporting the same for others. I also respect the right to criticize the content of that expression. Their content is not worthy of respect.

    What’s wrong if their anti-racism argument is persuasive to the University leaders? What’s it to you if the racists have to find another space (not on campus) to express their own free speech and free association? Why aren’t you on the side of the Mexican-American students who have successfully used their free speech rights to argue their case? Why aren’t you congratulating them for standing up and making their voices heard against appropriation and negative stereotyping?

    You’re assuming that having sombreros at a tequila party is racist. Like the overuse of the word “violence” you are weakening that word and ignoring the differences between unsubstantiated complaints about “cultural appropriation” and real racism.

    Strange that you seem to support free-speech rights only for the careless bigots and their partying friends.

    You must have me confused with someone else. Nothing I wrote supports that interpretation. You’re also assuming the students involved are bigots. That kind of accusation requires supporting evidence.

  22. I think that in a world where women are killed for the crime of being raped, and girls have cliterectomies for the crime of being born into the wrong religion, treating speech as violence is just sick.

    Where is the rage at religion inspired violence?

  23. Patrick:

    [KN said] This is a nice example of what I’ve called “normative violence” (arguably WJM and Barry Arrington are the masters of this little game): a refusal to engage in dialogue unless the interlocutor agrees to accept your terms of the debate. It’s the “if you don’t play my way, I’m going to take my bat and ball and go home!” gesture. “I don’t see the point of arguing with someone who disagrees with me!”

    While one might use “violence” as a metaphor in this case, e.g. “Doing violence to the spirit of rational discussion.” there is nothing violent about such rhetorical devices.

    Yes, and as I already said, that use of “violence” to refer to non-physical things such as rhetoric has an honorable history of at least five centuries in English. So KN is right, and you’re wrong, and your entire argument is just to sputter “wah wah but they’re different, so people should use a different word that I would approve of”.

    Patrick: This is the kind of nonsense you get when you equate speech with violence.

    So what? You’re the free speech advocate, supposedly. Their free speech rights certainly include the right to speak “nonsense” (or what you personally consider nonsense). Now you’re using your own free speech rights to speak out against them. Of course you have that right. But why on Earth should anyone listen to you? Why should anyone take your complaints seriously?

    You’ve yet to suggest a legitimate reason why the complaining students were wrong besides the fact that they piss you off. And what pisses Patrick (or the National Review) off is not necessarily a good guideline for outrage.

    Patrick:

    What’s wrong if their anti-racism argument is persuasive to the University leaders? What’s it to you if the racists have to find another space (not on campus) to express their own free speech and free association? Why aren’t you on the side of the Mexican-American students who have successfully used their free speech rights to argue their case? Why aren’t you congratulating them for standing up and making their voices heard against appropriation and negative stereotyping?

    You’re assuming that having sombreros at a tequila party is racist. Like the overuse of the word “violence” you are weakening that word and ignoring the differences between unsubstantiated complaints about “cultural appropriation” and real racism.

    I notice you won’t answer any of my questions about why you aren’t supporting the free-speech and free-association activities of the complainers.

    Is that because you genuinely don’t think they have the right to have their voices heard – and in this case, acted on by the student government?

    If you genuinely think they do have the right to have their voices heard, then what’s the problem?

    Some were upset, some spoke up about it, someone made an answer (that made the right-wing news and attracted Patrick’s attention, among others), no one was physically harmed, no one has had their academic standing affected, no problem.

    Why are you continuing to stir the outrage against the complaining students’ use of their free speech rights to complain?

    Patrick:

    Strange that you seem to support free-speech rights only for the careless bigots and their partying friends.

    You must have me confused with someone else. Nothing I wrote supports that interpretation.

    Nope, not confused.

    The only appropriate response for a free speech advocate is on the order of “I disapprove of what they say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it”

    But strangely, that’s not your response.

  24. petrushka:
    Where is the rage at religion inspired violence?

    Umm, have you heard me lately? Oh probably not. Why am I an anti-theist (instead of merely atheist)? Because I rage at theism for the violence it inspires, but particularly against the sucking conformity and shame it forces upon girls and women. And that, since it lasts whole lifetimes, is worse than all but lethal physical violence.

    Whoever coined “sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never hurt me” was a damned liar.

  25. hotshoe_,

    The only appropriate response for a free speech advocate is on the order of “I disapprove of what they say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it”

    But strangely, that’s not your response.

    That was exactly my response: “I absolutely support their freedom of expression, despite them not supporting the same for others. I also respect the right to criticize the content of that expression. Their content is not worthy of respect.”

    Don’t let that get in the way of a good rant, though.

  26. hotshoe_: Umm, have you heard me lately?

    I’ve read you, and i think we are in agreement on many things. but I think there is a difference between religion being forced on children (or anyone for that matter) and things written or said between adults.

    I don’t see campus activists protesting religion. Quite the opposite. I see criticism of religion being platformed in the name of diversity.

    Is it racist to note that millions of people donate every week to an organization that shelters and protects child rapists? Is it racist to note that hundreds of millions of people remain silent about the subjugation of women (most major religions).

    The real issue that I see is power. I care not what someone says, as long as he or she lacks the power to enforce what I can or cannot say.

  27. petrushka: I don’t see campus activists protesting religion. Quite the opposite. I see criticism of religion being platformed in the name of diversity.

    Is it racist to note that millions of people donate every week to an organization that shelters and protects child rapists? Is it racist to note that hundreds of millions of people remain silent about the subjugation of women (most major religions).

    The words all seem like sense, but I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean. At least, not in context of this thread so far.

    f you have time to expand/explain, that might be good …

  28. Neil Rickert: Okay. But then you are presupposing original intentionality. So you won’t be able to “naturalize intentionality” because it is a required presupposition before you can get started.

    On my view, the argument for original intentionality rests on philosophical considerations, not scientific ones. The goal of naturalizing intentionality is not to show that intentionality exists, but that it is not magic. Cartesian dualism turns intentionality into magic, because the relations between the self-enclosed immaterial mind and the mechanistic body become utterly inexplicable. (That is why every major post-Cartesian philosopher either denied that there are any such relations — Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, Berkeley — or insisted that their inexplicability was not really a problem — Locke, Hume.)

    That amounts to your presupposition of intentionality, in the form or presupposing homomorphic relations.

    Not quite.The scientific claim is that there are such homomorphic relations between features of the environment and features of brain-states, and that such relations emerge as brains develop and learn. (Which is not to deny that there are evolutionary constraints as well.) The philosophical claim is that such relations should be understood as causally implementing original intentionality.

    That’s better. But I would go further.I would insist that only formal propositions can have the kind of truth-value that matters for logic. So that puts humans in the same place as other animals, because natural language is not a formal language and “truth” as used socially is a mess (with inconsistencies).

    It is true that only formal propositions can have the kind of truth-value that matters for logic, but it doesn’t follow that non-formal or substantive propositions in a natural language can’t have truth-value as well.

    Likewise, the fact that truth in natural languages can generate inconsistencies rests on the fact that concepts in substantive (non-formal) domains lack necessary and sufficient conditions. They are vague and open-textured in ways that concepts in formal domains aren’t.

    And that gets you to the heart of the intentionality problem. For, quite clearly, there is no original intentionality for formal languages. Formal language terms get a meaning only by an outside definition (typically coming via natural language).

    There’s no original intentionality for formal languages because there couldn’t be a sapient being that only used a formal language. (Unless God is a mathematician, as some have suggested.) But yes, we invented formal languages to deal with specific kinds of problems, whereas natural languages evolved.

    The question of intentionality becomes the question of how can a formal language be connected with reality. Scientists seem to manage to do this. So the best people to solve the intentionality problem ought to be the philosophers of science (and perhaps the sociologists of science).

    I would agree if I thought that intentionality was restricted to formal languages. But I don’t think that and I don’t see why you do. It is true that intentionality is going to be different in the two cases, but that doesn’t show that it is restricted to one of them.

    For that matter I don’t even think that intentionality is restricted to beings with language. I think of the hard work as distinguishing between sentient intentionality (which has a perceptuo-practical dimension of meaning or aboutness) and sapient intentionality (in which the perceptuo-practical dimension is expanded to include a socio-linguistic dimension).

  29. Trying to avoid off-topic comments:

    The issue of brain states

    http://neurosciencenews.com/bird-ape-intelligence-3801/

    Complex cognition is possible without a cortex.

    Researchers figure out similarities in brain architecture.

    At first glance, the brains of birds and mammals show many significant differences. In spite of that, the cognitive skills of some groups of birds match those of apes.

  30. Kantian Naturalist: The scientific claim is that there are such homomorphic relations between features of the environment and features of brain-states, and that such relations emerge as brains develop and learn.

    Sure. It just happens by magic.

    The philosophical claim is that such relations should be understood as causally implementing original intentionality.

    That seems wrong. To the extent that there can be said to be such relations, those are side effects of the implementation of intentionality. Side effects, not causes.

    It is true that only formal propositions can have the kind of truth-value that matters for logic, but it doesn’t follow that non-formal or substantive propositions in a natural language can’t have truth-value as well.

    They may have an appearance of truth values. But the fact is that people disagree over those truth values. Where those truth-values can be pinned down then that pinning down will be done in a formal way. And when those truth-values cannot be pinned down, then there is no reason to assume that they exist.

    There’s no original intentionality for formal languages because there couldn’t be a sapient being that only used a formal language. (Unless God is a mathematician, as some have suggested.) But yes, we invented formal languages to deal with specific kinds of problems, whereas natural languages evolved.

    Natural languages evolved socially and culturally, not biologically. The abilities to use them evolved biologically.

    I would agree if I thought that intentionality was restricted to formal languages. But I don’t think that and I don’t see why you do.

    I’m not sure where you get that idea. I thought I was saying the opposite.

    I see intentionality as coming from biology, not from language. The point of stressing formal language, is to give a case where you cannot appeal to magic while declaring that there is no magic. If you want to use formal language to express something about the world, you have to actually work at it. And yet science succeeds at that. So study the behavior of scientists.

  31. Neil Rickert: Sure.It just happens by magic.

    Evolution and learning are magic?

    That seems wrong. To the extent that there can be said to be such relations, those are side effects of the implementation of intentionality. Side effects, not causes.

    Why do you say that? My thought here was that intentionality is causally implemented in those terms in roughly the same way that solubility is causally implemented in the distribution of electrical charges over molecular surfaces. (Not an ideal analogy but that’s the general idea.)

    They may have an appearance of truth values. But the fact is that people disagree over those truth values. Where those truth-values can be pinned down then that pinning down will be done in a formal way.And when those truth-values cannot be pinned down, then there is no reason to assume that they exist.

    This seems like a very demanding criterion. In some cases, agreement on the truth-value of judgments is hard (sometimes impossible) to establish. In many cases it isn’t. But in any event, when I talk about intentionality I am interested in our capacity to form objectively valid judgments, not in agreement in truth-values.

    Natural languages evolved socially and culturally, not biologically. The abilities to use them evolved biologically.

    Granted.

    I see intentionality as coming from biology, not from language.

    I don’t see intentionality as “coming from” language, but rather I see language as a kind of intentionality. But both linguistic intentionality and non-linguistic intentionality are biological capacities, though the former is inextricably interwoven with culture.

    The point of stressing formal language, is to give a case where you cannot appeal to magic while declaring that there is no magic.If you want to use formal language to express something about the world, you have to actually work at it. And yet science succeeds at that. So study the behavior of scientists.

    I agree that scientists use formal language to talk about the world, but in doing so, mathematics is used to describe features of deliberate intervention, experimentation, and even the meticulous observation of field-work.

    I don’t think we can get clear on what scientists do without getting clear on how human beings generally form objectively valid judgments (some of which we agree on). And a naturalistic explanation of that capacity depends on understanding how our linguistic intentionality is similar to and different from the more coarsely-grained intentionality of sentient animals that are differentially responsive to the affordances and solicitations in their environments.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: Evolution and learning are magic?

    Perhaps I should have added a “sarcasm” tag.

    My thought here was that intentionality is causally implemented in those terms in roughly the same way that solubility is causally implemented in the distribution of electrical charges over molecular surfaces. (Not an ideal analogy but that’s the general idea.)

    That seems to make intentionality magical and inexplicable.

    Solubility is something like a statistical average. We do know the details of what happens at the molecular level, so treating solubility as emergent from that makes sense.

    But intentionality isn’t an average effect. It has to do with detail. We are able to talk and think about detail, not just about overall average appearances. So I think you cannot explain it away like that without, in effect, taking it to be magic.

    In some cases, agreement on the truth-value of judgments is hard (sometimes impossible) to establish. In many cases it isn’t.

    I see that as a problem for a correspondence theory of truth. Why would correspondence allow disagreement?

    But in any event, when I talk about intentionality I am interested in our capacity to form objectively valid judgments, not in agreement in truth-values.

    I’m not sure what that even means. The word “valid” seems to suggest logically valid. But I don’t see logic as central to forming judgments about reality.

    I don’t see intentionality as “coming from” language, but rather I see language as a kind of intentionality.

    I see language as adding an ability to communicate on top of an already existing intentionality.

    Let me turn this around. I think you have a lot of it backwards.

    So start with correspondence. As I see it, we each have a private correspondence.

    You suggested a homomorphism between neural states and the environment. Such a homomorphism would be something like a private correspondence. But I don’t think it could possibly come from the DNA. So it must be that an organism constructs that correspondence through its behavior, though mostly this is not done consciously. And that construction of a private correspondence is the basis for intentionality. Explaining intentionality should amount to explaining how that correspondence is constructed.

    While I suggest a private correspondence, I do not suggest a private truth. I don’t see any need for a private truth.

    The ability to communicate depends on something like a public correspondence. I see us constructing a public correspondence, based on our private correspondences. Roughly speaking, we invent public concepts and organize them in such a way that we can have a public correspondence between reality and representations in terms of public concepts. But our construction of a public correspondence is imperfect and incomplete, which is why there are disagreements.

    Our biology, as social organisms, constrains us to find agreement with others in our society. The ability to form agreements is part of the construction of a public correspondence. Social norms are part of the agreements forged in this construction of a public correspondence.

    A public truth cannot be a result of a public correspondence. That’s because we need truth for expressing agreement/disagreement in order to construct the public correspondence. So correspondence depends on truth, rather than the other way around. To a first approximation, I see truth as conformance to norms, standards or other forms of agreement.

    I don’t think we can get clear on what scientists do without getting clear on how human beings generally form objectively valid judgments (some of which we agree on).

    Again, my thinking is the reverse. The methods available to organisms should also be available to scientists. And we should expect both organisms and scientists to use the methods that work best. So I see science as something like perception written big. By understanding how science works, we can get clues to what happens at the level of the organism.

    The one big difference that I see, is that science is more organized and more systematic. The ability to use mathematics comes from that systematicity. In some sense, mathematics is a theory of ways of behaving systematically.

  33. Neil Rickert,

    I think we agree more than you realize. Where you use “private” and “public” I would prefer to use “individual intentionality” and “shared intentionality.” I agree that individual intentionality is evolutionarily and also developmentally more basic. But I think that the whole process of enculturation involves pervasive reshaping of one’s own bodily individual intentionality in response to the norms of shared intentionality.

    When we have people interacting who have been enculturated in terms of different norms, then there’s going to be far more potential disagreement.

    On terminology: “objective validity” is a term from Kant that just means “purporting to be about the world”. If I say, “Bernie Sanders would be a terrible president,” that claim has objective validity because it’s a claim about the world (namely, a prediction). Likewise if I say “the book is heavier than it looks” or “Kanye West is overrated”. There’s nothing here about the structure of arguments in formal languages. It’s just a different concept.

    I do think that scientific practices are distinct (and even unusual) in constructing highly constrained perceptual situations, where the construction is a way of causally implementing the parameters described by the model, and where the model often (though not always) uses some formal language. (Though many models can be understood as a family of equations, not all models are families of equations.)

    In those terms I see scientific practices as a very interesting modification of our mammalian individual intentionality and hominid shared intentionality.

    But it seemed to me as if you were saying that we can understand that we should first understand the role of formal language in scientific modeling, and on that basis understand how an animal like a monkey or squirrel navigates its environment. I don’t know if that’s what you were saying or not, but put that way the thought does not make sense to me.

  34. Kantian Naturalist: But it seemed to me as if you were saying that we can understand that we should first understand the role of formal language in scientific modeling, and on that basis understand how an animal like a monkey or squirrel navigates its environment.

    Roughly, but not quite right.

    Rather, we should first understand how we are able to get formal language to be about something in science.

    It’s not the role of formal language that’s important here. Rather, it is the starkness of formal language, that we cannot just explain away the problems of intentionality.

    And the main point is that the intentionality problem scientists have to solve is similar to the problem that the monkey has to solve. But science is done in public where it is easier to examine and see how it works. So, sure, that won’t completely answer questions about how a monkey does it, but it will at least give us some good ideas.

    Count me as skeptical of the possibility of directly reverse-engineering the brain. Instead, we need to study the problem that the brain is solving, and the possible ways of addressing that problem.

  35. keiths could perhaps revive this thread by defining what he means by top-down causation and actually carrying through on the promise of the OP.

  36. …the living cell is best thought of as a supercomputer – an information processing and replicating system of astonishing complexity. … Most of the workings of the cell are best described, not in terms of material stuff – hardware – but as information, or software. Trying to make life by mixing chemicals in a test tube is like soldering switches and wires in an attempt to produce Windows 98. It won’t work because it addresses the problem at the wrong conceptual level.

    Paul Davies

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