From: Ian Wright (wrighti@ACM.ORG)
Date: Fri Nov 24 2006 - 14:34:09 EST
Hi Howard Sorry for delayed reply, have been away. > Later you refer to absenting an absence, and I don't have any problem with > that. But the key idea is reference. I don't think the thermostat > "refers." Reference takes an entity to interpret. An interpreter is > essential to sign making. And interpretation takes consciousness or > proto-consciousness. What the thermostat gives us is a thing in process. My use of the example of the thermostat is intended to attack the idea that the route to understanding semantics and reference is primarily via conceptual analysis of human language and conciousness. A better approach to understanding such issues is to build robots. One insight that immediately falls out of this approach is the idea that reference is ultimately grounded in causal processes between a reference and a referent. Human consciousness isn't immediately relevant to this issue. This is why Dennett, Sloman etc. employ the example of the thermostat: it is the simplest example of a causal process that sustains "intentional" descriptions. A thermostat has a sub-part that represents the ambient temperature of the room (it has a "belief-like" state), a sub-part that represents an absent temperature of the room (it has a "desire-like" or "goal-like" state), and causal connections that link the goal state to actions that change the state of the world. These causal connections instantiate "loop-closing" semantics. From a more Hegelian or Bhaskarian perspective, we can also use the example of the thermostat to understand how absence and negativity is real. The material world can be so constituted to represent things that do not exist, and entail processes that cause non-existent things to become existent. And this is not very mysterious because, for example, natural and artificial thermostats do this every day. Another example. Consider a machine-code program that increments the contents of a specified memory address. Let's assume it runs forever. Does it make sense to deny that a sub-state of the machine's memory refers to another sub-state of the machine's memory? My point is that reference is natural and ubiquitous. I think this is important from another perspecitve. For example, prices refer to labour-time due to the causal processes instantiated by the law of value, which happens to be partially implemented via human subjectivity but is not reducible to it. The semantics of money are in this sense objective and do not require human interpretation or consciousness. In fact, most of the time the human actors are not aware of these higher-level semantics. So I think social structures plus causal processes can instantiate semantic reference. More specifically, the law of value, considered at a certain level of abstraction, and in isolation from other mechanisms, is an equilibrium mechanism: it implicitly represents a goal-state in which social labour is allocated according to social need and prices are proportional to labour values. The transfers of money are labour-allocation control signals -- even if the human actors within the economic system are hypothetical robot zombies that lack the property "consciousness" -- because the semantics of the law of value are objective. > A ball rolling down a hill is a thing in process. Dominos falling. > Mechanical things are processes. We can interpret all such things as goal > oriented, but I think this takes interpretation and interpretation takes > consciousness. I don't know anything about artificial intelligence, really, > and have no judgment on whether or not machine consciousness is possible. "Consciousness" is what minds do, so it needs to be unpacked into claims about causal powers, for example the ability to self-reflect, to attend to one's own actions, to self-categorise one's own mental processes in terms of natural language, etc. etc. Clearly a ball rolling down a hill is a process that does not have these particular causal powers. But what about Sony's AIBO robot (http://www.sony.net/Products/aibo/)? What cognitive powers does it have? For example, it knows where you are, and can decide to approach or avoid etc. It has a representation of you. It seems very natural to take the intentional stance to such an artifact: it has beliefs, desires etc. My guess is that the engineers who built this robot have a better understanding of the material implementation of semantics and reference than most pen-and-paper philosophers. > I do think that efforts to suggest that the activity of reference or > representation is peculiar to humans are wrong. It is clear that the > capacity to refer exists in some at least crude form for many forms of life > (all?) -- clyder's wonderful example of the spider makes this point very > clearly. It follows that by saying intentionality is characteristic of > humans I do not mean to say that it is peculiar or exclusive to humans. In > general we should be very suspicious of anything that looks to cut us off > from the rest of the natural world. Yes agreed. Best wishes, -Ian.
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