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. This is the type of question that philosophers seem to think is deep and/or important, while scientists just roll their eyes.

    I roll my eyes because (a) you do not define the terms in any way that could possibly result in a satisfying answer (b) you assume intelligibility without any standard of what it would mean (c) even if I attempt to provide definitions, the answer is contingent on millions of years of evolution and so a detailed step-by-step answer is impossible in a few paragraphs.

    (a): you do not define “intelligibility”. Yes, I’m aware that I can find definitions in the dictionary, or perhaps in some philosophical papers and books, but these definitions are going to be vague and untestable. A scientist wants a definition of “intelligible” that one can test. Exactly how much understanding is needed before a phenomenon is “intelligible”? By what standard is it measured? What units is intelligibility measured in? Most physical phenomena are intelligible to a handful of physicists, but practically no one else. Is the standard that just one person in the world suffices? Or must it be accessible to the average person? And so forth. It’s all too vague to even begin to argue about.

    (b) Who says the world is intelligible? After all, it was only in the last 500 years of humanity’s perhaps 500,000-year existence that we had a model of the physical and biological world that was even close to accurate. One of the essential features of quantum mechanics is precisely its lack of intelligibility, in the sense that there are competing intepretations such as Copenhagen and many-worlds. And we still have no “intelligible” understanding of the many-body problem or turbulence.

    (c) Finally, even if I am charitable and ignore the problems above, a comprehensive answer is still not possible, because of the dependence on contingency. Roughly, this is how I see it: the world is intelligible to us, to the extent that it is, because it was intelligible to our ancestors.

    All organisms form a model of the world. They need this model to survive, because without it they cannot predict and react to stimuli, whether they be a food source or a predator. These models arose, and have been honed, through the process of evolution, through billions of contingent events over billions of years. Organisms with wildly incorrect models did not survive. As members of Homo, we have a fairly detailed model both of our environment and the actions and motivations of others of our species. Viewed this way, the limited intelligibility of our immediate environment is not at all surprising. And also viewed in this way, it is not surprising that the universe quickly becomes unintelligible, comparatively speaking, as we move away from the scales that are familiar, both on a micro- and macro-level.

    In summary, I think the question is ill-posed, naive, and that philosophy is not going to help one whit in answering it.

  2. Your opening paragraph is probably the source of religion. People see a huge gap there, and invent a god of the gaps…

    But it is really an illusion.

    why is the world intelligible?

    We have no evidence that the world is intelligible. We only have evidence that the intelligible aspects of the world are intelligible. And that’s not much more than a trivial tautology.

    what is the source of the world’s intelligibility?

    Us. Or, more generally, cognitive systems.

    Is the source of intelligibility itself intelligible?

    Yes.

    It is intelligible to me. I have not yet found anyone else to whom it is intelligible. If I could ever find somebody else, I would love to have a conversation with them.

    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.

    This is probably right, and science bears it out. The irony is that most people probably see science as refuting this.

    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.

    This is mostly right. But I would disagree with that last part about “the barrage of sensations it receives.” Well, I guess I also disagree on whether there is such a thing as “the mind”. And, for that matter, I do not consider myself an idealist.

    The dilemma for realists has always been that people from different cultures and time-periods propose quite different and even incompatible ontologies, …

    I consider myself a realist. But this is not a dilemma for me. From my point of view, reality is the external world. Philosopher’s seem take “reality” to mean our descriptions of the external world. And I see that as a mistake.

    …, 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?

    Ontology is just a mistake. It amounts to the theistic view, that god gave us things. I take the view that all we have is a world, and it is up to us to single out parts of the world that we want to take to be things.

    Cognitive science (or consciousness studies) fail because of this mistake. They want to take for granted the kind of world described by ontology. And by taking that for granted, they have left nothing much for a cognitive system to do. So they cannot understand cognition, because they don’t see it doing anything important.

    Where did our ability to interpret the world so as to make sense of it come from?

    It evolved.

    That might seem like a throw-away, particularly to our resident creationists. For me, attempting to understand how it evolved has a lot to do with how I have developed my understanding of human cognition.

  3. I understand intelligibility as a concept of possibility: to say that the world is intelligible is to say that it can be understood. And by “the world” all I mean is “the world as we experience it”. The world is intelligible if it is not the case that all sentient beings experience it as (to use William James’s memorable phrase) a “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion”.

  4. shallit: (b) Who says the world is intelligible?

    LoL!

    He’s got you there Kantian Naturalist. Scientists certainly don’t say the world is intelligible.

    :rollseyes

  5. shallit’s post cracks me up. He wants the world to be intelligible so that it can be studied by science while denying that the world is intelligible. What utter freaking nonsense.

  6. Shallit seems to be a fast typist…maybe he can even read minds…

    Kantian Naturalist posts an OP and in a few minutes Shallit has a 3 page response to it after not having posted here “since the beginning of time”…
    I’m beginning to fear the quantum computer specialist…I think they cracked our source code and can affect our consciousness…

  7. Mung: All organisms do not form a model of the world.

    Presumably the point is that if an organism displays a complex set of behavioral responses to varied stimuli, it does so by virtue of implementing a model or map of its environment.

  8. Kantian Naturalist: Presumably the point is that if an organism displays a complex set of behavioral responses to varied stimuli, it does so by virtue of implementing a model or map of its environment.

    You would think, after shallit’s comments about your use of “intelligibility,” he would not turn right around and fail to say what he means by a “model” of the world. The irony.

    What you label a presumption shallit declared to be fact. And how does he know? Why, because he says so!

    A scientist wants a definition of “model” that one can test. Exactly how much understanding is needed before a phenomenon is a “model”? By what standard is it measured? What units are models measured in?

    shallit is guilty of the very thing he presumably despises! Who knew. And how does an organism model something that is unintelligible? shallit doesn’t say.

    Kantian Naturalist: Presumably the point is that if an organism displays a complex set of behavioral responses to varied stimuli, it does so by virtue of implementing a model or map of its environment.

    There’s no need for models, maps or representations when it’s all just chemistry.

    One has to wonder whether that very first self-replicating molecule was an organism. 🙂

  9. J-Mac: after not having posted here “since the beginning of time”…

    He has posted here before. I assume he occasionally looks at what is happening here. And perhaps he has previously thought about this topic.

  10. Jeffrey Shallit
    American mathematician, professor of computer science at a major Canadian university, & skeptic.

    Nuff said.

  11. shallit,

    Define SCIENTIST! What is that??? Surely its just someone who studys a very specific, vey very, Subject. With a claim of doing a better job based on methodology that gives credibility to conclusions a cut above general thinkers.
    Yet yopu imply that a “scientist” of any stripe can roll their eyes at another subject thats not their subject.
    Fine with me but don’t say being a scientist, if so, makes you a SCIENTIST of all sciency or philosphy subjects.
    Just making a point that creationists have problems with. NOTHING PERSONAL REALLY!

  12. Any self-respecting atheist ought to reject the concept of intelligibility. If some things in the world are intelligible perhaps everything in the world is intelligible. If all things are intelligible perhaps there is some justification for the principle of sufficient reason. The Principle of Sufficient Reason leads to arguments for the exist4ence of God.

    Better to be like shallit. A model for us all.

  13. Kantian Naturalist,

    Presumably the point is that if an organism displays a complex set of behavioral responses to varied stimuli, it does so by virtue of implementing a model or map of its environment.

    What evidence supports this claim?

  14. colewd: What evidence supports this claim?

    That’s a question for shallit, after he gives us a scientific definition of “model” that’s testable.

  15. colewd: What evidence supports this claim?

    Absolutely none. What you have is a “computer scientist” (what a joke) looking at the world through CS-coloured glasses and trying to make it intelligible as if organisms are programmable machines. The machine needs a model of the world, therefore organisms form a model of the world.

    shallit won’t defend the claim, because it’s indefensible. He made it up.

  16. It is widely acknowledged that Darwin was attempting to conform to the “best kind of science” as described by the philosophers.

    Oh snap. What’s a mathematician professor of “computer science” supposed to do.

  17. colewd:
    What evidence supports this claim?

    Ever tried to swat a fly with your hand? For some reason incomprehensible to you, the fly dodges your hand every time, and quite easily. This applies to ALL houseflies, every attempt, so statistically you’d have to conclude that flies avoid your hand deliberately, and it’s not some astounding set of coincidences.

    KN has extended this simple observation to become ” a complex set of behavioral responses to varied stimuli”, again with the astounding consistency of enhancing survival. One might almost think organisms are TRYING to survive.

    Perhaps observations don’t count as evidence for you?

  18. colewd:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    What evidence supports this claim?

    That would be the usefulness of the concept of ‘model’ (or ‘map’) in predicting and explaining behavior under various experimental and observational conditions. There’s been some very interesting work on honeybees here.

  19. Oh good. I had wanted to say that modeling is a mental activity. Can we all now agree that modeling is a mental activity?

    Can’t wait for shallit to weight in!

  20. 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.

    The laws of physics are algorithmically compressible, hence many of the most important laws can fit on a single piece of paper.

    If Planck’s constant were just a little different from where it is relative to other constants, not only would we not be alive, but the possibility of coherent measurements would be out the window.

    There seems to be little question in the world of physics that the universe we occupy is fine tuned relative to other possible universes. If we define intelligibility based on fine-tuning, then that would place the notion of fairly solid ground rather than ancient ideas by others who did not have access to the data we have today.

    Wigner’s paper (a year before he was awarded the Nobel prize) links physics (which include fine-tuning) to this intelligibility:

    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html

    The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. In order to establish the first point, that mathematics plays an unreasonably important role in physics, it will be useful to say a few words on the question, “What is mathematics?”, then, “What is physics?”, then, how mathematics enters physical theories, and last, why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling. Much less will be said on the second point: the uniqueness of the theories of physics.

  21. 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.

    The entire enterprise of scientific discovery assumes that the world is intelligible. So it’s utterly baffling why shallit would attempt to play off science against intelligibility. Something to do with being a mathematician and professor of “computer science” and a “skeptic” I suppose.

    Oh, and being philosophically ignorant.

  22. Kantian Naturalist: 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.

    Neil Rickert :This is probably right, and science bears it out. The irony is that most people probably see science as refuting this.

    Science does not bear it out, insofar as science does not acknowledge a priori theories, particularly genuinely normative a priori theories.

  23. shallit: Who says the world is intelligible? After all, it was only in the last 500 years of humanity’s perhaps 500,000-year existence that we had a model of the physical and biological world that was even close to accurate

    Hmmm. If you can say that you have a model of the physical and biological world that is close to accurate, with figures here and there, then that looks like an intelligible world, doesn’t it? If you can figure out whether your model of the world is accurate or not, this presupposes that the world is intelligible. If your model of the world is messed up – and you know that it’s messed up, this also presupposes that the world is intelligible.

    If the world is not intelligible, then models of the world have no function and purpose whatsoever.

  24. 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?

  25. Mung,
    I’ll only write one response to Mung because I don’t think he/she is a serious person.
    By a “model of the world” I mean a lossy compression of the totality of the bits needed to describe the environment. All organisms I know create such models, and they are described abundantly in the biological literature. For example, read Crick’s _The Astonishing Hypothesis_.

  26. Erik,

    No, only some aspects of the universe are partially comprehensible. That’s a lot less mysterious than “the universe is intelligible”, isn’t it?

    Neil Rickert is one of the few commenters so far with something sensible to say in response, and he hits it on the head: “We only have evidence that the intelligible aspects of the world are intelligible.”

  27. shallit: No, only some aspects of the universe are partially comprehensible. That’s a lot less mysterious than “the universe is intelligible”, isn’t it?

    No, it’s a whole lot more mysterious: Where does the line go between intelligibility and unintelligibility in the universe? Which aspects are intelligible and which are not?

    And I note that you changed it to “comprehensible”. I saw what you did there.

  28. shallit: These models arose, and have been honed, through the process of evolution, through billions of contingent events over billions of years. Organisms with wildly incorrect models did not survive.

    Oh goodness, this is the kind of evolution horseshit talk, that it seems people who profess it haven’t even given it the slightest bit of thought.

    First, there were once organisms with wildly inaccurate incorrect models of the world? When was that? How long did they exist?

    Second, how does one acquire an accident which gives them a more accurate understanding of the world? Does this happen in the form of a mutation? Some proteins can give accurate understandings and some give inaccurate ones?

    Third, where is this stored in the genome?

    Four, how is it passed on genetically?

    Five, can you get a mutation to the genetics which give you an accurate view of the world, so that you now have an inaccurate view?

    Six, is it impossible to have an inaccurate view of the world, and still be good at reproducing? Do bacteria have an accurate or inaccurate view of the world?

    Finally, this is the gist of the whole argument I had with Rumraket and a few others, over the notion that knowledge is stored somewhere in our DNA. Where is it stored? Robin claimed all our knowledge was learned, not stored, so woodpeckers only learn how to use their beaks, they aren’t born knowing anything.

    Lucky Accidenters have zero explanation for the storage of knowledge being passed along genetically.

  29. phoodoo: First, there were once organisms with wildly inaccurate incorrect models of the world? When was that? How long did they exist?

    Whatever you may think of the idea that organisms have internal world-models, I think it would be more accurate to say that there was once organisms with very simple world models, and these gradually increased in complexity.

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

  30. phoodoo: Finally, this is the gist of the whole argument I had with Rumraket and a few others, over the notion that knowledge is stored somewhere in our DNA. Where is it stored? Robin claimed all our knowledge was learned, not stored, so woodpeckers only learn how to use their beaks, they aren’t born knowing anything.

    I will just point out here that when phoodoo uses the word “knowlegde”, he’s describing something that I would call instinctive behavior. And yes, instinctive behaviors are heritable, and therefore stored in DNA.

    I even gave references to papers where researchers had found examples of mutations that controlled various instinctive behaviors in insects. Such as mate sex preference, the instinctive need to engage in courtship and so on. Biologists had identified individual mutations at the nucleotide level that affected how flies engaged in instinctive mating behavior.

    Phoodoo didn’t get any of it and is still just in denial I see.

  31. phoodoo: Lucky Accidenters have zero explanation for the storage of knowledge being passed along genetically.

    That sentence is literally self-refuting. If it’s stored and passed on genetically, then genetics is where you will find the explanation.

    LOL.

  32. 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?

    Rumraket: I think it would be more accurate to say that there was once organisms with very simple world models, and these gradually increased in complexity.

    The simple strategy of “run and tumble” (biased random walk) employed by bacteria such as E. coli comes to mind.

  33. Rumraket: That sentence is literally self-refuting. If it’s stored and passed on genetically, then genetics is where you will find the explanation.

    LOL.

    I think he means the mechanism that stores the knowledge.Funny thing about those who favor ID, mechanisms are only required for evolution.

  34. Rumraket: I will just point out here that when phoodoo uses the word “knowlegde”, he’s describing something that I would call instinctive behavior. And yes, instinctive behaviors are heritable, and therefore stored in DNA.

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

  35. Rumraket: Whatever you may think of the idea that organisms have internal world-models, I think it would be more accurate to say that there was once organisms with very simple world models, and these gradually increased in complexity.

    So you think Shallit is inaccurate, because that is certainly NOT what he said. On this we can agree.

    Now if you could just show how lucky accidents produces increasingly complex world models.

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