This collection of thoughts about the relationship between mind, language, brains and software is deeply inspired by Hilary Putnam, the great philosopher, and his work.
As a philosopher, Putnam is exceptional for several reasons. First of all, anybody can understand his writings. That’s not because the topics he is writing about would be simple or trivial. Not at all. It is because he respects language and thus those who bring the language to live and to life: the community. Second, and probably related to this, he has been able to resist the fashionable temptations of the counter-trinity of modernism, namely independence, individuality and analyticity. The third important characteristic I would like to bring in here is his ability and his braveness, also consistent to the first issue, to think and to revise his thoughts publicly.
First, in his young ages, (hence) being fascinated by new technology and all its promises, he joined the herd of functionalists where people followed cybernetics and determinism, claiming the (potential) equality of computer and brain, or even the superiority of the former to the latter. Everything has been determined by functions, everything was conceived as an instance of a formula, whether in “nature” or in the brain . Later, in the mid 1970ies, he recognized that the functionalist perspective is deeply nonsensical. “‘Analytic’ is an inexplicable noise”, he mentioned in his small monograph “The meaning of “meaning””.
Hilary Putnam, in my opinion, belongs to the (very) small group of philosophers, who really seems to understand the issues brought forward by Ludwig Wittgenstein. I guess so, since he has been able (and still is, presumably) to develop things further, especially concerning some questions brought into the philosophical debate by computer technology, and technoscience at large.
To my knowledge, Putnam never coined an expression like “program” for his endeavors. One must even state that his endeavors can not belong to something like a “program,” even if he got attracted repeatedly by the issues raised by functionalism. Nevertheless… his work repeatedly tackles the question about the limits (and potential capabilities, of course) of what we nowadays call “programming computers.” To follow this question both in philosophical and a more technical perspective could well be called a “Putnam Program”; just to keep out of harm’s way (and yet for other reasons too), I put it deliberately into quotation marks. I hope, Hilary Putnam excuses this kind of reference to his work…
Of course, Putnam is not the only philosopher being important with respect to those BIG FOUR keywords in the subtitle. Yet, the scenery is not too large either. I will try to meet them one after another here in the writings to come.
This collection of thoughts is not heading towards philosophy as a primary target; I consider philosophy more as a tool. Yet, this tool is a funny one, as it is constantly changing when you use it. Maybe, it is the only tool that requires that you are also a toolmaker for such tools in order to use the tool, and of course you should know what to do with it. Philosophy can help to try to avoid to do silly (or sometimes even dangerous) things, at least. For me it is thus, at least here, a kind of cure or a means to show the flies (viz. the ideas) the way out of the fly glass, as Wittgenstein coined it. There are a lot of practical-technical problems to solve in computing, or programming computers, that can’t be appropriately structured following just a technical perspective. Given that, I should add biology (as a structuralist science) as a further tool in the same vein.
Yet, as I already indicated, there is also the aspect of toolmaking, or more directly, a profound influence of the practical and operational affairs towards philosophy. Wittgenstein called this the Form of Life, Foucault the Field of Proposals. Since we are concerned here with epistemological issues, whether regarding machines or the Urban (from which we later derive the notion of “Urban Reason”), there are two salient issues for us that are also central for philosophy, latest since Leibniz and Kant: (1) What is the relation between logic and nonlogic, between logic and reality? (2) How to find safe grounds for the possibility to know?
Of course, both questions have to be addressed (i) in a manner basically compatible with the insight that language is transcendent for thought (not: “transcendental”). And since both questions are tightly linked we (ii) also have to address them jointly. We will see that epistemology can not provide us a sufficient answer, even if it is carried out as a critical epistemology. The “problem of the source of the intellectual elements in our cognition”, as Kant coined it, opens a conceptual plane (which Deleuze called immanence), goes far beyond private faculties. The challenge is to think about the creativity of machines and culture without, on the one hand, invoking a “strong” divine hand (Kant), pre-established harmony (Leibniz), or a totalizing univocity (Spinoza), and on the other hand also to avoid the naivity of existential thought or external realism.
Just to avoid mis-understandings: These issues are, in my opinion, absolutely crucial to find (invent) and to shape the possibility of machines that transcend themselves, that machines with autonomous mental capabilities, but also to understand what is going on in our more and more urbanized culture. We even could not talk in any reasonable way about these things without being clear about those challenges.
At quite a few places you will find technical stuff. Two things are important with regard to that. First, I try to avoid formulas and extensive use of “syntactic symbols” as far as possible. Many things can be explained or referred to by rather plain words. If you need the mathematics you will find it on the web. Second, there could be much, much more technical stuff, of course. Yet, at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of those contributions start from questionable assumptions and conditions, while others simply represent very particular aspects of what I am trying to say here. They are potentially interesting for a collector of methods (like a zoologist collector of beetles: there are around 400’000 different of them), but remain greatly irrelevant in their particularity.
Software and computers, both understood in the traditional sense, are analytic to the core, and necessarily so, at least this is often claimed. Yet, it is not true, neither actually nor principally. From the structural pint of view, one of the most salient topics about them is that they are instances formed in a very particular zone, which is—now applying traditional wording—characterized by the transition between the material and the immaterial. Well, actually I should indicate already here that one of my targets is to dissolve such conceptual dichotomies. To put it simple, I think they act like grammatical poison pills.
Anyway, this zone of transition, or more precisely: the references it brings forth, is probably close to the basement of philosophy itself. It provides important parts to the scaffold of Descartes’ cogito, for the question of the relation between mind and body, the issues around subjects, objects, subjectivity and objectivity, enculturated mind and thought, between language and its use, it is embedding the issue of reference, of symbols and signs.
This zone including its questionable appearance as a dichotomy is also quite significant for the second large area I am interested it: the theory of urban culture. Without addressing it we will not understand what we call city and urban culture. “The city is a great sorting mechanism”, Robert Park mentioned as early as 1952. This not only implies a concept of information that goes far beyond the common notion of Shannon-information, which must be considered as naive reduction outside strict technical applications. It also implies all the issues mentioned just before.
The question then is, what can we learn for the Urban from an extended image of computers, (far) beyond the question of techno-culture, what from a “new image of thought”, as Deleuze proposed it? As we will see there are intense dockings with respect to the level of models as well as to the more theoretic aspects.
Well, who is writing here? My experiences are well covered by the keywords mentioned above, add academic education in biology and writing, an affection to architecture and design, some decades of life (of a mid-European male) and you may have an educated guess…
…anyway, enjoy reading (note that the texts presented here are only ‘more or less’ stable!)… and while doing so, please do not forget that the views expressed here on this site are developed within a very focused perspective!
PS: of course you may contact me through the moderated comments!