Friday, October 18, 2013

Oerter on indeterminacy and the unknown


I thank Robert Oerter for his reply to my recent comments on his criticism of James Ross’s argument for the immateriality of the intellect.  Please do go read his reply -- and never fear, he is a much less long-winded fellow than I am -- as well as my own previous post (If you haven’t done so already), before reading the following response.

Oerter repeats his claim that “Ross's argument never gets him beyond epistemological indeterminacy.”  Oddly, Oerter writes: “Oddly, Feser doesn't specifically respond to my criticism.”  What is odd about this is that I did respond quite specifically, and at length, to that criticism, though it appears Oerter has missed the point of what I wrote.  He seems to think that my entire response to the objection in question consists in my calling attention to the fact that Ross, and Kripke (whose work Ross makes use of), explicitly present their arguments as metaphysical rather than epistemological. 

But that was just a passing remark -- rather than the substance of my reply -- and I had a good reason for making it.  Oerter had in his earlier post quite reasonably called attention to comments of Ross’s that seemed to imply that the considerations he was raising really had only epistemological rather than metaphysical import.  Those comments naturally raised questions about how to interpret what Ross was saying, so it was relevant to call attention to passages wherein he and Kripke make clear that they intended a metaphysical rather than merely epistemological reading.
 
But of course Oerter is quite right to insist that what matters at the end of the day is whether their arguments really do have metaphysical rather than merely epistemological significance, not whether they intended them to have it.  But as I argued in my previous post, the significance really is indeed metaphysical.

Let’s get metaphysical

Recall my point that there is nothing in the physical properties of the symbol Δ that entails that what it represents is a triangle, or black triangles specifically, or a dunce cap, or a triangular UFO, or anything else for that matter; and that neither is there anything in the physical properties of the sequence T-R-I-A-N-G-L-E that entails that it signifies triangles themselves, or the word “triangle,” or a guy who calls himself “Triangle,” etc.  Notice that this is not an epistemological point.  To point out that having the properties being of such-and-such a shape, or being of such-and-such a color, or being written in ink with such-and-such a chemical structure, simply do not entail having the property representing a dunce cap, is precisely to make a metaphysical point.  The claim isn’t: “Given what we happen to know about ink chemistry, color, shape, etc., physical properties of that sort don’t entail this meaning rather than that one.”  The claim is rather: “Given what ink chemistry, color, shape, etc. are, objectively, physical properties of that sort don’t entail this meaning rather than that one.”

Now, Ross’s and Kripke’s point is that the same thing is true of all physical symbols and all physical processes, no matter how complex.  There is in principle nothing in any of them that entails one specific meaning rather than another.  Oerter himself appears to admit this.  He essentially conceded in his original post that none of the past physical properties of a machine (say) by themselves entail that it is computing this specific function rather than that one.  He suggested that the future behavior of the machine might tell us, but as I pointed out in the previous post -- and Oerter has not responded to this point -- Ross’s and Kripke’s argument is completely unaffected even if we add not only all future, but all possible, physical behavior of the machine.  Claiming that this is merely an epistemological point is no more plausible than saying that it is just an epistemological point to note that none of the physical properties of Δ entail a particular meaning. 

To see how Oerter’s recourse to epistemology misfires, compare the following: Suppose someone claimed that having the property being under nine feet tall followed necessarily upon having the property being a physicist.  You point out to him that there is nothing in what it is to be a physicist that entails being under nine feet tall, and that to suppose otherwise simply because all actual physicists have been under nine feet tall is to commit a fallacy of accident.  Even if it were someday discovered that it is biologically impossible for a human being to be taller than nine feet, it wouldn’t be the property being a physicist, specifically, that rules this out.  Suppose your interlocutor responded: “Well, sure, but that’s just an epistemological point.  Given everything we know, we can’t deduce just from someone’s being a physicist that he is under nine feet tall.  But maybe there is something about being a physicist that we don’t yet know that entails being under nine feet tall.”

Of suppose, alternatively, that someone denied that the Pythagorean theorem is true.  You point out to him that it has been proven many times over.  Suppose he replies: “Well, sure, but that’s just an epistemological point.  Maybe, for all we know, all the proofs have been in error and we just haven’t discovered the errors yet.  Hence the supposed proofs don’t really tell us anything about geometry itself, but just about what we know about geometry.” 

Both of these responses would, needless to say, be silly.  Raising far-fetched epistemological questions about a metaphysical claim doesn’t magically transform the metaphysical claim itself into an epistemological claim.  But Oerter’s objection to Ross is no better than the responses given in these imagined scenarios.  It is silly to say: “Sure, I concede that all possible physical facts together do not entail that a machine is computing this function rather than that, but maybe that’s just a fact about our knowledge rather than a fact about reality.”  It is hard to see how this differs from a desperate recourse to skepticism as a way of avoiding falsification.  It’s a ploy that could be used to “refute” any argument one doesn’t like: “Sure, the evidence entails p, but that doesn’t show us anything about p itself, but only about what we know about the evidence.  It’s really just an epistemological point.”

There’s something about Hilda

Part of the problem here might be that Oerter is not carefully distinguishing the following two claims:

(1) There just is no fact of the matter, period, about what function a system is computing.

(2) The physical properties of a system by themselves don’t suffice to determine what function it is computing.

Oerter sometimes writes as if what Ross is claiming is (1), but that is not correct.  Ross is not denying, for example, that your pocket calculator is really adding rather than “quadding” (to allude to Kripke’s example).  He is saying that the physical facts about the machine by themselves do not suffice to determine this.  Something more is needed (in this case, the intentions of the designers and users of the calculator). 

Perhaps the reason Oerter thinks his “That’s just an epistemological point” response is plausible is that he has examples like this in the back of his mind -- cases where the physical facts alone don’t tell us what function a machine is computing, but where we have other information that does tell us.  What he fails to see is that while this is perfectly true, it doesn’t help his case at all, because the information in question is not information derived from the physical facts about the system itself.  And that’s just Ross’s point.  It is (2), rather than (1), that Ross is arguing for.

Of course, Ross also thinks what is true of machines is true of human beings.  That is to say, the physical facts about human beings by themselves don’t determine what content their thoughts have, what functions they are computing, and so forth.  But he doesn’t think there is no fact of the matter about what content their thoughts have, what functions they are computing, etc., any more than he does in the case of the calculator.  He thinks, in both cases, that there is a fact of the matter but that something other than the physical facts about the system determines what it is.  In the case of machines, what determines it is human designers and users, who are of course distinct from the machines.  In the case of human beings, it is an immaterial aspect of human nature. 

This brings us to a further claim of Oerter’s, to the effect that Ross is applying a “double standard” insofar as he does not (so Oerter mistakenly thinks) apply to human beings the argument he applies to machines.  Oerter writes:

Note that Ross's argument is just as valid when talking about what another person is doing when (say) adding. That is, when I am trying to determine whether Hilda is actually adding, or merely simulating adding, all I can do is investigate her physical actions and responses. If Ross's argument is correct, then from a finite amount of data such as these I cannot determine whether Hilda is adding or not. So (if Ross is right) I can never know whether another person is capable of addition.

But note that from the above it doesn't follow that Hilda is not adding. It may be that Hilda is in fact doing something perfectly determinate. I just can't know whether she is or not. So it is clear that Ross's argument doesn't get us past the epistemological.

This point ties in with my second complaint about Ross: the double standard. If I can't say for sure that another person is not adding, then by the same token I cannot say for sure that a machine is not adding.

End quote.  The trouble with this is that Oerter implicitly supposes that Ross, to be consistent, would have to say that there is no fact of the matter about whether Hilda is adding.  But that is not the case.  What is true is that Ross, to be consistent, would have to say that whether Hilda is adding cannot be determined from the physical facts about Hilda by themselves.  And that is precisely what Ross does say.  In Ross’s view, something additional to the physical facts must, in Hilda’s case no less than in the machine’s case, determine what function she is computing (even if it is a different “something additional” in each case).  So there is no double standard here at all. 

I leave aside the question of how we, as observers of her actions, can know whether Hilda is really adding -- and is not just a zombie -- which is, of course, a variation on the “problem of other minds.”  That simply isn’t relevant to Ross’s argument.  All that is relevant is that if Hilda is in fact adding, it can’t be the physical facts about her alone that metaphysically determine that she is.  Again, Ross is not talking about epistemology (“How do we know a system is computing such-and-such a function?”) but metaphysics (“By virtue of what facts about a system is it computing such-and-such a function?”).  Here as elsewhere, Oerter can’t seem to see the difference between an epistemological issue and a metaphysical one, and reads his own confusion into Ross, Kripke, and me.

Oerter rightly points out that Kripke’s paradox, unlike Ross’s argument, is supposed by Kripke to entail that there would be no fact of the matter even in one’s own case (forget about Hilda’s case) about what one’s thoughts mean.  But as I explain in my ACPQ article (wherein I discuss this issue in detail), Kripke and others draw this conclusion because they overlook a number of independently-motivated distinctions commonly drawn by Scholastics.  Kripke’s paradox is in any event also metaphysical rather than epistemological.  And since it is (Ross and I argue) incoherent to deny that one’s own thoughts have determinate meaning, and yet this is what would follow if thought were purely material, it follows that thought cannot be purely material. 

Nor, I should add in response to a comment from one of Oerter’s less intelligent readers, does this entail a belief in “ectoplasmic goo” (whatever that is) as an alternative “explanation” of thought.  Of course, neither Ross nor I believe in any such thing, and this is just one of the usual question-begging straw men flung at non-materialists.  It assumes that the dispute between materialism and dualism is a matter of competing “explanatory hypotheses,” and that to affirm the existence of what is immaterial is to posit a kind of “stuff” that is kind of like matter (“goo” or the like) only more rarefied -- all of which evinces a basic ignorance of what philosophical dualists have actually said.  It also reflects an inability to rise above crude imagistic thinking - that is to say, an inability to think, in the strict sense.  But we should not put the foibles of some of Oerter’s readers on his account!

43 comments:

Step2 said...

What he fails to see is that while this is perfectly true, it doesn’t help his case at all, because the information in question is not information derived from the physical facts about the system itself. And that’s just Ross’s point. It is (2), rather than (1), that Ross is arguing for.

But that is just Godel's incompleteness theorems applied more generally, in which case Ross also cannot say he is certain that strong arithmetical systems are complete and wholly consistent based on their own axioms, it takes axioms outside the system to derive its consistency. Which takes us back to my point about context, you have to determine what the context is before you can fix meaning.

Witten said...

I think I now understand what the metaphysical claim here is. "The purpose of an object is not contained within the physical facts of the object." I don't think many naturalists would disagree with that, as the purpose of an object is something that people have, so for naturalists it would be contained in the physical facts about the people.

Scott said...

@Witten:

The metaphysical claim here is that even people's own purposes aren't determined by sheerly physical facts about them.

Anonymous said...

I think this is all quite cool.

So, if I understand the argument, the "physical facts" of a computer, including its software (which is reducible to physical characteristics of the computer's components), reveal the mechanics of what the computer is doing. But, to the extent that the computer is hypothesized to be enacting some sort of function, it's impossible to tell what that function is. An observer might be able to "see" the "code" that makes the computer run (to speak loosely), but that would be the equivalent of seeing the gears of a machine. The observer might be able to learn (1) what the observer might use the computer for and (2) what the computer's designer probably intended the computer for, but no more. Nothing about what function the computer actually runs.

Thus, any physical process is indeterminate, assuming that a computer is the closest thing to a physical object enacting a function.

Question, though. When I do arithmetic, it feels pretty mechanical. I learned to add single digits by rote, and then I add numbers with more than one digit by (1) adding the digits in a certain order or (2) by habit if I've seen the summands regularly in the past. What separates what I do from the calculator? My intent to add the numbers? My interpretation of the result?

Jinzang said...

The fact that you attribute a meaning to the numeric symbols you are manipulating.

Anonymous said...

I suppose it might be my understanding of the pure function +, addition, that separates me from the calculator.

But then, as a child, I'm pretty sure I initially learned that "if you take one apple and another apple, you have two apples. so one plus one equals two."

At that moment, all I know abut addition is that it's a shorthand way of writing out what happens when you have two apples. Suppose I learn the addition table up to 9+9. At this point, I know some rote facts like "1+4=5" and that these facts can tell me about my apple collection.

Am I, at that point, doing a pure function when I add? I suppose you could say that I have a dim intimation of what addition means at that point. But it all seems rather mechanical.

Anonymous said...

Jinzang: Ross does claim that the act of defining something is a pure function. Attributing meaning to the numbers that I manipulate is defining them, so that's a pure function. But it's not the pure function of addition that Ross talks about.

Jinzang said...

I'm a bit out of my depth here, I'm a computer programmer and not a philosopher. But what gives an operation meaning is that it represents something. Representation is a mental and not a physical act. Words have meaning because they represent things (oversimplifying a bit.) A logic circuit is an adder because its output represents the operation of addition. Addition is a mental abstraction from the domain of counted objects, which was then extended to other domains (rationals, reals, and complex numbers.) But at each step there was a model, something being represented.

Scott said...

"What separates what I do from the calculator? My intent to add the numbers? My interpretation of the result?"

Your intent to find the sum of the addends according to the rules of arithmetic—or, at the early, "rote" stages, the intent of your teacher to show you how to do that. The computer has no such intent in itself, and it has the purpose of doing so only as a result of the intent(s) of its programmer(s).

Anonymous said...

Scott:
I accept your answer except that I don't agree that my teacher's intent in any way alters the character of my mind's operation.

Anonymous said...

Jinzang:
I agree entirely with your post. The identification of any symbol as a representation of something is, in itself, a pure function. And this alone would be sufficient to prove Ross's point.

I am unsure, however, that the ability of the mind to attribute meaning is all Ross means when he insists that the mind can perform the determinate function A+B or A^2.

Scott said...

"I accept your answer except that I don't agree that my teacher's intent in any way alters the character of my mind's operation."

Well, here's the way I was thinking of it:

If someone gives you some instructions to follow and you follow them without understanding what they're for, the instructions themselves nevertheless still have whatever intent belonged to the person who instructed you. In that sense you could be carrying out addition without yourself having any intent to do so (or even indeed knowing that you were doing so), but you'd still really be adding (rather than, say, quadding) because that was the intent of your instructor.

What do you think?

Scott said...

Another example:

I ask you to deliver a very short oral message to someone. It's in a language you don't speak (something like "Klaatu barada nikto" in The Day the Earth Stood Still), so I quickly teach you the sounds without telling you what they mean. You deliver the message, and the recipient understands it.

Wasn't it my intent rather than yours that was fulfilled by your conveying the message? And didn't the message have the meaning I intended even though you didn't know what it was? If so, then didn't my intent affect the character of your mental operations?

Anonymous said...

Scott:

I agree that the teacher's intent would render my action meaningful, in that my action (done purely at the instruction of the teacher) would itself be addition. I am hesitant to say that I am the one doing the adding.

It seems at least that my act is an imperfect one, in that it requires the intention of another (the teacher) to make it really addition.

Scott said...

"I am hesitant to say that I am the one doing the adding."

Okay, I can see that, and I certainly agree that it sounds odd to say that you're adding when somebody else is really adding "through" you. But I think the latter at least addresses your original question, which had mostly to do with what was going on when you learned addition by rote and didn't understand what you were doing yet.

You said that sounded somewhat mechanical, and I think we can make sense of that by regarding regard you as a sort of "computer" or "machine" "programmed" by your teacher's instructions. To the extent that you're just following instructions, you're still instantiating the pure function of addition, but through someone else's intentionality. (Of course you're probably also trying to understand it as you go, so you're not purely a mechanical tool!)

Scott said...

(Oops, "regarding regard" should of course be just "regarding.")

Matthew Kennel said...

I think that this line of argumentation appeals to me as someone with a computer engineering degree. I remember one time looking at the list of commands for the Motorola 68000 chip, and thinking to myself that without this list of commands, there would be no way of telling what the strings of 1's and 0's in the computer's memory was supposed to represent. It would be absolutely meaningless apart from the meaning given to it from some human mind. In fact, I now realize that even the identification of certain electronic states as 1 or 0 is itself a construction of the human mind. Suppose, for example, that a circuit with a potential difference of 1.0V is thought of as a 1, and a circuit of 0.5V is thought of as a 0. Is it not obvious that there is nothing in the physical state of the circuit itself that prevents us from thinking of the 1.0V circuit as a 0 and the 0.5V circuit as a 1? At any rate, it seems to me obvious. This exact phenomenon, by the way, is what happens whenever you open a .exe file in Notepad. Notepad thinks it is opening a plain text file, which is why - interpreting the program as plain text - it just gives you gobbledygook.

A less technological example might be ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Prior to the Rosetta Stone, we knew that the symbols had meaning, but nothing about the physical state of the system itself determined the meaning.

As I thought about how the human brain worked, I recognized that the same thing must be true of the human brain, since the physical facts themselves needed to be interpreted by someone. In other words, even if the states of the brain represent some kind of information, there must be someone to interpret them as such.

Anonymous said...

@Scott:
Thanks, I understand what you're saying.

@Matthew Kennel:
Nicely put.

Anonymous said...

I like how the link to the commentator also included this diamoned from old Donjindra:

:"Exactly. I went over to Feser's blog and pointed out his reasoning in support of Ross also destroys the A-T school of philosophy at its foundation. The response: We're exempt. Why? Because "hylemorphism" gives them, and them alone, the ability to connect the dots of physical fact. This is how one true meaning (final cause) is revealed to them. Of course this begs the question, where did they get this vaulted "hylemorphism?" Well, they deduced it very tediously from first assuming their ability to connect the dots of physical facts. So they permit themselves circularity while blaming the same on the physicalist. They can destroy the foundation of both themselves and the physicalist one day yet clinging to it the next. It's ironic. It's a rootless philosophy that decries our lack of roots. I bump up against this double standard quite frequently with the A-T crowd."

The idiocy is strong in this one.

FM said...

@ Anon October 18, 2013 at 5:50 PM


"When I do arithmetic, it feels pretty mechanical. I learned to add single digits by rote, and then I add numbers with more than one digit by (1) adding the digits in a certain order or (2) by habit if I've seen the summands regularly in the past. What separates what I do from the calculator? My intent to add the numbers? My interpretation of the result? "

Some people do things automatically but that does not mean anything.

Sure. You can learn the multiplication tables without understanding them. So you just give a response from memory.

However, REAL mathematicians prove and understand mathematics, even the simplest concepts (which are not always so simple).

But even without studying abstract algebra or Lie groups: you do not get very far in mathematics if you do not understand it. It might get you through elementary school, maybe junior high, but not further.

But EVEN someone has no grasp of math what so ever and even struggled with 1st grade algebra, that person still would understand that the symbol ‘2’ means the number 2.

A computer does not grasp even that. It just does according to some algorithm. It’s oblivious to any bugs it might have or that he’s computing by mistake that 2+2 = ‘fhgfba’ (whatever that means).


In any case pure math is very abstract, even when it comes to define concepts that seem trivial. That is why math is a serious problem for materialism and naturalism.

==

@ Anon October 20, 2013 at 6:02 PM

Well donjindra simply does not understand A-T apparently.

The typical atheist trick: when you do not understand, cry ‘courtier’s reply’.

+++

@Matthew Kennel:

Very nice! I like the Rosetta stone analogy!

Tyrrell McAllister said...

I understand the argument that a given physical system can't have a unique intrinsic meaning. E.g., a given calculator, under a different interpretation of its micro-physical states, could be said to be reciting Shakespeare rather than performing addition.

My question is, Why isn't this a problem for any alleged bearer-of-meaning whatsoever? It seems that non-physical things would run into exactly the same issue. In other words, how does the argument rely on the physicality of the alleged bearer-of-meaning? What, precisely, about non-material minds keeps Feser's argument from succeeding just as well when it is applied to them?

To flesh out my question a bit, suppose that a non-physical thing T bears a unique intrinsic meaning M₁. Let M₂ be another meaning that T could have born, but which it doesn't right now. For example, say T is a mind performing addition, so that the abstract operation of addition is uniquely picked out as a referent of the state that T is in. Thus, M₁, in this case, is the operation of addition. M₂, let us say, is the Shakespearean play Hamlet. The mind T could have been reciting Hamlet to itself, but instead T is performing addition.

Then there is something about T that is this way rather than that way, in virtue of which T means this rather than that. Say that T means M₁ because the present state of T has a certain property P₁, whereas, had T's state had property P₂ instead, T would have meant M₂.

Now, here is my question. In virtue of what does T-with-state-property-P₁ mean M₁, whereas T-with-state-property-P₂ would have meant M₂?

You might answer with the following: "The mind T interprets itself that way. That's what makes having P₁ mean performing addition rather than reciting Hamlet."

But this just pushes the argument back a step. Let us grant that T interprets P₁ as meaning M₁. Well, if T interprets itself that way, then there must be something about the state of T in virtue of which T makes that interpretation rather than another. That is, because T is this way rather than that way, P₁ means M₁ instead of M₂. This leads us to say that T interprets P₁ as meaning M₁ because the state of T has property ₁ rather than some other property ₂.

But now the very same problem reasserts itself: In virtue of what does ₁ mean that P₁ means M₁? After all, under another interpretation, ₁ would mean that P₁ means M₂, so that the present state of T corresponds to reciting Shakespeare after all. If the answer is, "T's own interpretation determines what ₁ means", then we are led to introduce yet another state-property Pʹʹ₁ to account for that interpretation, and so on, ad infinitum.

Thus, we get an infinite regress generating a tower of interpretations Pʹʹ˙˙˙ʹ₁. But then there is no ultimate reason why T must be interpreted with this infinite tower rather than another. And so on.

In summary, how can the ontological state of something ever bear a unique intrinsic meaning? How does saying that the something is non-physical buy you any explanatory clarity at all?

Scott said...

@Tyrell McAllister:

"What, precisely, about non-material minds keeps Feser's argument from succeeding just as well when it is applied to them?"

Ultimately, the fact that the immaterial intellect can receive forms.

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@Scott

"Ultimately, the fact that the immaterial intellect can receive forms."

I'm afraid that I'm going to need more help than that :).

Here is my initial reaction, which could easily be based on a misunderstanding:

In virtue of what is it that a given form means one thing rather than another? The rough answer in Feser's articles is, "The mind interprets it this way rather than that way."

But to draw the conclusion that the mind interprets the form this way rather than that — to draw that conclusion is itself an act of interpretation. This "second order" interpretation is an interpretation of the mind's interpretation of the original form. A different interpretation of the mind's act of interpretation would say that the mind assigned a different meaning to the original form.

In virtue of what is it that one of these "second order" interpretations is correct, while all others are not? Any ontological fact about how the mind is, even facts about how the mind is interpreting something else — any such fact can always itself be interpreted differently.

Or so it seems. Or, at least, I don't see what blocks this inference. In particular, I don't see why this inference is blocked in the case of mental things, but not also in the case of physical things.

Mr. Green said...

Tyrrell McAllister: Why isn't this a problem for any alleged bearer-of-meaning whatsoever? [...] What, precisely, about non-material minds keeps Feser's argument from succeeding just as well when it is applied to them?

We should approach it from the other direction: some things might be capable of intentionality (in the relevant sense), and some thing might not. In fact, since I can think of things determinately, we know there are some things that can have the right sort of intentionality. Then we make up a word to refer to such things, such as "intellect", and we picturesquely refer to an intellect's understanding of some form as "holding" the form.

On the other hand, some things "have", say, redness not by "understanding" red, but by being red. So that's a different way to be in-formed, and that's what we call having a form materially. So (with just a bit of oversimplification!) "mind" and "matter" are how we divide up the world into things that can do "meaningfulness" and things that can't. And to say that a computer is a machine is to say it's on the "can't" side. A mind doesn't have to interpret a form that it is "holding"; to have an idea in one's intellect just is to understand it. Conversely, if we claimed that a computer could understand something determinately, then we would just be claiming that the computer wasn't a machine after all, but was instead some kind of being with an intellect.

Scott said...

@Tyrell McAllister:

"In virtue of what is it that a given form means one thing rather than another?"

I like Mr. Green's approach here so I'm just going to add a bit to it.

Basically, what makes the intellect special is that it can "take on" the form of (say) a cat without actually becoming a cat. Whatever else may be involved in meaning, there's at least that much: when I think of or deliberately refer to something, its form is "in" my thought, literally informing it.

We can probably put the matter in other language if we want to, but however we describe it, we're directly familiar with this sort of determinate meaning/reference.

There's no need for another interpretive step; as Mr. Green says, for one's intellect to receive a form just is to know the real thing that has that form. There's nothing else to interpret.

In other words, the forms themselves don't "mean"; we do.

Gene Callahan said...

@Matthew Kennel: A software engineer myself, I heartily second your post. Whether a computer is "playing chess" or "composing music" is up to us: the exact same code could do either, depending on how *we* decide to interpret the output.

Scott said...

And as a software developer, I heartily third it.

It seems relevant here that any string of n letters (say n copies of the letter "A") can be "decoded" into any other string of length n just by choosing the Vigenère cipher with the right key.

There's an encryption scheme according to which "AAAAA" means lemon, another according to which it means beast, and for that matter another according to which it means skzqf.

Basically, that means that there's some scheme under which any series of voltages can mean anything we bloody well please.

mackthemike said...

I think that when I add something on, say, a piece of paper, I'm performing a mechanical task. What gives the output of that task determinate meaning is my subsequent interpretation of that output, and what gives *that* thought meaning is how it is interpreted by an additional subsequent thought. This chain continues indefinitely. All determinacy and intentionality is instrumental.

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@Mr. Green and Scott.

[This is a two-part comment]

Let me first be clear about where we agree. I agree that we have minds, and that our minds bear meaning. When I think about my house, there is a thought in my mind that means my house without being my house. I agree that this meaning is intrinsic, in the sense that we should be able to explain how this relationship of meaning obtains without invoking the existence of any other mind that interprets my thought as meaning my house. Furthermore, I agree that physical systems such as computers do not bear any meaning that is both intrinsic and intrinsically unique. The problem I pose is not to make a convincing case that these claims are true. I accept that they are true.

So, what is my problem? It is this: A priori, there were three exhaustive and mutually exclusive alternatives:

(1) Nothing bears any intrinsic meaning at all.

(2) Something bears intrinsic meaning, and this intrinsic meaning is intrinsically unique. That is, the thing itself is such that it intrinsically distinguishes one and only one meaning as the meaning of the thing.

(3) Something bears intrinsic meanings, but these intrinsic meanings are not intrinsically unique. That is, there are alternative meanings, all intrinsic to the thing, but the thing itself does not intrinsically distinguish one of the meanings as the unique meaning of the thing.

Now, your (Mr. Green’s and Scott’s) observation rules out option (1): My mind bears meaning, and that meaning is intrinsic. That is, it must be possible to account for how my mind bears meaning without making any reference to any other mind’s interpretation of my mind. In fact, it must be possible to give such an account without even making reference to my own mind’s interpretation of itself. For, such an “account” would be circular. It would "explain" my mind’s ability to interpret things as following from my mind’s ability to interpret something, namely itself. Thus, whatever meaning my mind has intrinsically, it has that meaning in virtue of the state in which it is, and not in virtue of how that state is interpreted, even by itself.

So, (1) is out. That leaves either (2) or (3). But how to distinguish which of (2) or (3) is true? Consider a thing that bears intrinsic meaning. How to tell if that meaning is also intrinsically unique?

This brings me to Feser’s argument. I agree that Feser’s argument establishes the following: A physical computer cannot bear an intrinsically unique meaning. That is, (2) cannot be true in the case where the “something” is a computer.

Now, Feser would probably say that (3) also doesn't hold when the “something” is a computer. But I do not see that his argument establishes this. It remains possible, it seems to me, that the computer has many intrinsic meanings (one for every consistent interpretation of its microphysical states), but that such a meaning is unique only relative to a particular interpretation. Thus, such a meaning, while intrinsic, is not intrinsically unique.

Furthermore, and more to the point, his argument against (2) in the case of a computer seems to me to be fully general. The argument didn’t rely on the “something” being a physical computer in any way that I could see. His argument points to the possibility of an “is/means” gap that always separates how a thing is from any particular way in which the thing is interpreted. Multiple distinct interpretations are always possible, at least for anything capable of being in any significant number of states, such as a computer or a mind. Nothing picks out one of these interpretations as more “intrinsic” than the others.

[To be continued...]

Tyrrell McAllister said...

[Continuing...]

But, you might say, if multiple distinct interpretations of my own mind were all equally intrinsic, wouldn't I be aware of all these different interpretations simultaneously?

I don't think so. When you look inward at the meaning of the state of your mind, you must do so with respect to a particular interpretation, and so of course you only see the meaning that that state of your mind has with respect to that interpretation. Simultaneously, it may be, your mind (as it is, without arbitrarily distinguishing any particular interpretation of what it means) might be supporting many interpretations. Under another interpretation, your mind is interpreting itself as having a different meaning. But since each interpretation can only find that meaning in the mind that that interpretation itself assigns, and not the meaning assigned by any different interpretation, no interpretation is simultaneously aware of multiple distinct meanings. Thus, the theory is not contradicted by, but in fact predicts, your experience of finding only a unique interpretation of the meanings of your thoughts in your mind.

(An analogy: I recall that the three of us discussed the A and B theories of time a few months back. At that time, we talked about how different moments of your consciousness, existing at different times, are aware of different things, but that no moment of your consciousness has a vivid and direct awareness of all the moments of your life. I am suggesting something analogous: There are multiple intrinsic interpretations of your mind. Under different interpretations, your mind is thinking about different things. Each such interpretation interprets the mind as being aware of whatever, and only whatever, that interpretations takes to be the meaning of the state of your mind.)

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@Mr. Green and Scott.

Now let me address your comments more specifically.

Your points are good, and even helpful, as far as they go. But they don't seem to me to be a solution to the problem that I raise. At best, you have defined some terms and identified some desiderata for any solution. You have made a preparatory arrangement of concepts, a laying of some groundwork. This is a necessary prolegomenon to any solution, but it is far from a solution itself.

(I'm about to say a bunch of stuff that I know you already know. I don't mean to imply that you don't already know this. I'm just exhibiting a piece of common knowledge that we all share so that I can refer to it easily.)

In mathematics, if you want to prove that A=C, it suffices to declare that B=A by definition and then prove that B=C (assuming that B was a hitherto undefined term). Alternatively, you can declare that B=C by definition and then prove that A=B. But you cannot do both. That is, you cannot declare both that B=A and that B=C by definition and thereby conclude that A=C because A=B=C.

The defining of terms can be an important preliminary step. Definitions allow you to organize your concepts in preparation for the real work of the proof. But, at some point, you have to do the work of proving that one thing is another. You can't just declare it to be so by definition. You can use definitions to "move the work around". (E.g, you can define A=B and prove B=C, or you can instead do the reverse.) But you cannot use mere definitions to eliminate the work altogether.

Likewise, in philosophy, if you want to explain why all A's are C's, you can define B's to be A's, and then explain why all B's are C's. Or you can define B's to be C's, and then explain why all A's are B's. But you cannot do both. You can ease your work by organizing you concepts with definitions. But you cannot eliminate your work altogether. At some point, you have to give a non-definitional explanation of why the things that you want to identify are really so identified.

Thus, in the case at hand, you can define matter to be that which cannot bear intrinsic meaning, and then argue that my computer is made out of matter, so defined. Or, you can define matter to be that out of which my computer is made, and then argue that matter, so defined, cannot bear intrinsic meaning. (This is an instance of the schema in the previous paragraph, with A = computers, B = matter, and C = non-bearers of meaning.) But you cannot do both. And whichever one you do, it is just a preliminary step. The real work remains.

As I explained in my previous comments, I think that Feser's posts make some partial progress towards this work. In particular, I agree with his argument that computers cannot bear an intrinsic and intrinsically unique meaning. But I don't see that he has successfully shown that they cannot bear any intrinsic meaning at all.

That is, I don't see the conclusion that my actual physical computer, the one that I can kick with my toe, cannot bear intrinsic meaning. I can see that, if the word "computer" is reserved for things that cannot bear meaning by definition, then, yes, tautologically, those things cannot bear meaning. But then I don't see the argument for why my computer is such a thing.

Mr. Green said...

Tyrrell McAllister: I can see that, if the word "computer" is reserved for things that cannot bear meaning by definition, then, yes, tautologically, those things cannot bear meaning. But then I don't see the argument for why my computer is such a thing.

Well, yes, that's a different argument. A while back, we were discussing whether God could create an intelligent being that happened to have the outward physical appearance of a machine, and Scott and I argued that in theory He could. So you might want to contend that the thing sitting in front of you is not a "computer" at all, i.e. not a machine but in fact some sort of silicon-based life form. [Which, as we all know from Doctor Who, would have a grey, lumpy appearance like a bunch of rocks stuck together... just as carbon-based life forms look like lumps of charcoal stuck together!]

Of course, I think that's pretty unlikely, but that get us into the problem of Other Minds. It's not contentious to accept that things that look like computers really are just machines, merely physical objects. If they did possess intellects, then yes, they could have determinate intentions; conversely, if (as common sense indicates) they don't, then they can't.

As for the possibility of intending multiple interpretations, that's certainly possible: puns, for example, are signs that deliberately and determinately have two meanings. But it won't help to say that maybe a physical system thus understands multiple meanings and so is determinate in the right way. The problem is that sometimes a mind can intend only one meaning, whereas a physical system never can. (Consider in particular that to make a valid argument, one needs to intend one specific meaning, such as modus ponens or whatever, not multiple punning interpretations.)

Under another interpretation, your mind is interpreting itself as having a different meaning.

But this gets us into an endless regress. I don't interpret what's in my understanding. If I understand something, then I have already done any interpretation, and the understanding is the result. So I may be thinking about multiple things, but there aren't multiple interpretations of what I'm thinking about (at least not in the relevant sense).

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@ Mr. Green,

So you might want to contend that the thing sitting in front of you is not a "computer" at all, i.e. not a machine but in fact some sort of silicon-based life form. [Which, as we all know from Doctor Who, would have a grey, lumpy appearance like a bunch of rocks stuck together... just as carbon-based life forms look like lumps of charcoal stuck together!]

The descriptions of silicon-based life that you recount ought not to be dismissed lightly. Note that the Doctor’s observations have been independently corroborated by the researchers of the Starship Enterprise. Cf. Star Trek, “The Devil in the Dark”.

I don't interpret what's in my understanding. If I understand something, then I have already done any interpretation, and the understanding is the result.

Let’s take a step back. I think that there is an ambiguity here that is confusing things. To clear up the ambiguity, I’m going to take a detour through a seemingly completely unrelated topic.

Consider partially ordered sets. A partially ordered set P consists of an underlying set S together with an ordering relation ≾ that holds between some elements in S. Following the usual practice, I’ll write “poset” as short for “partially ordered set”.

The reason why I am talking about posets is because I want to highlight the difference between the poset P and its underlying set S. The reason why I want to highlight this difference is that I want to maintain an analogous distinction between an interpreted thing and the underlying thing considered apart from any particular interpretation.

Now, back to posets. The ordering relation of a poset is required to have certain properties, such as “transitivity”, by definition. But, instead of dwelling on the precise definition, I’ll just focus on an example. Let S be the set whose elements are my chair and my desk. That is, let S = {my chair, my desk}. Let ≾ be the ordering relation on S that treats my desk as “greater than” my chair. That is, let

my chair ≾ my desk.

Then S and ≾ together give me a poset P. We usually encode the poset P as the ordered pair of S and ≾. That is, we write P = (S, ≾).

Observe that the elements of S can be ordered in various ways. For example, there is another ordering relation that treats my chair as “greater than” my desk. If we use the symbol ≼ to denote this ordering relation, we then can write

my desk ≼ my chair.

If we take S together with this other ordering relation, we get another poset Q = (S, ≼). The posets P and Q have the same underlying set, but they are still different posets, because each orders S differently from how the other orders S.

[To be continued.]

Tyrrell McAllister said...

[Continuing]

We can compare and contrast what is intrinsic to S with what is intrinsic to P. It is intrinsic to S that it can be ordered either by ≾ or by ≼. In this sense, both ordering relations, ≾ and ≼, are intrinsic to S. However, neither ≾ nor ≼ is an intrinsically unique way to order S. That is, S has more than one intrinsic ordering, but S has no intrinsically unique ordering.

In contrast, the poset P has an ordering relation, namely ≾, and this ordering relation is both intrinsic and intrinsically unique for P. Only one ordering relation is the ordering relation of P. Every other ordering relation, such as ≼, is not the intrinsic ordering relation of P.

Thus, P and S are really very different animals, especially when it comes to what is intrinsic to each. Nonetheless, mathematicians often get sloppy about the distinction between a poset and its underlying set. They will use the same symbol, say “P”, both to denote the poset (ordered by a particular ordering relation) and to denote the set underlying the poset. For example, this happens in the Wikipedia article on posets. Sometimes you will even see mathematicians write things like P = (P, ≾), which is, strictly speaking, nonsense.

Now, suppose that someone asks, “Does P have an intrinsically unique order?” Since “P” is often used ambiguously, you can’t answer this question without first clarifying the asker’s meaning:

(1) If P is the poset, then P has an intrinsically unique order. As a poset, P = (S, ≾) for some unique underlying set S and unique ordering relation ≾ on S. This ordering relation is the intrinsically unique order of P.

(2) If P is the underlying set, then P does not have an intrinsically unique order. The underlying set is intrinsically order-able in a variety of ways, but none of these ways is intrinsically unique.

One final remark about posets. A poset P always has an underlying set. That is, a poset P can always be written as a pair (S, ≾), where S is an “bare” unordered set. Thus, we can always “strip away” the ordering relation ≾ and consider just the underlying set S. This underlying set will not have an intrinsically unique order. The operation that turn a poset P into its underlying set is called the “forgetful functor” for posets.

Thus ends the detour into the theory of posets.

[To be continued.]

Tyrrell McAllister said...

[Continuing.]

Consider now a material thing T, say an electronic addition machine. We agree that T has no intrinsically unique interpretation. However, we may interpret the machine as doing addition. Let I be the interpretation of the machine according to which it is doing addition. In my analogy, T is analogous to the underlying set of a poset, and I is analogous to one of the many ways in which an underlying set can be ordered.

We can identify the interpreted machine as a pair C = (T, I). The interpreted machine does have an intrinsically unique interpretation, namely I. However, the interpreted machine is no longer a merely physical thing. It is a sort of logical construct. It is a physical thing T together with an extrinsic “picking out” of one of the many consistent interpretations that could be applied to T.

I think that you would agree that all interpreted physical things are pairs like C = (T, I). That is, just as with posets, we have something like a “forgetful functor” that always allows us to consider the uninterpreted underlying thing T, the material thing in and of itself, apart from any particular one of its possible interpretations. To use Feser’s example, we can consider a smear of chalk shaped like “Δ” without interpreting the smear as meaning “triangle” or anything else.

I turn at last to your remark: “I don't interpret what's in my understanding. If I understand something, then I have already done any interpretation, and the understanding is the result.

It seems to me that you are using the word “understanding” to mean an interpreted thing. That is, the understanding is like an interpreted physical thing C = (T, I), in that it already has a uniquely intrinsic interpretation.

This is fine, but my question is about the uninterpreted thing underlying the understanding. That is, I am assuming that the understanding is an interpreted thing, call it M, that has the form M = (T, I), where T is an uninterpreted underlying thing, and I is an interpretation of T. I am supposing that I can apply a “forgetful functor” to the understanding and considering the underlying thing T. This underlying thing, as far as I can tell, may be physical. More to the point, it seems to me that the underlying thing, physical or not, cannot have an intrinsically unique interpretation.

Thus, I do not see the basis for the different treatment of electronic calculators and minds with regards to physicality.

Now, one way to block this move on my part would be to deny that the understanding M is the kind of thing that can be analyzed into a pair (T, I). That is, while the understanding has an intrinsically unique interpretation, maybe there is no uninterpreted thing, physical or otherwise, underlying the understanding. I would be interested in hearing how this approach could be made plausible, or even intelligible.

Mr. Green said...

Tyrrell McAllister: Thus, I do not see the basis for the different treatment of electronic calculators and minds with regards to physicality.

I'm not sure what you mean by "with regards to physicality". I would say something like this about interpretations: given thing T (which as a physical object is a composite of form F and matter M, and some mapping of F onto another form, G, then we might refer to G as the interpretation, or to {F, G} as the interpretation (as in your example with posets).

The problem with proposing a merely physical system is that it has to instantiate G somewhere (which may not even be possible — if G is Greenness, you might find a green thing, but how can you isolate its colour from all its other physical properties?); and even if you managed to get a G, you would also need to instantiate the intentionality, the directing of G to F (or vice versa). You could do something like tie F and G together with a piece of string, but what makes that define F's relationship to G, instead of, say, to the thing that F is standing on? A physical instantiation just won't work (for reasons of indeterminateness and so on), so there must be some other way of having those forms that isn't material. Since we can think and understand things, such a second way must exist, and we give it the name of "intellect".

David M said...

Ed writes: "Ross is not denying, for example, that your pocket calculator is really adding rather than “quadding” (to allude to Kripke’s example). He is saying that the physical facts about the machine by themselves do not suffice to determine this. Something more is needed (in this case, the intentions of the designers and users of the calculator)."

A pedantic point, perhaps: I think he *should* deny that the calculator is really adding. The calculator is *being used* to add, but it is not itself adding, any more than a pile of marbles are adding if someone uses the marbles to add. Only the user is adding, and it seems that the intentions of the designers are irrelevant too - i.e., it is irrelevant whether or not the thing, the artifact, the 'calculator,' was intended by its designers to be used as a tool for adding. The sole necessary and sufficient condition for adding to take place is that the user does in fact do some adding, and this regardless of what tools he might happen to rely on to do so. (So I also disagree with Scott: someone who is 'adding' without intending to do so or being aware of doing so is like a monkey who happens to hit "2+2=" on a calculator - he is not really adding. And regarding the "klaatu barada nikto" example, again, I disagree: your intent to send a message would not affect the character of my mental operations when I repeat the phrase - after all, I could transmit the phrase just as well (with no alteration of the character of my mental operations) whether or not you had any intention of sending a meaningful message.)

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@ Mr. Green: "The problem with proposing a merely physical system is that it has to instantiate G somewhere"

This point seems to be taking us towards the question of how matter can have meaning. But that is not my question. My question is, how can anything, material or otherwise, have an intrinsically unique meaning.

Now, to be clear, the “anything” in the previous sentence isn’t supposed to range over literally everything. The “anything” is supposed to range over just the “underlying things” T that, upon being interpreted in some particular way I, become “interpreted things” (T, I).

Of course, every interpreted thing has an intrinsically unique meaning — namely, that interpretation in virtue of which the interpreted thing is the interpreted thing that it is. If the interpreted thing has the form (T, I), then I itself is an intrinsically unique interpretation. There remains the question of whether every interpreted thing has the form (T, I) for some underlying thing T.

The underlying thing T, if there is one, is an “uninterpreted thing”, in the sense that it is considered apart from any particular way (such as I) in which T might be interpreted. And once you consider a thing apart from any particular interpretation, it seems to me that you inevitably open the door to many, many equally valid alternative interpretations. That is, the underlying thing T cannot have an intrinsically unique interpretation. (Or, at least, I don’t yet see how it could).

Here is where things stand:

* I grant that an intellect M is an interpreted thing, and so, as such, it has an intrinsically unique meaning. But so does an adding machine, provided that the adding machine is considered together with that interpretation according to which the machine is adding.

* I grant that the intellect, qua interpreted thing, is not purely material. But the adding machine C, qua interpreted thing, is also not purely material. As I said in my previous comment, an adding machine C is a sort of logical construct, consisting of the underlying material object T together with an extrinsic picking out of one of the many ways I in which the object might be interpreted. In this sense, the adding machine, qua interpreted thing, is an ordered pair C = (T, I), and I grant that ordered pairs, even ordered pairs of material things, are not themselves purely material.

* We agree that we can apply something like the forgetful functor of poset theory to an adding machine C = (T, I) and recover the underlying material object T. We agree that this underlying material object has no intrinsically unique interpretation.

* It seems to me that we should also be able to apply that same forgetful map to an intellect M and recover a thing T underlying M, where T is considered apart from any particular interpretation.

* I’ll grant, just for the sake of argument, that the thing T underlying M is still not material, even when it is considered apart from any particular interpretation.

* Nonetheless, I don’t see how T can have an intrinsically unique meaning, regardless of whether it is material. Nor do I see how our experiences could show that T has an intrinsically unique meaning.

Mr. Green said...

Tyrrell McAllister: * I grant that an intellect M is an interpreted thing, and so, as such, it has an intrinsically unique meaning.

Hang on, what does that mean? An intellect is not an interpreted thing, it's the thing that does the interpreting. But perhaps I am wholly missing your point.

As I said in my previous comment, an adding machine C is a sort of logical construct, consisting of the underlying material object T together with an extrinsic picking out of one of the many ways I in which the object might be interpreted. In this sense, the adding machine, qua interpreted thing, is an ordered pair C = (T, I), and I grant that ordered pairs, even ordered pairs of material things, are not themselves purely material.

Right. And there are many possible interpretations.

* It seems to me that we should also be able to apply that same forgetful map to an intellect M and recover a thing T underlying M, where T is considered apart from any particular interpretation.

We could, if an intellect were an interpreted thing. For example, if we had a code or legend that stipulated, "Let a square stand for turning left, a circle for turning right, and Tyrrell's intellect for going straight ahead." It doesn't seem very useful, since we have no way of directly apprehending your mind and thus of using it as a symbol to be interpreted as something else, but that's the kind of thing it would mean for a mind to be interpreted in that sense.

Is there confusion because we talk about minds "meaning" and symbols "meaning"? That is a different use of the word "meaning" in each case; to say "the word D-O-G means a dog" is a shorthand for saying that "certain minds [in this case, of English speakers] mean a dog by the word D-O-G", i.e. "certain minds interpret the word DOG as a dog". The understanding of the interpretation is what goes on in a mind, the process of taking C, "forgetting" the I and getting T as the result.

Now as you said, the ordered pair {T, I} is not a material thing, and material things cannot contain immaterial things. But our minds do contain such things (they must, for us to be able to interpret anything), and so the mind which processes this ordered pair must itself be something immaterial. The mind does not "have" a meaning (not in the way we say that T, or rather C does); it "holds" a meaning in the sense that it holds "{T, I}" and "T" (from which it can end up with the interpretation I).

David M said...

Tyrell wrote: "Of course, every interpreted thing has an intrinsically unique meaning — namely, that interpretation in virtue of which the interpreted thing is the interpreted thing that it is." - Is that true? Do you perhaps mean that every interpretation is an intrinsically unique meaning? An interpreted thing is not the same as an interpretation/concept, and the application of a concept to a thing does not change the intrinsic character of the thing. An interpreted thing is not the sufficient cause of its own state of being-interpreted.

"And once you consider a thing apart from any particular interpretation, it seems to me that you inevitably open the door to many, many equally valid alternative interpretations." - I'd have thought that once you (per impossibile)consider a thing apart from any particular interpretation, you inevitably close the door to understanding the thing at all. Thus, rather than opening the door to many, many equally valid alternative interpretations, you guarantee that there is not even any real sense to the notion of "equally valid alternative interpretations."

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@ David M.

the application of a concept to a thing does not change the intrinsic character of the thing.

Agreed. Analogously, the application of an ordering relation to an underlying set does not change the intrinsic character of that underlying set. In particular, the underlying set S has no intrinsically unique ordering, and this remains true even after the ordering relation has been applied to S.

However, the set and the ordering relation together constitute another thing, namely the poset P, and the poset does have an intrinsically unique ordering.

In my analogy,

* underlying things are analogous to underlying sets,

* interpretations are analogous to ordering relations, and

* interpreted things are analogous to posets

Interpreted things (at least in some cases) arise from the taking of an underlying thing T together with an interpretation of T. The underlying thing has no intrinsically unique interpretation, while the interpreted thing does. This is no contradiction, because the underlying thing is not identical with the interpreted thing, just has posets are not identical with their underlying sets.

The underlying thing is one of the logically prior "ingredients" of the interpreted thing, but the interpreted thing has an additional ingredient, namely the picking out of a particular one of the many interpretations that could be applied to the underlying thing.


I'd have thought that once you (per impossibile)consider a thing apart from any particular interpretation, you inevitably close the door to understanding the thing at all.

I'm puzzled by why it seems impossible to you to "consider a thing apart from any particular interpretation". I just talking about what Feser is talking about here:

Consider the symbol: Δ ... Does it symbolize triangles in general? Black triangles in particular? A slice of pizza? A triangular UFO? A pyramid? A dunce cap? Your favorite Kate Bush video?

There’s nothing in the physical properties of Δ that entails any of these interpretations, or any other for that matter. The physical properties are “indeterminate” in the sense that they don’t fix one particular meaning rather than another.


Does it not follow that, when we consider a symbol just in terms of its physical properties, we are considering it apart from any particular interpretation?

Tyrrell McAllister said...

@ Mr. Green.

Sorry for taking so long to reply. I thought that it would be a good idea to read Feser’s actual ACPQ article on this, just to be sure that I was addressing the most detailed and complete version of his argument.

I’ll begin by replying to your last comment. Then I’ll summarize where things seem to me to stand after reading Feser’s ACPQ article.

Hang on, what does that mean? An intellect is not an interpreted thing, it's the thing that does the interpreting. But perhaps I am wholly missing your point.

What I meant was this: I agree with Feser that concepts have intrinsic meanings. More importantly, I even agree that their meanings are intrinsically unique. Being things with intrinsically unique meanings, concepts are, in my terminology, “interpreted things”.

When I said that “an intellect M is an interpreted thing”, I was thinking of the intellect as consisting, in part, of the concepts that it is entertaining. Since these concepts are interpreted things, the intellect itself is an interpreted thing. The assignments of meanings to parts of the intellect, namely the concepts, makes the intellect itself an interpreted thing, because parts of it have intrinsically unique interpretations.

Maybe an A/Tist wouldn’t want to say that concepts are parts of the intellect. In this case, the A/Tist would say that I have been misusing the term “intellect”. Be that as it may, a concept is a part of something. Whatever this thing is called, its name should be read in place of “intellect” in my previous comments. Maybe the phrase “the conceptual content of the mind” suffices to indicate what I meant when I said “intellect”.

[To be continued.]

Tyrrell McAllister said...

[Continuing.]

Now, turning to Feser’s ACPQ article, it seems to me that he makes exactly the move that I anticipated when I wrote the following:

Now, one way to block this move on my part would be to deny that the understanding M is the kind of thing that can be analyzed into a pair (T, I). That is, while the understanding has an intrinsically unique interpretation, maybe there is no uninterpreted thing, physical or otherwise, underlying the understanding. I would be interested in hearing how this approach could be made plausible, or even intelligible.

(By “the understanding”, I meant the same thing as I did when I later wrote “the intellect”. That is, I meant the conceptual content of the mind, or, the collection of concepts that the mind is entertaining.)

This is the approach that I understand Feser to be taking when he writes on p. 27 (bottom half) that concepts are formal signs, as distinct from material signs. Here’s an extended quote:

“Examples [of formal signs] would be concepts and propositions. Neither a concept nor a proposition has any nature other than being about whatever it is about. It makes sense to suppose that a material sign might not have been about anything. But it makes no sense to suppose that a concept or proposition might not have been about anything. These are signs that are nothing but signs.

[...]

There is also, if there were really any doubt about whether there are any formal signs, a fairly intuitive argument for their existence .... Precisely because material signs and their content are separable, we cannot read off the content from the nature they have apart from their status as signs, and have to determine their meaning by reference to other signs (as we do when we check a dictionary to see how one word is defined by reference to other words). But if every sign were a material sign, we would be led into a vicious regress. Hence there must be signs which just are their meanings, and which therefore need not be known by reference to other signs and can serve as the terminus of explanation of those signs that do need to be explained by reference to others.

Now this notion of a formal sign corresponds more or less exactly to what Kripke calls a sui generis conception of meaning, a conception in which there is simply no gap between a sign and its content ...”

When Feser implies that formal signs cannot be separated from their meanings, I take him to be denying that we could apply a “forgetful function” to a concept and recover an underlying “uninterpreted thing”, physical or otherwise. I take him to be saying that such an operation would leave no residue whatsoever. I take him to be denying that a concept arises out of but one interpretation of some underlying thing that could have been interpreted in some other way.

As I said, such a notion of formal signs doesn’t seem intelligible to me. The argument proffered for why formal signs must exist only seems to me to establish that something with intrinsic-but-not-intrinsically-unique interpretations must exist. In my comment above dated October 28, 2013 at 7:53 PM, I gave more details of how I think that the mind, or rather the uninterpreted thing underlying the mind, could be such a thing. I don’t see why such things can’t be physical.

In summary I don’t find the notion of formal signs or the sui generis conception of meaning to be intelligible, and the argument for why formal signs, intelligible or not, nonetheless must exist doesn’t seem to me to go through.