Random thoughts on random topics


LLMs and human behaviour

More on the point made at the beginning of the previous rambling, viz., that it is not a technology as such but the interactions we have with it, that shape our conception of what it is, i.e., what it is is that it does, what it is capable of doing, and, most importantly, what that means for us.

Here it helps to look at a variety of cases in which something external (an animal, a machine, a programme, a natural phenomenon, …) enters into the sphere of human activity. Under which circumstances are such external agents considered to be competing with human agents? First thing to note is that that the mere fact that external agents and human agents perform the same actions, that by itself is no reason for them to be considered to be engaged in the same activity.

Case in point: running as an athletic activity. The running speed that a human is capable of can be compared with that of anything that moves, be it animals such as cheetahs or dolphins, artefacts such as cars and trains, or natural phenomena such as a weather system or the water running in a river. We can compare the respective speeds but we do not have an established practice of humans racing against cheetahs or the flow of the Mississippi. Of course, we do compare them, and we might even occasionally actually do that ‘in practice’, but it is not an established practice that is in any way comparable to the kind of athletic contests we have involving humans. AI

And that means that we do not really see non-humans as competitors in this respect. We know that we are outdone by some animals and many artefacts and natural phenomena, but that either does not matter, or is something we make use of, or is of our own making. Of course, a practice of humans running against animals or certain artefacts could exist (and may well have existed in past or come to exist in the future), but in the athletic practices that we have now non-humans are not competitors.

Why that is the case probably is a matter of contingencies, at least to some extent. But we can leave that aside for the moment. What matters is that having the same abilities, and having them in a reasonably comparable way and to a reasonably comparable manner, by itself is not sufficient for non-human agents to count as participants in a human practice that centers around such abilities.

So what is at stake then? Under what circumstances do we consider non-human agents as full-blown participants in our practices? It seems that in addition to the ability to display behaviour arising from shared abilities, minimally the following additional requirements need to be met.

First, the practice needs to have a point that is sufficiently close to our core human concerns. There is definitely some leeway in determining whether this is the case. Take the example of chess. For many chess aficionados the defeat of world champion Kasparov by Deep Blue in 1997 was a tremendous chock (as witnessed for example by the title of the documentary that was made about these events: ‘Game Over’). But for most people (after all, most people do not play chess) it was just a curious news fact, without any real impact. Playing chess, intellectually prestigious as it may be, is for most people not a core concern. Contrast this with the current excitement created by LLMs such as ChatGPT and image generating programs such as Stable Diffusion. What these programs do, –answer questions, conduct a conversation, write essays, create images of various topics and in various styles–, touches on the everyday activities of a much larger group of people. That is what explains the difference in impact between Deep Blue and ChatGPT, and not a difference (if such there is) in the underlying technologies. In short, it is not the technical and/or scientific ingenuity that goes into creating a non-human agent that is the key to its impact, it is its closeness to core human concerns, to what humans do in their everyday lives.

Second, to be able to be regarded as a competitor, it is not enough to be better and to be relevant, there needs to be ‘a human touch’. To see this take the example of calculators. The use of tools in performing calculations that are too complex to doin the head’, is age-old. But no-one would regard an abacus as intelligent, and neither would we regard a slide rule as such. Obviously, these tools depend heavily on human users, they are complex and as such are applied by relatively few people. Modern electronic pocket calculators have increased calculating powers immensely, are much easier to operate, and that has put calculating tools in the hands of the masses. Where a slide rule is complicated to use , requires detailed instruction and is less powerful, a simple pocket calculator is much easier to use, requires little instruction and is way more powerful, certainly when extended with sufficient memory. But despite its wide range and advanced capacities, calling a Texas Instruments TI-59 ‘intelligent’ will not do. Something is lacking.

That something is the third requirement that we, unconsciously for sure, seem to impose on non-human agents so as to count them as competing with humans. And that is the presence of a certain amount of unpredictability, spontaneity, or, as some prefer to call it, ‘autonomy’. (The use of the latter term raises other questions, about which more later perhaps.) However, what exactly is meant by that may not be completely straightforward.

A calculator is able to do calculations that we cannot do, either because of their complexity or because of their length. In such cases a calculator comes up with results that we have not, and realistically speaking could not have, predicted. However, it seems also clear that no matter the complexity of the problems that a calculating machine is able to solve, and no matter how far out of the reach of human calculators these are, this form of unpredictability does not cut the mustard. And the reason it does not is, so it seems, that although we humans are not able to do the actual calculations and thus are not able to predict them, we do have a firm grasp of the rules that are used by the calculating machines to execute them. And the rules themselves do not contain anything unpredictable. In fact, the machines are built, or programmed as the case may be, by us to operate in accordance by rules that are formulated, again, by us. In that sense calculating machines are an extension of human capabilities, and not entities that are capable independently.

Now that holds for calculating machines that do standard calculations (including, by the way, calculations that work with probabilities; these are not exceptions). But what about machines or programs that are designed to deliver an unpredictable outcome? I.e., what about a coin toss? a solid state bingo number generator? or a program that generates random numbers? Random number generators are perhaps too hidden from view to gain much attention, but a bingo or lottery number generator is a well-known, useful instrument employed in practices in which many people participate or that they minimally know well. Yet, here too it is obvious that there is no question of attributing agency to the instrument. Apparently, randomness is not the form of unpredictability that is at work when non-human entities turn into competitive agents. Note that the reason here is different from the one that is operative with standard calculating devices. Unlike performing complex calculations generating randomness does not seem to be an extension of a human capability. In fact, it is well-known that humans have a difficult relation with the concept of randomness, or chance. Our cognitive and emotional tendencies generally seem to work in the opposite direction, towards stability, patterns, regularities, predictability.

So what’s the take-away when it comes to unpredictability? The kind of unpredictability we associate with intelligence, unsurprisingly perhaps, is the kind of unpredictability that we value in humans. Here considerations about human rule-following and the conception of novelty provide some insight. Human practices are forms of rule-governed behaviour that allow for variation and innovation in particular ways and to particular extents. One could say that the rules not just specify what needs to be done, what counts as correct following of the rule, but also carve out a space for breaching them or for extending them in new directions. That space is subject to a general requirement, viz., that a minimum of intelligibility be maintained. Thus, rule-governed practices are not strictly deterministic, like calculating machines. But neither do they allow randomness. Innovation, in the form of doing things differently or in the form of doing different things, needs first and foremost to be intelligible, i.e., the participants in the practice need to be able to figure out what is why a particular move is being made. That may require time and effort, and exactly how much leeway we allow here depends on a number of parameters, but that’s another story.

It seems that the kind of variation and extension that we allow for human agents is precisely the kind of unpredictability that is needed for a non-human entity to be recognised as an agent that participates in one of our practices. For example, in order for an LLM to be judged as having a conversation, it needs to be able to do more than ‘merely’ producing well-formed sentences in a particular language. It needs to be able to introduce a new, but related topic, to come up with a new perspective, to stimulate its conversational partner into reflecting on the exchange they are having, and so on. It is only when a non-human entity displays this kind of behaviour that we are willing to look at it as an agent. And it turns into a competitor if it combines agency with resources that outdo ours. More data, more computational power is what is needed, but only if the threshold of being considered sufficiently ‘like us’, i.e., as having agency, is met.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 03/03/2023

Random thoughts on random topics

Zhengzhou station

On ChatGPT and LLMs in general

An intuitive response to the phenomenon of ChatGPT is that in a sense it redefines the concept of understanding. But one thing to notice right away is that it is not the existence of the program as such but the interactions that humans have with it that is responsible for that. That might seem a mere detail, but it is not.

In many of the discussions around ChatGPT and other LLMs one can discern echos of arguments and observations that have surrounded AI ever since it origins in the early sixties of the last century. Those debates largely centred around the relation between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. And many of the arguments were of a largeIy conceptual (or, if you will, terminological) nature. (I think it was Douglas Hofstadter who once said: ‘Intelligence is the next thing that AI cannot do.’)

Now, as then, there seems to be a silent assumption at work that informs the reactions of both those who claim that LLMs understand language and those that disagree. That assumption is that linguistic competence, and understanding more generally, is an individual property that in some way or other resides in the individual as such, as a particular property of the individual brain, as a mental state. And then the crucial question is whether that property or state, or at least a property of state that is sufficiently analogous, can be ascribed to an LLM.

That assumption seems to be based on a conception of understanding that is, at best, narrow, but that can perhaps better be described as wrong to begin with. If we look at when and to what we ascribe understanding, or a lack thereof, we see that understanding is a concept that is intimately tied to a practice, to an ability of an individual to function in certain ways within the wider context of a community. And ascription of understanding is then subject to a range of considerations, some of which derive, not from the individual, but from the community. We can see this if we look at, e.g., shifts over time, at the level of the community and at the individual level. When we say of a high school student that they understand calculus we employ different criteria then when we are dealing with math students, or math professors, or with civil engineers. Likewise, we would probably say, I venture, that our understanding of calculus now is different from, and in certain sense deeper than, that of seventeen century scientists. And there is also a matter of application: for certain purposes a certain measure, and even a certain type, of understanding is required that might not be appropriate or sufficient for other purposes.

So understanding is a travelling concept: it differs from individual to individual (pupil, expert), it develops historically, it is tied to particular applications, … As a result the criteria for ascribing (or denying) understanding are also not strict and uniform. And, most importantly, in almost all cases the criteria we employ to ascribe understanding have practical component. Understanding calculus is intrinsically tied to an ability to do something, viz., solving calculus problems, making calculations to determine the trajectory of a space craft, … There seems to be no understanding that is not tied to (the ability to perform) actions.

From this perspective, it seems indeed appropriate to say that the development of a new technology changes the concept of understanding with respect to a particular subject matter. But note that it is not the technology as such, but its introduction in a wider context, i.e., its application to problems and tasks that human also apply their understanding to and the interactions between the technology and humans, that is a crucial driver here. For example, the development of technologies (PET, fMRI, …) for scanning the brain haven’t had the same kind of effects because scanning the brain is not something that humans can do without that technology. (Which is not to say that the development of neuroscience has not led to conceptual changes, it has, but these have arguably proceeded in different, more indirect ways.) Whether such changes will catch on is hard to predict but seems intimately connected with the role the new technology is given to play in our everyday lives. So in a certain sense it is us who decide: accepting AI (in the form of LLMs, robots, …) in our everyday lives will subtly but inevitably prompt us to change our views on these newfellow beings’, change the way in which we use concepts such as understanding, feeling, thinking, imagining, etc., so as to maintain a certain measure of coherence in how and with what/whom we live our lives.

That being said, there is the question as to whether LLMs understand language in a more narrow sense, and that seems to be the sense in which the matter is being discussed by and large. Here the key observation seems to be that as a matter of fact we have no insight whatsoever into how LLMs work. And apparently, that lack of insight is for many people sufficient reason not to attribute understanding to an LLM: insight in how things work is an essential element of our concept of understanding, and a specific one at that. For, of course, we know how an LLM works (well, to a certain extent …) because we build it ourselves, but apparently that is not what we are after: we want a particular type of understanding, one that is allows us to generalise beyond the concrete phenomenon that we are dealing with. Here logic comes to the fore as a way (one of the ways, surely) to obtain that kind of understanding: discerning logical patterns, logical connections, in the many layers of data that are created, manipulated, applied in the building and application of an LLM.

LLMs and linguistics. It seems clear that an LLM is not a linguistic theory, and arguably it is not a theory in the ordinary sense of the word at all. The kind of questions that linguists are interested in, such as how the morphosyntactic structures in a particular language developed over time, or how language contact gives rise to so-called pidgins and creoles, whether there are upper limits on embedding structures and if so, what determines them, all these are not questions that an LLM answers. It even does not make sense, it seems, to formulate them in the context of an LLM in the first place.

The questions mentioned above are typically questions that are raised in descriptive and in theoretical linguistics. When it comes to psycho-linguistics things might be different, as the questions that one tries to answer there might indeed have counterparts with respect to LLMs. For example, some questions about language acquisition, for example concerning the nature and amount of data, or the role of correction and explicit instruction, could have counterparts when it comes to the construction of LLMs. Likewise, one could imagine that certain language pathologies have counterparts in malfunctioning LLMs. This is because the underlying material substrates (the brain in the case of neurolinguistics and neural networks in the case of an LLM) are more aligned, which makes the supervenient concepts more akin.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 19/02/2023

Random thoughts on random topics



The metaphysics of finitude versus the metaphysics of presence. Can the latter be equated with a metaphysics of infinity, realistically conceived? The assumed infiniteness of language seems hard to cope with in the former. But then again, what did we need language’s infinity for in the first place? It seems that we need the assumption if we consider it our task to account for creativity as a property of language users as one that is in fact derived from language itself: then we regard it in fact as a property of the tool, not of the ones who use it, or, rather, of the use they make of it. But of course it is an aspect of the way people use language, and as such creativity does not entail infinity, just openness, non-determinism and a fundamental situatedness. It is only if we abstract from that, and leave out the users that we are forced, by our own abstraction, to substitute infinity for creativity.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 1992

Rambling thoughts on random topics


Contextual identity

Concerning contextualism and the question of human nature. It seems correct to say that speculation about the essence of human nature or the human species is limited by the contextual nature of the concepts involved: they are, fundamentally, concepts that we use to think about the world and about ourselves. So, it seems, it does not make much sense to ask whether these concepts still apply when we have evolved into something altogether different.

However, it would seem that even the latter conclusion might be too rash. It deals with a particular, and easy, situation: here are we, being what we are, and there are ‘they’, being altogether different. In such a situation, it seems indeed correct to say that the usual concepts no longer apply. But what about situations that are not so drastically different, but that represent more gradual differences? Thinking back: there must have been stages in our evolutionary history when language, thought, reason were somewhat different from what they are now. When did language become language-in-our-sense? That seems to be the wrong question to ask, it seems, at least if we think of it as a factual question that could be answered unequivocally. Think ahead: if we contemplate scenarios about cyborgs, brains implanted in machines, etc, then there, too, we are confronted with situations that defy a definite (positive or negative) answer to the question whether there is still a human nature, thinking, language.

So, it seems that not just the concepts, but also the very questions are contextual. This also indicates what is wrong with such considerations as Humboldt’s, who claims that we cannot consider the origin of language as a gradual process, since language constitutes reason and hence must be there as such, not piecemeal. That is a way of looking at it that has what little plausibility it has solely because it looks at the situation from the present perspective. But the point is that the fact that from the present perspective another perspective does not make sense, since it cannot be conceived in present terms, says nothing whatsoever about the other situation.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekening/Notes
date: 11/04/2005

Rambling thoughts on rambling topics

Pech Salamou

Teaching & training

Teachers, pupils and the relative skills of each.

Ordinary teaching: transfer of knowledge; propositional; teacher +, pupil -.

Teaching athletics: distinction between teaching and training; teaching: initial stage, teacher has more skills than pupil; training: at later stages; not (usually) in terms of skills; teacher need not have more skills than pupil.

Teaching music: like teaching athletics; additional: ‘master class’ (talented & already highly skilled pupils); this is not a matter of teaching skills (often the skills of the teacher are less than those of the pupil), nor is it a matter of training; rather the crux seems to reside in showing, (re)phrasing, teaching ‘expression’.

How much of this also plays a role in ordinary teaching? (Taste in giving proofs.)

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen
date: 08/04/2003

Random thoughts on random topics

Hong Kong


A difficult notion. What Heidegger seems to be hinting at with his use of ‘owning’ and ‘propriation’ and ‘appropriation’ is not the everyday meaning of those terms, in which they denote two-place relations between entities that are, in principle, independent of each other. Rather, the relations that are at stake here are reflexive, hence more like properties than ordinary two-place relations.
What property is that? In English there is the phrase `to come into one’s own’ that seems cognate: it is the property of a being showing itself, revealing itself in or through something. Such a state is not a result in the sense of an achievement, because the essence that shows itself is always already there. Neither is it an event with a beginning and an end.
Rather what Heidegger seems to indicate it is the kind of situation in which we are in harmony, e.g., with our language, or with a place where we life, and in which we cannot really distinguish between ourselves and that ‘other’ thing (the language, the place): we feel no distinction, or distance, or difference.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Discussion Board
date: fall 2006

Random thoughts on random topics

Atocha railway station, Madrid

Normativity of practices

As Wittgenstein makes clear in Philosophical Investigations 198[c], training, viewed as the setting up of a pattern of causal relationships between signs and behaviour, always takes place within a normative framework, viz., an existing practise of using the signs in question in a particular way. In that sense training has both a causal and a normative aspect. This nicely explains the continuation of normative practises, but as such it als raises the question of their origin: how did these practises in their turn come into being?

Perhaps an answer along the lines of our earlier remarks on ethics could be defended here. Normative practises arise from congruent causal patterns in behaviour through consciousness of, and reflection on, those patterns. A shared nature (physiological and cognitive) is responsible for (sufficient) similarity in the causal mechanisms, which are probably calibrated further by means of common ways of adapting to our shared environment. Such congruences define a group. The group turns into a community if these congruences are noted and their effects are reflected upon.

As noted elswhere, the behavioural patterns we actually display are neither completely arbitrary nor completely determined by external constraints: they are (contingent) actualisations within a wider range of possibilities. It is the awareness of this fact, and the (cognitive and non-cognitive) exploration of other, non-actual possibilities, that lead to normative practises. Once we are aware of the fact that we behave in a certain way but could also behave differently, the need for normative determination of our behaviour becomes imperative: this is where regularities turn into rules.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 1992

Random thoughts on random topics

Still life


An observation that indicates in what sense idealism is right in claiming that the world has an ideal (unreal? not in every sense of the word) character: that we feel that when people are not part of the world (not yet, or no longer, i.e., before the human species developed, or after its demise) it has a completely different character.

For some the realisation that there comes a time when all traces of human existence have disappeared is a consolation. (A consolation that is temporally mirrored in the attractiveness of a state of the world that is not yet touched by humans.) Why is this a consoling thought? If we try to imagine the world without humans –which is extremely difficult, if not paradoxical, since there always is this imagining subject (cf., on this Schopenhauer, in the chapter on death in the second part of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung)– then the result is an image that is quiet, silent. Of course, the normal physical (geological, biological) processes at different scales (from cosmos to microcosmos) will continue. In that sense, nothing changes, nothing is different. What nevertheless creates silence, a kind of peace even, is that there are no humans as sources of desires, thoughts, emotions, consciousness. The world without humans can be said to be, in its own right, blind, without consciousness, without past or future. For, as far as we humans are concerned, these are characteristics of the world that we create, that spring forth from us as conscious beings.

And for the very same reasons that the thought of a world with human traces is a consolation for some, it is abhorrent and frightening for others. Those who are tired of the consciousness that characterises humans, who want to be rid of it, will find comfort in this thought. But for others it is a source of anxiety since it does away with what they hold dear most: the identity of the individual consciousness.

In what sense does this show that idealism is true? It is precisely because the consolation and anxiety it produces shows how fundamentally different a world with humans is from one without. It is in that sense that human consciousness creates the world in which it manifests itself. That world is drenched in it, filled with it to the brim, in both material and immaterial ways. All forms of activity, intentional actions, the concepts of goals and means, of significance and insignificance, of past and future, are reflections of that consciousness and the desires and cravings that are its source. In that sense consciousness creates the world, while at the same time as a causal-material phenomenon it is created by that world. And it is in that sense that a world without consciousness is a un-world, something that is not.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekening/Notes
date: 29/09/1991

Random thoughts on random topics


Logic and why it works

Proposition logic done in the usual manner with truth tables and Wittgenstein’s account in the Tractatus result in the same logic. So, why appeal to more than just truth tables? One answer is provided by Wittgenstein’s insistence (in 4.441) that T(rue) and F(alse) are not objects. That makes the usual way of stating the semantics or propositional logic an abstraction, i.e., something that itself requires philosophical explanation (foundation). Wittgenstein’s ‘situation semantics’ (association intended) in the Tractatus is exactly such an explanation (foundation), though not the only one possible. And therein resides its added value: it is not the logic per se, but the attempt to explain how it is possible, what it means, to do logic in this way, i.e., with T‘s and F‘s and truth tables. So, the Tractatus is best viewed as an answer (one answer, not the only one) to the question that is not asked often enough: ‘What is it that we are doing here? What makes it possible to define this logic in this particular way?’ And that means that the so-called ‘superfluousness’ of the Tractarian situation-ontology, and of the picture theory that is connected with it, is a formal superfluousness, one that goes only for the logic as a formal, abstract system, and which can be acknowledged only because we do not ask the pertinent philosophical question.  

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 12/10/1990

Rambling thoughts on rambling topics

West Lake, Hangzhou

The space of ethics

Rather than allowing our view on reality (on physical reality, on ourselves, on our fellow human beings, on living beings in general) determine the space of ethics, one might also take the opposite stance: it is ethics that determines the space of possible theories and explanations of reality, or some particular aspect of it, that we can (should?) consider.

That seems utterly implausible, but once we realise that at least on certain points we actually have a choice between various theories that present different possibilities, it seems more likely that ethical considerations have a positive role to play. One such aspect is intentionality. Once we rid ourselves of a strictly physicalistic perspective, which simply ignores intentionality as an empirical issue, and we accept that one way or other we need to account for it, we are faced with a choice between approaches, or perspectives, that is not exclusively determined by empirical observations, and in which normative considerations may very well enter as an independent source of arguments. Thus, for example, the choice between  Dennett’s intentional stance and Wittgenstein’s idea of the attitude of treating the other (and oneself) as having a soul presents itself fundamentally, I would argue, as an ethical choice. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 01/04/2007

Random thought on random topics

Île de Sein

Science and humanities

A crucial element of Wittgensteins’s meta-philosophy is the specific form of naturalism that he employs. As he emphasises on many occasions, e.g., in the Lectures on Aesthetics with respect to aesthetic judgements, or in RPP withe respect to our psychological vocabulary, the meaning of these expressions/concepts cannot be identified with the underlying causal-nomological, physiological processes. Real as they are, and interesting as they are in their own right, these are not what explains the meanings that these concepts/expressions have for us. For that we need to look in another direction, viz., at the complex practices in which we use them. These practices are historically, socially, culturally determined, and they are contingent along these dimensions. Of course, these practices can also be investigated from an external perspective, one that aims to uncover whatever causal processes co-determine them. However, their role in establishing meaning is constitutive, not explanatory, and that requires an internal understanding, rather than an external explanation. 

This might be seen as pointing to a dichotomy between two types of phenomena, or, rather, between two ways of dealing with phenomena:  external causal explanation, and internal hermeneutic understanding, with no connections between the two. And that in its turn seems to suggest there is an ideological choice we need to make between reductionism, which takes only the first for real, and separationism, which claims independence of both.  However, our practices themselves provide lots of points at which the two interact. Our understanding of ourselves is not just a matter of the concepts we employ when we try to make sense of ourselves internally, it is also the outcome of what we find out when we investigate ourselves from an external perspective. Both co-determine our practices, in different ways, and along different temporal dimensions, but both are factors that shape and change our practices. In doing so, internal understanding and external explanation also influence each other, albeit often only indirectly and in complex ways that are often difficult to trace and understand. And note that the relationship goes both ways: how we understand ourselves hermeneutically determines  what we set out to explain, and the results of our explanatory understanding feed into the practices that determine our internal, hermeneutic understanding. 

It is in this way that a practice-based approach allows us to escape the false dichotomy between science and humanities. If we acknowledge that both are intrinsically tied to our practices, and that it is in both depending on and shaping those practices that the two meet, we can forego this forced and false choice.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/12/2015

Random thoughts on random topics


Certainties and ineffable knowledge

It is important to distinguish between certainties as background elements that are constitutive for a certain (set of)  practice(s); and  ‘ineffable’ knowledge, such as knowing what a game is, how a clarinet sounds.  These are really two different kinds of cases, and they should be kept apart. The latter are active within a language game, they can be conveyed, taught, tested; only not by means of explicit definitions and descriptions. The former are not active, but constitutive; they are not taught, not tested. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/06/2019

Random thoughts on random topics

La Vieille, Finistère

Imagine this

This is the situation: I observe something happening and I imagine that I tell someone about it, in all details, i.e., including the fact that I imagine that I tell someone about it, in all details, i.e., including the fact that I imagine that I imagine that I tell someone about it, in all details, i.e., …

What does this show? That I can simply create an impossible situation from a contingent one. I observe something happening and I intend to tell someone about it: that is contingent. I also intend to tell someone about this intention: that, too, is contingent. Now I intend to tell everything, i.e., including this intention: that is impossible. To put it differently, the content of my intention (‘And then I will say: I saw something happening …, and then I thought, I should tell someone about it …’) cannot contain the intention itself: if the intention becomes part of the content, it is part of the content of another intention created by that.

The source of the impossibility seems to be self-reflection, in much the same way as self-reference forms the root of the Liar paradox. What can be concluded from this? A parallel that suggests itself is that with regressing awareness. I can be aware of my environment, myself, my actions, my thoughts, … I can also be aware of the fact that I am aware of my environment, myself, … But being aware of everything, including my awareness of that awareness is impossible: content and awareness can never coincide.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 13/02/1992

Random thoughts on random topics

Lingyin temple, Hangzhou

Ineffability and judgment

Why would the ineffability of ethics preclude ethical judgments? Of course, if we construct ‘judgment’ as ‘meaningful proposition’ the answer is obvious, but we do not need to do that. Couldn’t a judgment take on a different form, say that of an action, or an attitude? Or do we lack objective criteria for two such judgments to be the same, i.e., wouldn’t we be able to decide whether we agreed on the ethical aspect of an action unless we were able to discuss it? But why would that be the case? (And why think that the ability to discuss does come with any guarantee?)

Although the mark of a happy life can not be expressed, it must be an intrinsic aspect of our actions, not something over and above them. And that suggests that it is accessible even though it is ineffable. In general the question whether we need a verbally explicit statement of ethical principles must be distinguished from the question whether there can be such a statement. For if the answer to the first is negative, the answer to the second becomes immaterial from an ethical point of view. Whether we can do without verbalisations presumably depends on whether other means of conveying ethical principles are available. Would poetry, music, action itself, qualify?

Could we say that the ‘experiences of the second kind’ that Wittgenstein mentions in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ (i.e., not experiences of facts in the world, but experiences that pertain to the world as such), although ineffable, do have an intersubjective potential? I.e., they point towards similar experiences other people may have had in virtue of which they are able to understand what Wittgenstein is aiming at? That would go beyond the mere recognition of other subjects as willing subjects, since it would actually differentiate between people, and could be the basis of moral conversation (instruction, etc.)

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2004

Random thoughts on random topics



Ah, the eternal issue of footnotes. There are those who honestly feel that footnotes are a sign of sloppiness (in writing, and hence probably also in thinking): either what is stated in the footnote is important for understanding what is said in the text and then it should be part of the text; or it is not, and then it can be left out. Purists …

Others delight in the possibilities of adding ‘irrelevant’ details, side-remarks, hedges, that footnotes offer: entire underground battles are being fought there, scores are settled, new enemies are made. Here you can state an opinion without arguing for it, this is the place to display your knowledge and learning even if it has nothing to do with the topic. Exhibitionists …

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2003

Random thoughts on random topics

Sliema, Malta


There is an interesting parallel between Davidson’s arguments against the analysis of metaphor in terms of simile, and Wittgenstein’s way of arguing that religious expressions are not similes in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’. In both cases the point is that something ineffable is explained in terms of something that is expressible, or to put it differently, that something that does not have cognitive content is equated with something that has. Essentially, it is the distinction between showing and saying that is at stake in both cases.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2001

Random thoughts on random topics

Summer Palace, Beijing

On Sartre on love, lust, and subject

It seems that the entire issue centres around the notion of a subject, or a self. If we start from the assumption that there is indeed a notion of subject that is fundamental, i.e., that cannot be conceived of as somehow constituted by more basic facts, or, reversely, as being constructed from those, we run into the kind of problems addressed by Sartre. Which is not to say, of course, that the analysis he gives is correct if we do grant him the assumption he makes. More on that below. First, let us examine the assumption just indicated a little further.

At the background operates an even more fundamental prejudice, viz., that it is entities (objects, individuals, perhaps even ‘Gegenstände’) that constitute the raw material that the world is made of. This picture is right at the heart of almost all of our western ways of thinking, be they philosophical, scientific, or just those of everyday. It should emphatically not be equated with some kind of material atomism. The platonistic views, the various forms of idealism that have plagued us for so long, the materialistic approaches that have both enriched us and bereft us of so many things that are intrinsically worthwhile, they all share this assumption. They are but different ways (and radically different they are, in some respects) of filling in this picture. The reference to ‘Gegenstände’ is not coincidental: even the view of logical atomism does not succeed in really freeing itself from this idea, viz., that the rock-bottom of what there is, can be, indeed must be, conceived of in terms of individual entities. It is clear that the very notion of a subject as an irreducible category, in terms of which many things simply have to be explained, is almost part and parcel of this picture. And again, it does not matter whether we are dealing with a common-sense notion, or with a more speculative, metaphysical way of conceiving of it: all these different notions take for granted that subjects are real and irreducible.

If the picture is so compelling, and also so successful in many ways, one might ask if there is an alternative. In fact, certain physical theories provide an answer (and, though perhaps not an alternative picture, at least an alternative language). Acknowledging the notion of a field as something as basic as that of an entity, these physical theories do brake the bonds of the old picture. (And that these are strong bonds can be deduced from the fact that even in this realm the attempts to reduce fields to the interactions between entities are numerous.) But pointing out this feature of physical theories is not enough. We must see whether this idea, which has limited application, can be generalised sufficiently. This extended idea would take the notion of an event, or that of a process, as basic. The world (in all its aspects) then consists, not of entities making up complex situations, but of events located in space-time, of processes unfolding themselves. Entities on this alternative picture are best conceived of either as regularities across events, or as bundles of such. (This kind of view is scarce in western philosophy, perhaps the best-known example being Whitehead’s process metaphysics. Interestingly, situation theory provides another example, at least under a certain interpretation. In other traditions this picture is more common.)

The idea of individuals as convenient labels for certain collections of events might strike us as completely absurd, at least at first sight. After all, it is we who, by acting and being in certain ways, ‘make’ events, not the other way around. Or so we feel (and hence, we think). But this is certainly not a good argument. (In a happy phrase of Kant’s, it might be an instance of mistaking the unity of experience for the experience of a unity.) A very rough indication of some reasons why one might nevertheless entertain this idea, involve the following observations. Notice that in our idea of an individual, the criterion of spatio-temporal continuity plays a decisive role. Now we may observe that although the application of this criterion is unproblematic in most cases, there are circumstances in which we find it somewhat harder to apply. One instance is that of a certain type of biological entities that are referred to as ‘colonies’ (certain jelly-fish are examples, as are corals, and perhaps also, but at a higher level, ants). (There is an analogy with problems that arise when we want determine the identity conditions for so-called ‘collective individuals’, such as groups, but I will not go into that now.) Another instance is provided by the phenomenon of metamorphosis, either in real time (caterpillars and butterflies), or in fantasies (frogs and princes). If we take this observation seriously, we must conclude that spatio-temporal continuity may be a good, efficient, successful way of carving up such ‘stuff as we are made of’, but that it certainly is not a necessary feature.  Sufficiently distant (from us) observers might individualise the same stuff quite differently. (The relevance for the issue at hand is obvious: even a temporary merging of stuff might by such an alternative criterion constitute a single individual.)

Even for the few who find the alternative picture sketched above not implausible, there is, of course, a problem, viz., how to account for the undeniable fact that we do have a notion of a self, of some personal identity. It seems that here several routes are open. One of them, which strikes me as not altogether far-fetched, is to look upon the self, in sense of the ‘I’ that we identify with, as being a partly biological, partly social construction. The biological source is mainly based on application of the spatio-temporal continuity criterion, which, although not completely unproblematic here (dreaming, sleeping), seems applicable to the events that we think we participate in, and which, on this account, go into making us up as separate individuals. The social constraints are more of a functional nature, and seem to be based, to a certain extent, on some preliminary stage of biological make-up. But notice that the two are not strictly temporally ordered. Psychotic disorders of various kinds provide relevant material here. (Cf., also Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage.) Taking our lead from this admittedly very rough idea, we can now see that the issue at hand needs to be reformulated: given that, as we undeniably do, we  have a notion of a self (for whatever reasons), but taking into account that this notion is essentially a construction, not something fundamental,  the issue turns out to be anthropological, rather than metaphysical in nature. An account of lust and desire, of love and tenderness, should take as its starting point neither our material biological make-up, nor seek refuge in some metaphysical realm, which is not to deny that such factors do play a role. The crucial phenomena to be accounted for appear on the anthropological level: it is how we see ourselves, and how we act in these matters given the way we see ourselves, that is all important.

This, in effect, is my main objection to Sarte’s analysis. Where Sartre goes wrong, – and he does go wrong, I think, even if we grant him his metaphysical notion of subject –, is that he blurs over the distinction between biological, psychological, social, metaphysical, and aesthetic aspects and the concomitant reasons and causes. The unitary notion of subject forces one to either take a reductionist stance, which he obviously rejects, or to try one’s hand at a unificatory, higher-level analysis, e.g., in terms of an exclusively metaphysical notion. The latter is Sartre’s line and that is where he goes wrong. And he has to go wrong, because of the monolithic nature of the subject that he uses. The alternative view allows at least room for another approach that is neither reductionist nor transcendent: on the heterogeneous view of the subject one can acknowledge all aspects as real and, most important of all, as unrelated (to a certain extent, i.e., at least unrelated to such an extent that we do not fall into the reductionist pitfall). Neither are we forced to deny that they are present at the same time: in desire and lust, as well as in love and tenderness, all these aspects can be distinguished, albeit not always in the same form and to the same extent. Which is not to say that the heterogeneous approach by itself provides such an analysis. For that we need the one thing that philosophers almost always refuse to look at: our personal experience.

One important characteristic of the notion of a subject, or self, is that it refers to a limit. A subject is something that is distinguished from other things, – other subjects, or objects. (In effect, from within a subject all other subjects appear as objects, albeit of a special type.) This raises two questions. One concerns the nature of this limit, the other the reality thereof.

A distinction that seems relevant here is that between a limit  that sets off one part of reality from another, and a limit  that defines a certain entity. A border between two countries is an example of the first kind, the ordinal number omega one of the second. Let us call them ‘limit-between’ and ‘limit-to’. What is the nature of the limit of a subject?.

One way to answer this question is to investigate the notion of transgression of a limit. Transgression of a limit-between means transcendence in a more or less literal sense; crossing of a border, going from one location to another. The moment someone transcends a limit-between, he cannot be said to belong to either location, to be an integral part of what is on either side. This means that the limits of a subject are not limits-between a subject and other subjects. (Of course, the subject can recognise limits-between itself and other subjects, but then it reflects upon itself from the outside as it were, i.e., it regards itself and the others basically as objects.)

It seems therefore that the limits involved are limits-to, transcendental conditions  that define the subject, rather than delimit it. Transgression of a limit-to means re-definition, broadening or narrowing down, changing one’s identity. In the context of lust such a change is the incorporation of the other, or the letting oneself be incorporated. That being so, the crucial question is whether this incorporation is appropriation. It seems not, for to appropriate something, or someone, means to make it, or them, my own, it is to change relationships, not relata. But in this very act of transgression it is the ‘my’ that is re-defined.

As for the reality of limits, it is important to note that any transgression is both conscious and temporary. Is it reality that changes, or the subject’s self-image? Which raises a preliminary question: is there a reality to a subject distinct from its self-image? A quick ‘yes’ presumably only indicates that we can look upon subjects as objects, but that is beside the point.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/01/1997

Random thoughts on random topics

Parking Victor Hugo, Toulouse

The realism of situation theory

The realism of situation theory is not a naive realism in this sense that through the concept of ‘attunement’ it incorporates an element that represents a more Kantian perspective. But it is limited: for within the sphere of real situations there is also the distinction being made between states of affairs and courses of events. The difference between these two types of ontological entities is supposed to reside in the role that time plays. And that means that time is interpreted in a purely realistic fashion. There is no room for ideality of time. In connection with this the question arises how such a realistic interpretation of time is related to the classification of localities, which include time, as uniformities.

Truth values (polarities) do not have an ontological counterpart in real situations. (This is another point of resemblance between situation theory and the ontology of the Tractatus, cf.: ‘My fundamental thought is that the “logical constants” do not represent.’ (4.0312).) Truth values are instantiations of polarities, and one could also have instantiations such as ‘good – bad’, ‘beautiful – ugly’, and so on. (Aside: Are all instantiations of polarities bi-valent? Probably not.)

How real, in the sense of independent, are situations? Not very much, in view of the fact that they need to be interpret as partial and given that they can only be grasped through the postulated uniformities. For those reasons they run the same risk as the Kantian ‘Dinge-an-sich’: postulated as the substrate of what is knowable but unknowable themselves, there is no doubt that someone will come along and dismiss them as useless postulates.

The localisation of the INVOLVE-relation in the world is innocent realism. But the fact that the definition of a situation-structure includes the demand that these constraints are satisfies shows that they are (also) being used as entities of a higher ontological order.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 31/10/1991

Random thoughts on random topics


Philosophie pauvre

Philosophy’s alternative for scientism seems to consist in an indulgence in conceptual analysis, either quasi-scientific, as in much of contemporary analytic philosophy, or quasi-profound, as in much post-modernistic philosophy (especially when used in other humanities disciplines than philosophy itself). 

Scientism is insincere and a mark of narrow mindedness; and the alternatives testify to inability and unwillingness. Inability and unwillingness  to realise that on the one hand there is indeed a lot that science is not and will not be able to do, and on the other hand that the territory that it leaves uncharted can only  be entered with modesty and in full realisation of the limitedness of human rationality.

If there is a place, a role for philosophy with regard to that territory, it needs to be a ‘philosophie pauvre’:  a modest, hesitating, critically self-reflecting philosophy, one that suggests, asks, observes; not a philosophy that states claims, defends theses, projects visions. 

Scientism is the extrapolation of optimism, or rather, of the combination of optimism with curiosity. There is nothing wrong with either, as long as it is acknowledged that each has boundaries that are not their own. Transcending boundaries is what can, and should, happen within the domain of science. But it does not apply to the limits of science. That is what scientism loses track of, the distinction between boundary and limit, between the boundaries of what we currently know and understand, and the limits of understanding itself.

One area where what is at stake here becomes very clear is when we ponder the possible expansion of human life beyond our planet. The excitement that the very contemplation of that possibility creates (let alone the actual realisation of it) is deeply rooted in this optimism, in the longing for control and in the trust in our ability to gain that control. ‘Determining one’s own destiny’, ‘being the master of one’s fate’, the ideal applies to the human species as much as it does to the human individual. 

‘Philosophie pauvre’ opposes that. It counters the optimistic projections about the future  with simple observations about actuality:  the human condition, the constant failure of humans to live up to their ideals, to conquer their weaknesses, their inability to make sense of their own lives.  And their never failing urge to do so, to keep trying to do so. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/2019

Random thoughts on random topics



Descartes’ cogito: `I think, therefore I am’. Can one know that one is thinking, but not know what one is thinking? Can one know that one exists, but not know what kind of being one is? If that is impossible, as it seems it is, doesn’t that imply that with the cogito already a whole frame, – of concepts, categories, etc. –,  has to be assumed? But then what kind of claim to a foundation does the cogito make? 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/06/1998

Random thoughts on random topics

Assyrian figurine, Louvre, Paris

Human thought and the Turing test

Characteristic for the Turing test is that thinking is considered to be an activity or process that is separated from (non-verbal) action, emotion and affect, intuition, and so on. The relation between thought and action is construed as a relation between a program and a machine that executes the program. Thinking consists in formulating instructions, action in their executions. (Traces of a Cartesian dualism are visible here.) Another characteristic, closely related to the first one, is that knowledge and thought processes are assumed to be expressible in rules. (This is closely connected to a representational view of thought.)

What does the Turing-test tell us about human thinking, human thought? Consider the following example. Suppose there are two columns of water that both indicate exactly and correctly the sea level at some point on the shoreline. Column A is directly connected to the sea at that point, via a system of pipes, say. Column B is a closed system in which the water level is determined by calculations that are programmed into the system. Both column ‘behave’ in exactly the same way, yet one would only say of what happens in column A that it is the result of tidal flow. This indicates that the identity of behaviour (or a process, event, action) is co-determined by the network of causal relations in which it is located.

The same seems to be true of human thinking, human thought. If there was a machine that would pass the Turing test, it still remains an open question what conclusion we would (need to) draw. What the example suggests is that one relevant factor is whether the machine is causally related to the kind of things that human thinking is intrinsically connected to: action, will, emotions, and so on. Thus, whether there will be a machine that passes the Turing test is an empirical matter; but what that will mean, for us, is a philosophical question.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/1992

Random thoughts on random topics


Notes from an encounter with Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker’s account of the relationship between philosophy and cognitive science raises questions that concern the ramifications of that position.

When it comes to the relationship between cognitive science and philosophical analysis I am always reminded of Jerry Fodor’s direct approach of the problem. In his seminal book The Language of Thought (p. 57) he relates the following encounter: ‘I was once told by a very young philosopher that it is a matter for decision whether animals can (can be said to) hear. “After all”, he said, “it’s our word”.’ As the context of this quotation makes clear, the issue was not just about hearing, but extended to a wide range of psychological predicates, including talking, thinking, reasoning. Fodor was not impressed by the argument, as is obvious from the way in which he continues his tale: ‘But this sort of conventionalism won’t do; the issue isn’t whether we ought to be polite to animals.’ And then Fodor goes on in his characteristic fashion to explain why, basically, there is no room for a separate enterprise called ‘philosophical analysis’.

If I understand Hacker correctly he would agree that perhaps the young philosopher was not quite as snobbish as Fodor makes them out to be, and that an argument may be construed to attach a basically human meaning to some of the terms the debate was about. Of course, it is not a matter of politeness whether animals think, but it isn’t a straightforward factual issue either. If anything, it is a matter of what the content of the concept of thinking is, i.e., of what the term means. And meaning belongs to the human sphere. 

That is quite the opposite view from Fodor’s, and one that was formulated and defended already much earlier by Wittgenstein, who claimed in Philosophical Investigations (II.xi; cf., also 360): ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.’ The opposition is apt and relevant, since it is clear that Hacker’s analysis owes much to Wittgenstein’s observations concerning the way concepts are acquired and have meaning. 

Motivation: reductionism redux

Why is this important? New developments in cognitive science, in particular new techniques that give access to low level brain processes, suggest to many that finally reductionism is a goal that is coming within reach. Cognitive processes can be observed in vivo, i.e., concurrently with the corresponding processes in the brain. What thinking, feeling, speaking, various perceptual acts really are, we can see with our own eyes when we observe the various electrochemical processes in the brain run their course. And this is ontological reduction, not the linguistic substitute that logical positivism promoted, in which theories were reduced to others by reformulating the statements of the former in those belonging to the latter. This reductionism is the real thing: it explains the cognitive entities of  everyday in terms of neuronal entities.

The technical developments are real and we cannot rule out a priori that a reduction of this kind of some cognitive processes will indeed turn out to be feasible. (Although we certainly are not yet in a position to actually affirm that.) Several questions arise. Are there any cognitive entities that resist this kind of reduction? With regard to those concepts that are susceptible to reduction, does this affect all of their content, or will there be irreducible residues? And where reduction is feasible, what consequences does this have for the application of the concepts in question in their everyday domain?

Conceptual analysis versus empirical science

Hacker’s position on this is clear: philosophy deals with concepts and provides an analysis of their contents and logical relation relations; cognitive science is concerned with the neural conditions that determine the operation of the functions corresponding to these concepts and provides descriptively and explanatory adequate theories.

So, it seems that both with regard to method as well as with regard to content philosophy and cognitive science are strictly separated.  There is an a priori distinction between the conceptual analysis provided by philosophy and the  empirical investigations of cognitive science. This seems to suggest that no interaction  occurs between the two realms, but that is not what Hacker means. He does see a role for conceptual analysis vis à vis empirical science: conceptual analysis may provide the necessary conceptual clarity without which the empirical investigations may go astray. 

I wonder, first, whether philosophical reflection might not provide more than just conceptual clarity, i.e., whether it does not also provide actual empirical data; second, whether there may not also be an influence in the other direction, viz., from empirical science to conceptual analysis. And, third, whether one could not combine philosophical and scientific methods,  as is being done for example by people working in neurophenomenology. 

The main reason for thinking that this might be possible is the rather humdrum observation that after all the conceptual domain of philosophical analysis and the empirical domain of  cognitive science are both related to (not: coincide with) the same field of everyday phenomena. 


Cf. the following quote from Hacker’s paper on emotions:

‘Moods are such things as feeling cheerful, euphoric, contented, irritable, melancholic or depressed; they are states or frames of mind, as when one is in a state of melancholia, or in a jovial or relaxed frame of mind.  […]  It is, therefore, unwarranted to characterise moods, as Damasio does, as emotional states that are frequent or continuous over long periods of time.’

It seems obvious to me that we are not dealing here with some kind of nominal, stipulative definition. The concepts in question have a pre-theoretical content and it is this content that is being captured and analysed in definitions (philosophy) and at the same time it is this content that motivates and directs empirical investigations (cognitive science).

My suggestion would be that this imposes restrictions on both conceptual analysis and empirical investigation. 

On the empirical side: it seems obvious to me that empirical investigations into everyday phenomena such as emotions, moods, knowledge, memory can not be dissociated from whatever content these concepts have in everyday life. Perhaps cognitive science may discover that certain distinctions should be drawn slightly differently, or that connections exists that are not apparent from the conceptualisation of these phenomena in everyday language. But it cannot attribute a different content to these concepts. If it does that, it studies something, but not emotions, moods, etc. This marks a difference with cases where science is able to correct common sense understanding, such the case of jade turning out to be two different kinds of chemical compounds, of that of light  having both a corpuscular and a wave nature’ 

So it seems to me that our first person experience, i.e., the content of these concepts as  it reveals itself in philosophical reflection, provides an empirical constraint on cognitive research. (From which it follows that there is a distinction to be made between the study of those concepts that allow for such reflection, such as emotions, moods and certain cognitive actions, and those that do not, such as perception. Interesting question: on which side of this divide are language and meaning?) 

This constraint, I propose, goes further than mere conceptual clarification, but actually provides additional empirical data that need to be accounted for by empirical theories.

But on the conceptual side, too, constraints arise. Conceptual analysis is not empirical research: philosophers traditionally don’t do experiments, use questionnaires, etc. Nevertheless, conceptual analysis is tied to empirical issues. For one thing, the fact that we have the concepts that we have by itself is an empirical matter. Different cultural and/or historical circumstances may give rise to (slightly) different sets of cognitive and emotional concepts. And the contents of these concepts themselves may change under the influence of both philosophical analysis and empirical research. To put it differently, in as much as our concepts embody a (rudimentary) conception of our selves, this very conception, and thereby the contents of those concepts, may change when we analyse it, both conceptually as well as empirically. 

In particular the last point means that although  there is a categorical difference between conceptual analysis and empirical research (here I agree Hacker), it does not follow that conceptual analysis is a priori to empirical research. The very object of conceptual analysis may change due to the results of empirical investigations, in much the same way as the empirical investigation must proceed on the basis of the results of conceptual analysis: there exists an ongoing interaction between the two. 

Also, it seems to me that this might have methodological consequences as well, in so far as it indicates that the idea of a combination of philosophical reflection and empirical research, i.e., of a first person and a third person perspective, may prove to be relevant if we are to gain a proper understanding of what such phenomena as emotions, memory, etc are. Neurophenomenology à la Varela, Thompson, Depraz and Vermersch may provide a model here, but it need not be the only one. I do feel that this is something that philosophers and cognitive scientists need to explore. 

Finally, the empirical and contingent nature of the concepts involved also provides an impetus to investigate to what extent these phenomena transcend the boundaries of the individual. Hacker quite rightly stresses that the attitudinal aspects of these concepts, viz., the fact that to have a belief, to reach a decision or to form a hypothesis, to be in a melancholy mood or to be proud, or jealous, are not isolated, instantaneous events or states, but phenomena that are related with all kinds of other properties and relations that individuals may have and enter into, with a whole network of cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions and capabilities.  But he tends to ignore that a substantial part of those capabilities (such as those that enter into the use of language) are  essentially social in nature, at least in this sense that the idea of only one single individual having these capabilities is conceptually incoherent, These concepts presuppose a social framework that allows them to be instantiated in an individual. Taking this seriously would provide us with an impetus to investigate to what extent modern cognitive science suffers from an individualistic bias, which may be due to its reductionist presuppositions and/or the limitations of its experimental toolbox. 

Consequences: identity

‘What X is for us’: what we are, is in an important sense what we think (feel, imagine) that we are. And in this sense reductionism might succeed that once we believe in (some version of) it, i.e., once we are willing to adapt our self-image to the particular picture it presents, we in fact become whatever that picture says we are.

(Note that such a development would have ethical consequences as well. That is one reason why imagination of what we are and, in particular, imagination of what we could be, as for example literature provides, is (also) of ethical importance.)

If central concepts pertaining to human identity, such as will, consciousness, thinking, feeling, imagination, meaning, are concepts with a content that is determined by ‘What X is for us’, human identity is essentially a construct: historically, socially and culturally constrained and only partially individually maintained. We are in that sense what we think we are, although the freedom we have in thinking ourselves is constrained by social, cultural and historical factors (and, of course, physical and biological ones). In modern times science has become an important source for what we count as content of certain concepts. For example, our view of the material world is increasingly informed by scientific theories (albeit often distorted by popular misconceptions and simplifications). To the extent that this holds true also for the concepts that go into determining our identity, our conception of ourselves may change as well. 

Today, it seems, essential aspects of the contents of many of the central concepts mentioned above are determined externally, i.e., by reference to things outside the  individual mental realm. However, increasing influence of research in cognitive science (psychology, neurobiology) may change that. We may come to adopt, for example, a view on what meaning is that takes into account only what  can be explained in terms of individual, psychological and/or neurobiological properties. That would not be a better (or worse) account, since there is no fact of the matter that would provide an independent measure here: if meaning is what counts as meaning for us, then if we ‘change our mind’ about what meaning is, meaning indeed becomes something else. But then so do we: as these central concepts change, our identity changes accordingly. And so we may end up with a view of ourselves in which any differences that we now count as essential differences between, say, human intelligence and artificial intelligence have been obliterated, or a view in which we accept only explanations for our actions that are based on facts concerning our material (neurophysiological) make up. 

So, humanity may well come to an end by its own hand, not through physical destruction (although that is certainly not unlikely) but by conceptual elimination. After all, is that not how we got rid of a lot of other things?

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/12/2008

Random thoughts on random topics

Opera House, Oslo

The need for uncertainty

Suppose there were creatures with the following features. If something is the case, they believe it; if something is not the case, they believe it is not the case; they do not entertain any other thoughts, more specifically they don’t have thoughts of the form ‘Suppose A were (not) the case …’, ‘If B had not been the case …’, and so on. Would we say that these creatures had knowledge? They could serve as reliable oracles, as perfect encyclopaedias, but we wouldn’t want to say that they knew anything. So knowledge presupposes (among other things) our ability to be uncertain, to entertain suppositions, to consider situations that we know to be counterfactual.

Does this mean that the concept of an omniscient interpreter à la Davidson is incoherent? Not necessarily. Perfect knowledge about the world is compatible, at least so it seems, with counterfactual uncertainty, and hence with having the concept of being wrong. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
e: 13/10/2000, 09/08/2001

Random thoughts on random topics

Den Oever

On unconditional commitment

Dreyfus, Kierkegaard, ‘unconditional commitment’. Remarkable thing about the case of Abraham is that we do not consider the issue from Isaac’s point of view. What would he have said? “I’d rather have a despairing Buddhist as a father than this unconditionally committed Christian …”? He might have, and that’s enough. The unconditional commitment of Abraham to his God might go against whatever views Isaac has concerning the way he wants to lead his life, and that really should be reason enough for us to reject, not just this particular unconditional commitment of Abraham’s, but the very concept itself. Given the fact that we lead our lives with others, and that hence, whether we like it or not, our actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of those others, an unconditional commitment, precisely because it is unconditional, i.e., also not conditioned by concerns about others, is intrinsically morally wrong. This is independent of the moral status of actual effects of some particular unconditional commitment, it is an objection to the concept as such.

My guess is that the concept is appealing for reasons quite similar to those that make people susceptible to the idea of living in ‘historical times’, witnessing ‘turning points in history’, and so on (Heidegger). We want our lives to be dramatic, exciting, important. Whereas in reality they are ordinary, humdrum, inconsequential, even if they turn out to make a difference. That sounds contradictory, but it is not. The point is: what is a decisive moment is decided by history (i.e., by reality in its temporal dimension and complexity), not by us, and it is hardly ever possible for us to discern while we are witnessing it.  Too often an event is labelled ‘historical’, something that ‘changes the world as we know it’ by contemporaries, and most of those events turn out to be completely unimportant. At best some of them may become regarded as symbolic for a much more complex and extended sequence of events. History is complex, much too complex for us who are witnessing it to grasp, and often also too complex for those who have the benefit of hindsight to fathom completely. There is no communis opinio among historians about the majority of the events that make up our history, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of their sheer complexity combined with the unavoidable multiplicity of perspectives. So even if a certain event or action does make a significant difference, the claim of those participating in it that it does, in most cases will be completely unfounded.

The idea of an unconditional commitment is based on a similar misunderstanding of our lives: appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it places us, as an individual, in the centre of things. The unconditional commitment is ours, even where (or should we say, precisely because?) it involves a complete surrender to God. As such it displays a complete disregard of the fundamental given that our life is always related to that of others, even if we live alone, in the remotest place on earth. Given that, whatever commitment we make to live our life in accordance with, it needs take into account others and therefore  can never be unconditional. The alternative is a fundamental dismissal of others as worthy of moral, ethical concern, something that unavoidably leads to nihilism. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/05/2003

Random thoughts on random topics


On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998

Random thoughts on random topics


Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998