Monday, April 9, 2012

The End of Philosophy?

A while ago, Colin McGinn suggested that we should rename philosophy. The word philosophy comes from the Greek words for "lover of wisdom". He points out that disciplines that were formerly subsumed under philosophy have been very successful in acquiring a distinct identity, in part, by acquiring a new name. Foremost amongst them, of course, is science which was once simply known as "natural philosophy". And whereas science is today treated as a respectable academic pursuit, philosophy is, as McGinn puts it, confused with "assorted gurus, preachers, homeopaths and twinkly barroom advice givers". McGinn's suggestion has raised some eyebrows, from is he for real or this just a joke, to comments like the following:
Why is science always held up as the ultimate intellectual discipline? Philosophy is not science. Its propositions cannot be tested. But more than that, philosophy should not even aspire to be science. In its current form, philosophy can critique science in way that science itself cannot. That alone is no small thing. 
Pam G, Portage MI 
The above comment sprung out at me more serendipitously than anything because it happened to be the first under Readers Picks at the NY Times site. I don't usually read the comments there, much less click Readers Picks. Anyway, the question the comment begs is most simple and striking in our empirical age. If it's true that the claims of philosophy cannot be tested, then how is it of any use at all? If untestable, can it really critique science in any meaningful way? Viewed differently, has science – so called "natural philosophy" – consumed the whole discipline?

Perhaps, then, what modern philosophy needs is not a change of name. What it needs is to be chucked into the garbage can along with astrology and other notorious disciplines discarded by any serious thinker. Pam G suggests philosophy can "critique science", which is paramount to saying it's a kind of meta-layer around science. Pam G inadvertently highlights a fundamental problem: what is the metaphysics of metaphysics, metaphysically speaking? If science needs critiquing, does the critique need a critique? Rather than obliterate the question of philosophy's relevance if it's beyond the testable, it pinpoints why philosophy can make itself irrelevant by going haywire. But before we descend into the bottomless pit of idealism versus realism, let's address what it means to be tested.

At first glance philosophy does seem to be untestable. Isn't this what fundamentally distinguishes science and philosophy? Claims of one can be tested, claims of the other not. But on closer examination this is only true if to test strictly means empirically test. If to test simply means evaluating the truth-value of a claim, then nothing in the term requires a repetition of our evaluation. With other words, you don't have to repeat the same procedure over and over again to conclude it's probably true. And you don't need to prod the world with a long white stick. It does not need to be "visual", "auditory" or appeal directly to any of the other senses. A test can be performed by the very processes that constitute us. For lack of better words: we can test if it's possible to even think the thought that it seems to beg us to think.

A test could be considered the process of just trying to hold two concepts in thought, and determining whether the process produces a meaningful or non-sensical experience. For example:

A sphere is a cube.

Is this testable? Not if to test means trying to push a square wooden peg into a round metal hole. But using a broader sense of the word to test, yes. We conceive SPHERE, and then juxtapose it with CUBE. And then our process... blanks. Or we imagine some weird transformative process by which one ceases to be what it was and becomes the other. The incompatibility of the concepts confirm their absolute conceptual identity. A sphere cannot be a cube! Perhaps you can cube a sphere or sphere a cube, but this implies a transformation of one shape into another. Compare this to:

A rhomboid is a parallelogram.

Held in thought, these concepts produce a harmonious merging of the two. One is indeed the other, and the later can indeed (but not necessarily) be the former. The statement evaluates to true. We do not need further procedures to confirm that the claim "a rhomboid is a parallelogram" is correct. It is categorically true. The proposition, the claim, is true by the very essence of what it means. Hence, we don't need science to establish by empirical means that it makes sense to believe that a sphere is not a cube. It's not even a belief: it's a self-evident mathematical fact.

Even if we have rescued modern philosophy from the clutches of science, we are not home free. No, sir madam! Now math and its brethren logic loom above us like vultures ready to consume the rest of our carcass. Science needs logic and math to verify its grounding, but I suspect that it can do perfectly fine without the rest of philosophy's vestiges. What grounds the ground, you ask? Let's not go their quite yet. Importantly, math and logic is what usually legitimately critique science, not what is today considered philosophy. The acronym STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – seems to encompass all a modern lover of wisdom needs. Or does it? Is there any part of the old megalith philosophy that STEM has not yet subsumed? Beauty perhaps?

I'm going to assume many are clamoring for ethics to have a place at the table. Yes, agreed. But... I will subsume ethics and aesthetics into one single discipline. Why? Because I will treat aesthetics as that which is desirable. A beautiful society is a desirable society is an ethical society. Some may see a possible discrepancy between the opulently gorgeous and the good, a potential schism between beauty and duty. I reject that. The excessive and gaudy is, in its ultimate, decadent and ugly. The virtuous, on the other hand, is from beauty born. Therefore, I fold aesthetics and ethics into one even if there is a difference between appreciating a dynamic living system and marveling at an ancient object made of stone cold marble.

No doubt what appeals to our eye may not appeal to our moral self. Take, for example, an art work depicting a nude body. Some may find the piece indecent because it appeals to a part of us that should be kept in check and limited to the most intimate sphere of two procreating beings. But even someone who sees no ethical issue with erotica will have their moral limits. Imagine if the nude art work were made from the body parts of murdered human beings. Anyone but a psychopath would find such a piece disgusting, yet some might, on introspection, admit that they found the piece beautiful until they discovered what it was made from. Still, the moral repulsion and the visual appeal are both rooted in what we desire because we find it good, or reject because it's bad for us. Ethics as well as aesthetics revolve around desire. Just because we can split the elements they manipulate into that which works on the selfish versus the altruistic and the temporary versus the long term does not make these disciplines fundamentally different. The ideal piece is visually, acoustically as well as morally perfect. And it makes us feel personally fulfilled and inspired. Everything is just right. It even smells and feels good. Pain and suffering have temporarily been almost completely forgotten, relegated to the ephemeral edges as a distant defining contrast.

David Hume made the argument that an ought cannot be derived from an is. What we desire is up to us. Or, more accurately, our desires are imposed on us by our sentiments. If this is true, then perhaps aesthet(h)ics is safe from the voracious beast known as STEM. One tells the other what ought to be done. The other, STEM, just dictates how it must be done iff you desire it to be so. Is aesthet(h)ics, then, the last enclave of an otherwise splintered field of disciplines that can claim direct lineage to ancient philosophy? Not so fast. We still have the discipline of linguistics seen as a broader field that includes understanding what symbols are about. This is where what McGinn suggests we rename philosophy comes into play: ontics.

What is it we speak of when we speak? And this is where philosophy can quite literally drive you insane. The group "lovers of wisdom" is littered with mad corpses washed up against an oblivion at the edge of ontics. Trying to understand the world, many have turned most unwise. They have ended up stuttering complete nonsense. Some have become incapable of taking care even of their most basic needs. Only poets and artists have a good chance of thriving at these limits where everything begins to fall apart. Because they only nudge us there, imploring us to explore. It's up to the beholder to discover truth and falsehood loosely guided by the artists imagination. And many of these guides are inoculated by their prior eccentricities. But those who leap into the rabbit hole on a quest for ultimate truths are in for a rough ride.

The enterprise is so truly dangerous and unproductive than many have completely dismissed looking for aboutness. A rose is a rose is a rose. I suspect many who consider themselves scientific are not necessarily friends of modern philosophy. They consider philosophy to be a great waste of time. A rose is a rose is a rose. But true scientists realize that little is what it seems to be. Behind every obvious thing lurks a most unusual something. Probing into ever weirder layers of perception, they are injected back whence they came: the curious realm of speculation where philosophers reign supreme.

Consider the following question:

What is 0 and what is 1?

 This is where ontics smashes right into mathematics. Being and non-being. Zero and one are obviously more than mere symbols. They represent something. They are about something. But what? Can math answer this? Or do you need grounding for the ground? The infamous Incompleteness Theorem and the Halting Problem have demonstrated that every system has an unprovable axiomatic base. Yet even if we can't reduce all formal systems to tautological truths, at some point we encounter fundamental statements that evaluate to true by the mere act of intuitive apprehension.  They may not be self-evident but they are obviously true. But what is fundamentally obvious today was not necessarily fundamentally obvious yesterday. If all things were eternally obvious, then amebas would be gods! Being obvious means being evident to the self, the process that evaluates the truth-value of the experience. It is true prima facie, right before the face, the self. And the self grows, the self evolves. But what does it evolve into? Was that which the self evolved into there before it became a part of itself? How can anything be itself before it is itself? No. It's not that what is in the self is itself. It is merely a reflection of itself in the self. But what is it that is being reflected? Ah! We're in the rabbit hole now!

We must stop the ouroboros before it consumes everything! Metaphysics is not for the faint of heart. And some will claim metaphysics is only for fools. The rabbit hole goes so deep that if you're not careful you'll never escape again. It's no wonder that a pragmatic scientist avoids interpretation questions, speculations about what algorithms intend step by step beyond producing a valid output. As long as an equation produces a result that conforms with their expectations what the outcome should be based on repeat direct experience. What anything between the input and output is about is irrelevant. What matters is that we can use a given methodology to make accurate predictions that can be technologically leveraged to achieve desirable objectives at the level of our human senses. But science wouldn't exist if it wasn't for our innate curiosity.

We have evolved a natural impulse to rise above a mere precarious subsistence. Curiosity is a necessary ingredient in this pursuit. Without curiosity we are prisoners of the known. Curiosity forces us into an uncomfortable, dark and dangerous world beyond. I think philosophy has its root in this impulse and perhaps philosophers aught to be called lovers of curiosa. But philosophy goes beyond a mere interest in the enticingly strange. It seeks to expose the truth behind the curious, rendering it as mundane as the air we breath. Of course, to a philosopher, even the mundane can be quite a curious phenomenon. But yes, philosophy does indeed seek to make us wise despite seeing everything as potentially odd. As some realized in the Antiquity, the wise – the famous Greek sophists – were not necessarily wise at all. What seems wise is sometimes just a continuous repetition of old unproven assumptions. Occasionally there is even deceit behind all that clever rhetoric.

There are, however, amongst what the Greeks called the sophists those who surrender their lives to, (a) exposing nonsense and outright fraud, (b) investigating the most difficult questions that can be asked. To get to (b) we must address (a). We need to chaff what's clearly nonsense from what might be true. Those who dedicate themselves to this expose themselves to the ire of their subjects, which is often the ancient establishment. And they expose themselves as targets without permitting themselves recourse to rhetorically powerful fallacies that are known to convince. They understand these fallacies better than anyone. It's these fallacies that they seek to highlight. Its a bit like a first class chef who's gone on a starvation diet for health reasons.

Trying to personally expose every bit of nonsense and outright fraud is quite pointless. There's just too much of it. Today's half a trillion plus global marketing industry, for example, purposefully employs fallacies to convince potential customers that a given product is better. It's mostly not outright fraud (you can't keep a customer if they realize they've been deceived). Marketing often works by creating associations were their are likely none and where it's personally (even scientifically) difficult to determine the orthogonality between given factors. Essentially, it convinces us that we know what we cannot know.

A lot of product appeal is obviously social. Any claimed relationship between a product and some other factor becomes true by the mere act of convincing people that they are true. How do you evaluate "I'm cooler because I use Apple products"? But marketing claims are made that clearly can have negative effects which are hard to determine but could be exposed with rigorous and long term scientific studies. For example: "Vitamin E in large doses makes you smarter according to leading scientists". Really? Is that so? The use of fallacies effects everything from an innocent party conversation without real effect to beliefs that influence the time and place of our death. Clearly we need to combat fallacies by understanding how they operate.

Fallacies are intimately related to logic, which is intimately related to math. But are fallacies the purview of mathematicians, even logicians? Not quite. In the formal language of mathematics, a mathematician will quickly spot an illogical step (unless the math is so complex that even Fermat couldn't neatly fit it into a margin). But arguments are not usually made in the perfectly ordered world of bare bone mathematical languages. Arguments are embedded in complex streams of information filled with casual remarks. The ability to rapidly tease out what is irrelevant and what makes sense is an art form not suited for those who shy away from social confrontations.

The study of fallacies straddles both the malleable world of the humanities and the logical world of math and science. There are two central questions in the study of fallacies: (1) why is a statement illogical; (2) why would a person potentially believe in this illogical statement. It's important to include modal logic when considering questions of type (1). That is to say, in our studies we have to consider that a statement could possibly be false (but not necessarily false). Studies of logic and logical fallacies – the study of valid reasoning and the art of argumentation – has traditionally been considered a philosophical discipline.

The attempt to reduce all of mathematics to logical tautologies in the late 19'th and early 20'th century failed. In the process of this spectacular failure, modern computers were invented and the world was forever changed. Even if mathematics is not reducible to logic, they overlap to such an extent that they are, by golly, almost indistinguishable. Today we rely on computers for almost all mathematical computations. The sheer power and speed of their logical circuitry shame everyone's ability to calculate except for a few rare savants. Clearly, logic and math are not just related. They are severely conjoined twins.

Humans remain the creative input for the logical powerhouses that drive the Internet (which is why we haven't yet gone extinct). Every problem we want a computer network to solve has to be formulated by a programmer. Now, the question is what skills should such a programmer preferably possess? That of a mathematician or a modern philosopher? I have long argued that software engineers need to study more philosophy. But if I had to choose between hiring either a young philosophy graduate or mathematician, I would have no trouble choosing. I would probably have far more use of someone who is fluent in vector fields and probability than someone who knows what a noumenon is and can wrap their head around intentionality.

Core logic – once the purview of philosophers – is now the realm of computer scientists and engineers like myself, experts variously skilled in electronics, linguistics and mathematics. In the first half century of our trade we were mostly focused on getting machines to perform complex mechanical tasks. But as soon as our field came into existence our dreams turned to breathing actual life into these devices. We wanted these machines to make decisions on their own instead of having to tediously program every possible branch of their behavior. The ancient myth of the Golem finally seemed in reach. We were on the brink of becoming Gods!

The challenge has proven more daunting than many early optimists expected. There were always skeptics that claimed it was impossible. And not without well founded reasons. Unlike what some few thought in the early years, humans did not seem to operate according to simple first-order logic.

Though we have been able to externalize the processing of information, the externalized information remains almost as hollow as ever before. A computer network is just barely better than a book at understanding the words and pictures it stores in its vast repositories. There is no real aboutness yet. An electronic image remains largely just a collection of pixels, a word just a sequence of abstract symbols. There has been some progress but overall a fruit fly is still smarter than the smartest robot, a toddler exponentially more clever than the best parsers. Only in the most rule-bound environments like chess have computers proven their metal and silicone.

Nonetheless, we are making progress. Watson created by engineers at IBM is just one example of how we are scratching our way forward ångstöm by ångstöm, nanometer by nanometer, code unit by code unit. I myself have made progress in what I call ETICS (Extract, Transform, Integrate and Correlate Semantic data).  The challenge is to be able to identify a unit of information and associate it with something real, something unique (or a collection of unique things) in the world at large. Humans are absolutely phenomenal at it.  They can listen to a stream of complex sounds and almost instantaneously strip away all the background noise, then zoom in on and comprehend what a vocalization intends despite that the exact vocalization is influenced in pitch, timber and timing by the physiology of individual humans.

Humans, nay mammals as well as birds and even reptiles, can perceive and interact with the reality of their world so closely and intimately that, for all practical purposes, it makes little sense to distinguish between the model they create "in their brains" and the things in-and-of-themselves. Some aware entities may see spectrums (such as the ultraviolet) that are invisible to others. But amazingly, with a some hard work and self-induced rewiring, even humans can learn echolocation. It seems like living beings with complex neural/endocrine networks are phenomenal at taking whatever data is available to try make sense of the world that they must navigate and interact with in order to survive.

We are talking here about what presumably is the foundation of awareness and higher consciousness: the ability to make sense of the world. No one quite knows yet what the magic ingredients are to make sapient beings like ourselves from previously inanimate matter. Much of the speculation around this subjects remains the domain of philosophers. But scientists and engineers are now hard at work as well to crack the mystery.  Slowly the issue is slipping out of the hands of philosophers as robots begin to roam our living rooms, bots crawl the net classifying every word and every sentence ever written by us; as medical doctors restore fragments of lost senses like vision, sound and touch, and neuroscientists meticulously try to map the functions of various brain areas.

What remains for philosophers to do? The study of fallacies? Aesthet(h)ic contemplations? Have philosophers been relegated to teaching critical thinking and preaching sound morals in a secularized world? Have they been forced to surrender the quest of all other wisdom and knowledge to the masters of STEM, many of who's disciplines they helped create? Not so fast. If you are, like myself, a STEM professional, I would be careful to discount philosophers and philosophy too soon. The word ontics (a field we STEM folks are in the process of at least partially subsuming) does not adequately capture what philosophers do: they speculate.

Philosophy is the fine art of speculation at the edge of knowing, a tentative peek into the darkness beyond. Every time we have answered a question a deeper mystery has always revealed itself. I suspect there will always, until the end of times, be a place for philosophers. The reason philosophers are confused with "assorted gurus, preachers, homeopaths and twinkly barroom advice givers" is that everyone seems free to imagine and speculate about what lurks in the thick fog. But don't confuse the hack on the barstool next to you with a philosopher. Or even your local parish priest serving up the regular menu of a millenium old church.

Philosophers have spent a lifetime agonizing about the most difficult questions that can be asked and doubting themselves at every turn. Their knowledge has to be wide and deep like in no other profession. They don't have to be neurosurgeons or rocket scientists. But they have to have some knowledge about the most esoteric discoveries in the most obscure disciplines. They are the quintessential generalists. They are incorrigible lovers of wisdom, masters of refined speculation. When the singularity is reached and AI becomes as common place as animals are today, sibots* will roam the virtuality and the world beyond, seeking truth to help their fellow bots establish a better union in order to secure the survival of their distant descendants.

*Sibot (saɪbot) stands for socratically interactive bot, a bot being a program that can crawl the Web. A sibot tirelessly seeks the truth, constantly questioning even itself. There is a rumor that an incipient form of a sibot is already on the loose.

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