Thursday, February 2, 2017

Science, computers, and Aristotle

If you think that the brain, or the genome, or the universe as a whole is a kind of computer, then you are really an Aristotelian whether you realize it or not.  For information, algorithms, software, and other computational notions can intelligibly be applied within physics, biology, and neuroscience only if an Aristotelian philosophy of nature is correct.  So I argue in my paper “From Aristotle to John Searle and Back Again: Formal Causes, Teleology, and Computation in Nature,” which appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Nova et Vetera.  You can now read the paper online.


Geremia said...

It seems Searle would agree with Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra, who wrote (A Discipline of Programming):

any [computer program] design discipline must do justice to the fact that the design of a mechanism that is to have a purpose must be a goal-directed activity. In our special case it means that we can expect our post-condition to be the starting point of our design considerations. In a sense we shall be "working backwards".

Thus, a program's final cause is entirely dependent on the programmer, which seems to be exactly Searle's view.

Interestingly, St. Thomas discussed "seeking information through lots"—what today we would call Monte Carlo algorithms, which rely on random number generators—in his opuscule De Sortibus.

Geremia said...

Science in the Age of Computer Simulation (2010) mentions Searle, too.

Anonymous said...

An important question,
if one does not accept Ross's argument can one accept rest of A-T ? I know it has immense theological importance but can someone not convinced by it maintain that we don't have immaterial intellect but still hold A-T concept of matter/nature?

JesseM said...

There is an alternative to the notion of matter united with form, a sort of pure Platonism (or Pythagorism) in which the physical universe is itself nothing more than a complex mathematical form, which naturally can contain other mathematical forms (like computations) as substructures. This idea has recently been made popular by the physicist Max Tegmark (see his book 'Our Mathematical Universe' or some of his articles discussing the "level 4 multiverse" here), but others in the modern era have expressed similar views, for example the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg said in the short philosophical book Natural Law and the Structure of Matter "I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language."

Anonymous said...


If you agree that substantial form is distinct from prime and designated matter in any substance, then intellect must be ultimately immaterial. Intellect objectifies substantial form as distinct from matter and this is proper for it; therefore, the subject's intellect is distinct from matter in the same manner that substantial form of an objectified substance is distinct from matter. If the intellectual subject's objectification of substantial form culminates in abstraction of form from the concrete substance, then this separate form is the mirror of the intellect in its immateriality.

Anonymous said...

Hello other anon,
but someone could hold that without commitment to Ross's argument being sound, no?

Edward Feser said...

Hello Anon @ 3:04,

Hylemorphism and the incorporeality of intellectual activity are completely separate issues. After all, Aristotelians hold that everything in the material world other than human beings is a composite of substantial form and prime matter, but is not incorporeal. And Ross's argument has no implications for sub-intellectual creatures. To reject Ross's argument and similar arguments is essentially just to assimilate human beings to other, entirely corporeal form/matter composites. So yes, one could in theory reject Ross's argument while otherwise accepting an Aristotelian philosophy of nature.

Anonymous said...

A promising but very unpopular(at least these days) naturalistic(but non physicalist) solution to M/B problem is Panexperientialism. Gregg Rosenberg proposed interesting metaphysic what he called Liberal Naturalism . But its much less discussed and mostly ignored .

Lots of his book available Here his arguments against physicalism and Humean Causation are also very interesting

Tim Finlay said...

In a recent blog you gave a formal outline of the argument in your paper on Kripke and Ross which was very helpful. I have tried to give an outline below of this latest paper of yours. Am I on the right lines?

Let p be the proposition "Natural objects do not have immanent teleology."
Let q be the proposition "The brain is not a digital computer."

1) If p then q (supported by section 4 of paper)
2) Not q (supported by section 3 of paper)
3) If not q then not p (follows from 1 and law of contrapositive)
4) Not p (follows from 2 and 3)

Therefore, natural objects have immanent teleology.

Tomislav Ostojich said...

What do neo-scholasticists have to say about mathematics? Is mathematics just a symbol game? Do numbers actually exist?

Tomislav Ostojich said...

Okay, I think I know the first step to solving the philosophy of mathematics. The first question every mathematician has been asking "is math a symbol game or not?" but that's the wrong question we are asking. The right question we should be asking is this one:

"Is math a subdiscipline of logic or not?"

THAT'S the question that's going to clear up what's mathematics's relationship with the universe. Because if the answer is "yes," then we can solve the philosophy of logic (which is much easier to solve) and then get an answer for the philosophy of mathematics. And if the answer is "no," we can then ask the following three questions:

(1) How were Russell & Whitehead (and analogous projects like able to start from nothing other than logic and set theory and develop mathematics?

(2) How is mathematics different from logic?

(3) If mathematics and logic are so different, then why does mathematics depend so much on formal logic?

Daniel Carriere said...

Thank you for this article! You should add it to your intro to the philosophy of mind book. Any plans for a revised second edition?


Tim Finlay said...

First of all, I want to say that a top student of mine (Cheryl Perkins) was extremely impressed with the lecture by you and Joe Bessette today on capital punishment.

Second, here is another attempt at outlining your argument.

As before let p stand for the proposition "Natural objects do not exhibit internal teleology" and let q stand for the proposition "The brain is not a digital computer."

The structure of the argument might be as follows:

1) p (assumed for sake of argument by modernists; discussed in section 2 of paper)
2) If p then q (supported by section 4 of paper)
3) q (follows from 1 and 2)
4) If p then not q (supported by section 3 of paper)
5) Not q (follows from 1 and 4)
6) Aporia or contradiction (follows from 3 and 5)
7) If one is convinced by the evidence from sections 3 and 4 of the paper, the only possible conclusion from this aporia is that p is false and hence natural objects do exhibit internal teleology.

Is this fairly close?

JoeD said...

Dr Feer,

What is your opinion on the Simulation Hypothesis?

This hypothesis states that time and space aren't fundamental, but an emergent property of reality that emerges from quantum information beneath reality.

That quantum information acts like information that is being processed, like computers process information and the like

An example of this is how virtual computer simulations are pixelated and have an absolutely basic unit of measurement of space.

And the real world also has something that is very similar to it, namely, quantum information, which represents the absolutely simplest unit of reality which cannot be divided into smaller pieces

What does that mean for Aristotelianism if this theory that time and space emerge from information turns out to be correct?

Daniel Carriere said...

Having read through the essay, I think the move from Searle's Critique to Aristotle's revenge really needs a lot more to ground it. Specifically those topics covered in Scholastic Metaphysics and Aquinas. As Dr. Feser says in his conversion account:

But the language of act and potency, per se and per accidens causal series and the like started to enter my lectures on Aquinas, and before long, my thinking. It was all very strange. Aquinas’s arguments had a certain power when all of this metaphysical background was taken account of. And there was a certain plausibility to the metaphysics. There were reasons for distinguishing between actuality and potentiality, the different kinds of causal series, and so forth. Yet no one seemed to talk that way anymore -- or, again, at least no one “mainstream.” Could there really be anything to it all if contemporary philosophers weren’t saying anything about it? And yet, precisely because they weren’t talking about it, they weren’t refuting it either. Indeed, when they did say anything about Aquinas’s arguments at all, most of them showed only that they couldn’t even be bothered to get him right, much less show why he was mistaken. Arguments from current philosophical fashion are bad enough. But when most philosophers not only do not accept a certain view, but demonstrate that they don’t even understand what it is, things can start to smell very fishy indeed.

And so they did. I already knew from the lay of the land in the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind that the standard naturalist approaches had no solid intellectual foundation, and themselves rested as much on fashion as on anything else. Even writers like Searle, who I admired greatly and whose naturalism I shared, had no plausible positive alternative. McGinn-style mysterianism started to seem like a dodge, especially given that certain arguments (like the Platonic realist ones) seemed to show that matter simply is not in fact all that there is, not merely that we can’t know how it can be all that there is. Some secular writers were even toying with Aristotelian ideas anyway. The only reason for not taking Aquinas and similar thinkers seriously seemed to be that most other academic philosophers weren’t taking them seriously. And yet as I had come to learn, many of them didn’t even understand Aquinas and Co. in the first place, and their own naturalism was riddled with problems. Against Aquinas, for naturalism -- the case increasingly seemed to come down to the consensus of the profession. And what exactly was that worth?

It isn’t worth a darn thing, of course. Careerists might not see that, nor might a young man more excited by the “question what your parents taught you” side of philosophy than all that “objective pursuit of truth” stuff. But a grownup will see it, and a philosopher ought to see it.


Don Jindra said...

To study symbols (or syntactical manipulation of symbols) stripped of meaning is like studying organic compounds stripped of carbon. While it's partly true that a series of high and low voltage levels in a computer have no inherent semantic content, and we software guys assign meaning to them, it's also true that symbols are more than fluctuations in a medium. Those 1s and 0s are associated with inputs. A symbol doesn't exist as an isolated collection of voltages or marks. It's always connected to input of some sort, in some way. The symbol and its physical input cannot be separated in a computer or a person. Yet Searle argues as if they can be separated. I don't see that Searle has a convincing understanding of either symbols or meaning.

Daniel Carriere said...

Hey Don,

Just wondering - have you ever read any Searle? I found one in the library a while ago, but didn't have the time to go through it all. Dr. Feser mentions the following in his footnotes:

John R. Searle, “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (1980): 417–424;
John R. Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992), and chapter 9;
John R. Searle, “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?” in Philosophy in a New Century: Selected Essays (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Perhaps after you've read through these books and articles, you might have a better grasp of what he was getting at. In any event, do you agree with Dr. Feser's description of the role that computational notions play in contemporary philosophy, cognitive science, and natural science contra Searle?


Daniel Carriere said...

Cool I was able to find the last Searle article "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?" on a google search.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps after you've read through these books and articles, you might have a better grasp of what he was getting at

Thanks, Dan, I needed a laugh.

SMack said...

I've been reading these recent mind/brain posts with great interest. This one (and the Ross ones to an extent) prompts two questions. I would be extremely grateful if Dr. Feser or another expert could clear these up for me. I like the arguments, but am puzzled by these points.

1) Why can Searle's argument not be rebutted as follows? As discussed earlier in the paper in the quotation from Chalmers, we can characterize syntactic information as the set of states of a system that have different downstream causal effects. So, for example, if we're interested in the macroscopic behavior of a robot, we can analyze it and see that its behavior is dependent on the voltage levels in its memory banks, but not (say) on the specific trajectories of individual atoms there. And so, merely from the causal structure, we can identify an information space -- its memory banks, interpreted as bits -- and see that these constitute syntactic information that determines the robot's behavior.

This made no reference to any observer -- only to the causal structure of the robot -- yet it appears to correctly identify the source of syntactic information driving the robot; and then it is easy to call whatever process is happening to that data "computation," if we so desire.

2) This is a question on the Ross line of thought. In every recent post and paper, Dr. Feser has repeated Ross's claim that knowing everything physical about a computer is insufficient to tell us what program it is running. This flumoxes me, and I would welcome clarification. It seems to me that if I know EVERYTHING physical about a computer, including what's in its memory (i.e. voltage levels), and I'm familiar with the laws of physics, then in fact I can predict what the computer will output for any input, and so in fact I can indeed know whether it is implementing addition or quaddition. Now, one might say that even if it turns out that this predicts addition, it was meant to implement quaddition. But at issue is what program the computer IS running, not what program it was MEANT to run. To insist that these are the same seems to me to beg the question. And it seems to me that, for the reasons I stated, given perfect information about the physical state of a computer, it's in principle perfectly possible to say what algorithm it is running.

I'm not a philosopher by training, so it's easily possible I'm just missing something here. But I'm very interested, and would greatly welcome clarification. Thank you for all the interesting posts!

Don Jindra said...

Daniel Carriere,

I've carefully read Searle's "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?". It was very unimpressive. I think I have a good grasp of what he was arguing in that paper. After all, he didn't say much.

Daniel Carriere said...

Perhaps you could let me know which parts of the arguments you find unimpressive? Here is Searle's summary for reference:

This brief argument has a simple logical structure and I will lay it out:

1. On the standard textbook definition, computation is defined syntactically in terms of symbol manipulation.

2. But syntax and symbols are not defined in terms of physics. Though symbol tokens are always physical tokens, "symbol" and "same symbol" are not defined in terms of physical features. Syntax, in short, is not intrinsic to physics.

3. This has the consequence that computation is not discovered in the physics, it is assigned to it. Certain physical phenomena are assigned or used or programmed or interpreted syntactically. Syntax and symbols are observer relative.

4. It follows that you could not discover that the brain or anything else was intrinsically a digital computer, although you could assign a computational interpretation to it as you could to anything else. The point is not that the claim "The brain is a digital computer" is false. Rather it does not get up to the level of falsehood. It does not have a clear sense. You will have misunderstood my account if you think that I am arguing that it is simply false that the brain is a digital computer. The question "Is the brain a digital computer?" Is as ill defined as the questions "Is it an abacus?", "Is it a book?", "Is it a set of symbols?", "Is it a set of mathematical formulae?"

5. Some physical systems facilitate the computational use much better than others. That is why we build, program, and use them. In such cases we are the homunculus in the system interpreting the physics in both syntactic and semantic terms.

6. But the causal explanations we then give do not cite causal properties different from the physics of the implementation and the intentionality of the homunculus.

7. The standard, though tacit, way out of this is to commit the homunculus fallacy. The homunculus fallacy is endemic to computational models of cognition and cannot be removed by the standard recursive decomposition arguments. They are addressed to a different question.

8. We cannot avoid the foregoing results by supposing that the brain is doing "information processing". The brain, as far as its intrinsic operations are concerned, does no information processing. It is a specific biological organ and its specific neurobiological processes cause specific forms of intentionality. In the brain, intrinsically, there are neurobiological processes and sometimes they cause consciousness. But that is the end of the story.

Keep in mind that Dr. Feser agrees with Searle only in so far as he thinks that his critics have failed to rebut his arguments against cognitivism successfully.

So, Searle’s critics have failed to rebut his argument against cognitivism successfully. That is not to say, however, that they have not a leg to stand on. For Searle’s critique to be decisive, he needs not only to give an argument against the claim that computation is intrinsic to the natural world, but also to show that there are no good positive arguments for the claim that it is intrinsic to the natural world. Are there any good positive arguments for that claim?
It seems to me that there are.

So it would be interesting to see how you would go about refuting Searle, then compare your approach to his in Aristotle's Revenge.


Dianelos Georgoudis said...

When the naturalist says “the brain is a computer” or “the brain is a machine” she is using the worlds metaphorically; it's not like she means that somebody constructed the computer or the machine with a goal in mind, or say that the brain processes symbols, and so on.

I think there are two background proposition that drive naturalism:

1. There is a logically possible world the state of which evolves on purely mechanical rules (deterministic or probabilistic) which explain the evolution of the universe we observe around us.

2. All of our conscious states supervene on states of our brain.

Given the physical sciences' success and what we know of neuroscience both propositions are reasonable, indeed are most probably true. Given (1) and (2) we have a mechanistic explanation for the gran total of the human condition. The naturalistic hypothesis then is that (1) and (2) describe all of reality. (The naturalist may happily concede that she has no idea, and perhaps nobody will ever have any idea, how (2) comes about – but point out that this is a premise in her hypothesis.)

Now one can measure the force of one's arguments against naturalism by considering them from the point of view of the naturalist.

Consider for example the philosophical problem of intentionality, i.e. how a physical state could be about something else (or a symbol of something else). The naturalist will say that there are no physical or mental states that are intentional, there are only mental states that are experienced by us in this way. So for example the brain state of English speaking people who see the word “apple” printed on a piece of paper evolves in a way which produces the mental state we describe as “thinking about apples”. There is no link between either the printed word, or the state of the brain when reading that word, or mental state that supervenes on it, directed to apples. So if a cook is reading a recipe which says “cut an apple to little cubes” then her brain will evolve in such states that will produce both the respective action and the respective mental states. Actually mental states may be about non existing things, such as, say, a geocentric universe, or dreaming about apples, or imagining an apple of pure gold in one's refrigerator, etc.

Or consider the question of the existence of numbers. The answer would be that there are physical states of brains on which mental states supervene which we describe as “thinking about the number 5”. And what about all the truths of math we discover? The corresponding true mathematical propositions are mental states that supervene on the respective brain states that are characterized by driving particular behavior of our brain which we describe as “doing math” or “figuring out what taxes I have to pay this year” or “figuring out how to build an airplane”, and so on. There are no realms of mathematical truths; there is just a big machine (the universe) in which smaller machines evolve (our brains), in which yet smaller machines evolve (beliefs whether factual, mathematical, ethical, etc), by which artificial machines evolve (e.g. cars, books, philosophical arguments, works of art, etc).

All these states of brains have come about by a completely mechanistic (with no final causality) evolution of the previous state of the physical universe, back to the Big Bang or back to whatever the best cosmological model has it. And all corresponding mental states in all their complexity supervene on these brain states. On naturalism all of reality is exhausted by an original state, rules of how that state evolves, and translation rules between brain state and experience. - I hope I am describing this adequately; if not I invite the reader to consider (1) and (2) and describe by oneself how the resulting worldview is.

[continues below]

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

[continues from above]

So given that this naturalistic worldview is possibly true, how is the theist to respond?

First, if naturalism is possibly true then with more reason supernaturalism is possibly true. One step then is to construct the most reasonable theistic worldview one can. (Personally I doubt that A-T metaphysics is the best ground here, I find Berkeley's idealism more plausible and elegant. I have also strong misgivings about hellism and exclusivism that characterize much of official Christianity today. As for theism's central and marvelously useful “problem from evil” I judge that the solution is basically given by John Hick's theodicy.)

Secondly, point out all the absurdities that the naturalistic view entails, such as that free will, beauty, justice, reason, love – in short basically all that we value in life - are rendered figments of our brain's mental states with no actual ontological ground. And how universally accepted epistemic principles such as Occam's razor are massively violated by the most popular attempts of describing (1). The naturalist will respond that she can (in principle) explain why the human brain produces the mental state “naturalism is plagued with absurdities”, but this doesn't make them stop being absurdities from the person's point of view.

Thirdly, point out the huge existential advantages of theism. Granted theism and naturalism are both possibly true, and overlooking our natural judgment about naturalism's many absurdities, I suggest a very powerful argument is to demonstrate that the theist will have a better life than the naturalist. Better is the sense of more beautiful and more happy. And that argument is not so much told as lived. It was thus that Christ moved human history, not by carefully crafted philosophical argument.

Vand83 said...

"I have also strong misgivings about hellism and exclusivism that characterize much of official Christianity today".

What exactly does this have to do with the OP?

JesseM said...

"Personally I doubt that A-T metaphysics is the best ground here, I find Berkeley's idealism more plausible and elegant."

Have you considered the possibility of naturalistic panpsychism of the kind David Chalmers makes some arguments for in his book The Conscious Mind? Naturalistic panpsychism also be potentially combined with pantheism as in the work of Timothy Sprigge (who proposes that all of our experiences are part of a single Absolute experience, see his book The Vindication of Absolute Idealism), perhaps even a kind of panentheism as in Teilhard de Chardin and others who've taken inspiration from his "Omega Point" notion of God as a sort of ultimate endpoint to the evolution of more complex forms of consciousness in the universe. These aren't ideas most naturalists would endorse but they still fit within a broadly naturalistic worldview, and would be also be compatible with the notion that computational systems can have consciousness.

Red said...

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

...point out all the absurdities that the naturalistic view entails, such as that free will, beauty, justice, reason, love – in short basically all that we value in life - are rendered figments of our brain's mental states with no actual ontological ground.

Haven't you come across Sean Carroll's Poetic Naturalism? All these phenomenon are grounded in different ways we talk about the world. Consciousness and Rationality is to be understood in sense of Weak Emergentism

Also some non physicalist options are also available to naturalist such as Panpsychism as one comment above also point out, Rosenberg's Liberal Naturalism is another ..

Jeremy Taylor said...


Your overview of the naturalistic position takes on board none of the criticisms of non-naturalists, including those that our host himself has made.


There is an alternative to the notion of matter united with form, a sort of pure Platonism (or Pythagorism) in which the physical universe is itself nothing more than a complex mathematical form, which naturally can contain other mathematical forms (like computations) as substructures.

This seems to have only the loosest relationship to pure Platonism or Pythagoreanism. Where is the one and dyad, the limit and the unlimited? It seems to take the realm of mathematical entities - which is distinct from the realm of the ideal numbers and lower than all forms - and sets it up on its own.

In Platonism, mathematical entities certainly are certainly made up of form and matter. Their matter is subtle or psychic rather than corporeal, in Platonism. As Giovanni Reale puts it, they are midway between intelligible and sensible entities. They are intelligible entities in being immobile and eternal, and yet sensible (or, better, individual and corporeal) in being many of the same kind. The Platonist certainly affirms matter and prime matter - this is what the dyad or the unlimited refers.

Don Jindra said...

Daniel Carriere,

There's too much there to answer tonight, but I'll start.

"On the standard textbook definition, computation is defined syntactically in terms of symbol manipulation."

My doubts begin with that. As I tried to explain above, in reality we cannot separate syntax from semantics. Computers do not perform computational operations over meaningless syntactical structures. Though computers do perform operations on symbols, those symbols do have meaning at the highest level of the program. If symbols had no meaning there would be no reason to perform any operation on them at all. As an input, one symbol could not be preferred over another. We could randomly pick our input, which would imply syntax itself is frivolous. To have syntax, the symbols have to have *some* meaning even if that meaning is no more than subject vs. predicate vs. object. So to claim computation is simply symbol manipulation seems to me to be misleading. It's true only at the most superficial level.

"Syntax, in short, is not intrinsic to physics."

It's not clear to me exactly what Searle means by this. Syntax is applicable to language. I wouldn't expect it or love to apply to the rotation of the planets. But he claims it leads to the following: "If computation is defined in terms of the assignment of syntax then everything would be a digital computer, because any object whatever could have syntactical ascriptions made to it. You could describe anything in terms of O's and l's." I take that sentence to be absurd. So it leads me to believe the reasoning that led to the absurdity is also absurd, which reflects badly on what he means by "Syntax, in short, is not intrinsic to physics." I suggest that "computation is defined in terms of the assignment of syntax" is the culprit. At best it's an incomplete definition of computing.

OTOH, if Searle means syntax cannot ever be explained by purely physical behavior, he's begging the question.

JesseM said...

Jeremy, I was really using Platonism in the loose sense of what modern philosophers call mathematical Platonism, rather than suggesting the ideas I mentioned would match with his entire philosophy...and when I said "or Pythagorism" I was just referring to some general notion of "all is number". In any case, my understanding is that there's not much certainty about Pythagoras' original teachings, for example the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy article on Pythagoreanism here seems to indicate that the one and the dyad are only known to be linked to Pythagoras by the "Neopythagoreans" after Plato had already written about these ideas. As for Plato, is the idea of the Forms being made up of "subtle or psychic" matter something that can be found in any of his original dialogues, or is that an idea that's found in later writers like the Neoplatonists?

Jeremy Taylor said...

Jesse M

I suppose I was mislead by the term pure.

We possess proof of the doctrines of the school of Pythagoras from at least the fourth century BC, and there seems little reason to suspect these doctrines radically changed in their core. You'd have to take an excessively sceptical position on ancient sources to come to such a conclusion. It may be the case that Pythagoras himself was a collective name, much like Orpheus or Hermes Trismegistus was, but this doesn't change what the school itself taught. Yes, this school certainly interbred with Platonism (Plato himself was more or less an unorthodox Pythagorean, with Eleatic influences), but we have enough evidence to understand the central doctrines of the early Pythagoreans.

It is not forms that have a psychic or subtle matter. The forms have matter, because they reflect the One and all that is separate from the it has a matter in which it exists. This doctrine Plato himself states in the Philebus. This is the doctrine of one and dyad, the limit and the unlimited. But the what has psychical or subtle matter is mathematical entities (though not the ideal numbers), amongst other things. This is the same matter as souls and the world soul possess. As Aristotle puts it:

Further, he [Plato] states that besides sensible things and the Forms there exists an intermediate class, the objects of mathematics,3 which differ from sensible things in being eternal and immutable, and from the Forms in that there are many similar objects of mathematics, whereas each Form is itself unique.

This is, though, directly deducible from Platonic principles. The Platonist holds that all that can be known, such as mathematical entities, has being and an appropriate mode of being. The matter in question follows from the nature of mathematical entities. (this shows the folly of the attempt of some moderns to try to create some radical divergence between Plato and later antique Platonists for simply extending Plato's doctrines)

Jeremy Taylor said...

I think, incidentally, when you mentioned the one and the dyad, you had in mind the Platonic idea of the One (with an upper case O). I wasn't ascribing this notion to the earliest Pythagoreans. The Pythagoreans certainly had an idea of the one as unity, and the dyad as multiplicity (after all, this was part of their idea of the symbolic importance of number), but you are correct it would be more controversial to ascribe to them a belief in the Platonic One. I meant that the both Plato believed in the one and the dyad, and the Pythagoreans the limit and the unlimited. These are more or less synonymous terms, and it seems to be the Pythagoreans who influenced Plato here, as Aristotle implies.

Daniel Carriere said...

"On the standard textbook definition, computation is defined syntactically in terms of symbol manipulation."

My doubts begin with that. As I tried to explain above, in reality we cannot separate syntax from semantics. Computers do not perform computational operations over meaningless syntactical structures.

I think Searle says that syntax is necessary for semantics, but not sufficient in itself for semantics (i.e. something more is needed in addition to syntax). I think you would agree that there is nothing within the syntax itself that necessarily produces the semantic layer.
For example, I can use Java, C++, Cobol, or SQL to perform very similar tasks. There is nothing intrinsic to these programming languages other than the fact that we humans have built them to serve these semantic ends. So syntax is interchangeable and also hardware is interchangeable. I can run the same program on an Intel, HP-UX, AIX, or Solaris machine.

I think the question is really, where does the syntax derive its meaning? In the case of computers, it is clearly from the programmer. And the output of such a machine might be some conceptual information that displays on a screen that a human being can then interpret if they know the language, or some kind of command such as run the vi program or start the automotive assembly line robots.

Would you agree?


Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser,

Can you do a post about how a Thomist might respond to Kim's exclusion argument?

Thursday said...

This seems relevant to our host's argument:

Mark said...

I have a question for Dr. Feser

What issues would you have with distinctions in God being formal distinctions in the sense that Scotus viewed them? I have seen a defense of the Trinity based upon using these concepts. Just as attributes like mercy and justice are formally distinct in God, so are the persons of the Trinity. So, when one says that there is only one god, that means one substance, the persons are not distinct as far as separate substances, though their distinctions are formal. It allows one to escape the problems usually associated with the Athanasian Creed. It does not achieve the Plotinian level of divine simplicity, though Scotus claims to adhere to divine simplicity, but how can any version of the Trinity achieve Plotinian level of divine simplicity, since there has to be some type of distinction, and any way we understand that distinction and give an example will violate Plotinian level of DS. Even if the God knowing himself is the Son, and loving himself is the Holy Spirit makes a distinction between love and knowledge, which if made identical would result in a binity, and then there would be a difference between God and his act of knowledge/love, and the subject and object distinction.

Though to my original point, is the problem with formal distinction is that it lacks a principle of unity. There seems to lack a form which unifies all of the other forms together to make God what he is. There does seem to be the idea that since the attributes in God are infinite, in this infinity they become identical. Could one then argue that there is some eminent form that unifies them all together that can't be known because of its infinite nature.

Don Jindra said...

Daniel Carriere,

Here's a very simple c statement:


If the ';' is missing, the compiler generates a syntax error. Why is it an error? Because the semicolon means, 'end of statement.' The '++' is an operator. It could be '--' instead. But in the syntax of this statement, the compiler expects an operator. It can't be a variable. It can't be 'if' or 'for', etc. It could be an equal sign and an assignment statement. My point is, the tokens in a syntactical sentence or statement have a meaning. It's not necessarily the whole meaning of the token, but the token must have some sort of meaning. Without meaning, syntax makes no sense. All syntactical constructions in language assume some sort of meaning in the tokens. Computers must distinguish between tokens and symbols in order to manipulate them. The only way the program can do that is to recognize a difference in meaning. So when Searle states, "But what about semantics? After all, programs are purely syntactical." -- I say that's false. It's false because Searle uses the word 'syntax' improperly. He uses it as a collection of meaningless tokens. But meaningless tokens cannot have a syntax.

In short, Searle's systax/semantics dichtomy is false. It's probably true that syntax is necessary for semantics. But it's also true that semantics is necessary for syntax. So Searle wastes our time when he discusses his meaningless syntax. Every line of reasoning based on syntax exclusive of semantics is questionable.

I'll skip a lot of Searle's pointless filler about multiple realizability and get to the more interesting, "The ascription of syntactical properties is always relative to an agent or observer who treats certain physical phenomena as syntactical." The important question now becomes, What counts as an observer? Does Searle have a compelling reason to rule out computers as observers either now or in the future of computing?

"I think the question is really, where does the syntax derive its meaning?"

Yes, that brings up the other important question: What is meaning? Without answering those two questions, we're not even addressing the issue. I don't remember Searle answering those questions.

SMack said...

I think it's fair to say that a *compiled* program is purely syntactical, Don Jindra, and that is probably more apt for this particular argument. (Of course, not every compiled sequence will run as a program, but that is just to say it will halt quickly).

(Still interested in a reply to my above question if you have the time, Dr. Feser).

Don Jindra said...


A compiled program is equivalent to an assembly language program. You still have the problem that the tokens mean something. If we take it to the binary machine executable, same thing. The stream of bits have a meaning. Bit fields indicate specific registers or addressing modes for example. Syntax still has semantic content.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi everyone,

For those who are interested, there's an online discussion about Ed's latest post here:

My comment is here:

Feel free to join in.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Vand83,

”What exactly does this have to do with the OP?”

I was arguing that since naturalism (property construed) is possibly true, we can only argue by *comparing* the reasonableness and the existential usefulness of naturalism and theism. Which entails that we should make certain we use the strongest version of theism. In this context I stated my impression that hellism and exclusivism are dead weights, that subjective idealism is the most plausible and elegant theistic metaphysics, and that John Hick's theodicy is the best answer to the problem of evil.

Of course my judgments could be wrong. Can anybody point a source that argues that on theism A-T metaphysics is to be preferred to subjective idealism?

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ JesseM,

”Have you considered the possibility of naturalistic panpsychism of the kind David Chalmers makes some arguments for in his book The Conscious Mind?”

Chalmers's panpsychism is compatible with my (1)-(2) above. (2) refers to our human conscious experience but does not exclude the possibility that, say, thermostats also have experiences. If one wishes to explain *how* (2) comes about then it makes sense to speculate, but the naturalist can posit (2) as a basic principle of reality. Incidentally on naturalism (1)-(2) entail epiphenomenalism.

I think it makes no sense to attack a different version of naturalism than (1)-(2), for the following reasons:

a) Propositions (1) and (2) are almost certainly true.
b) Propositions (1) and (2) are sufficient for grounding a robust mechanistic worldview.
c) Adding something to (1) and (2) is a risky proposition.

Suppose the theist goes by (c) and adds something to naturalism before attacking it. If the attack is successful then the naturalist will simply point out that the theist constructed a weak naturalism. Now conversely suppose the naturalist who realizes the many absurdities and existential disadvantages that (1)-(2) naturalism entails adds some more foundations to it (perhaps a moral final cause). I think such a project cannot succeed. Why not? Because if the whole of the human condition can be explained by (1) and (2) anything one might add will either be seen to be irrelevant, or else would turn out to be something akin to supernaturalism.

Incidentally please observe that on theism (1) and (2) are still true, but they don't in any way delimit theism's premises. I have a short argument which shows that classical theism's views about God's special providence as well as human free will can obtain in a world in which (1) are (2) are true. Here the original discussion.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Red,

”Haven't you come across Sean Carroll's Poetic Naturalism?”

Given that naturalism is possibly true, perhaps we ourselves live in a naturalistic reality. Still we do experience beauty, we do create things of beauty, we do overcome evil and do good, we do find meaning in our lives, and so on. But if you are a naturalist then you have to believe these are all figments produced by your brain, and this view greatly reduces their value. The serious naturalist will find herself trying to find ways to fool herself in order for her life not to become too miserable, but the more rational she is the less she will succeed. Any way you cut it, naturalism is a very ugly worldview.

SMack said...

@Don Jindra, I don't really agree at this point. Sure, machine code has semantic meaning -- and nobody has questioned that programs do have semantic meaning. But it is no longer the case in machine code that the syntax encodes much or (depending on the machine) any of that meaning. At least for some choices of computers, there will be no byte that is disallowed from appearing in any particular place. It will have different semantic meaning depending where it appears (for example, as part of an op code or as part of an address), but syntactically, it's just byte byte byte byte byte. Unlike the C case where, as you correctly pointed out, there are different kinds of things that can appear in different places, and that has semantic significance.

SMack said...

Note that when I say that nobody has questioned that programs do have semantic meaning, I of course mean because programs, and computers, ARE human artifacts with meaning. Whether they have independent meaning is, naturally, at issue.

Anonymous said...

Don and Dianelos in one thread. What an intellectual treat we are in for!

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
Noam Chomsky gives the famous sentence "Colorless green dreams sleep furiously." It is a syntactically well-formed sentence but it is semantic nonsense. This would seem to contradict your statement that "it's also true that semantics is necessary for syntax."

Don Jindra said...


Yes, the chip will try to execute any byte stream you give it. If there are no illegal instructions, no byte stream is un-executable. Nevertheless, that random byte stream is interpreted semantically. Every instruction means something to the cpu, even if the executed program means nothing to us. Now, you could say I'm playing fast and loose with 'meaning' but, imo, the nature of meaning is the crux of the problem. What exactly does meaning consist of? Why can it not be something as simple as unconscious interpretation of byte streams?

Searle does indeed claim that syntax has no semantic content. His argument depends on it. That's why he spends so much time there.

As you point out, ultimately Searle claims computers, as human artifacts, can have no independent ability to find meaning. The meaning they find is supposedly derivative in a way the meaning we find is not. I'd like him to explain in detail what meaning is, and why therefore a computer necessarily lacks an ability for it. As I've explained, I think the syntax/semantic route is unavailable to him. Then I'd like him to explain why computers as artifacts cannot at some point be considered independent of us.

Tim Finlay,

I almost used that same sentence as an example. We know it's a well formed sentence for the very reasons I've already given. We know 'colorless' and 'green' are adjectives properly applied to the subject 'dreams', etc... We know the 'placement' meaning of those tokens. That's meaning even if it's a very partial or primitive meaning of those tokens. But in this case a little bit of meaning is all I need.

SMack said...

Don Jindra,

You may disagree with Searle, but your earlier *argument* against Searle is made unavailable by the example you just agreed to. In the example at hand, the syntax (byte byte byte...), though not altogether trivial, is completely divorced from the semantics (at whatever level it exists). So your argument that syntax contains semantics simply doesn't apply, undercutting your argument. Any program can be written (semantics), and any program can be run (syntax), but knowing only the syntax would tell you NOTHING about the semantics (contra, say, C).

Don Jindra said...


I provide a link to the x86 ADD instruction. Here you will find the mnemonic representation and syntax of the variations of that instruction along with the byte code encodings. Take a look at the meaning of the MOD-REG-R/M Byte at 27, for example. As a guy who has spent many years working in x86 assembly language, I find the assertion that the opcodes and various bit fields have no semantic content hopelessly unpersuasive.

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
Your claim, if I understand it, is that "Colorless green dreams sleep furiously" at least has the meaning "adjective adjective noun verb adverb"
But that string has external meaning only. Intrinsically, it is equivalent to "category1 category1 category2 category3 category4." The syntax tells you nothing about the semantics.

Mr. Green said...

SMack: yet it appears to correctly identify the source of syntactic information driving the robot; and then it is easy to call whatever process is happening to that data "computation," if we so desire.

Sure, we can always call it "computation", just as we can call the molecular states of Searle's wall "running WordPerfect". But all we're doing is making up a name for the behaviour we observe; as Ross's argument notes, all behaviour is indeterminate with regard to meaning, so if we insist that the behaviour is all there is, we are denying that there really is any meaning utlimately. (Note that you said "interpreted as bits" — it's impossible to get beyond mere behaviour without some kind of interpretation, i.e. bringing in determining semantics from somewhere else... and if we ourselves were nothing more than further bundles of behaviour, there would be nowhere to bring that meaning from!)

And it seems to me that, for the reasons I stated, given perfect information about the physical state of a computer, it's in principle perfectly possible to say what algorithm it is running.

Well, we can tell whether the machine's behaviour is consistent with an implementation of addition or of quaddition — again, just as we can tell whether a wall is consistent with an implementation of WordPerfect. But that's not terribly useful, since (and again this is Ross's point) there are many, many different meanings that could be interpreted from the same set of behaviour. Indeed, not all implementations of quaddition are consistent with addition, but the reverse is not true: The program "print x + y" is a perfectly good implementation of quaddition... as long as you interpret symbols like "57 + 1 = 58" to mean "fifty-seven quad one equals five". (And why shouldn't you interpret them that way? The computer doesn't mean "fifty-eight" when it displays "5" and "8" on the screen — it's doing nothing but performing behaviour that lights up certain pixels. It's up to you to interpret the arrangement of pixels as being digits, and the digits as being Arabic numerals, and the leftmost digit to represent the tens' place, and so on. Again, at some point the chain of behaviour has to terminate in an actual mind that actually means things if we are ever to get to an interpretation.)

SMack said...

@Don Jindra,

You're misreading what I write. I'm being quite precise -- please read it carefully. My assertion is not that the opcodes and assembly language have no semantic meaning. That would indeed be risible. My assertion is that you could know everything about the syntax of machine language (not assembler, machine language), and still know nothing about the semantics. (Particularly -- to simplify -- on a machine in which every stream of bytes was a syntactically correct program)

@Mr. Green,

Thank you very much for the reply! I'm going to think it over and reply, because I'm very slow with this stuff.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Don Jindra,

“Now, you could say I'm playing fast and loose with 'meaning' but, imo, the nature of meaning is the crux of the problem. What exactly does meaning consist of? Why can it not be something as simple as unconscious interpretation of byte streams?”

My immediate response is that no, meaning requires conscious awareness. Many common concepts (such as will, beauty, purpose, justice, good and evil) seem to require conscious awareness. Since we ourselves exist exclusively in a space of conscious experience (we live in a mental space if you will) virtually all the concepts we use when we think are colored by this fact. It is therefore rather tricky to take us out of the picture. It is not tricky to think of a world without any conscious awareness in it; it is tricky to think which of the concepts we use would apply to it.

Perhaps you've heard of David Chalmers's “zombie world” - let's call it “Z”. Z is a material world with a different kind of matter than ours, namely one which has all the properties described in out scientific books but does not produce conscious experience, nor is in some configurations identical to conscious experience, nor is such that conscious experience supervenes on it, and so on. In short in Z there is no conscious experience; no mental facts obtain in Z. Moreover Z happens to have evolved exactly like ours, in other words all physical facts of Z are identical to ours. For example in Z there are z-humans having the same z-discussion we are having right now. Since our discussion has semantic content it would seem the corresponding z-discussion in Z must have semantic content too. I mean, why not? Or at the very least z-books which teach math to z-children would have semantic content. (By “world X contains meaning” I mean “world X is such that it makes sense to use the concept of meaning in propositions about that world”, so for example if a z-book has semantic content then z-books have meaning and thus the Z world contains meaning.)

Now consider another possible world “C” which is a simple cellular automaton that produces a complex sequence of 1's and 0's. Is there meaning in C? Clearly not. What is there to have meaning? It's just a cellular automaton producing 1's and 0's. There is no meaning in some part of C in contrast to any other part of C that lacks meaning.

Suppose now one discovers that there is simple mathematical rule that makes C isomorphic to Z's physical state at the fundamental level of particles. If Z has meaning then C has meaning too. But whether C has meaning or not must be an intrinsic property of C, and cannot depend on the possible existence of some isomorphic relation with Z, or with any number of other worlds we might find plausible to believe contain meaning.

To push the point let's consider another world “Pi” which is the decimal expansion of pi. Assume now there exists a simple mathematical rule that makes Pi isomorphic to Z. Would that make Pi contain meaning too?

The simplest and most economical way out of the conundrum is to assert that meaning exists only in worlds with conscious awareness. If not then meaning becomes a magical property that might exist in all complex structures – which kind of defeats its own meaning; defeats the reason we use the concept of meaning in the first place. The state of the fat droplets in the milk I just swirled around in my coffee might have some deep meaning, if only I knew.

On the off-chance anybody might agree with me so far, here some more questions to ponder:

Does life exist in Z? (My first answer, yes)

Does intelligent life exist in Z? (yes)

Does intelligence exist in Z? (no)

Don Jindra said...


"My assertion is that you could know everything about the syntax of machine language (not assembler, machine language), and still know nothing about the semantics. (Particularly -- to simplify -- on a machine in which every stream of bytes was a syntactically correct program)"

You seem to agree there is semantic meaning in the syntactical relations of a single opcode, but that a random collection of opcodes is syntactically correct yet meaningless.

1) Syntax is normally applied to a sentence, not to a paragraph or an essay. To speak of a meaningless program is to speak of a meaningless essay. It's not about syntax. All sentences in a meaningless essay could be syntactically okay. The issue I've been addressing is Searle's assertion that syntax has no semantics. Your example is another issue which I will answer anyway.

2) A random collection of opcodes is equivalent to some of the crazy homeless people in LA. They speak sentences but the collection is meaningless as far as I can tell. Your random collection of opcodes is like those crazy people -- an case that doesn't apply to a normal, functional human being or program.

3a) But that homeless person probably *does* think his gibberish has meaning. It has meaning to him, anyway. It doesn't have to have meaning to me or you because Searle tells us: "The ascription of syntactical properties is always relative to an agent or observer who treats certain physical phenomena as syntactical." Searle applies this observer relative notion to meaning too. Therefore meaning is a subjective phenomenon. For Searle the brain is a subjectivity engine (though he might prefer organ). Computational processes are outputs from and inputs to that subjectivity engine. Searle can't claim that subjective, first person interpretation is at the same time a "fact of the matter." His subjective interpretations of computational processes do not rise to facts of the matter. Truth is, though he implies otherwise, Searle has denied facts of the matter. He's high on opinion.

3b) Searle is just a variation of Ross. As I mentioned in the Ross thread, their fundamental position is, "Man is the Measure of all Things." I deny man's interpretation of physical phenomenon can be considered objective truth, or truth in a philosophically satisfying sense. If Searle wishes to claim an objective truth about nature, he's going to have to base his reasons on more than an agent's POV. He's going to have to find standards outside of human beings. In that regard, he's going to have to explain why a computer executing any program, even a program that's nonsense to us, is necessarily gibberish in an objective sense. IOW, he's going to have to explain why the computer cannot be considered an agent executing computer-meaningful algorithms, no matter what humans think of the matter.

Don Jindra said...

Tim Finlay,

We agree that the sentence is nonsense. But I don't see how you can claim the categories of adjective noun verb & adverb are meaningless. I know my grade school English teachers would have disagreed.

Dianelos Georgoudis,

I'm going to take the reckless position that meaning does not require consciousness. Meaning is trust upon us through biology and experience. It's not normally, if ever, a conscious choice. If it's a hot summer day, it means the beaches will be crowded whether I'm conscious of it or not.

SMack said...

Don Jindra,

I'm going to ignore your points 3, which mount a different argument against Searle than the one I am arguing against (and which I don't particularly follow). The argument I'm arguing against is the one in which the following was a foundational statement:

"Without meaning, syntax makes no sense. All syntactical constructions in language assume some sort of meaning in the tokens."

and your conclusion,

"In short, Searle's systax/semantics dichtomy is false. It's probably true that syntax is necessary for semantics. But it's also true that semantics is necessary for syntax."

My point is that I have refuted this. Given a machine in which every string of bytes was a valid program, somebody who understood this could write a syntactically correct program -- or for that matter, could check the syntax of a program that was given to him (which might be a sophisticated program that did something, written by somebody else), even without knowing a single thing about the semantics, or ever having heard of an op code or a variable.

This would be true even for moderately more restrictive syntaxes. For example, it might be the case that every fourth byte had to be at most 0x8F. This would still be easy to check, even without any knowledge of why (which might be, say, that the machine had only 128 operations, or 4-bit addressing, or whatever). My point is this: when it comes to machine languages, knowledge of syntax does not imply ANY knowledge of semantics. You could teach somebody to check syntax without understanding the semantics, and that person could not be completely sure that there were any semantics at all.

So your argument -- *that* argument -- fails. Whether your other arguments succeed, I will leave aside for now.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Don Jindra,

I was not discussing how conscious beings come to know about meaning. We all agree that in this world there are things with meaning (say, symbols, algorithms, the gospel according to John) and we agree that there are ways by which we know that meaning.

I tried to respond to a question you had asked, namely “Why can [meaning] not be something as simple as unconscious interpretation of byte streams?”. I took it this was an ontological question, namely whether meaning may exist at the absence of consciousness.

Now the rest of my comment has become too long since it discusses the different paths by which Searle and I arrive at the conclusion that computation is user-relative, the relationship between physics and metaphysics, what this implies for epistemology, and how in my view both Searle and Feser commit the same kind of epistemological mistake while arguing about the use of the concept of computation in scientific explanations. It would take four posts to upload my comment in the current discussion, and since I felt uncomfortable using up so much space here I decided to post it as a PDF document here instead.

A final quick comment. You write ”semantics is necessary for syntax”

There is syntax that has semantic content and syntax that hasn't. Not surprisingly one normally uses the first kind. Here's an example of the second kind, which I define by the following production rules:

“x” is a syntactically correct string.
If S is a syntactically correct string so is the concatenation of S, “a”, and S

This syntax defines the strings “x”, “xax”, “xaxaxax”, and so on. But curries no semantic content whatsoever.

Don Jindra said...


In c, for example, syntax applies to a statement which may include multiple lines (as in the 'for' statement). But there is none of that in machine code. There is no syntax rule that says I have to use the stack pointer as a stack pointer. There is no syntax rule that says I must group instructions as subprograms. There is no syntax in your argument. Plus, for a follower of Searle, there is no fact of the matter anyway.

SMack said...

Don Jindra,

Precisely. Thus your argument fails.

Don Jindra said...


Since you seem to agree there is no syntax in your example, your rebuttal fails. For I don't claim syntax is everywhere. I claim that where it is, there is necessarily some meaning. Without semantics of some sort, we could recognize no syntax.

Don Jindra said...

Dianelos Georgoudis,

How do you recognize 'x' versus 'a' versus something that isn't either 'x' or 'a' without placing some significance on those symbols? The symbols themselves are special symbols, according to your rule. Your rule makes their placement significant. A sequence that falls outside your rules is considered wrong. Wrongness alone implies meaning. Anything with significance or anything that recognizes a rightness versus wrongness has meaning, no matter how trivial that meaning is.

I will gladly look at your pdf. But from my perspective, meaning does not necessarily need conscious awareness. Years ago I was asked for my definition. I would make some adjustments now.

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,

If you read my post carefully you will see that I did not say that the categories of adjective, noun, verb and adverb are meaningless.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Don Jindra,

I have the feeling you are conflating the concepts of “information” and of “meaning”. It would appear that information always carries meaning, but this isn't so. So for example there is information about the shape of “x”, but that information carries no meaning. Indeed which mark one chooses for a symbol has no relevance; the example of syntax I gave would be identical if instead of “x” and “a” one would use any other letters, digits, colors, sounds, or whatever is identifiable as two different things in our experience of life, or in other words transmits one bit of information.

Incidentally, the “x”s and “a”s in my example should not be thought of as symbols. The concept of symbol entails what a symbol is a symbol of [1]. For example ink marks on paper forming the shape BREAD are a symbol of the stuff we eat only as long as English speaking people exist, or at least as the association of these ink marks with bread may have some effect (perhaps an alien civilization visiting Earth after some extinction event would be able to discover that association). When no such factual connection (if only as a potential) exists, then the same marks stop being a symbol. I am stating the general ontological rule that for X to exist, X must at least potentially have some effect to the rest of reality. For a mark to be a symbol it must be the case that it being a symbol matters, at least potentially. Atheists are right when they ridicule the “invisible elephant in my garage” story, so it's the theist's (easy) burden to explain the many ways in which God is not invisible.

Now the crux of the matter in our discussion is the meaning of “meaning”. In some cases it's not necessary to give a definition, but to use only something everybody agrees holds on the definition. For example in my argument I use the idea that it's not the case that all complex state of affairs carry some meaning.

Speaking of meaning, it is impressive how much philosophical effort is wasted (both in discussion and in one's own thought) because of vagueness in this matter. Socrates famously liked to ask people what they thought a particular word meant, and would start a discussion around this task. He was right; once there is clarity about the meaning of concepts it would seem half the philosophical problems fall away. I was thinking about our own faith and how absolutely central concepts are regularly misunderstood. So, for example, “faith” is not about belief, “repentance” is not about regretting, “punishment for sin” is not about God's judgment, “grace” concerns the ontological connection between creature and creator and is not something amenable to be accepted or not accepted, “church” is not an organization, “Christianity” is not a belief system. I was thinking that at least theology is not something to be explained or argued for, but something to be described. (The cognitive faculty of faith is precisely about recognizing the truth of a non-trivial something in its mere description; a related meaning of faith is to have trust in that recognition, that is to let that recognition affect one's manner of being.) But even in the context of philosophy, perhaps a didactic method would be to just write down a dictionary of concepts and let the reader realize the natural relationship between the concepts. The teacher tries to have her pupil's mind get ordered and therefore powerful; instead of trying to affect that order directly perhaps the best way is to present her pupil with solid building blocks and let the student realize how these fit together in an ordered whole.

[1] In the example you gave above “;” symbolizes the end of an instruction; So perhaps it's fair to say that a syntax that includes symbols is a syntax that carries some meaning.

Don Jindra said...

Tim Finlay,

I know you didn't say that the categories of adjective, noun, verb and adverb are meaningless. You implied that if we considered them category1 category1 category2 category3 & category4 instead, that would make a difference. I assume you're saying that where we humans see an adjective a computer would see category1. This, you suggest, would make category1 meaningless. I claim otherwise. The mere separation into categories makes them meaningful. That isn't meaning imposed from outside. It's part of the program that parses through the input using internal rules. Those rules impose meaning.

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
You have done a good job with this last comment of clarifying where the disagreement between us lies. You see the mere separation into categories and the parsing through the input using internal rules as having meaning. I do not.
I do not have the space here to give an account of meaning. Meaning involves something that can be communicated--it is connected with what J. L. Austin calls "illocutionary acts." The best account of sentence meaning that I am aware of is William P. Alston's "Illocutionary Acts & Sentence Meaning." Subsentential units such as nouns and verbs would be analyzed in terms of what they contribute to sentence meaning--the province of semantics. I concede that Alston is not a physicalist and that you would disagree with his metaphysics. But even the theorists working on the topic of meaning who are physicalists, such as Stephen Schiffer, do not regard the mere separation into categories and the parsing through the input using internal rules as having meaning.

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
Can you find support for your position from any theorist that has worked on the topic of meaning? From David Chalmers' "Meaning and Communication," Donald Davidson's "Truth and Meaning," Paul Grice's "Utterer's Meaning, Sentence-Meaning and Word-Meaning," Gilbert Ryle's "The Theory of Meaning," Stephen Schiffer's "Meaning," John Searle's "Expression and Meaning," P. F. Strawson's "On Referring," and Daniel Vanderveken's, "Meaning and Speech-Acts"?
Many of these scholars are physicalists/materialists or property dualists. Some end up arguing that meaning does not exist. But, as far as I am aware, none of them support your minimalist understanding of meaning.

SMack said...

Don Jindra,

Certainly there is syntax in my example. For example, I said that every fourth byte had to be no more than 0x8F. That is a syntactical requirement. Even the requirement to be a string of bytes is a (very light) syntactical requirement.

In any event, if you really think there is no syntax in my example, then your argument fails even worse, because my example concerns the kind of language that computers actually use. If you found and studied a computer as a physical object, machine language is the most you could ever hope to find, and if you agree there's no syntax (and thus certainly no semantics), then you've abandoned your claim.

scbrownlhrm said...

Given the talk of “algorithms” and so on, there is this excerpt from


".....Manzi is clearer on the issue of final causality. Coyne seems to think that to attribute purposiveness to evolution entails seeing the human species, specifically, as having somehow been the end result toward which natural selection was working; and he trots out the usual ad hominem response to critics of Darwinism to the effect that they just can’t handle evolution’s humbling implications, blah blah blah. But as Manzi notes, this completely misses the point. Let the human race be as cosmically insignificant as you like; neither our existence nor that of any other particular species is at all relevant to the question of evolution’s “purposiveness.” The point is rather that Darwinism claims to identify an “algorithm” by means of which natural processes generate new species. And if this “algorithm” talk is taken seriously, then (to put things more strongly than Manzi does) it necessarily entails, given the nature of algorithms, that there is an end-state towards which the processes in question point – not, to be sure, the generation of some particular species (human or otherwise) at some temporal culmination point, but rather the (in principle non-stop) generation of species after species meeting certain abstract criteria of fitness. (It is an error to think that the existence of final causes in biology would entail some sort of “omega point” a la Teilhard de Chardin. Aristotle, after all, believed that the motion of the heavenly spheres was both teleological – since the spheres were in his view moved by their “desire” to emulate the Unmoved Mover – and also endless. His physics and astronomy were mistaken, but that does not affect the philosophical point about the nature of teleology. Even if evolution proceeds forever, that would not make it non-teleological.)...."

End quote.

Daniel Carriere said...

That is a good segue into Aristotle's Revenge scbrownlhrm. As he says:

"For Searle’s critique to be decisive, he needs not only to give
an argument against the claim that computation is intrinsic to the natural
world, but also to show that there are no good positive arguments
for the claim that it is intrinsic to the natural world. Are there any good
positive arguments for that claim?"

How strong is his case contra Searle?


Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ scbrownlhrm (how do you pronounce that?)

Interesting. The idea I take it is this (the quoted wording is from Feser's article):

The Darwinian algorithm or process A is “intrinsically directed towards some outcome” B, say the adaptation of species in a variable environment. “If a cause A regularly generates a certain specific effect or range of effects B, rather than C or D, or no effect at all, that can only be because generating B is the end or outcome toward which A intrinsically points or is directed”. In A-T metaphysics we call B the final cause of A. Thus, natural evolution (aka the Darwinian algorithm or process) has a final cause. In general the naturalists who claim that in nature there are no final causes are mistaken.

I'd say that the example from natural evolution works very well. But on A-T metaphysics final causes are supposed to be necessary for the complete description (or complete understanding) of any thing. I have two problems in the case of apples:

First, I wonder what the final cause of an apple is. The effect or range of effects an apple tends to produce is either to fall from the tree to rot on the ground or be eaten by some animal, or to be picked by human hands to ultimately be eaten in some form. So far so good. I might think that the final cause of apples is to be eaten (either by microorganisms, or by some animal, or by humans). But where do I make the cut that defines the “range of effects” that define the final cause? Why not make the cut earlier and say that the final cause of the apple is to be separated from the apple tree (either by gravity or by hands)? Or why not make the cut further down the future and claim that the final cause is the spreading around of the apple's genes when the eaten seeds are expelled in a propitious environment?

Secondly, why do I need the final cause of apples for a full description of apples? Suppose I systematically avoid giving any thought to the final cause of apples and stick only with the physical state of all its parts and how each of these parts will mechanistically evolve - what do I miss as far as the knowledge about what an apple intrinsically is? The answer cannot be that I would then miss the fact that apples are for being eaten, for I would find that out by tracing the mechanical evolution of the apple's parts within nature.

I want to say that I am not antagonizing A-T metaphysics here. I can see it makes sense. The way I see it it says that to understand any X you must understand what it is concretely (the material cause) and abstractly (the formal cause), as well as how it connects with the rest of reality and thus hence it comes (the efficient cause) and where it goes (the final cause). My criticism is that this description is redundant in the sense that the formal three when applied to everything there is suffice.

scbrownlhrm said...


"....Or why not make the cut further down the future and claim that the final cause is the spreading around of the apple's genes when the eaten seeds are expelled in a propitious environment.....?"

The insufficiency is not that you (...we...) can land on eating apples but that you (...we...) have to arbitrarily stop "there". You've got an as-if.

You (...we...) must keep going.

The X which swims in the ocean cannot define the ocean. If there is internal finality / final causes in X, you will need to follow through to the Ocean in which X swims. Anything less in fact sums to an X in want of all the facts.

Short of *GOD* -- short of that mammoth fountainhead that is the immutable Decree which factually bookends "Reality" all that is the "....seamless continuum of particles (or whatever) in motion...." carries on and lands neither in life nor in love nor in the intentional but in the lifeless, the indifferent, and the purposeless.

That then forces our hand at the birth and death of a universe -- but as Hawking and Carroll remind us, that itself is illusory as our entire frame of reference is itself -- also -- in the end -- illusory.

In short, one has to follow through to the bitter ends of time and physicality. And let's be clear: time and physicality do end. Our current reality being folded up (...somewhere in II Peter...) and a New Physics in a New Eternal in a New Creation is fine but such leaves the former short of all the facts.

Anything less than following through is a kind of "ontic-cheat" immersed in the arbitrary, in what can never *be* more than an As-If.

And Reason as truth-finder is obligated to chase after *facts*, after what *is*. Contra Hume -Tis contrary to reason to define the whole world by the scratching of my finger.

scbrownlhrm said...


The "D.D." was a mistake. It should have been D.G. etc.....

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ scbrownlhrm,

If what you are saying is that in order to know the final cause of the apple one much know all of its effects through all of reality up to the end time – then A-T's claim that to know X one must know its four causes becomes kind of vacuous, doesn't it?

I suppose the sensible thing to say is “the better one understands the four causes of X the better one understands X”. I don't think anybody can disagree with this. I mean if the final cause of X ,,is how X with tend to evolve, then there isn't any reason for a naturalist to deny the existence of final causes either. After all that's what physical science does all the time: predict how a physical system will evolve.

scbrownlhrm said...


One does not need to know all of X's effects to the end of time. One needs to know where X lands on the other side of time. There's a difference. If you don't know where X lands, then you don't know the ontology of X. In fact, if you don't know where X lands, you don't know where X begins. All you've got (then) is an arbitrary cutting point. "Whence X?" and "Whereto X?" are not answered by any such arbitrary cutting point and in fact are only answered by that mammoth wellspring of all ontological possibility which in fact bookends "reality". You can claim that space/time are immutable, but what physical science does all the time is predict how physical systems in fact fail to lay claim to that. One has not addressed the bookends, and therefore one's X streams from and goes to one know not where. Hume was intellectually honest there. At least he had that going for him.

scbrownlhrm said...


Typo correction:

You can claim that space/time are immutable, but what physical science does all the time is predict how physical systems in fact fail to lay claim to that. One has not addressed the bookends, and therefore one's X streams from and goes to one knows not where. Hume was intellectually honest there. At least he had that going for him.

scbrownlhrm said...


AT-Meta does not claims that X is its own metaphysical wellspring. It's own source. Rather, natural theology leads one onward, and outward, and Godward. Else absurdity. Else Hume's vacuous ends for reason to fix upon.

scbrownlhrm said...


A few more typo corrections:

A-T Meta does not claim that X is its own metaphysical wellspring. Its own source. Rather, natural theology leads one onward, and outward, and Godward. Else absurdity. Else Hume's vacuous ends for reason to fix upon.

Don Jindra said...


"Certainly there is syntax in my example. For example, I said that every fourth byte had to be no more than 0x8F. That is a syntactical requirement."

I was referring to your random byte stream example. I already addressed the 'fourth byte' example in my answer to Dianelos Georgoudis: Anything with significance or anything that recognizes a rightness versus wrongness has meaning, no matter how trivial that meaning is.

Dianelos Georgoudis,

We will disagree on information. Information is inherently meaningful. You could change symbol to token or 'thing' in my response and it wouldn't make a difference from my POV. But we agree that our concepts of these terms needs work.

Tim Finlay,

Meaning is a requirement in communication. That's obviously true. I don't know how important this statement is: "Meaning involves something that can be communicated." Meaning occurs internally in an individual without communicating that meaning outside the individual. Yet we could consider nerves to brain a communication too. Or sensor to cpu. Btw, I'm not be beholding to the opinions of philosophers. I don't look to them for support. I'm more interested in this as an engineering problem.

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
I take your point that a person's thought has meaning even if it is never communicated; but my statement that "Meaning involves something that CAN be communicated" allows for it.

I teach Biblical Hebrew and am interested in how meaning is conveyed. This involves studying the works of experts in Hebrew grammar and linguistics--Gesenius, Jouon, Waltke, O'Connor, Davidson, Driver, Muraoka, Blau--as well as experts in grammar and linguistics in general (Fromkin, Rodman, Pinker, Saussure) and experts in philosophy of language that discuss meaning (some of the people mentioned in my previous post). This is common sense. I do not look to engineers for this topic. This also is common sense. I read engineers when I want to learn about differential gearing or aircraft design.

Of course, someone from an engineering background can become an expert in linguistics. Andrey Korsakov was an engineer whose study of aspect and tense in the English indicative has certain parallels with the work of S. R. Driver regarding the imperfect or prefect tense in Hebrew (which Driver argues is largely aspectual). I once chaired a panel at the National Association of Professors of Hebrew which included the engineer Dean Forbes, co-writer of Biblical Hebrew Grammar Visualized. But it is in their capacities as grammarians or linguists or philosophers of language, not as engineers, that they contribute to the discussion of meaning.

When philosophers of language discuss units below the level of sentence, or at least clause, unfortunately they do often generalize from what is the case in English and assume that is true in the case of other languages. If I remember correctly, Ed's friend David Oderberg does this in an otherwise excellent essay with regards to words and morphemes. The role played by the word in English is pretty much that played by the word segment in Hebrew. A Hebrew word might have three word segments, each associated with its own lemma. Likewise, the role played by a letter in the Hebrew consonontal alphabet or abjad is not quite the same as the role played by a letter in the Greek or English alphabets. There are important differences with syllables as well.

scbrownlhrm said...

On Atheistic teleology, Non-Theist Fincke writes:

Quote: "Teleology should not be at all out of bounds for atheists. Teleologists do not need to posit that there is an intelligent goal-giver who gives natural beings purposes to fulfill, as many theists think…... I am an atheistic virtue ethicist requiring no divine agency for the teleological dimensions of my ethics to make minimal sense and have minimal coherence. I am just describing purely naturalistically occurring patterns as universals or forms. I am saying that since humans’ very natures are constituted by a specific set of powers, fulfilling them is incumbent on humans as the beings that we are. It is irrational and a practical contradiction to destroy the very precondition of our own being (all things being equal). We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves....." End quote.

That comes up short of the ontic for various reasons. The discussion is at

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
I left a long comment but it has not appeared. I shall summarize.
I agree that one's personal unexpressed thought has meaning even if it is not communicated. That is why I wrote, "Meaning involves something that CAN be communicated," not something that must be communicated.
The people that I look to for how meaning is expressed are grammarians, linguistics experts and philosophers of language, not engineers.

Anonymous said...

Don Jindra,
I teach Biblical Hebrew. There are different levels of language analysis in Hebrew as in other languages. For some projects on the Dead Sea Scrolls, I have even been involved at the sub-letter level i.e. paleographic analysis of which stroke in a letter was written first, and what angle the strokes occur to determine whether a scroll fragment comes from the Hasmonean period or the Herodian period. Then there is the phonemic level, which involves phonology; and above that the study of syllables (more important in Hebrew than in English); and above that the word segment level which involves morphology. In Hebrew, a word may contain two or three word segments, each of which has a corresponding lemma (dictionary form of a word). This is the provenance of the lexicographer. But the basic unit of communication in Hebrew is the clause (corresponding to Alston's sentential act). It is through clauses, or clause surrogates, that we assert, direct, promise, and express our emotions. You don't analyze meaning through paleography. Nor do you analyze meaning through engineering.

Don Jindra said...

Anonymous & Tim Finlay,

Humans saw birds fly. They wanted to fly too. Engineers solved the problem, not philosophers. Engineers regularly solve problems in a decisive way. Implementation of meaning is just another problem.

Tim Finlay said...

Don Jindra,
Engineers didn't invent language. They didn't invent meaning. They didn't invent logical deduction. This is not to disparage engineering.
I disparage neither engineering nor paleography in my remarks. There are different domains of knowledge. And if engineers want to know about rules of deduction, they do not read a book on engineering but a book about logic, a branch of philosophy. If engineers want to learn about how meaning is expressed through language, they read books on lexicography, grammar, linguistics, semantics, and philosophy of language. This is common sense.
Engineers can learn about these fields and then make contributions themselves. Dean Forbes, who was once on a panel I chaired at the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, was an engineer who co-wrote "Biblical Hebrew Grammar Visualised." I don't disparage engineers; you do seem to disparage philosophy. So why do you read this blog?

scbrownlhrm said...

I think one *must* cut out the philosophical half of knowledge in order to get rid of the meaning-half of meaning. That way all that's left is non-meaning half of meaning there within gravity and particle. Problem solved.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Don Jindra,

”Information is inherently meaningful.”

I disagree. Consider the word “LOVE” scratched on a rock. It carries both information and meaning at least for an English speaking person. But consider an identical rock existing by chance in a world with no English speaking people. In that world it would still carry information (four scratches on a rock) but would carry no meaning. Shannon's theory of information studies strings of bits, not at all caring what their meaning is or indeed if they have any meaning. On the other hand there is more to information than that theory; for example how red looks like carries information (after all red does not look like blue) but cannot be represented by a string of bits. Thus it seems meaning is not an *inherent* property of information. (At the end of this comment we'll see an example of information that carries no meaning whatsoever.)

By pure chance today I saw a short lesson by Feynman about mathematics and physics. There he suggests that there is no meaning in math. I think he is clearly wrong: The mathematical proposition “there is no greatest prime number” is clearly meaningful. I understand what it means, and I can see why it is true.

So what is meaning? The dictionary definitions are not helpful, indeed as far as I can see some are circular (such as “what is intended to be expressed”). In philosophy one finds little about meaning except that it is related to truth. On the other hand truth means nothing unless one already understands the meaning of a proposition. It seems meaning is one of these things you know what they are when you see them.

I'd say meaning is what makes something interesting to the mind. I am in fact interested to know about how people use the word “love” or what it is in their experience of life they express through that word - and that's what gives meaning to that word. I am interested in the properties of prime numbers and that's why mathematical propositions about prime numbers strike me as meaningful. Assembly language (or even machine language) syntax is interesting for you and that's why you say it's meaningful. I am interested in the properties of the number five, and that makes each item in a list of such properties meaningful. I am interested in what properties make an animal a horse, and thus universals are meaningful.

Whatever we think is useful is also interesting, but I am not sure whether it goes the other way too. I find it interesting to know whether other people experience red and green like I do and not inversely (see the inverse spectrum paradox) and that's why the corresponding proposition is meaningful and I would like to know its truth value – but there doesn't seem to be any clear usefulness in knowing the truth of the matter.

I think the definition of meaning as that which makes something interesting to our mind comports pretty well with the normal use of the concept. According to this definition though there is no meaning at the absence of a mind, at the absence of some conscious “contemplator”. So nothing in the zombie world has meaning – there everything just mechanically evolves with no meaning, no beauty, no reason, no freedom, no purpose. Of course when *we* contemplate a mechanism we may see meaning, beauty, reason, and so on, in it.

We know that consciousness exists in the real world, for we exist in the real world. Now in the real world there is little I can think of that exists and in which I have zero interest, from which follows that little that exists has no meaning. But I can think of some exceptions. Suppose for the heck of it I connect a true random source (say some quantum system) to a computer and have it print out random 1's and 0's. Suppose the first bits printed are “10000101” That string of printed numbers exist, but I have no interest in its value, and thus it carries no meaning. Which fits rather well. Random bits carry information but no meaning.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

I was thinking that we humans are psychological beings, and that psychology plays a role in everything we do. Now modern science showed that anthropocentrism is not required for explaining phenomena, and often leads people to error. So we found out that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, that the universe is much larger than is needed for any human purpose, that the species including the human species can be understood as the result of impersonal purposeless processes. Philosophers, not wishing to be seen as less smart than scientists, tried then to similarly free philosophy from any all-too-human premises.

But many concepts we use in our everyday life – freedom, purpose, beauty, goodness, reason, meaning, and indeed much of what we value in life - are grounded on the human condition, or at least on a metaphysical view in which personhood is fundamental. Nevertheless the philosophers who fancied themselves scientifically-minded tried to make away with the human factor. So they try to describe freedom of will as some kind of illusion or even something incoherent, given that it made no sense on scientism. Today some philosophers insist that scientific results prove that there is no freedom of will. That there is no purpose in reality was an easy one; the concept of purpose simply describes a particular state of the brain which tends to produce action. Similarly there is no beauty in reality, our sense of beauty too is made by our brains, and explanations are offered why natural evolution would evolve brain that have that sense. Reason is a harder nut; but I suppose a naturalist could also reduce reason to a figment of the brain, what one feels when one uses reasoning rules which are proven effective in one's interaction with the natural world. If the naturalist tries, she can also reduce meaning to a brain state, perhaps one one that reflects the brain's propensity to organize data into adaptively useful chunks.

So it's not like the naturalist cannot describe a mechanistic world which would produce all our experience of life. The problem for naturalism is that the world it describes is by itself devoid of freedom, of purpose, of beauty, of reason, of meaning. Which is not only a sorry understanding of the reality, but also paradoxical. After all it does seem obvious that some pieces of information have intrinsic meaning, that one refers to an intrinsic matter of fact when one says that Halle Berry is more beautiful than Winston Churchill, that it as a matter of fact better to help a child in need than to torture it, that reason describes objective facts – whatever human brain states might there be. The paradox is that while naturalists try to describe a non-anthropocentric worldview, they end up reducing much of what has meaning back to the human brain. On the contrary the theist has no trouble describing a world in which all the above mentioned obvious facts obtain, whether there is or there isn't a human brain around.

Don Jindra said...

Tim Finlay,

By coincidence I'm reading Gellner's Words and Things (which is ironically about meaning). Gellner disparages Wittgenstein's school of philosophy. Nothing new in that. There's a long history of philosophers disparaging other schools of philosophy. Philosophers helped give birth to modern science and engineering. Scientists and engineers are, in fact, practicing philosophers. You seem to be saying that my school of philosophy doesn't have the tools to approach this problem. I claim my school of philosophy is well suited to solve this problem. Time will tell.

I read this blog because philosophic discussions interest me.

Don Jindra said...


We humans tend to make ourselves the center of the universe. From that POV, if things mean something to us then meaning itself must have a noble quality. But maybe it's not so noble and not very unique. Maybe it *does* reside entirely within gravity and particle.

Don Jindra said...

Dianelos Georgoudis,

If we don't even know what meaning is, I have to admit we cannot conclusively determine if it's possible to have information without it. But I think information sans meaning is identical to information as meaninglessness which is identical to information as nonsense. That seems to make information a nonsense conveying term.

"how red looks like carries information (after all red does not look like blue) but cannot be represented by a string of bits."

That begs the question and, I think, will ultimately be shown false.

"Assembly language (or even machine language) syntax is interesting for you and that's why you say it's meaningful."

You have moved the same problem to a term named 'interesting'.

"According to this definition though there is no meaning at the absence of a mind, at the absence of some conscious “contemplator”. So nothing in the zombie world has meaning – there everything just mechanically evolves with no meaning, no beauty, no reason, no freedom, no purpose."

Honestly, this zombie argument does nothing for me. If a zombie reacts to its environment, its environment obviously means something to it. Whether it finds beauty in anything in it or not is irrelevant. I reject the notion that emotion *must* be invoked for meaning -- although for us humans it may be difficult to think of it in ourselves in any other way.

"Suppose the first bits printed are '10000101'. That string of printed numbers exist, but I have no interest in its value, and thus it carries no meaning."

We can agree that not everything with a meaning has to mean something to every observer. But your example got me thinking. Meaning is an input. As output only it makes no sense. If there is no outside 'observer' to appreciate the output as input, there must at least be a feedback (or satisfaction) component.