Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chomsky vs. Miller (a correspondence)




1.


RE: Mental Things


Rex Miller 
Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 6:44 PM
To: Noam Chomsky

Dear Prof. Chomsky,
    I just watched your (wonderful) lecture at the University Of Oslo, "The Machine, The Ghost, and the Limits Of Understanding", and thought you might be interested in the story I've copied below, "Mental Things", an attempt to talk about these things in a new (and old) way. - Rex

States of mind begin physically, and physical they remain. They can be revealed only when an equally physical construction called the self becomes available and does its witnessing job. The traditional conceptions of matter and mental are unnecessarily narrow. The burden of proof does rest with those who find it natural for mind states to be constituted by brain activity. But endorsing the intuitive mind brain split as the only platform for discussing the problem is not likely to encourage the search for additional proof. (Self Comes To Mind, Antonio Damasio)
Right after writing a science fiction story about computers becoming conscious I decided to see what the state of the art was among the serious people of the world who concerned themselves with these important matters.

Antonio Damasio teaches at one of the schools I briefly attended a few decades ago. I found him mentioned in the Google + post of a connection who'd +d an episode of my story.

What did Damasio mean by saying states of mind are physical, from beginning to end? That they were constituted by brain activity?

Did he think our intuition that the mind is different is an illusion, like the way a straight stick seems to bend when it is seen breaking the surface of water and going under? Were our feelings of love, joy, laughter, sadness like that?

When we say the bending of the stick is an illusion, we mean that it is the wrong sight. We would call it right if we bent the stick a little. There is nothing about what we experience itself, the particular sight, that causes any problem. That is not the case with our mental world of feelings. They are experienced nothing like we experience physical things, and no action we take will change that.

If our mental world is not an illusion, what did he think it is?

Damasio in fact gives us the answer in his last sentence: seeing mental things as different from physical things gets in the way of research, and he is a researcher. Pragmatism, pure and simple. If you can't use it, it isn't real. Damasio say in another note he is a big fan of William James.

And me too. The difference is, I can use mental states. What do I know that Damasio doesn't?

Scientists beginning with physical things have a problem with mental things. Do people who begin with mental things have a have a problem with physical things? No, they do not!

Why do people like stories? Stories give us a good idea what to expect from life. But then, why do we like unreal fairy tales, fantasy, and science fiction? They teach us something else: how to keep continuity during change.

That may not seem like much. But take a look at the world the physical scientist lives in. To do that, we have to become sort of scientists ourselves, and build a model.

That model will include both mental and physical things. We will assume mental things really exist. We do this for the same reason Damasio didn't do it, as "likely to encourage the search for additional proof" of the fundamental, not illusory reality of the mental world.

Love, play, beauty share the characteristic of openness, lack of limit. This is our experience, and it has a place in our model. The opposite to open is closed, and the characteristic closed has its place in our model too. Physical things can be defined, they are closed off by their definition from other physical things.

We add to our model two other terms: movement, and stability.

Then we add two more terms: self, and world.

Open, Closed. Movement, Stability. Self, World.

Here's the model:

Science Of Mental Things:
Action: self defined, world open
Contemplation: world defined, self open
Science Of Physical Things:
Action: self open, world defined
Contemplation: self defined, world open

In Damasio's physical science, if we stop and think contemplation, we do see the mind and its mental states, though the causality of the world, however much determined, is undermined by its failure to establish a connection to the mental states self defined, world open. But if we look at how things work in the world action, how they change, we can talk with confidence about movements in the world, in the brain for example, but again, without knowing anything about how mental states are involved in that causality self open, world defined.

In the world of mental things, when we rest in the world's beauty contemplation, our selves are invisible world defined, self open. When we are solving a problem action, we take into account that the world is unresolved, is open. We are not open to ourselves, however, we are defined to ourselves by the new tricks we try, we are there, but disguised self defined, world open. We live in a fairy tale.

It is a long time since I created this model.* It explains what is a story and what is not. It seems complicated, but it really isn't.

To describe consciousness, self and world have to share between them open and closed: they can't be both open, because that describes nothing, or both closed, because that can't move.

When you think physical things are real, self is one of them, but it is impossible to understand the movement and change you observe.

When you think love and beauty are real, you can account for change and movement, by telling a story, but physical things, including your self, are not real.

When mental things are real and we begin with them, we can follow how the mental thing love, how the sense of beauty changes to a feeling of betrayal, changes to watching over yourself and your various experiments with different kinds of actions, and finally returns to the mental state of being at home. You stop attending to your mental states only when you stop moving, but then story stops too and no sense of continuity is lost.

But there is no continuity of self, no story, if all you can say is you now are looked at here, now looked at there, and nothing in between. That is what the science of physical things gives us. Our mental states, not precisely illusions, are things we can think about in isolation, when we're at rest - we're allowed that - but have no place in the world of movement. We can't see them. We certainly can't see them move.

Self is significantly different from world: if we will a movement of our own body, it happens. If we will a movement of the world, it doesn't. Rest is associated with beauty, satisfaction with the way things are. Motion is associated with our intention to change the world.

In their relations to self and world, and movement and rest, mental and physical things are fundamentally different. The relative importance you give to mental and physical things affects the kind of life you live. The life that is based on physical things, which we have seen is intellectually incoherent, is also morally incoherent. **

* Acutally Parmenides created it a long time, about 2,500 years, before me. See Mystery Clear And Beautiful.

** Different kinds of self inhabit the different worlds of mental and physical things:
Stories told of mental things:
In creative action, feeling that your love has been betrayed, you choose to exercise specific habits acquired in your own history of action, in a world that is unstable and seemingly unreal self defined, world open.
Succeeding in returning to a world of wholeness and love, the sight of yourself as a separate individual can have no place self open, world defined.
Stories told of physical things:
Acting intoxicated, seemingly uprooted from yourself, believing yourself to be weak, you work to rearrange the things of the world to a form in which a new self, reborn out of intoxication, will have more power self open, world defined.
Thinking of yourself as having power to keep to the same actions in response to the same parts of the world is known as vanity, an overestimation of power to act achieved by disregard of the world to be responded to outside that which reflects power of self self defined, world open.
Vanity and intoxication are bad character.
Loving and creativity are good character.

2.


RE: Mental Things


Noam Chomsky Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 10:36 PM
To: Rex Miller 

Long letter, and not much time, so a few brief comments interspersed.



Dear Prof. Chomsky,
  I just watched your (wonderful) lecture at the University Of Oslo, "The Machine, The Ghost, and the Limits Of Understanding", and thought you might be interested in the story I've copied below, "Mental Things", an attempt to talk about these things in a new (and old) way. – Rex
Glad you enjoyed it.
States of mind begin physically, and physical they remain. They can be revealed only when an equally physical construction called the self becomes available and does its witnessing job. The traditional conceptions of matter and mental are unnecessarily narrow. The burden of proof does rest with those who find it natural for mind states to be constituted by brain activity. But endorsing the intuitive mind brain split as the only platform for discussing the problem is not likely to encourage the search for additional proof. (Self Comes To Mind, Antonio Damasio)
This seems to me incomprehensible from the first sentence.  What does “physical” mean here?  Since Newton, there has been no coherent account of the physical apart from “what there is,” and no reason to question Locke’s suggestion in the form expounded in the 18th century, which I discussed.  The rest of the paragraph collapses if we adopt what was understood in the 18th century.
Right after writing a science fiction story about computers becoming conscious I decided to see what the state of the art was among the serious people of the world who concerned themselves with these important matters.
To be serious, we have to first recognizes that computers are just big paperweights except for the fact that they can run programs.  Talk about computers thinking, becoming conscious, etc., are misleading ways of describing claims about the program that is being implemented.  A program is just a theory, written in a notation that computers can use.  So we are asking whether the programs are good theories of thinking or consciousness.  So far, such theories are extremely limited.
Antonio Damasio teaches at one of the schools I briefly attended a few decades ago. I found him mentioned in the Google + post of a connection who'd +d an episode of my story.

What did Damasio mean by saying states of mind are physical, from beginning to end? That they were constituted by brain activity?

Probably.  But that’s been a truism since the 18th century.
Did he think our intuition that the mind is different is an illusion, like the way a straight stick seems to bend when it is seen breaking the surface of water and going under? Were our feelings of love, joy, laughter, sadness like that?

When we say the bending of the stick is an illusion, we mean that it is the wrong sight. We would call it right if we bent the stick a little. There is nothing about what we experience itself, the particular sight, that causes any problem. That is not the case with our mental world of feelings. They are experienced nothing like we experience physical things, and no action we take will change that.

If our mental world is not an illusion, what did he think it is?
No idea.  You’d better ask him.
For similar reasons, have difficulty following the rest.

3.


RE: Mental Things




Rex Miller 
Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 11:41 PM
To: Noam Chomsky

Thanks for replying so fast! Can I have exactly one more minute of your time to try to get you to understand what I meant?

I meant that what mental things are can be understood if we  compare them to physical things by means of sets of characteristics they have in common, though in different arrangements: movement, rest, open, closed, continuous or discontinuous sense of self. The procedure comes from Parmenides' "On Nature", and it seems to work.

O.K, minute's up!

- Rex

   
4.


RE: Mental Things


Noam Chomsky 
Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 12:24 AM
To: Rex Miller 
Task can be undertaken only insofar as “physical” is defined.  It hasn’t been, since Newton, and I know of no reason to reject the conclusion very quickly drawn by Locke, Hume, Priestley, Darwin and others that “things mental” are properties of organized matter just as attraction and repulsion are.

Noam Chomsky


5.


Re: Mental Things


Rex Miller 
Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 12:42 AM
To: Noam Chomsky

I am trying to say that "physical" can be defined!

It's just that the definition is not in terms that are exclusively material. The definition I used of "physical" is composed of a constellation of definable factors that are in a different relation  to each other than the constellation of the same definable factors that define "mental". 

Attraction and repulsion tell stories of materials. Whereas mental things do not do that! What would be the material of beauty, truth, equality? Materials are only part of their content. The different content of mental experience needs to be explained.

- Rex
6.


RE: Mental Things


Noam Chomsky Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 1:06 AM
To: Rex Miller

I didn’t see any definition of “physical.”

Locke’s post-Newtonian point, developed in the 18th century, was that there is no reason to doubt that thoughts and other things mental are properties of organized matter just as attraction and repulsion are.  That is true also of our thoughts of beauty, truth, and equality,…, the sun and the planets, etc.  Our thoughts of them.  No one believes that what our thoughts are about, say the sun and the planets, are properties of the brain.

Noam Chomsky

7.



RE: Mental Things





Rex Miller Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 2:33 AM
To: Noam Chomsky

Yes, when our thoughts are about the sun, no one believes the sun is in our brain, only a representation is there. And the same is true of love: our thoughts of love are properties of organized matter. But like the sun is not in the brain, but out in space, where is the love that is thought? Where is equality? Beauty?

  The sun is of a nature that it could be in the brain. It so happens it is not there. But it is literary inconceivable how love, beauty, and equality could be in the brain.

  The definition of  "physical" I gave relies on an account of regular variations in the way the world is experienced, "ways experienced" as distinguished from ways it is "observed".

  Experience includes different relations to the world that precede the observation and are expected to follow the observation.

   Beginning from one kind of relation to the world, physical things appear unreal, in some respects inconsequential for achieving mental goals.  Beginning from another relation to the world, physical things appear real.

   Obviously this is not a definition of the physical by enumeration of its parts and their relation to each other. It is definition by telling a story of how we sometimes come to see something physical and how sometimes we don't. 

I guess you don't allow that telling the story of how to cause the appearance of the representation "physical" in our brain is acceptable as a definition of "physical".  It defines with an "efficient" cause rather than "formal" cause.

But to me if a model gives something to work with and guides our observation, it is much better than no definition at all.

 - Rex


8.


RE: Mental Things


Noam Chomsky Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 2:43 AM
To: Rex Miller

Where are rivers, water, London, etc.  It’s a traditional error to think that words name extra-mental things.  They don’t.  The evidence for this is overwhelming.  In the case of love, equality, beauty, etc., it’s an even more serious error to search for them somewhere.  That’s not the way the concepts are used and understood.

Regular variations in the way the world is experienced won’t work.  The components of the world that physics reveals are not experienced at all: molecules, atoms, force fields, quarks, etc.  And they are experienced only in the way the neural structures corresponding to thoughts will be experienced if they’re ever discovered.  Through experiment.

If you think the model is useful, by all means use it.  But I don’t think it responds to the questions that have been raised for centuries – or the things that Damasio is confused about.

9.


Re: Mental Things


Rex Miller 
Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 3:03 AM
To: Noam Chomsky

My point is not that love, equality, beauty etc are outside the brain somewhere, only that they cannot be in the brain.

    The problem Damasio has is, as you say, he doesn't know what physical things are, and I add, he doesn't know what mental things are either.

By "taking account of experience" I didn't mean experience of physical things like molecules and atoms. I mean mental and physical things in the particular and different ways they combine in our lives, before and after we observe the world at any one moment.

 The question of the last few centuries of physics is about what connects thing to thing. If an analysis of different kinds of experience accounts for when and why we see separate things to be connected, and when we don't, that is some kind of solution. If we live in such a way we don't see any reason space between things should be filled, we aren't surprised by action at a distance. People do in fact live in such ways.

- Rex


10.


RE: Mental Things


Noam Chomsky Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 5:04 AM
To: Rex Miller
That’s true, but they are not anywhere else either.  It’s the wrong question to ask.

If molecules and atoms aren’t “physical things” then the term “physical” has lost any meaning it has had in the long intellectual tradition dealing with these questions.

Don’t follow the rest, I’m afraid.



11.


RE: Mental Things
 (last try) 



Rex Miller 
Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 8:47 AM
To: Noam Chomsky

In your lecture you talked about the possibility that we may not be able to look at the physical world in any other way than as movement communicated through contact. What if without adding any new information about the physical world, we can find another way of looking at the physical world that allows us to no longer see the problem? To no longer be confused?

    There is a well established way of looking at life in which we still see physical things and can remember and understand the long intellectual tradition of dealing with them, but cease to find the lack of coherent definition of them a problem. 
  
    Instead of reducing mental to physical, reduce physical to mental. Creatively painting a picture, or even speaking a sentence, we don't have an image of the complete picture or sentence we want to say. We choose to exercise one or other of different habits we have acquired - a kind of brush stroke, a class of words - based on past experience of success. Then we choose to exercise another habit, another brush stroke, another word. 

   This description follows closely the actual account people give of what they are doing when they act creatively. It is possible to think of physical things as habits of keeping form, and Newton's rule of gravitational attraction the way each physical thing has of keeping its form under the varying circumstances of proximity.  The problem of action at a distance is gone because there is no action. That is Leibniz's solution. 
   
   Alternatively it is also possible to accept action at a distance, but look at it as corresponding to the way our dispositions to exercise one habit or another affect each other's strength or probability of being exercised.

   These explanations I am making almost at random. In fact the physical world as we see it now easily is put in relation to how we see the mental world, when the mental world is described accurately, and not reduced to a correlate of the physical world before we even start trying to explain the physical world.

     It may not make a difference to a research program in the physical sciences that we know how to stop being confused by action at a distance, but it makes a huge difference to the problem of investigating the nature of moral action, which is probably, in the current state of the world, a much more important problem.

   That is the reason I sent you the little story I wrote. Thanks  for keeping with me this far at least!

   - Rex


12.

RE: Mental Things (last try)


Noam Chomsky Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 7:08 PM
To: Rex Miller
What you describe about what people do when they act creatively, in fact normal action as well, is reasonable as far as it goes, but has no relation to the centuries of discussion and 

debate about mind-body, the notion of physical, action at a distance (which Leibniz regarded as an absurdity, and had no solution other than a version of the mechanistic theories that Newton undermined), etc.  Furthermore, it makes no sense to “reduce physical to mental” unless we know what the distinction is, exactly the point that is at issue.  There have, of course, been efforts to claim that there is nothing in the world beyond our ideas.  But that doesn’t seem to be what your advocating.

I agree with you that there is no point persisting.  We’re recycling the same points, and evidently not communicating.


13.


Re: Mental Things (last try)


Rex Miller 
Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 9:54 PM
To: Noam Chomsky

 I'd like to continue a bit longer because your last response suggests to me we're getting closer. You wrote:

Furthermore, it makes no sense to “reduce physical to mental” unless we know what the distinction is, exactly the point that is at issue.  

For me explanation has to be a story of one thing following another. The things following each other have to stay the same in some respect for there to be a line of narrative. Explanation is the mental equivalent to physical communication of movement by contact.(The touch is the sameness, they touch "each other")

If we are to explain how mental things are different from physical things we have to find some element in common, and describe how the rest of the qualities vary. That would provide the distinction you require.

Damasio is not explaining when he says about the relation between physical things and mental things that one is constituted by the other. 

In the model I proposed to you the element in common between mental things and physical things is a constellation of alternative states of terms: self, movement, thought, action, open closed. Physical things don't think, but they can be thought of. Mental things don't move, but they can be moved towards or away from. 

As you wrote, this kind of model and explanation

 "...has no relation to the centuries of discussion and debate about mind-body, the notion of physical, action at a distance..."

This is precisely because the terms appropriate to the physical world and the terms appropriate the mental world are mixed up together, put into a model that can describe both worlds using the same vocabulary. The shared vocabulary is, again, what allows explanation, and accounts for the difference between mind and body.

   Following the reference you made I read John Mikhail's paper on Universal Moral Grammar. He ends it with these words:

 Chomsky emphasized that rigorous formulation in linguistics is not merely a pointless technical exercise but an important diagnostic and heuristic tool, because only by pushing a precise but inadequate formulation to an unacceptable conclusion can one gain a better understanding of the relevant data and of the inadequacy of our existing attempts to explain them.

It seems to me that the model is testable by philosophic experiment, since it predicts that attempting to explain the mental things by physical things will lead to moral behavior that is vain, and intoxicated, whereas explaining physical things using the larger terminology of mental things leads to love and creativity. (Just trust me on this.)

I know you're going to tell me, if you respond one more time, that you can't understand what I'm getting at.

But to validate the model we can look for experimental results as you recommend, for example use the Trolley Dilemma and look for deviation in the responses, for a loose rather than close, for a less moral application of the Universal Moral Grammar.

Did I do any better explaining this time?

- Rex


14.


RE: Mental Things (last try)


Noam Chomsky 
Fri, Jan 4, 2013 at 3:38 AM
To: Rex Miller
In response to the last question, afraid not, at least if you are trying to address the problems that have concerned those who have attempted to deal with these issues for thousands of years.


15.


RE: Not last try


Rex Miller Fri, Jan 4, 2013 at 12:27 PM
To: Noam Chomsky


If as you suggest it may be a human necessity to insist movement is communicated by contact, shouldn't we consider the usefulness of looking for why this is so, if it is so, and whether if is, it is always so?

 I suggest it is not always so. That our insistence on movement communicated by contact comes and goes, depending on how we are living our lives.
   
There is a tradition as old as physical science of including mental things in explanations of the physical world, from the pre-Socratics, through Newton's alchemy, up to Damasio's inclusion of the mental thing "self" in the study of the brain. In that tradition, with an exception, mental things were directly linked to physical things, satisfying our movement-by-contact expectation.

The exception is Parmenides, who, instead of speaking about a causal relation of mental and physical things, spoke of mental -- > physical -- > mental sequences, with mental and physical things mixed together in each component of each sequence, making use of the narrative causality I mentioned to you in the last email.

Plato made an art out of producing these sequences. Which is to say, he looked for better and worse in the making of them. This is summarized in the definition of education as 'learning to love beauty by means of philosophic discourse'; talk about things in the world leads, when done correctly, to love and a sense of beauty.

If the path chosen is a dead end, and other paths are known and available but not followed, but are still open, as the model I drew from Parmenides seems to show, I think that is of importance to 

...people trying to address the problems that have concerned those who have attempted to deal with these issues for thousands of years.


- Rex