Intelligibility

One of the deeper questions that runs throughout philosophical speculation — Western, Eastern, and besides — is a kind of wonder or awe at the fact that the world does make any sense to us all. This awe can be expressed as itself an intellectual problem: why is the world intelligible? The question is sometimes put as: what is the source of the world’s intelligibility? Is the source of intelligibility itself intelligible? Or does a mystery remain after all explanations have had their say?

I was reflecting on the very idea of intelligibility after a long day of teaching Aristotle’s politics in one class and Kant’s ethics in another. For Aristotle, there are genuine facts about the world, and especially about human nature, to which any adequate normative theory must be responsive. For Kant, the situation is reversed: any genuinely normative theory must be based wholly a priori, since no empirical theory can be guaranteed to be universally and necessarily true.

For realists like Aristotle, the intelligibility of the world is what we discover to be case, and our thoughts are true if they match up with how the world really is. We aspire to carve the world at its joints, so to speak. For idealists like Kant, the intelligibility of the world is only the intelligibility of our experience of the world, and therefore depends on how the mind actively organizes the barrage of sensations it receives.

The dilemma for realists has always been that people from different cultures and time-periods propose quite different and even incompatible ontologies, so how can anyone justifiably say that the ontology of their time and place is the one that correctly carves the world at its joints?

The dilemma for idealists is more complicated, but a good deal turns on the fact that it just pushes the bump in the carpet around. Being told that the source of the world’s intelligibility lies in us is all well and good, but how to explain the fact that the world’s intelligibility lies in us? Where did our ability to interpret the world so as to make sense of it come from?

 

 

79 thoughts on “Intelligibility

  1. J-Mac: And? Is

    And? Is reality really real according to the book just like in quantum mechanics?

    Last thing about quantum mechanics is reality…lol wait for my upcoming OP…

  2. shallit:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    Well, that’s a pretty low standard.And still vague, because there are certain pretty basic aspects of the universe, such as quantum mechanics and turbulence, which seem to be described rather accurately by the William James quote.So why aren’t these counterexamples to the claim that the universe is intelligible?

    I have to disagree…Last thing about quantum mechanics is certainty …therefore uncertainty principle … 🙂

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle

  3. stcordova,

    The ultimate source of intelligibility is of course speculative, but the proximal source is regarded to be the fine tuning of the universe for life and scientific discovery.

    I agree with this. In addition I think the properties of matter including the structure of atoms and their ability clustered together in the right configuration to store information and perform logic functions. As far as we know the entire universe is made up of these components.

  4. shallit: I’ll only write one response to Mung because I don’t think he/she is a serious person.

    He. And I can be a serious person when given a good reason. Your initial post didn’t provide any reason for me to be serious.

    But now I have a second reason to visit storage. I think I have Cricks book. I’ll see what he has to say about “lossy-compression” and “bits” (how very computer-sciency!) and world-modelling.

    Does he give a scientific definition of a model, so that we can test your claim?

  5. phoodoo: First, there were once organisms with wildly inaccurate incorrect models of the world?

    Don’t forget that there were also once organisms with no model of the world at all. But they didn’t survive either. Therefore, they never existed. Because if they did once exist, then shallit is obviously wrong.

    Now remember, these models arose through evolution. So it’s not like it’s models all the way down. We had to start without any model. But I guess those organisms weren’t really organisms, because all organisms must have models.

    ETA: Think phoodoo.

  6. Rumraket: Rather than to say there was once organisms entirely without world models, or with very inaccurate world-models.

    So for you it’s models all the way down. But shallit claims models evolved. So it can’t be models all the way down. It’s like claiming the genetic code goes all the way down.

    We’ll just poof a code into existence, then let it evolve from there. We’ll just poof a model of the world into existence, and let it evolve from there. And who says the first world-model had to be wildly inaccurate?

    Creationism on steroids.

  7. phoodoo: Oh bullshit, you have no evidence for that.This is just more of your “I say its true so its true” nonsense.

    Oh bullshit, you have no direct quote of me ever saying anything like that. This is just more of your “I say it’s not true, so it’s not true” nonsense.

    In the mean time, here is one of those publications that don’t exist:
    David S. Ronderos and Dean P. Smith. Activation of the T1 Neuronal Circuit is Necessary and Sufficient to Induce Sexually Dimorphic Mating Behavior in Drosophila.
    J Neurosci. 2010 Feb 17; 30(7): 2595–2599. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4819-09.2010

    Abstract
    The molecular and cellular events mediating complex behaviors in animals are largely unknown. Elucidating the circuits underlying behaviors in simple model systems may shed light on how these circuits function. In Drosophila, courtship behavior provides a tractable model for studying the underlying basis of innate behavior. The male-specific pheromone 11-cis-vaccenyl acetate (cVA) modulates courtship behavior and is detected by T1 neurons, located on the antenna of male and female flies. The T1 neurons express the odorant receptor Or67d, and are exquisitely tuned to cVA pheromone. However, cVA-induced changes in mating behavior have also been reported upon manipulation of olfactory neurons expressing odorant receptor Or65a. These findings raise the issue of whether multiple olfactory-driven circuits underlie cVA-induced behavioral responses, and what role these circuits play in behavior. Here, we engineered flies in which the Or67d circuit is specifically activated in the absence of cVA in order to determine the role of this circuit in behavior. We created transgenic flies that express a dominant-active, pheromone-independent variant of the extracellular pheromone receptor, LUSH. We found that, similar to the behaviors elicited by cVA, engineered male flies have dramatically reduced courtship, while engineered females showed enhanced courtship. Furthermore, cVA exposure did not enhance the dominant LUSH-triggered effects on behavior in the engineered flies. Finally, we show the effects of both cVA and dominant LUSH on courtship are reversed by genetically removing Or67d. These findings demonstrate that the T1/Or67d circuit is necessary and sufficient to mediate sexually dimorphic courtship behaviors.

  8. shallit: For example, read Crick’s _The Astonishing Hypothesis_.

    Sure.

    This book is about the mystery of consciousness – how to explain it in scientific terms. … as a matter of tactics, it deliberately leaves out many aspects of consciousness … in particular, how one should define it.

    – p. xi

    Anyone else sensing the irony?

  9. Mung: The Astonishing Hypothesis book

    Crick’s ideas about consciousness were unfounded when he wrote the book and are even more unfunded now, with quantum consciousness being the front runner due to experimental evidence of quantum vibrations in microtubules of the neurons…

    “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul is a 1994 book by Francis Crick

    Visual Awareness[edit]
    Modern computers… can simulate only a relatively small number of… neurons and their interconnections. Nevertheless, these primitive models… often show surprising behavior, not unlike some of the behavior of the brain. They help provide us with new ways of thinking about how the brain works.
    What is the “neural correlate” of visual awareness?
    The brain’s operating system is probably not cleanly located in one special place. …It may involve separate parts of the brain interacting together, and the active information in one of these parts may be distributed over many neurons.
    Recall the old line: How do I know what I think till I hear what I say.
    Consciousness can undoubtedly take many forms, depending on which parts of the cortex are involved.
    What is the “neural correlate” of consciousness?
    Our experience of perceptual unity… suggests that the brain in some way binds… all those neurons actively responding to different aspects of a perceived object. …neurons that respond to the motion… hue… words… and possibly the memory traces associated with knowing whose face it is all have to be “bound” together… as neurons that jointly generate the perception…
    What is especially unclear is whether, in focused awareness, we are conscious of only one object at a time, or whether our brains can deal with several objects simultaneously.
    Some Experiments[edit]
    Attention… is not just a psychological concept. Its effects can be seen at the neuronal level.
    Any experimental work on consciousness has, in the past, been looked on with grave suspicion, not only by psychologists and neuroscientists but by the medical profession.
    In the somatosensory system, a weak or brief signal can influence behavior without producing awareness, while a stronger one… can make awareness occur.”

    https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Astonishing_Hypothesis

    Things have drastically changed since Crick wrote the above and computers are not self-aware and the brain and (quantum) conscientiousness model of “operations per second” to be matched by computers has been pushed beyond what AI industry wanted to hear…

  10. Mung:
    So, KN, what were you hoping this thread would actually be about?

    There’s expectation, and then there’s hope.

    As for the former, let’s just say that my expectations about the level of discourse at TSZ have been satisfied.

    As for the latter, what I was hoping to think about is, “what can we say about how the world is, given that some of the organisms that come into existence within the world can model or map aspects of their environment?”

    Notice that the Kantian idealist is going to say that we can’t say anything about how the world is in itself, since everything we talk about is relative to the world as we experience it. And the Aristotelian realist is going to say that everything (or almost everything) that we say as we describe the world as we experience is also going to be true of how the world really is.

    I’m interested in using cognitive science to carve out a middle way between idealism and realism. (This is not, I must stress, a novel strategy on my part — it’s been on the agenda of philosophy of cognitive science at least since The Embodied Mind first came out in 1991.)

    The idea here is to think that how on the one hand organisms construct map-like models of their environments and navigate their environments by means by those map-like models, and on the other hand how the world itself must be characterizable in certain ways such that cognitive organisms can emerge at all.

    For example, the world must have the minimal degree of causal structure and modal structure sufficient for the emergence of autopoietic systems. And this has to be the case independent of whatever our theories of fundamental physics (now and in the future) tell us about how best to describe those causal and modal structures. It’s a very thin result, but it’s still an advance over Kantian sheer agnosticism about noumena.

    I think that we are not yet very close to being able to say which organisms were the first ones to have mental representations.

    The first major hurdle that cognitive science has to solve, and which I think it is very close to solving, is how to think about mental representations in non-linguistic terms. This has to be done because we have compelling reasons to think that only human beings have language.

    If we were to make the capacity to have thoughts or concepts entirely dependent on having a language, then we’d have to deny that non-human animals have anything like thoughts or concepts at all. That’s the error of behaviorism, and it inherits that prejudice from the Cartesian assumption that language is the mark of the mental.

    One could retain that assumption and be more generous in its application, if one thinks that non-human animals also have language, but the result is anthropomorphizing non-human animals.

    The middle way has to involve avoiding both extremes — the extreme of denying that animals have cognition or thought at all, and the extreme of anthropomorphizing animals. (Notice that anthropomorphizing non-human animals not only does a conceptual disservice to them but also deprives us of the ability to inquire into what makes human beings different from other animals.)

    Once we have a really good theory of what non-linguistic mental representations are like — and we don’t yet have any such theory, though I think predictive processing is a compelling account — then we can inquire into related questions:

    1. what were probably the first organisms to have mental representations, and how did the ability to form mental representations first evolve?

    2. how does the evolution and acquisition of language make a difference to what can be represented and how it can be represented?

    I’m more interested in the second question, and my present work is about clarifying the conceptual basis on which that second question can be meaningfully asked.

  11. Rumraket,

    There is little doubt that animal behavior is at least in part controlled by genetics: How and to what extent is the focus of current research. Until fairly recently, behaviorists have assumed that genes directly control animal behavior. They also have concluded that a learned behavior requires more DNA than an innate behavior. Based on these assumptions the behaviorists have concluded that learned behaviors have evolved after, or from, innate behaviors. But because theses assumptions lack extensive scientific research to back them up, they have come under criticism from many.

    The first assumption to be questioned is the belief that genes directly control behavior. There is evidence that many behaviors are predisposed to genetic factors (Plomin et. al., 1994). But the question still remains whether the control is direct, with one gene coding for one behavior, or indirect, the entire genotype of the individual controlling a variety of behaviors.

    Recent studies tend to point to the later. Animal behavior is too complex to be controlled by a sequence of genes. Instead it is probably controlled by a host of genetic and environmental factors of which scientists have yet to discover (Plomin et. al., 1994).

    Once we involve the realm of the complete genome, or even a host of genetic factors, the Lucky Accidenters can leave the building.

  12. Doesn’t science (scientism rather) assume that the universe is there to be figured out and that science is doing it with great success? Isn’t this saying the same thing as that the universe is intelligible? Then whence comes this anti-intelligibilist attitude among scientist(ist)s?

    If the universe is unintelligible or has important unintelligible aspects, then the paranormal, supernatural and miraculous phenomena, even though they are not too common, should be easily acceptable. But if you don’t accept the paranormal, supernatural, and miracles, then the universe must behave as per laws of nature, i.e. it is intelligible through and through.

  13. Erik: Doesn’t science (scientism rather) assume that the universe is there to be figured out and that science is doing it with great success?

    No, scientism (which is different from science) is the claim that only science gives knowledge. This is also quite different from saying that the universe “is there to be figured out” or that science is doing so “with great success”.

    None of those assumptions are necessary conditions for scientism, or science.

  14. Rumraket: None of those assumptions are necessary conditions for scientism, or science.

    Maybe. But they all are near and dear to Shallit, Neil Rickert, and yourself.

  15. Erik: Maybe. But they all are near and dear to Shallit, Neil Rickert, and yourself.

    Please tell me more about your incorrect beliefs about other people.

  16. Erik: Doesn’t science (scientism rather) assume that the universe is there to be figured out and that science is doing it with great success?

    I assume (actually observe) that the universe is there. I need not assume that it is there to be figured out. My curiosity may lead me to figure out what I can, but I need not assume that as an inherent purpose of the universe.

    Then whence comes this anti-intelligibilist attitude among scientist(ist)s?

    What “anti-intelligibilist” attitude?

    All I have is an anti-jumping-to-conclusions-not-justified-by-the-evidence attitude.

    If the universe is unintelligible or has important unintelligible aspects, then the paranormal, supernatural and miraculous phenomena, even though they are not too common, should be easily acceptable.

    Only if there is evidence for them.

    But if you don’t accept the paranormal, supernatural, and miracles, then the universe must behave as per laws of nature, i.e. it is intelligible through and through.

    And there you are, jumping to conclusions not justified by the evidence.

    I am not seeing any evidence that there are laws of nature. Yes, there are laws of physics, but those are pragmatic human constructs.

  17. Erik:
    Doesn’t science (scientism rather) assume that the universe is there to be figured out and that science is doing it with great success? Isn’t this saying the same thing as that the universe is intelligible? Then whence comes this anti-intelligibilist attitude among scientist(ist)s?

    We know things, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know other things. Like dark energy and dark matter.

    If the universe is unintelligible or has important unintelligible aspects, then the paranormal, supernatural and miraculous phenomena, even though they are not too common, should be easily acceptable.

    Aren’t they? We’re just waiting for evidence that they exist. Certainly we don’t have problems with unknowns existing, the aforementioned dark energy and dark matter, also something like ball lightning.

    But if you don’t accept the paranormal, supernatural, and miracles, then the universe must behave as per laws of nature, i.e. it is intelligible through and through.

    Why, are the paranormal, the supernatural, and miracles necessarily contrary to the "laws of nature"? Back when there was a certain amount of thinking that something like ESP might exist, there were ideas of how it might be due to something like radios, transmission and reception of some kind of radiation, or interception of fields. Otherwise, maybe the paranormal would simply have its own "laws of nature." We don't know, because the paranormal seems to disappear the better controlled the experiments are, so we don't have any good candidates to inform us whether or not they'd be intelligible.

    Glen Davidson

  18. Rumraket: Please tell me more about your incorrect beliefs about other people.

    Know thyself. As science advances religion retreats. The entire science as progress vs the darkness of religion myth is founded on the making intelligible the world around us. This should even be open to debate it’s so bloody obvious.

    Is that what skepticism means, denying the obvious?

  19. Neil Rickert: I assume (actually observe) that the universe is there. I need not assume that it is there to be figured out. My curiosity may lead me to figure out what I can, but I need not assume that as an inherent purpose of the universe.

    Just like assumptions better be justified, so it must be with suppression of assumptions.

    Curiosity? It doesn’t look like it’s in your character.

    Neil Rickert: All I have is an anti-jumping-to-conclusions-not-justified-by-the-evidence attitude.

    There’s evidence that you lack curiosity to investigate things thoroughly. Evidence such as that you haven’t told how evidence justifies things and how it fails to justify whatever conclusion it is you are talking about here.

  20. GlenDavidson: Why, are the paranormal, the supernatural, and miracles necessarily contrary to the “laws of nature”?

    Today we are on the same page. But I suspect it’s only today and only for a single page.

  21. Erik:
    Doesn’t science (scientism rather) assume that the universe is there to be figured out and that science is doing it with great success? Isn’t this saying the same thing as that the universe is intelligible? Then whence comes this anti-intelligibilist attitude among scientist(ist)s?

    It’s a reasonable presupposition of empirical inquiry that at least some phenomena have sufficient detectable regularity that one can build a model of the underlying causal and modal structures such that one can successfully predict subsequent changes in the phenomena. The commitment to that presupposition is implicit in the ongoing practice of empirical inquiry — including but not limited to scientific practices.

    How that presupposition can itself be defended is a task for philosophy, not for science.

    I don’t have a great use for the word “scientism,” because there’s no consistency of use. It’s used by very different people to mean quite different things.

    The best use I’ve found for it, from Joe Margolis’s The Unraveling of Scientism, is that “scientism” involves taking scientific theories as the unique and correct description of ultimate reality without inquiring into the justification of the epistemic privilege that would be required for theories to have that privileged metaphysical status.

    For example, defenders of scientism will sometimes say that science is cognitively privileged because of its pragmatic success. But this begs the question if there is no further justification as to why pragmatic success is the correct criterion of epistemic privilege. In the absence of explanation of why pragmatic success is the correct criterion for epistemic privilege, any appeal to pragmatic success will be just as dogmatic as any appeal to revelation or other assurances.

    In short, ‘scientism’ is (if you will) a dogmatic anti-dogmatism.

    If the universe is unintelligible or has important unintelligible aspects, then the paranormal, supernatural and miraculous phenomena, even though they are not too common, should be easily acceptable. But if you don’t accept the paranormal, supernatural, and miracles, then the universe must behave as per laws of nature, i.e. it is intelligible through and through.

    I don’t think this follows, because miracles (as traditionally understood) presume that there are intelligible laws of nature in the first place. If there are no laws of nature, or if they are (as Neil suggests) merely pragmatic constructs, then the very idea of miracles doesn’t make any sense, either.

  22. Erik: If the universe is unintelligible or has important unintelligible aspects, then the paranormal, supernatural and miraculous phenomena, even though they are not too common, should be easily acceptable. But if you don’t accept the paranormal, supernatural, and miracles, then the universe must behave as per laws of nature, i.e. it is intelligible through and through.

    Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think this follows, because miracles (as traditionally understood) presume that there are intelligible laws of nature in the first place. If there are no laws of nature, or if they are (as Neil suggests) merely pragmatic constructs, then the very idea of miracles doesn’t make any sense, either.

    When Neil and Shallit claimed a page ago that only some aspects of the universe are intelligible, you had nothing to remark. But my statement here is a corollary to their model of the universe: Laws of nature for the intelligible part or aspects of the universe, the rest is beyond intelligibility, i.e. whatever goes.

  23. Erik: When Neil and Shallit claimed a page ago that only some aspects of the universe are intelligible, you had nothing to remark. But my statement here is a corollary to their model of the universe: Laws of nature for the intelligible part or aspects of the universe, the rest is beyond intelligibility, i.e. whatever goes.

    KN focused on the “is unintelligible” part of your statement, while you focus on the “has important unintelligible aspects” part. I think you might be able to come together if you both get rid of “is unintelligible”.

  24. Mung: The entire science as progress vs the darkness of religion myth is founded on the making intelligible the world around us.

    Do you think anyone has disagreed with this?

    Most of the debate that I have seen is over whether intelligibility is a natural property of the universe. The alternative view is that intelligibility is something that we produce, to the extent that we are able. That is to say, it is a cognitive ability, rather than a property of the universe.

  25. Erik: There’s evidence that you lack curiosity to investigate things thoroughly.

    Quite the contrary, actually.

    Evidence such as that you haven’t told how evidence justifies things and how it fails to justify whatever conclusion it is you are talking about here.

    You could always start a thread on evidence, if you want to discuss that.

  26. Kantian Naturalist: If there are no laws of nature, or if they are (as Neil suggests) merely pragmatic constructs, then the very idea of miracles doesn’t make any sense, either.

    I’ll agree that miracles as violating laws of nature does not make sense. But that’s not what the people use when they announce that a miracle has occurred. Declared miracles often have mundane explanations.

  27. Neil Rickert: I’ll agree that miracles as violating laws of nature does not make sense

    How about quantum mechanics? Doesn’t the double-slit experiment violate the laws of nature? I’ve never heard anybody calling it a miracle…crazy…maybe and yet it doesn’t make sense to some…

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