Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Immaterial Aspects of Thought" - James Ross

A rundown of "Immaterial Aspects of Thought", by James Ross, which can be read here

I. The Indeterminacy of the Physical

Let's consider an exotic color called "bleen". This color is blue before January 1st, 2050, and green thereafter:



Consider now something that is colored blue:


 It is impossible to tell if it is blue or bleen if the current date is before January 1st, 2050. Nothing in the physical state of affairs gives us the correct answer. The physical states of affairs is consistent with both blue and bleen, and both states of affairs are mutually exclusive.

Next, consider these physical points:



There are any number of curves that are compatible with these points, each of which are incompatible with each other:




Which curve is the "correct" one, among these incompatible curves? None. They are all "correct", as they are all compatible with the physical points.

Now consider an alien adding machine that was discovered on, say, Mars. We figured out that it is an adding machine, because you can input two digits in the form of binary, and out pops the correct answer:


It appears to give the correct answer every time, so you deduce that it is an adding machine of some kind. However, when you input 257 and 429, suddenly the answer is 2:



Huh? That can't be right. The answer is wrong. Eventually, you find out that every number input between 250 and 500 gives the output "2", but any numbers above that again begin giving the correction answer as if it were addition. Clearly, the machine must be performing some exotic mathematical function other than addition. So it was never performing addition at all; it just appeared to be doing so. So perhaps it is performing the following function: if x, y >249 and <501, then 2, otherwise x + y. So now you've at least figured out what function it is performing, right?

No. Because it could be that it gives some other output, say "3", when numbers between 400,000 and 600,000 are input. Or it may be that it gives some completely different answer yet again when the input numbers are so large that it would take longer than the lifetime of the universe to type them in. There is no way to know what function the machine is performing.

There are many different functions, incompatible with one another, that are consistent with the physical process that is occurring.

And this supports Ross's premise: no physical process is determinate as to what function it is performing. Because, as shown, there are many mutually exclusive functions that are compatible with what the physical facts are that any physical system is doing.


II. The Determinacy of Formal Human Thought

But now consider human formal thought processes. "Formal" thought is thought involving math, logic, and like concepts.

When you are adding two numbers in your head, you better know what function you are performing, otherwise your answers may be incorrect. To be sure our conclusions in science are true (based on our best ability to judge the evidence, anyway), when we perform a logical function such as modus ponens ("if we share genetic info with chimps then we share a common ancestor, we share genetic info with chimps, therefore, we share a common ancestor"), we need to be actually performing that function and not some other function, otherwise we don't know if our conclusion really follows from our premises or not, and we know nothing we think we know.

When you add 2 and 2 to get 4, you really are adding and not performing some other exotic mathematical function. Or conversely, if you are performing some exotic function (such as the one the alien machine might be performing), then you really are performing that function and not addition. If we are not really performing the mathematical and logical functions we think we are, then everything we think we know goes out the window. Our reasoning abilities

In fact, this premise cannot be coherently denied, because if you are denying it then you are reasoning in the form of an argument, but whatever function you are reasoning with may not actually be the function you think it is.

This supports Ross's other premise: formal thought is determinate. Because if it isn't, then everything we think we know, science, math, everything, is gone.

III. Therefore, no Formal Thought is Physical

And the conclusion follows logically: no formal thought process is a physical process.


47 comments:

  1. Hello Martin,

    There was a lengthy discussion on Ross's paper last year between philosopher Ed Feser and physicist Robert Oerter. It stretched over several posts and lengthy comment threads.

    1. Do you think 'bleen' counts as a colour? It's not a universal, independent of space and time. It might make sense to say of a thing that changes colour in this way that it 'bleens', but that is a verb and not an adjective. But in any case, to bleen is to behave quite determinately, so I don't see how it supports Ross's contention.

    2. There are infinitely many smooth curves passing through any four points in the plane. You may have chosen four points on some particular curve and I'll have no idea what that curve is, but how does this suggest that physical behaviour is indeterminate?

    3. Much of the Feser/Oerter discussion was about the adding machine---does it plus or does it quus? One thing that didn't come up was the distinction between intensional and extensional notions of function. Roughly, to think of a function extensionally, and this is the usual understanding in mathematics, is to think of it as a set of pairs of input and output values. Thus the function square on the natural numbers defined by square x = x*x is seen extensionally as the set consisting of (0,0), (1,1), (2,4), (3,9),...etc. This set is also called the graph of square. To think of a function intensionally is to think of it as a recipe or algorithm. Thus square, seen intensionally, is the function that returns its input multiplied by itself. Intensional understanding is not unique: the function whose graph is (0,0), (1,2), (2,4), (3,6), (4,8), etc, can be seen intensionally as doubling, ie, double x = 2*x, or as self-adding, ie, self-add x = x+x. Ross may be thinking of functions in this intensional sense. This may be why he never discusses the possibility of opening up the adding machine and looking inside to see how it works. If you insist on treating something as a black box it will seem indeterminate in its behaviour. To someone with an engineering background this refusal seems absurd. Thought of extensionally, your machine is quite determinate.

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    1. This was my question. You can look inside the alien machine and see whether it's structured simply to give always the same operation, or whether the logic gates are more complicated to recognize and sort out the range of numbers where the function is different. Do these people know how computers work? They're not just based on outputs. There is an architecture that will tell you...

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  2. Hi David,

    I'm no an expert by any means, so my comments here will be that of an amateur layman fumbling around. So buyer beware. :)

    I'll answer this first, since it is the core point, I think:

    >This may be why he never discusses the possibility of opening up the adding machine and looking inside to see how it works.

    Looking inside, you find circuitry pulsing with electricity. But here is the problem, and its just more of the same: use humans have designed our computers (let's say) so that on means "1" and off means "0", but how do you know that the aliens have done the same? Perhaps they designed it so that off means "1", and on means "0." Or, perhaps they aren't even using binary but some other system, and on means "1" but double-on means "2".

    In his discussion with Oerter, Feser brings up the example of the machine having wires melt and cogs spark, and you concluding that it is malfunctioning. But, unbeknownst to you, it's running some exotic program where wires are supposed to melt and cogs are supposed to spark and sputter. And if they didn't, then that would be the malfunction.

    Again, the problem arises: simply knowing the physical facts will tell you nothing about what it means. You need to know the physical facts + X. In these example, X would be the intentions of the alien designers. But the same cannot be applied to our minds.

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  3. Hello Martin,
    You have made the same move that Feser does, viz, from description to meaning. My take on this is that if we stick to description we remain within the determinate, but as soon as we try to ascribe meaning to artifacts things do indeed become indeterminate. And to talk of malfunctions is to assume an artificer with intentions. Ross makes none of these moves, if I recall. To seek to describe behaviour in terms of mathematical functions, as Ross does, is to presume a degree of repeatability---output is always the same for the same inputs---else unchanging math functions would not be the right descriptive 'medium' to apply. I take him to be claiming that no such determinate description is possible, even when behaviour is repeatable. Which I find absurd in itself. But worse, his argument would prove too much. For it would make the world unintelligible to us.

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  4. James Ross's argument includes the underlying assumption that when humans reason, we do so in a formal, determinate way. This is clearly false, since people frequently reason incorrectly. He tried to cover this using caveats such as "and not making mistakes" when discussing human reasoning. If a human being gets a math question wrong, did they just make a mistake, or did they simulate reasoning in an indeterminate manner? I don't see a difference.

    If you argue that a physical system cannot reason because it is not determinate, you must conclude that human beings also do not reason because we are not determinate. What we perceive as formal reasoning is merely an imperfect simulation of it.

    James Ross rejected this idea on the basis that he thought it implied that we must reject all logic and mathematics. I see this as an appeal to exaggerated consequences. We don't need to reject all reasoning; rather we should remain aware that we sometimes make mistakes, and work to detect and minimize our errors so as to simulate formal reasoning more accurately.

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    1. But isn't that just what he's asking? How do we know there is this Ideal "formal reasoning" that we want to approximate...if we've never seen such a thing in practice?

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  5. "no physical process is determinate as to what function it is performing."

    This is patently ridiculous. A process may be determinate or indeterminate, but the problem in this case is that we don't know what the process is. If we view this as a black box, and assume that we are unable to look inside to examine how it works (and by the way, I agree with Davis Brightly), we can still take a scientific approach to understanding it. That would entail forming a hypothesis based on observed evidence.

    The first thing is to note whether it is consistent in its outputs. If it is observed to always produce the same result for some particular inputs, then we may conclude tentatively that this machine is deterministic. That conclusion will be withdrawn if we ever observe an inconsistent output.

    Then, we can try to see infer what kind of process it employs. We may see that it correctly adds numbers, and infer that it is an adder. But with more trial inputs, that hypothesis is disproved. So we try to come up with an alternative that explains what we see. This is tested until we find a case that doesn't hold up. And we continue in this manner. Note that we are never absolutely certain that we have come up with the correct hypothesis, because there may still be some case that we haven't tried that would disprove the current hypothesis.

    This is how science works. But there is nothing to substantiate the notion that no physical process is determinate. The real issue is that we just don't know for sure what the process is.

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  6. "It is impossible to tell if it is blue or bleen if the current date is before January 1st, 2050. Nothing in the physical state of affairs gives us the correct answer. The physical states of affairs is consistent with both blue and bleen, and both states of affairs are mutually exclusive."

    Regarding "bleen":

    Color is something we perceive as a result of physical sensations. Light of a certain wavelength appears as blue to us. It really doesn't make sense to define a color as blue one day and green another day. If something appears to be blue one day and green another day, there are two possibilities - one is that that thing has physically changed so that the sensation we have is physically different, and the other is that something in our own brain is physically changed so that our perception of the same sensation is altered.

    The physical state of affairs, as you put it, is that an object reflects or emits light at a certain wavelength, and that is detected by the eye, and perceived by the brain as a color. "Bleen" is meaningless as a concept of color. It has no correspondence to physical reality.

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  7. Skeppy,

    > If it is observed to always produce the same result for some particular inputs

    Yes, but if you had read Ross' paper, which you clearly did not, he addresses this. The number of inputs required before there is a change might be greater than what could be input in the lifetime of the universe. So instead of performing the function of addition (output = x + y), it is performing some other function, such as output = x + y if y is less than 10^10000000000 or whatever.

    But more importantly, even looking inside won't help you, since what the symbols inside stand for are also entirely indeterminate. Look at this marble adding machine. As the narrator explains, when a rocker is tipped to the left, this represents "0." When it is tipped to the right, this represents "1." But of course the designer could have just as easily had it the other way around. You'd have to ask the designer which way it is. Which illustrates the point: physical symbols don't represent anything apart from the intentions of the designer. That is, their meaning is indeterminate.

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  8. Martin,

    If you can look inside, then it is entirely possible that you can determine the functionality. It doesn't matter what choices the designer made to represent different logical states. They can be inferred by observing how the device responds to different inputs. If what you said is true, then it would be impossible to reverse-engineer electronic devices, but we know that's not the case.

    Your arguments may seem convincing to people who don't understand how things work, but not to an engineer. Your argument sounds a lot like Victor's argument from reason - if you're ignorant about how things actually work in the real world, then you can infer that it's some kind of supernatural stuff going on. But that's just laughable.

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  9. I just explained to you why you can't, and you ignored what I said and re-repeated your original assertion as if I said nothing. As usual, conversation with you is impossible.

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  10. Martin,

    Have you ever designed a digital logic device? If you had, you might have some inkling of what I'm trying to tell you. It really doesn't matter what logical symbols you assign to the internal electrical nodes of the device (and designers generally don't bother doing that at the transistor or gate level). What matters is the physical functionality. When the voltage is high at this node (or when the rocker is left), it will cause a specific effect at the next node, regardless of what logical symbol you assign to it. The output is a function of the input (or for a state machine, the output is a function of the history of the input). And it is indeed possible to trace this functionality through the entire device to infer what the thing does. The fact that you seem to ignore is that the function of the device is determinate, and it does what it does independent of any conception you may have about what it does. But if you can examine the internal workings of the device, you can figure out what it does, and that's true even without knowing the intention of the designer.

    But you can just go on thinking that conversation with me is impossible because I don't agree with your logical assessments based on your lack of understanding. I'm trying to help you out here. I'm trying to explain something to you, because you clearly don't know what you're talking about. This is the problem with people who call themselves philosophers, and jump to false conclusions based on false assumptions, due to the fact that they don't understand how things work in reality.

    It's the same thing with the ridiculous concept of the so-called color "bleen". If you had any idea what color is, and how we perceive color, you would see that the very idea of it is incoherent and meaningless. And here you are in your little philosophical world, talking about "physical states of affairs" as if you had some idea what you are saying, and thinking that you have made some kind of point.

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  11. Yes, but what is this output? Let's say it's a symbol like this: **

    Now, what does that synbol mean?

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  12. I don't understand what point you are trying to make.

    If a machine performs the function of addition, it makes no difference what symbols you choose to represent the information being processed. You can label binary digits as '1' and '0', or 'on' and 'off' , or 'T' and 'F', or whatever you like, and the machine still performs its function, because it it doesn't care what symbols you use.

    If you choose to represent certain information by encoding it in the form of symbols, a machine can still manipulate the information. For example, you can encrypt a message using a cipher. A machine can then compress it, modulate it, transmit it, demodulate it, decompress it, and present the encrypted message back to you without error. If someone else sees the encrypted message, he may still be able to figure out what it says by using cryptanalysis techniques. So the symbol '**' might represent almost anything, but that doesn't mean I can't figure out what it represents if I have sufficient context to understand how it is being used. And more to the point of this discussion, a machine can work with it and perform various operations on it. And if I can examine how the machine works, I can still understand and determine the machine's functionality.

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  13. You're in luck. Feser just wrote a new post on this very topic. My attempts to explain it to you are finished. I give up. But suffice it to say, you are so wide of the mark your objections aren't even addressing the problem. You can try to read his posts and see if that helps.

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  14. Martin,

    I read the Ross paper, and although he (like many philosophers) speaks in terms of obscure, somewhat impenetrable language, I get that he invokes concepts like "the form of the function" that can be realized only by an intellect, and not by any physical process. This is based on his assumption that this form is an abstract object that exists only in the magical mystical world of immaterial woo, and his obstinate refusal to consider that thinking itself may be a physical process in its own right.

    Feser does a better job of explaining the concept of indeterminacy, but he suffers from the same stubborn obstinacy. Indeed, this is a problem with theists in general, because the existence of immaterial things is so fundamental to their beliefs that any willingness to make an objective examination of reality would be tantamount to abandoning the belief system that their whole life is built around.

    The indeterminacy that Feser speaks about is really only an indeterminacy in mutual understanding. I agree that we can never be absolutely certain that we understand something in exactly the same way. The best we can do is to nail down a definition as precisely as possible, but we know that definitions are based on words that also need definitions. So your understanding of a concept such as "walking" may not exactly match mine. This is actually evidence for materialism, because there is in fact no magical abstract object that we can both point to and agree that it is the definitive "form" of walking that we both have in mind. You may think that your intuitive understanding of the concept is that "form", but my own intuitive understanding is something different, and the reason is that these "forms" exist in out brains, and there's nothing else that we have to point to.

    As for the adding machine of your discussion, it is still a physical device that behaves in a specific way, regardless of whether we understand what it does. The function of that machine is entirely determinate. It will always behave in accordance with that specific function. You can observe it and guess what the function is, and you may be wrong because you haven't observed enough cases. And in fact you can never be certain that you have observed enough cases. So in that respect your understanding of it's function is "indeterminate". But if you can examine how it works, you can indeed figure out exactly what it does, and have a complete understanding of it.

    There is nothing magical about thinking that requires realization in some supposed immaterial realm. What is the "form of the function", for example when we consider the operation of squaring? What we do in our minds is to go through an algorithm that results in computing the square of a number. Note that different people don't necessarily use the same algorithm. But a machine can be made to implement an algorithm. And because we understand the process the machine uses (because we have examined the process), we can be certain what function is performed by that machine. To the extent that a machine implements an algorithm, its function is determinate. And to the extent that out thinking processes implement some set of algorithms (which is what neurons do), thinking is purely physical.

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  15. >Indeed, this is a problem with theists in general

    There you go with the CONSTANT psychologizing of your interlocutors, and zero attempt to actually understand them.

    I don't have interest in this...

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  16. "There you go with the CONSTANT psychologizing of your interlocutors, and zero attempt to actually understand them."

    Can you honestly say that you have understood what I am trying to explain to you? Have you ever once tried to understand the world in non-theistic terms?

    It's one thing to make claims about what supposedly exists in the realm of the immaterial and the supernatural, but when you try to explain physical phenomena in those terms, unless you are stubbornly obstinate, you must realize that some of us really do have a better understanding than you of how things work. When your explanations contradict what we know by science, then it becomes obvious that the emperor has no clothes.

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  17. Skeppy, conversation with you is impossible because you simply do not absorb what the other person is saying. I linked you to Feser's article, and at the bottom he links to other articles he wrote on this topic, one of which addresses your very point above ("The indeterminacy that Feser speaks about is really only an indeterminacy in mutual understanding.")

    If you don't listen to your interlocutor, I see no point in continuing the conversation.

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  18. Martin,

    You seem like an intelligent person, so I'll give this another try. First, please note that I have already told you that I read both Ross and Feser's article (although I didn't follow the links). Let me say that I get what they're trying to say. It is precisely for that reason that I, as a rational materialist, object. There's a difference between not understanding something and not believing it. Let me focus specifically on the claim of the indeterminacy of a machine's function. Feser says:

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


    Let me take a very simple example to clarify my point about this. Consider a single electronic logic gate - a NAND gate composed of two transistors in series. Both inputs must be at high voltage in order to allow current to pass through the pair transistors, which brings the output voltage to low. Let's call this a machine. It has a function - that is to perform the logical operation of NAND, and if I know how the machine is built, I know exactly and precisely what the function of the machine is. I can say this because the physical properties of a system by themselves DO suffice to determine what function it is computing. Now extend this to a more complex machine, perhaps containing millions of logic gates. I can still determine exactly what the function of the machine is, and the reason is that the machine's function, and all the logic it computes, is 100% physical.

    But Ross and Feser argue that the machine's true logical function, as conceived in the mind of the designer, is not physical. And because the human conception of the function is abstract, no physical machine can perform what is the essence of that function. What they don't understand is that logic itself is physical. Those transistors perform a physical function, and when we humans figure out how this function works and how it applies to the physical world, we call that logic. We have the hubris to think that our mental reasoning requires something more than what a machine can do, when in fact we are only following physical rules that are entirely determined by physical nature. To go back to the logic gate example, the machine performs a specific function, and we humans call that function NAND. We have the hubris to think that by our intellect, we invented the functions of logic, when in fact physical systems perform logic by simply obeying the laws of physics. Our rules of logic are nothing but a recognition of how nature works. We don't go around bragging that we invented gravity, because all we did was discover how gravity works. And we shouldn't go around bragging that through the power of our intellect, we invented logic, because it's just a property of the physical world, all we did was discover how logic works.

    continued ...

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  19. Feser and Ross both pin their arguments on the unfounded assumption that thought has content that is non-material, and then engage in circular reasoning, and this is true of any form of the argument from reason. Feser says "for any collection of physical facts, no matter how large, there is nothing about them that entails one specific meaning rather than another. Not only could a materialist agree with Ross’s premise (2), many materialists do agree with it." He's quite right about that, but he draws the wrong implication. Because meaning is not some abstract thing that has its own existence. Meaning is in the brain. So if my configuration of neural connections isn't the same as yours, we have different understandings about what something means. This is what I was referring to earlier as the indeterminacy of mutual understanding. It is consistent with what a materialist philosopher like Dennett would believe, and does not in any way imply that there is something immaterial about meaning, as Feser would have us think. What's indeterminate about it is the way we understand it, and that's precisely because there is no abstract object out there somewhere that represents the "true meaning" of those physical facts. In fact, Feser seems to be dishonest in his representation of the position of materialist philosophers on this issue.

    But you can't get a theist to recognize or even acknowledge how meaning arises in the brain. This is the stubborn obstinacy that I refer to. It is the refusal to recognize the physical reality. Logic is physical. The content of our thought comes from neurons hooked together in various different ways, even if we think it is purely abstract. Meaning is the association of different concepts with one another, which is done by establishing neural connections. And all their circular reasoning doesn't disprove that.

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  20. OMFG, Skeppy, you really are like the pigeon shitting all over the chess board and claiming a win. Debate with you simply isn't possible. It isn't that we disagree and we need to just agree to disagree, it's that you are talking completely past me, and not even understanding what I'm saying.

    Let me give three examples. First, you characterize the Ross argument as follows:

    1. A machine's true logical function, as conceived in the mind of the designer, is not physical
    2. No physical machine can perform what is the essence of that function because the human conception of the function is abstract

    Now, this isn't even recognizable as the Ross argument. Neither of Ross' two premises say anything about whether a machine's true function is physical or not. Nor do either one of them state that a physical machine cannot perform a function because "the human conception of the function is abstract."

    The Ross argument is this:

    1. Formal thought is determinate
    2. No physical process is determinate
    3. Therefore, formal thought is not a physical process

    You can't even get this argument close to correct, and so you are wildly flinging objections at something that is the product of your own fevered imagination.

    Here is a second example, closely related to the first. You said: "Feser and Ross both pin their arguments on the unfounded assumption that thought has content that is non-material, and then engage in circular reasoning." No, I'm quite sorry, but as you can see...

    "Formal thought is determinate"
    "No physical process is determinate"

    ...neither premise here says anything like this:

    "Thought is non-material."

    This is again purely a product of your own fevered confirmation bias, seeing things that are not there.

    FInally, a third example. First, you say this:

    "the physical properties of a system by themselves DO suffice to determine what function it is computing."

    But then later you say this:

    "Feser says 'for any collection of physical facts, no matter how large, there is nothing about them that entails one specific meaning rather than another. Not only could a materialist agree with Ross’s premise (2), many materialists do agree with it.' He's quite right about that" [emphasis mine]

    These two statements are contradictory. You both A) believe that physical systems have determinate meaning, and B) believe that physical systems do not have determinate meaning. Well, I cant argue with that. Literally. It's impossible to argue with someone who holds contradictory positions and who creates strawmen out of his interlocutors' arguments.

    Since you refuse to halt the psychologizing of your interlocutors despite my repeated requests, allow me to join you, then. You are a die hard materialist because you are politically opposed to "religion," most likely thanks to idiots like creationists, intelligent design proponents, and the opposition to gay marriage. So you desire to get as far away from them as possible. Nothing is more critical to you than opposing creationists/IDists out to destroy science, or opposition to gay marriage out to destroy equal rights.

    This leads you to coming to the Ross argument not with a clean slate, but with a whole heaping stack of confirmation bias and an EXTREMELY strong desire for the argument to not work. So you hurtle any objections you can at it...nay, at a strawman of it. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is extremely difficult to get a man to understand something if his politics depends on him not understanding it. You cannot rationally dispute an argument until you understand it. So the proper way to object to an argument like this is to first set aside your objections and seek to understand it, even going so far as to pretend you are defending it, just to be sure you have it down right, and THEN present your objections.

    Further dialogue between us is literally impossible until you choose to do this, which I very much doubt you will.

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  21. "First, you characterize the Ross argument as follows: 1. ... 2. ..."

    I did no such thing. I said those things about the argument, but I did not say that they constitute a restatement of the argument itself. This only goes to show that you aren't trying to understand what I say.

    "second example ... neither premise here says anything like this: ... "

    That's right. But the premises imply the conclusion that formal thought is not a physical process, which means that it in non-material. That is what Ross says, and I was simply asserting that that is what Ross says.

    "third example ... These two statements are contradictory"

    You are taking statements from two different contexts, and perhaps I should have been more clear about it. A materialist would agree with premise 2 (No physical process is determinate) in the context that it is seen as a black box, where we can only guess what process is going on inside by observing the inputs and outputs. This is what David Brightly said, and this is what I have said (November 14, 2015 at 11:19 AM). And in that respect, Feser is quite right. However, if you can see the internal function of the machine, then you can know for sure what its function is, as I clearly demonstrated. And given this context, no materialist in his right mind would agree with premise 2. I did say that Feser is being dishonest in his representation of the materialists' position, and I firmly believe that to be the case.

    The thing about these two different contexts is that Ross and Feser don't distinguish between them (as far as I can see). And that's a fallacy. As I tried to explain, what might be indeterminate is our understanding of the process (given the first context), not the process itself, which can be completely determined (given the second context). I hope I have clarified this point sufficiently.

    "You are a die hard materialist because you are politically opposed to "religion," most likely thanks to idiots like creationists, intelligent design proponents, and the opposition to gay marriage."

    The only "psychologizing" I did was to note the FACT that people like Ross and Feser stubbornly refuse to recognize physical reality, and I attribute the motive for that to theistic belief. Please correct me if I'm wrong. And go ahead and attribute my motives to whatever you like. It doesn't bother me. For the record, I am a die-hard materialist because that's what the evidence indicates. The politics of it comes afterward. However, if you'd like to understand what I'm saying, you might try listening, and taking your own advice about understanding the argument.

    I ask you once again: Have you ever once tried to understand the world in non-theistic terms? Because if you had a more scientific understanding, you would recognize when people make statements about physical things that are patently ridiculous.

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  22. >This only goes to show that you aren't trying to understand what I say.

    What you are trying to say is so scattershot and incoherent that none of your ideas come through with any clarity whatsoever.

    >if you can see the internal function of the machine

    But as I've pointed out repeatedly, to no avail, this won't help you either since the symbols inside are just as indeterminate as the symbols outside. For example, let's say you open the box and look inside and see a pulse. Does a pulse mean "1" or "0?" Maybe they don't count in binary. Maybe they count in base-15, and a pulse means "15." Maybe a pulse means "one bean." Or maybe it means "number of enemies coming at us," or "number of enemies moving away from us."

    Or how about this? Let's say you are feeding inputs into it, and it springs a gear and smokes and stops working. "Huh, I must have broken it," you think. But unbeknownst to you, the gear flying out and the smoke are part of the program, and it is doing precisely what it was meant to do.

    Let me ask you something. What does this symbol represent, and how did you deduce that?


    >Have you ever once tried to understand the world in non-theistic terms?

    Absolutely, seeing as I'm a non-theist. I know you don't believe that, so I don't know what to tell you. Believe what you want. You will anyway. The articles on my blog follow what Corey Mohley calls "the principle of science," an amped-up version of the principle of charity.

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  23. "What you are trying to say is so scattershot and incoherent that none of your ideas come through with any clarity whatsoever."
    So much for your principle of charity, eh?

    "But as I've pointed out repeatedly, to no avail, this won't help you either since the symbols inside are just as indeterminate as the symbols outside."
    And as I've tried to point out to you, this is just plain wrong. There are no symbols in a computer. There ate no '1's and '0's. There are only electrical states, and the function of the machine can in fact be determined completely. This is independent of any meaning you may wish to attach to the electrical states of the machine. The machine doesn't care what name or symbol you give to its electrical states. Remember my example of the NAND gate? I didn't say anything at all about symbols, or the meanings of the electrical states. What I said is that we can understand what the machine does, because it is physically determined. Or do you wish to make the claim that it is impossible for me to know that a certain configuration of switching transistors has a particular function?

    "Maybe they don't count in binary. Maybe they count in base-15, and a pulse means "15.""
    As someone who actually knows a little about this, I can assure you that you don't know what I do about what goes on inside a computer. The switching transistors in a digital computer have two stable states: conducting or not conducting. They are inherently binary. When they count, they count in binary. That doesn't mean that they can't be configured to implement a base-15 counter. If that is the case, we can see that by the configuration. We can see that latches function in groups so that each group has 15 unique states. And we can see that for this counter, the group that corresponds to the least significant digit cycles continuously through its 15 states, and then the next group changes state once for each of those cycles. Furthermore, we know the order of the states in the cycle, so we know exactly which state corresponds to a '1' or a '2', etc. And the thing is, because we understand the physical configuration of all these transistors, we can know all about what this machine does before the electricity is ever turned on - before it ever counts anything. It is completely determined, no matter what some philosopher tells you. People who actually understand these things know that the philosopher is wrong about this. But as to whether it is counting sheep or counting something else, the machine doesn't know or care, and that meaning is not embedded anywhere in the machine or its design. It just counts. And if it is configured to count in base-15, we know that. We know exactly what the machine does.

    "But unbeknownst to you, the gear flying out and the smoke are part of the program, and it is doing precisely what it was meant to do."
    It is not "unbeknownst". If a machine is so designed, we can determine that. As soon as it gets to a certain state, the gear flies out. This is predictable, and determined by the physical configuration of the machine. It is only "unbeknownst" to someone who doesn't understand how physical things work.

    "What does this symbol represent, and how did you deduce that?"
    Getting back to my discussion of meaning, a symbol can mean different things to different people, or it can mean different things in different contexts. That's all inside your brain. It depends entirely on how your neurons are connected, which determines what concepts are associated with that symbol in your physical brain.

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  24. "Absolutely, seeing as I'm a non-theist. I know you don't believe that, so I don't know what to tell you. Believe what you want. You will anyway."
    My belief is based on the evidence. And the evidence indicates that you believe in God. I see statements like this: "Since God is completely immaterial, he can therefore have multiple forms at once, indeed all forms at once, and is therefore completely intelligent." I also see that you seem to accept the arguments of Aquinas, and you seem to reject materialism. I could be wrong about that. Maybe you are only putting on an act.

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  25. >a symbol can mean different things to different people, or it can mean different things in different contexts.

    Skeppy, this is precisely Ross' and Feser's point. A symbol's meaning is indeterminate. You agree with it, and you just stated so.

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  27. >And let us agree that the meaning is in your brain, not in the machine.

    So then that's the premise: the physical symbol's meaning is indeterminate. That's premise 1. That's exactly what I've been saying all along.

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  28. "Skeppy, this is precisely Ross' and Feser's point. A symbol's meaning is indeterminate. You agree with it, and you just stated so."

    And let us agree that the meaning is in your brain, not in the machine.But you're still saying things like "But as I've pointed out repeatedly, to no avail, this won't help you either since the symbols inside are just as indeterminate as the symbols outside" in support of the argument that physical functions are not determinate. No, the function is not indeterminate. Your interpretation of it may be, but the function of a machine is determined by the physical facts alone.

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  29. "So then that's the premise: the physical symbol's meaning is indeterminate. That's premise 1. That's exactly what I've been saying all along."

    That was not premise 1. Premise 1 says "Formal thought is determinate".

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  30. Premise 2, then. The order doesn't matter. It's one of the two premises. The other is that formal thought is determinate.

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  31. Premise 2 says that no physical function is determinate. I have been making the point that the function is quite determinate, but it is our understanding of what that function is that may not be determinate (given that we are unable to examine the physical implementation).

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  32. You just admitted that a symbol is not determinate, and yet you also think they are determinate. This is a contradiction. You believe contradictory things.

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  33. Martin,

    You are putting words in my mouth. I don't think I ever said that meaning is either determinate or indeterminate (whatever you mean by that - I'm pretty sure it is not at all what Ross has in mind). I did speak of the indeterminacy of mutual understanding, which is something else altogether - not that I expect you to understand what I mean by it.

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  34. Skeppy, you don't have any clue what's even going on. You agreed with Ross' premise. A symbol like the one I linked to is indeterminate in what it stands for. The last piece of pizza? 10:00? The physical properties of the symbol are not enough to fix meaning.

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  35. Martin,

    We're really talking down two different paths. Yes, a symbol can have any number of meanings. I never said otherwise. I don't know where you get this supposed contradiction. I think you're just digging for gochas, and if you can't find one, you make it up.

    But the point about symbols and what they represent is that the process that implements a function doesn't care about them. And this is why I disagree with Ross' assertion that the physical process in not determinate. His assertion is based on the idea that the intellect performs the process (say it's conjunction) in its abstract form rather than going through some algorithm that only simulates the function. In other words (if I follow Ross correctly), the intellect implements the true "form of the function", which applies to all possible inputs and outputs, while the machine can only take a specific case of inputs and run those through the algorithm. But this is a false assertion, because if we don't attach specific meanings or symbols to the inputs of the machine, then it's hard to deny that it is performing the function in the abstract. Those inputs, without meaning attached, could represent any or all possible inputs to the function. So that machine's function is determinate in the sense that Ross uses the term.

    Furthermore, in performing a function, the human intellect does nothing more than the machine does. Ross would have us believe that we don't use algorithms like the machine does, but the fact is that we do. Try performing a long division problem, and convince me that you're not following an algorithm. Or any other logical problem, for that matter. The result is always achieved by following an algorithm or a rule, not because we can invoke some magical immaterial formula processor.

    So Ross actually has it backwards. The machine is the purest possible implementation of a function, and the brain only simulates what the machine does. Consider the NAND example I gave you earlier. It literally is conjunction. It has no need to have an intellectual understanding of what conjunction means. It doesn't matter what the inputs represent. What is does is pure, physical conjunction, not a simulation of it. And yes, it is determinate.

    The one thing that is typically missing from the machine is the assignment of meaning to the inputs and outputs of its processes. But as I said before, this is also something that exists only in the physical brain, as a result of associating concepts together by means of physical neural connections.

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  36. >the intellect implements the true "form of the function", which applies to all possible inputs and outputs, while the machine can only take a specific case of inputs and run those through the algorithm.

    This is not his premise at all. You are so far off the mark you are not even addressing Ross' argument at all.

    >Ross would have us believe that we don't use algorithms like the machine does, but the fact is that we do. Try performing a long division problem, and convince me that you're not following an algorithm.

    Ross says the exact opposite of this.

    You have created strawmen out of Ross and proceeded to refute them, leaving Ross himself completely untouched.

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  37. "This is not his premise at all. You are so far off the mark you are not even addressing Ross' argument at all."

    Definite forms of thought are dispositive for every relevant case actual, potential, and counterfactual. Yet the "function" does not consist in the array of inputs and outcomes. The function is the form by which inputs yield outputs. The array of inputs and outputs for a function is the logical tail of the comet, not what the function is.

    So Ross is very clearly referring to the function as a form, as opposed to a physical process.

    "Ross says the exact opposite of this."

    I cannot be really adding when I do something which gives the "right output" but which cannot, by its form, determine the "right outcome" for any case whatever, even one on which I make a mistake. There is a great difference between adding incorrectly and doing something else, like guessing, estimating, or following a routine or algorithm. The adding I am talking about, like conjoining, is a form of understanding.

    He's telling us that following an algorithm is just a mechanical process that doesn't equate to the form of the function.

    "You have created strawmen out of Ross and proceeded to refute them, leaving Ross himself completely untouched."

    Martin, the more I discuss these things with you, the more I become convinced that you really don't grasp what Ross is saying.

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  38. >Ross is very clearly referring to the function as a form, as opposed to a physical process.

    I have absolutely no idea what you are trying to convey, here. It doesn't appear to have anything to do with Ross, however.

    >He's telling us that following an algorithm is just a mechanical process that doesn't equate to the form of the function.

    No, I'm sorry, but he's not saying that at all. He's saying that to be adding you have to really be adding, and not just giving the right output.

    I'm afraid you do not understand Ross whatsoever.

    Look, this can be simplified by sticking to the symbol example. The Ross point is that a symbol, like that of the pizza (or whatever), has no fixed meaning. The symbol, considered in virtue of only its physical properties, has no fixed meaning. That's the premise in a nutshell. Here is Feser, again, on this point:

    >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.”

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  39. "I have absolutely no idea what you are trying to convey, here. It doesn't appear to have anything to do with Ross, however."

    That just goes to show that you do not comprehend Ross at all. I was quoting him directly. Those are his words, not mine.

    "No, I'm sorry, but he's not saying that at all. He's saying that to be adding you have to really be adding, and not just giving the right output."

    Again, I was directly quoting from his paper. Yes, he says that adding entails real adding, according to the form, but following an algorithm is not the same as real adding. Of course, he is dead wrong about that, as I have demonstrated.

    "The symbol, considered in virtue of only its physical properties, has no fixed meaning. That's the premise in a nutshell. Here is Feser, again, on this point:"

    You keep coming back to this thing about the symbol, despite the fact that I have repeatedly agreed that a symbol has no inherent meaning. Do you understand anything at all? A symbol has no meaning until you give it some meaning. There's no disagreement on that. Why do you keep harping about it? That's not what I was talking about. Are you aware that Ross never even mentions symbols in his paper? Or do you simply worship every word of Feser and believe whatever he says? Are you incapable of reading Ross and understanding what he says without accepting Feser's take on it? Apparently not.

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  40. >You keep coming back to this thing about the symbol, despite the fact that I have repeatedly agreed that a symbol has no inherent meaning

    Because this IS Ross' point. What a physical symbol represents is indeterminate. That's it, end of story. He's not making any more point than that.

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    1. I want to believe you Martin, but I read Ross's paper and he never talked about symbols and representation. He talked about machines computing functions. And the fact is, we can look at the architecture of a machine and tell you how it was going to transform any input.

      If it's going to add, we'll see the logic gates for that. If it is going to add until it's 2050, we'd see an extra element keeping track of the year and designed in such a way as to divert things into a new network once 2050 is reacted. The two computers would look different inside.

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    2. Looks like the comments were not set to tree, so I didn't actually reply to your comment. Here is what I posted below:

      >You can look inside the alien machine

      And what would you see? "Logic gates" that are moving around? How about electrons whizzing about, yes? But how could you know what those mean? What if you think "an electron means 1, two electrons mean 11, and the absence of an electrons means 0," but unbeknownst to you, the aliens are counting in base 16, and a single electron means 0, and the absence of an electron means 1?" Or, what if the aliens designed the machine so that it counts flakafafa fruits, so a single electron means "two flakafafa fruits that have bloomed" and the absence of an electron means "one flakafafa fruit that has not bloomed." Or what if, unbeknownst to you, the electrons actually represent traffic on the freeways? Or, what if the machine fizzles, sparks, and throws a gear out? Clearly, it broke, right? But wait! Unbeknownst to you, the machine is actually a simulation of the Great Traffic Crash of T49-12," and sparking and throwing a gear is exactly what it was supposed to do, and if it hadn't then it would be broken? You had no way of knowing this, and short of asking the aliens, you would have no way of knowing it.

      You see, any physical symbol is going to be indeterminate with regard to what it means. Ross actually addresses this as well, but apparently commenters here and elsewhere don't like to read stuff before they criticize it. Ross brings up "points on a curve." Given a set of, say, 5 points, which is the correct curve that fits those five points?

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  41. Martin,

    This is a matter that is worthy of further discussion. I have made a post in my blog that further elaborates my thoughts on what Ross is saying and what Feser is saying. I hope you will read it.

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  42. Can y'all PLEASE choose a name other than anonymous? It's very difficult to keep track of what's what, and to quote people...

    >You can look inside the alien machine

    And what would you see? "Logic gates" that are moving around? How about electrons whizzing about, yes? But how could you know what those mean? What if you think "an electron means 1, two electrons mean 11, and the absence of an electrons means 0," but unbeknownst to you, the aliens are counting in base 16, and a single electron means 0, and the absence of an electron means 1?" Or, what if the aliens designed the machine so that it counts flakafafa fruits, so a single electron means "two flakafafa fruits that have bloomed" and the absence of an electron means "one flakafafa fruit that has not bloomed." Or what if, unbeknownst to you, the electrons actually represent traffic on the freeways? Or, what if the machine fizzles, sparks, and throws a gear out? Clearly, it broke, right? But wait! Unbeknownst to you, the machine is actually a simulation of the Great Traffic Crash of T49-12," and sparking and throwing a gear is exactly what it was supposed to do, and if it hadn't then it would be broken? You had no way of knowing this, and short of asking the aliens, you would have no way of knowing it.

    You see, any physical symbol is going to be indeterminate with regard to what it means. Ross actually addresses this as well, but apparently commenters here and elsewhere don't like to read stuff before they criticize it. Ross brings up "points on a curve." Given a set of, say, 5 points, which is the correct curve that fits those five points?

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  43. One point that I think must be acknowledged by both sides is that physical instantiations of functions, such as a calculator, can fail or mislead. So looking inside an alien calculator won't tell us if it is a successful adder or a failed quadder, or a gag quadder. Assuming that the device wouldn't be built to fail or mislead would be a reference to the intent of the creators.

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