Last time I sent along 15 tiny little head-scratchers. One will notice that one repeated theme is mental imagery and imagination. This is not an accident. I don’t know Wittgenstein’s purposes for doing so, but Daniel Dennett and I like using these examples to shake complacency about naive views of mind. This is the good use of phenomenology: You can report on each but your reports are data. That is, we want to explain why you say something, and otherwise react, not merely take your words as expressing something literal.
1. The goose/rose having teeth question. I don’t think it odd to ask if a rose has teeth except in one sense: It is more unlikely to come up because precisely of what we already know about what has teeth. A child asking whether a rose has teeth might think that thorns are called teeth: They are sharp and roughly the same size at least in one dimension. It would not surprise me if there’s a language where the word is shared, too.
2. Imagining a cow and then a purple cow is from Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. It is the first of many about mental imagery, already alluded to above. Try as I might, I cannot make the “image” definite at first. I always have to “do something” to force an answer, and the purple part is very hard for me. I almost always dream in “colourless” but with “dream certainty” about the supposed colours I am seeing.
Compare that to the fact that I am almost illiterate in dreams. I can be handed a piece of paper and get the parts in red or big letters on a sign, but not details. My hypothesis is that this is because the part of the brain that does reading is not awake during paradoxical sleep. Or maybe because REM is interfering with the eye movements to read. Or because what I am seeing is a memory, but a partial one. I do not know. But notice there are hypotheses to investigate! One can study “experience.”
3. Yes, I do believe calculating machines calculate. But refuting Wittgenstein and Bunge and others who deny this would take too long for this column. I give some hints in my presentation to CFIC’s conference from a few years back.
4. I think one can paint a painting by accident, and I think what governs what the subject of a painting is is largely social convention. This is because one can get increasingly “abstract” art that counts. As for the accident, I occasionally do sketches with pencils myself. I started with simply a curve on the paper once, trying to “warm up.” It struck me that the curve reminded me of my Inuk friend, Raven. I completed the drawing “of her.” And yet it was a drawing of how she felt, not how she looked.
5. I am not sure about this one! Art is hard for me. I am sure that musicians compose about this stuff, so the answer seems to be yes, even in the latter case, but I do not understand.
7. Yes, one can order from a menu mindlessly. Consider ordering one item from each of N sections of a menu just by taking the first in each.
8. I just did. You can try yourself.
9. I already answered this one for myself last time, in the “hint.”
10. I don’t know what to say here. If one is literally in the situation of the drill sergeant, I hope one has a decent escape!
11. This is too complicated to address here. I will return to it later. The new stuff this month is the first part on the subject of learning to infer.
12. The first one is hard for me to answer. The second is much more interesting. It was deliberately made up to suggest that we might well have (as a species) calculated it only once. In which case, likely nothing grand comes out as a consequence.
13. The situation is not self-contradictory, but it does contain a cheat as described. I put in the semicolon to suggest that the two parts are of a piece. It seems to be possible to be able to follow rules without knowing. This needs an examination of what rules are. Bunge and Wittgenstein think of them socially; I am not convinced that the computing usage is wrong here.
14. I’ll leave this for the developmental psychologists!
15. Axiomatize the theory of classes for Wittgenstein’s question and elementary arithmetic. For Frege and other mathematical platonists, this question is actually harder, since they hold that the theories in question are about something independent of us. Whereas to mathematical fictionalists like myself, once one axiomatizes the theories, one gets the answers one seeks.
This time I would like to ask a puzzle about historical methods. Many historians (e.g., Jan Golinski in Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science) claim they do not want to take a side in controversies. This seems plausible enough. Now move from there to the idea that they want to explain all knowledge claims “symmetrically” or “in the same way.” What is wrong with this methodological stance?
As usual, I am a philosopher treading on other fields. Some find this rude. I do not, so if you want to ignore the question because of that feel free. However, I do think there are “canons of rationality” that apply regardless of field and I appeal to them here. The defensive reaction from some when criticized this way is that the canons themselves have changed over time and are not timeless in the way that I seem to be “presupposing.” Am I doing so? Is this relevant?
Consider another approach to the question: My recent source for the puzzle is a book which might be called A History of Recent Uses of Constructivism in History. Does it matter that methodological precepts are not propositions (hence not true or false) and instead fruitful? We want to understand why constructivist methods became popular starting in the 1970s.
By symmetry we have to explain without presupposing the goal, without teleology. How do we do that? We are to try to explain why it caught on without regards to its fruitfulness. Worse, we want to explain the success of the method without regards to the claim to knowledge being correct or not. Either way, I think the view swallows itself. The way the world operates must therefore play an analytical role for the historian of ideas.
Yet there seems to be something right about the idea. The historian does not seem to need to know the state of the art. Can one apply the “symmetry” after all, since the historian seems to be able to do her work and not judge that both are wrong? One can do a history of 19th century optics. Something actual is possible, after all.
And so I leave you for another month to brainbend! Have fun!