Monday, July 20, 2015

Keep it simple

Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind (see my blog dated June 22, 2015) gives not only the basic rules for a methodic approach of scientific problems. It contains also a number of statements that have a wider meaning; statements that have sense in the daily contact of men with each other. Some seem obvious. Nevertheless we often forget to apply them. For example, in Rule IX Descartes tells us that people are often more impressed by difficult high-flown far-fetched reasonings that they don’t completely understand than by simple transparent arguments. Knowledge, so Descartes, must not be deduced from what looks important and obscure but from what is easy and common. Isn’t it so that – my instance – a politician that uses bombastic language without content and not founded on the facts tends to have more followers than one who says the truth in a clear way?
Descartes’ words made me think of what is called Occam’s razor. Occam (or Ockham) himself didn’t use the word “razor” for his principle and he formulated it also in different words than we do today. He was a Franciscan friar who lived from about 1287-1347. The maxim that made him famous was in his words “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”. Today this is read as “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. For example, take the reasoning (1) “All men are mortal”- (2) “Philosophers are men” - (3) “Socrates is a philosopher” - (4) “So Socrates is mortal”. This reasoning contains the entity “philosopher”, which is superfluous here, for if we would define “philosopher”, we would get something like “a man who studies fundamental problems”. Fill in the definition in our syllogism and you’ll see that the entity “philosopher” is superfluous in this explanation why Socrates is mortal.
Sometimes Occam’s razor is considered meaning “Say it as simple as possible”. This interpretation is not correct, for arguing from several entities can be more brain breaking than a single statement with one or two entities that comprises a lot. Aristotle thought that bodies like stones fall on the ground because it’s there that their “natural place” is. However, reality appeared to be more complex and now we use complicated Newtonian suppositions and formulas for explaning gravity or, even better, Einstein’s theory of general relativity, even though Aristotle’s view was simpler.
Occam’s razor has a long history. Actually Occam was not the first one who formulated the principle. Once clearly formulated by him it had a big influence. Many scientists applied it and many philosophers referred to it. Wittgenstein, one of my favourite philosophers, said it this way: “If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus: 3.328). Or later “Occam’s Razor ... says that unnecessary elements in a symbolism mean nothing.” (5.47321).
Things that we first thought to be simple can be quite complicated but Occam’s razor helps us avoid unnecessary complications. It’s not completely harmless, as we have seen, and take care of the pitfall of oversimplification of Occam’s razor, but nevertheless as a rule of thumb you can start with the idea to keep it as simple as you can and then look what it brings. It helps prevent that you’ll be deceived by people who want to impress with an air of erudition and scholarship. For as Descartes warned us in Rule XII: Learned people are often so ingenious that they find a way to be blind even in matters that are clear as such and that every simple mind understands.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why it is good to make a bad plan.

I finished my last blog saying that with his definition of “person” Locke gave a lead of departure for future discussions on the concept. We call such a lead also a “handle”. Famous critics of Locke were Joseph Butler (1736) and Thomas Reid (1785), but the discussion still goes on today. It shows how important a good handle is for starting a discussion and making progress, for what should we talk about if we have nothing to talk about? We should first have to invent a theme and next we should have to give it contents, too. For instance, we can decide to talk about “man” as the ancient Greek philosophers did. But then? We have only something to discuss if we fill in the idea of man, so if we define it. That’s what Plato did when he described man as a featherless biped. Now Diogenes of Sinope had a handle to criticize Plato’s definition, which he did by bringing Plato a plucked chicken: Plato’s “man”. As a result Plato changed his definition to “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails”. And so the discussion on man begun.
Although this is a funny anecdote, it shows in a nutshell what science is: making theories, testing theories in an experimental way, improving theories. Although many people think that science starts with the second, so with experimental research or at least with observing, this is not true. The idea is the first of these three steps in science, for without ideas there is nothing to start with and there is nothing to investigate. People who think that they just look and then start to develop ideas conceive themselves. Their ideas are simply implicit and not explicitly worded.
In a scheme it goes this way:
P1 > T1 > E > T2 > P2
P(1) is a question or theme we want to discuss, or something like that, also called the problem. For example: “What is man?”. Then we form an idea how things might be arranged, a kind of theory, like “Man is a featherless biped” (T1). Is it true? We can try to find it out by discussing about it and doing tests and experiments (E). If we are successful, we can formulate a better theory (T2). But often we are not fully satisfied with our solution or improved theory. Then we get new questions, new themes to talk about, etc. (P2). And so our knowledge evolves.
A scheme for the evolution of knowledge has also been developed by Karl R. Popper:
P1 > TT > EE > P2
Again, P1 is the problem we start with. TT means “tentative theory”, so the way we guess that the things we are interested in might be arranged. EE refers to the tests and investigations of our tentative ideas. Actually Popper calls this phase “error elimination”. When we have finished the EE phase, however, we are never completely contented with our result, so we get a new problem situation, which Popper calls P2.
Is Poppers scheme for the evolution of knowledge right? In a certain sense it is, if we suppose that my T2 is the conclusion of Poppers EE and that it is included in it: From a philosophical or scientific point of view a solution of a problem is never completely satisfactory, for we can always ask new questions. Therefore no solution is free of problems. Nevertheless I think that it is better to formulate T2 explicitly like in my scheme, for in practice it is often so that we stop once we have formulated T2, even in case we are not completely satisfied. There is nothing against doing so, for how should it be different in many cases? In practice we need to act! We cannot continuously go on evaluating, discussing, thinking about the best solution, as if we live in an ivory tower. We simply have to do something.
This makes me think of something I learned already as a child. I liked playing chess and in order to improve my level I studied chess books. Then I learned from the great chess player and chess theoretician Aron Nimzowitsch that a bad plan is better than no plan. I never forgot it and I still apply it. For if we have no plan, we don’t know where to start and we keep erring, but also a bad plan gives us a point of departure. Even if our first steps lead to nothing, we have a frame for evaluating our mistakes and improving our design. How this works tells us a scheme for the evolution of knowledge, like mine or like Popper’s.

Source: Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; p. 164.
op website 13 juli 2015

Monday, July 06, 2015

Making up for an omission

John Locke made the idea of consciousness the heart of his theory of man. He was the first who developed a thorough theory of consciousness. That’s why I called him the father of consciousness theories in my last blog, although he didn’t invent the concept. Many theories of consciousness followed since then. Some such theories, which often refer explicitly to Locke, discuss the question what a person is, since Locke was also the first philosopher who defined the concept of person. I, too, have written about this subject, in blogs and in articles. What I never did, however, was quoting Locke’s definition of “person”. I don’t know why not. Maybe it was because in my writings I referred mainly to the present discussion on the theme and I referred to Locke only by way of background information. However, in view of my present blogs I think that it is a good idea to make up for my omission here, just because Locke’s definition shows so well how important the idea of consciousness is in his approach. So here he goes: A person is, so Locke,
a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. ... since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done.” (from ch. XXVII “Of Identity and Diversity” in John Locke An Essay concerning Human Understanding:
I have quoted a bit more than only the definition of “person” for showing how important “consciousness” for Locke is. Since it is an inner perception, as we have seen in my last blog, consciousness in Locke’s sense is especially self-consciousness.
Here I shall not examine how progressive the centrality of the idea of consciousness in Locke’s philosophy was in his days. I think that it led to many steps forward in philosophy and science. But viewed from the present, it made also that some actually important aspects of what a person is were considered irrelevant. In making the mind the core of the idea of a person the importance of the body is refuted. Elsewhere (also in my blogs) I have shown why this is not correct. Moreover, by stressing that the span of identity of a certain person is related to what this person is aware of back from the present to the past the importance of unconscious processes for what makes up a person is taken no attention of. But also what happens unconsciously within a person makes up his or her personality for a part. It is even so that we often consciously push some of our possible reactions to the unconscious inner space, where it is then present as if it were in a storage room: We call such an activity learning or training. And isn’t it so that we often keep a person responsible for what s/he unconsciously did or, which are marginal cases, what s/he did in an automatic reaction or in an inattentive way? One can be held responsible for a deed just because one let run what one in an unconscious – so “automatic” – reaction did.
Be it as it is, with his definition of “person” Locke put on a discussion that lasted for centuries and that still hasn’t ended. That’s the merit of his definition: Without a lead of departure, there is nothing to discuss about and nothing to investigate. Locke gives us such a lead, in an intelligent way, that still inspires a lot of people to think.