[Wittrs] Re: On the Mechanism of Understanding

  • From: "Stuart W. Mirsky" <SWMirsky@xxxxxxx>
  • To: Wittrs@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 14 Aug 2009 02:02:41 -0000

--- In Wittrs@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, kirby urner <kirby.urner@...> wrote:
> On Thu, Aug 13, 2009 at 3:15 PM, Stuart W. Mirsky<SWMirsky@...> wrote:
> << SNIP >>
> > You confuse issues of metaphysics with issues of science I fear.
> >
> People confuse metaphysics with science fiction a lot too (maybe we
> should consider them a single hybrid?).
> Introspecting and writing about it isn't science I don't think.

Nope, it's not. And no one here is pretending to be doing scientific research 
on this list, certainly I'm not. We're talking about that research though and 
looking at what's being proposed and considering how that fits in with our 
respective understandings. To reference science (or anything) is not to do it.  

> Most this "consciounsness talk" isn't really physics, even if it's
> physicists doing the talking.
> I thought the Emperors New Mind (Sir Roger) was pointing in a good
> direction in some ways.
> I like the idea of "non-computable".
> That's just my spin.
> WIttgenstein supplies much needed sanity checks, lotsa kudos for
> taking us back out of the clouds, grounding us in "ordinary language"
> (our deep heritage, where it all begins and ends).

Yes, he helped put metaphysics (speculative philosophy) out into the cold. And 
he gave us a very useful tool for other disciplines. 

> >> The Cult of Athena was wise to protect its gifted inner circle at
> >> Delphi (later Nashville), despite their challenge to Apollonian
> >> fascism, whereas the Romans crucified anyone they disagreed with, such
> >> that we tend to ridicule them in the rear view mirror, as one of our
> >> stupider (crueler) world civilizations.
> >>
> >
> > This has gone so far afield, I'm afraid you've lost me Kirby. We were
> That's OK.  I was doing Cult of Athena earlier on this list, have a
> whole blog about it I've cited.  But you're not necessarily the guy
> I'm counting on to make sense of it all.  Sorry for these tangents,
> but I've got work to do here.  You're welcome to lurk of course.

Hmmm, I thought I had actually started this thread and so might possibly have 
an interest in some of what gets said here! But you're right. At this point 
you've kind of taken it in a different direction. Maybe I'll drop back into 
lurker status as you suggest, pending responses that are more related to what I 
was initially talking about.  

> >> You've given me fair warning that you have a reputation for assuming
> >> control of the narrative, have little patience for minute taking etc.
> >> So that should be part of my model. The great thing about
> >> asynchronous lists like this is we each have as much of the floor as
> >> we like (keeping it short here).
> >>
> >
> > Ah, so this is no longer about the issues we commenced with then? It's about
> > stream of consciousness?
> >
> I have no clear idea what you mean by "the issues we commenced with"
> and I don't know what you mean by stream of consciousness.  If you're
> implying I don't work hard on these posts, that's incorrect.  I'm
> being meticulous and to the point (my points, but in a dialog format,
> connecting to your points as I see fit).

Yes, you certainly can do it your way. It's just that it no longer seems to 
have much to do with what I started talking about. I'll shift into lurk mode 
then as per your suggestion.

> I don't see you as "running the meeting" or anything.
> >> You see I'm being internally consistent yes? As I say above, I've so
> >> far seen nothing but fiction from Hawkins, science fiction.
> >>
> Guess not?

Looks like you're responding to your own comment? 

> >> Not equal (whatever that means in this context -- nothing much), but
> >> part of a seamless web. It's *critical* to the grammar around
> >> "understanding" that we're allowed to second guess the zealot who
> >> reports some supreme "AHA!" illumination experience. That just
> >> *isn't* going to substitute for passing real tests (see below).
> >>
> >
> > This isn't about zealotry or, at least, that's not what I was talking about!
> >
> We're talking about the criteria we apply when we say someone
> understands (whatever that may be).
> I'm following the PI quite closely in pointing out that it's not about
> first person testimony to the effect that one understands.  That's
> very important of course.
> If a person avers he has no ability to fly a plane, doesn't understand
> how to do it, we wouldn't put him at the controls of a plane (most
> likely).

Maybe he's just being modest? Or trying to avoid being asked to take over? 

> But even if a person avers he *does* have that ability, we likely
> still need to test, no matter how vociferously (zealously) he
> proclaims to understand how to pilot (unless we're already in the air,
> no one else stepping forward -- prepare for a thrill ride then, lots
> of movies go like this).
> Endless similar other examples...

But not to the point of what I was speaking about (i.e., what constitutes 
understanding something, not how many different ways can we use "understanding" 
and how do they relate to one another?). But endless, yes . . .

> This is important to the *grammar* of what it means to understand.
> You don't see the relevance?  My introducing a "zealot" throws you
> off?  Sorry.

It's okay. I'm trying to teach myself to lurk less obtrusively.

> >> Also: don't confuse 3rd person accounts with "behaviorist" accounts.
> >> I can say, in the 3rd person "he's having a deeply private moment with
> >> himself, although you wouldn't guess this from his demeanor."
> >
> > If he is there's something mental to talk about. If the aim is to produce
> > synthetic minds or to understand natural ones, then we want to talk about
> > what's going on in this case. No black boxes here.
> "Synthetic minds" is still in the realm of science fiction as far as
> I'm concerned.  Does a robot vacuum cleaner that doesn't fall down the
> stairs have a synthetic mind?  I'm guessing you'll say no.

Good guess!
> It'd likely take awhile for you to teach us what a "synthetic mind"
> might be like, and probably your most effective recourse would be to
> point to science fiction movies like 'Artificial Intelligence'
> (already on the syllabus, per earlier posts).

Yes, likely so. That none may actually exist is not, in and of itself, evidence 
they cannot, of course, so fiction is grist for this mill.

> Is my mind "synthetic"?

Depends what you mean by the term, and what I do. Given the meaning I have been 
using here, the right answer is no. But knowing your penchant for innovative 
thinking I'd expect you would demur. I suppose one might say that if you're 
oriented towards putting things together or making things, rather than taking 
them apart, you have a synthetic mind. It wouldn't mean the same thing as my 
use but the word is the same (spelled the same, pronounced the same, sounds the 
same and with enough family resemblances between the two uses to allow us to 
slip a bit between them).    

> You mean like polyester isn't a natural fiber but a man-made one, are
> applying this meme in the realm of cognitive "science" to conjure some
> imagery (fantasies).  Anything more?

"Manufactured" might do it. Or "constructed". "Man-made" is another 

> > I'm not the one who went after behaviorism! I merely pointed out that
> > Wittgenstein does not seem to me to have been one. But if he was denying the
> > "aha moment" as you sometimes say, then maybe Gerardo and Glen have it right
> > after all.
> He was denying the "aha moment" in itself constitutes "the meaning" of
> "understanding".  He explains why.  The explanations are cogent but
> have been repeated here too many times already so I won't do it again
> (until another post maybe).

I wasn't talking about the meaning of "understanding" in all its ramifications 
or even in ordinary language applications. I was specifically focusing on 
explaining the phenomenon we call "understanding' in organisms with brains so 
that we could see if it was replicable, i.e., what happens in brains that is 
this understanding. That we often use "understand" in a variety of ways is only 
tangentially of interest in such a discussion.

> >> You're thinking "Hawkins helps with our understanding of Wittgenstein"
> >> whereas I'm thinking "Hawkins is like a truck you'll need to pass if
> >> you wanna keep up with LW's Ferrari, so put on that passing lane
> >> signal and put that pedal to the metal! (honk honk)".
> >>
> >
> > ????
> > Looks more like the cult of medieval foolery to me. Have you read Alan
> > Gordon's Fool's Guild series? (A mystery series set in the medieval world
> > and premised on the idea that there was a secret organization fighting the
> > baddies of Old Europe disguised as jesters and troubadours.) I'm guessing
> > you might like it. (For myself, as you can see, I've given up trying to
> > address your remarks here in a philosophically serious way. Best to just let
> > 'er riff!)
> Yeah, likewise.  Hawkins is "bunk philosophy" as far as I can tell,
> but dressed up in the guise of science, so more likely to fool people.

Hawkins makes no claim to be doing philosophy. He claims to be doing science. I 
haven't gotten very deep into his book and he is new to me so I can't comment 
extensively on him. But I thought he made a very interesting point about how 
human memory works and that 1) it seemed to jibe with what happened to me in 
the anecdote I recounted and with some other common phenomena and 2) it plays a 
role in what we mean by "understanding" in relation to what brains do when 
understanding occurs (since memory is part of this).

> I have made the link from TLP's waxing and waning to concepts of
> Medieval philosophy in this archive.  Feel free to search for these
> nuggets.  I have studied the subject, with professionals, at a top
> university.  I think I'm making good sense, but then so do you.
> >> Look at how "understanding" is actually used in "vox populi" (everyday
> >> language) and see for yourself if it's "the name of a private mental
> >> process consisting of sequences of images and aha moments strung
> >> together like necklaces".
> >>
> >
> > Are we back to serious again then? Should I even hazard a real reply?
> No, because you have your canned response to this issue.

I never have "canned responses". I always try to bring in my real life 
experiences. Sometimes, of course, I will bring up the same experiences more 
than once because I am taken with the connections. But that strikes me as a 
pretty fair way to proceed. If I think there are important issues to be 
uncovered, why not repeat?

> You insist there's a separate but equally important meaning of
> "understanding" that adheres to internal brain processes and/or
> introspected private mental events, somehow connected (threads about
> "causation" attach here).
> You have no intention of being talked out of that view (Wittgenstein
> would be the ticket, were you ever to tire of it).
> It's a core belief you have.  We're up against dogma.
> So what else is new right?

Well I've changed my views on this a few times, actually. That's not usually 
typical of "dogma".

Do I "insist" there's a meaning of "understanding" that is particularly 
relevant here, a meaning having to do with science? Yes, I guess I do. I'm 
interested in what constitues the things we recognize as being conscious, as 
having consciousness, and how the brain does them. That we use the word 
"understand" in a number of ways is interesting, too. But I am using it in this 
PARTICULAR way in this thread (or I was, since I'm now supposed to be lurking). 
The question at hand is NOT how do we use "understand" across a range of cases 
but how does what we call "understanding" happen in a brain?

> >
> >> I think one can definitely talk yourself into thinking that way and
> >> authors like Hawkins will help you do it.
> >>
> >
> > I first wrote about my experience with that sign a number of years ago on
> > other lists, long before reading Hawkins!
> >
> OK, so you talked yourself into without that much help from Hawkins.
> Congrats then.

Or perhaps I discovered an interesting aspect (at least interesting to me) of 
what it means when we do what we call understand?

> >> I also think you can talk yourself out of thinking that way, in which
> >> case Wittgenstein is your man.
> >>
> >
> > Why aim to talk oneself into or out of it??? The point is to see what makes
> > the most sense in terms of what's really going on.
> >
> With or without the benefit of Wittgenstein's insights, yes.

Always with the benefit of Wittgensteinian insights but not to the point of 
denying new insights or new information or the search for these.

> >
> >> Where we differ is in our sense of style, and which is closer to
> >> Wittgenstein's. The audience will have some feedback on this maybe.
> >>
> >
> > Well you once said I "didn't talk like a Wittgensteinian"! I'm guessing
> > you're probably right but I'm not sure you do either. He was pretty focused
> > on the issues he took up and tended to home in on the target. I get the
> > feeling your method is to shoot as many arrows as you can and hope something
> > hits . . . or not worrying about hitting anything at all, just enjoy the
> > flying feathered shafts.
> It's more like if there's stuff I'd like to say, about other matters
> besides the points you bring up, then here is an OK and/or convenient
> place to do it.

Yes, of course, feel free. I wasn't suggesting you aren't free to free 
associate or say whatever is of interest to you. It was just that I had been 
under the impression that you were responding to me and the items I'd put on 
the table. When I realized you weren't, I noted that. It's not a criticism or 
meant to be pejorative. If you're doing a different thing here, there's no 
reason to worry about my opinion. I can do the lurker thing as you suggest 
(though I'm not yet doing it very well -- but I'm going to try harder for 

> I'll post URLs in other venues, regarding my Cult of Athena stuff,
> expecting my readers to simply ignore most of the other stuff.
> But it's not like I think these thoughts are entirely irrelevant to
> this thread (it's like "interesecting" -- killing two virtual birds
> with one stone (or more than two (doing more with less))).
> I've been casting Wittgenstein as a liberation philosopher and
> spelling out what that means.  To do so, I hearkened back to Romans
> and Greeks, talked about different ways of handling subversive
> thinking, counter-currents in intellectual history.
> I've also talked about existentialism in connection with the world
> waxing and waning.
> My goal is to get some people up to speed on this Wittgenstein stuff,
> but in connection with other concerns of a contemporary nature, as my
> belief is philosophy needs to be applied to have meaning, needs to do
> real work in the real world.
> You seem to think something similar in that you're tracking the
> cog-sci people, applaud their efforts as amateur philosophers trying
> to solve the mind-body problem all over again.

Say rather that I am interested in their efforts and the information they 
develop because of the insights into the world I think it portends. 

> I'm personally not invested in that agenda, but feel I should say why.
>  Responding to your posts gives valuable context and contrast.  Hope
> ya don't mind.  You make a good foil.

No, I don't, of course. It's just that I have a tendency to keep responding and 
sometimes don't realize when the issues on the table are no longer connected 
with what prompted my involvement. I'll follow your comments though. You're 
always interesting and imaginative and certainly bring a creative flair to the 
world of Wittgensteinian exegesis.

> >> > Again, this assumes a right way that we can reach. If Wittgenstein's
> >> > thinking can't be applied in a field like cognitive science, then what
> >> > good is it? If
> >>
> >> Maybe it *frees* you from "cognitive science". That might be a really
> >> welcome development for some people trapped in its fly bottle. Think
> >> of all those years you could have wasted! Egad.
> >>
> >
> > Assuming it's a fly bottle though. What if it ain't! Should we treat it that
> > way anyway? Just because it seems like fun or we're not interested in the
> > field?
> >
> Your call.  It's the quality of your own cogitation you need to be
> concerned with.  Apparently, you're happy to immerse yourself in this
> kind of literature and consider it worthy.
> However, I don't think Wittgenstein should be cast as some kind of
> prototypical cognitive scientists.  Rather, I think cognitive
> scientists sound a lot like the old mind-body problem folks, dressed
> up in slightly newer clothing.

Where do you think I cast Wittgenstein as a proto-cognitive scientist? 
Following Sean's mandate I am talking here about things that interest or 
concern me and bringing my interest in and understanding of Wittgenstein (such 
at it is) to bear as seems appropriate.

> Their science fiction (metaphysics) has computers in it now, is
> probably the main difference from the 1800s version of this stuff.
> I have the advantage of being rather up on computers so am not easily
> snowed by hand wavy AI.

I see a lot of this business about "handwaving" on lists like these. It's a 
favorite condemnatory remark of people from all schools of philosophy. I guess 
it sounds good, offers an interesting image and resonates or something. 
Personally, I don't see much handwaving in a guy like Hawkins who seems pretty 
down to earth and direct. Edelman could have used Hawkins co-author, I think.  

> >> As I've said, I consider it obvious the TLP and PI self-advertise as
> >> "liberation philosophies" i.e. they both promise new ways of looking
> >> to those who read them for meaning. The "judgment day" meme is caught
> >> up with it, in that the world "waxes and wanes" (independently of what
> >> is the case -- so don't say "rightly or wrongly" as that's just more
> >> empiricism talking (TLP spin) and this isn't about surrendering to
> >> tainted beliefs, or true ones (rather it's about developing new
> >> certainties (post PI spin)).
> >>
> >
> > I think you overdetermine their purpose here.
> >
> Maybe others will offer comments.
> >> > He was an introvert to the day he died on all the evidence available.
> >> >
> >>
> >> Capable of introspection, obviously. Not withdrawn or aloof though,
> >> by all evidence available. Didn't have his head up his ass, the way a
> >> lot of introverts do (dime a dozen).
> >>
> >
> > I suspect that here you are being rather judgmental towards introverts. Not
> > very PC of you! However there is plenty of evidence in Monk and even in
> > Culture and Value that he was something of an introvert as well as being
> > highly introspective!
> >
> Yeah, not very PC of me.  Elsewhere I talk about nerds as the "larval
> form" of geeks, the latter being gregarious and socially adept, more
> like diplomats.  If you're lucky, you'll morph from nerd to geek in
> one lifetime.
> I'm remembering how Wittgenstein was in the army, was a POW, taught
> elementary school... (is that what it was).  At least he didn't live
> in some cubicle-cave in some office building.

He also put in some time as a monk wannabe in a monastery and lived in 
isolation on the coast of Norway and western Ireland for long stints. While at 
Cambridge, though popular with a certain class of students, he seems to have 
kept himself apart from most of the other faculty and was disliked by many of 

>  Life experience matters
> in philosophy.  As Kaufmann suggested:  *by all means* judge a
> philosophy by the philosopher (Heidegger's a case in point for him).
> >> > This kind of hyperbole doesn't work for me.
> >> >
> >>
> >> Not surprised. However, we have our readers to think about. We're
> >> here on stage, doing our thing.
> >>
> >
> > I wonder who here it actually works for then?
> >
> Dunno, but it's in a public archive so maybe someone'll stumble on it
> on 200 years and think it's the bee's knees.
> Mostly though I'm thinking of a younger audience that has seen lots of
> movies, does a lot of thinking over the web.
> I'm giving lots of pointers to Youtubes and movies, not just because
> Wittgenstein liked movies, but because I think philosophies need to
> keep up, do the work needed to stay relevant.
> If a philosophy completely ignores the great resource that is
> hypertext... well, I'd be skeptical of its value, lets just leave it
> at that.

So you're doing the Lord's work keeping Wittgenstein alive on the Internet. 
Well, I guess somebody's gotta do it!

> Life is short, not a crime to make judgments, for you or for me.
> >> How does one tell whether all these various "ahas" (the "on target
> >> ones", the "misleading ones", the "slow dawnings", the "brilliant
> >> flashes" etc. etc.), are all examples of "the same thing" in the brain
> >> or not? MRI?
> >>
> >
> > Edelman will tell you they really aren't and I suspect Hawkins will concur
> > but that is just the point. By not being the same thing everytime they will
> > be. Ah paradox. Aha!
> >
> Sigh.
> >> The idea of "identity across introspected experiences" is one
> >> Wittgenstein tackles, as he encounters it a lot among the introverts
> >> he deals with.
> >>
> >> For another thread maybe.
> >>
> >> Kirby
> >>
> >
> > Oy, I'm not holding my breath.
> >
> > SWM
> It's a thread you might want to consider starting, in light of
> Edelman's evident confusion.
> I think Hawkins could really use some help.  You might want to give
> him some?  Maybe not.
> Happy floundering then! :)
> Kirby

Thanks for the good wishes. I'll try to be a better lurker!


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