Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Uncertainty with Philosophy and Language

Lead: Greg Hasevlat


Summary by Robert DiFabio:

"From Certainty to Uncertainty" Chapter 4, by David Peat

Greg opened the discussion with a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Greg went on to say that machines are often described in human terms. He used a description of radar as an example. It is often said that the “radar sees the enemy.” Using the terms “sees” implies that the radar has consciousness and intentions. It describes a machine as a human.

Professor Whittier said that using metaphors to describe machines as humans is really not bad, and it’s almost unavoidable. However, a problem occurs when people began taking the metaphors literally. As a result, the boundary between consciousness and mechanism begins to disappear.
Professor Davis asked the question what is the correct usage of the word “see”. He described a robot made in the 1950s called Shaky. A computer was able to take inputs from a camera. Using these inputs, the computer could operate the wheels. This allowed Shaky to move around objects. Therefore, could Shaky see? Professor Möbius continued with this discussion. He said what if a robot was designed with a simple program, but the program would be able to alter itself. The altering code would not be written by humans; this is a simple form of artificial intelligence. Could this robot see?

Professor Whittier described the key difference between a robot and machine. A person “sees” and has goals and purpose, while robots do not. A robot is simply doing what it was instructed to do. He used a thermostat as an example. A thermostat does not care what the temperature of a room is. However, a person does. A person will adjust the thermostat to serve his or her purpose. The thermostat is just doing what it is designed to do.

Memory is another common word that is misused. A computer is often said to have “memory.” Professor Whittier pointed out that computers do not have memory, but storage capacity. The usage of memory is another way in which we describe machines as humans.

Next, Greg introduced the philosophies of Russell and Wittgenstein. Russell’s goal was to construct a model about the world free of inconsistencies and ambiguities. He believed that he could start with facts that people knew for certain were true. He would then use these building blocks to describe a model of the world. Wittgenstein, Russell’s student, believed that creating such a model would be impossible. He said that we may try to restrict language, but as soon as we begin to talk, our language will go in its own way. It is out of our control. Wittgenstein believed that language could be represented as a picture of reality. Each statement represents a “state of affairs” in the world, which is why language has meaning. Professor Whittier said that Wittgenstein believed that language is a function of context rather than a function of fixed elements.

Professor Davis then had a question about the word intentionality. He said that he often found the meaning of this word puzzling, since it is often used in different ways. Professor Whittier described it as “aboutness of thought” or “content of thought.” He went on to say that some philosophers misuse the word and this could be the cause of confusion. He mentioned that only people and animals have intentionality. People have certain goals and intentions. He said he did not know where to draw the line between which animals have intentionality and which do not. He believes that bees and earthworms are borderline.

Greg introduced the next topic of our discussion. According to Wittgenstein, the meaning of the universe is not within the universe. The purpose of philosophy is used to explain language. Greg asked the question “Where does our language lie within our universe?”. The quote was related to Goedel’s theorem by Professor Whittier. He mentioned that it is not the truths that are eluding us; it is the proof of these truths. Professor Möbius then said that although we will never know everything about the universe, we will always seek more answers. However, as our questions get answered, more will be asked.

This topic was then related to the formation of the universe. Professor Whittier brought up the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. He mentioned that some philosophers think this question is nonsense, while others believe it is a question that should be attempted to answer even though we will probably never know the answer. While one day we may be able to create a model that describes the formation and evolution of the universe, we will probably never provide a justification. We will never know why the universe formed the way it did. However, progress will continue to be made. Most people will try to solve the mystery of the universe; they won’t just leave it alone.