Monday, November 4, 2013

Ross and Right Thinking

I was watching Marjoe last night, winner of best documentary at the 1972 Academy Awards. It's about a child evangelist who never believed. Nevertheless, he easily duped the unsuspecting out of $10 donations. It's a sad and almost scary portrait of how some people in the 20th and 21st centuries are still stuck in a 12th century irrationality.

The first thing one is tempted to think about Marjoe's victims is that they're simply ignorant. If only they went to college and learned how to think critically we could do away with manipulative nonsense. But that's not the case. Education seems to have little to do with the power of manipulative nonsense. I've met, and I'm sure you've met, some highly educated people who don't know how to think straight and some rather uneducated ones who do.

I recently got involved in some discussions which drive home this point. The topic was Immaterial Aspects of Thought, by James Ross. It's a paper which purports to prove human minds cannot be merely physical things. There's got to be something non-physical going on inside our heads. But the paper is an exercise in sloppy reasoning.

Why fuss about a paper on an obscure topic that has no effect on daily life? First, because as a computer programmer, the topic of How the Brain Works interests me. Second, and maybe most importantly, I'm interested because people like Ross and Feser have an agenda. Once they dupe people into believing our brains cannot think on their own, they'll sneak in a divine substance that does the thinking for us -- or is us. Then we of this magical substance are free to float to heaven when our physical brains die. Or something like that.

Now to the paper.

Early, Ross states, "I can reason in the form, modus ponens ("If p then q"; "p"; "therefore, q"). Reasoning by modus ponens requires that no incompossible form also be 'realized' (in the same sense) by what I have done. Reasoning in that form is thinking in a way that is truth-preserving for all cases that realize the form. What is done cannot, therefore, be indeterminate among structures, some of which are not truth preserving."

What do these strange sentences mean? (I have a theory that badly written sentences such as these are often an attempt to hide poor thinking or trivial points.)

Let's take the following example of modus ponens.

If I throw a rock up, it will fall down.

I threw a rock up.
Therefore it will fall down.

In practice it works like this. If I lob a rock high in the air toward your general direction, you're likely to duck. You know the routine. The rock goes up, it's coming down. It's an easy conclusion to draw without studying one hour of philosophy. That's about all modus ponens means.

Now suppose I lobbed that rock toward a dog. It's likely to react like you do. So do dogs think modus ponens? By their reactions we could say they must, even though they aren't aware of it. Ross ignores the possibility that the "structure" of modus ponens might be built right into our brains -- maybe in all brains of all species. More importantly, he ignores the possibility that this structure is no more than a path of least resistance in our brains. In that regard, following the path of modus ponens is like following the rock's path as determined by laws of gravity. It's not clear at all that there's a fundamental difference in the two. Maybe our brains are wired to follow "paths" like this.

Ross characterizes modus ponens as abstract, formal thinking. Most of us would likely do the same. It's human nature to think we're brilliant. We can say, if it's Monday, John will be at work. On Monday we draw the brilliant conclusion John is at work. We can replace the p and q with all sorts of neat possibilities. Ross finds significance in that. But we can throw a water balloon as well as a rock. Both follow the same laws of gravity. Whatever we throw, that object's trajectory is "truth preserving for all relevant cases" too. If it's "impossible by virtue of the form" of modus ponens "to proceed from truth to falsity," then it's also impossible by virtue of the laws of gravity to proceed as if those laws were wishy-washy.

The structure of the universe is about as general as anything we know. How is this general, predictable, law-abiding structure of the universe any different than the general, predictable, law-abiding structure of modus ponens -- and potentially the brain? Fact is, Ross assumes, but nowhere proves, that structures in the brain cannot be "of the form" of modus ponens.

Ross then adds another example. He proposes squaring of numbers as a "pure" function. What he means by a "pure" function is anyone's guess. This is how he explains it: "a definite form (N X N = N^2) is 'squaring' for all relevant cases, whether or not we are able to process the digits, or talk long enough to give the answer."

First, he ignores the fact that N X N = N^2 is merely us defining "squaring" by using the human defined language of math instead of English. It's descriptive. There's no thinking involved yet. I've got to presume a "pure" function has an essence way beyond any descriptive language, including math.

Second, he avoids any real distinction between what he does in his head and what a computer does with logic gates. The truth is, both have general algorithms they implement to square any number, and there's no reason to think those algorithms are not fundamentally the same. I've implemented such algorithms in a computer and I've done it using the same processes I learned in elementary school.

Ross then gets to addition, presumably because squaring is just a specific case of addition. He makes this statement: "There is a great difference between adding incorrectly and doing something else, like guessing, estimating, or following a routine or algorithm." What is this great difference? "The adding I am talking about ... is a form of understanding."

I wish he had made this statement first. It would have saved me some trouble. Everything up to this point has been irrelevant. Ross merely means that humans "understand" the math and logic they do whereas computers do not. Through understanding we know precisely what we are doing when we add 2+2 and get 4. This is what Ross calls "determinate." Yet what do we really mean when we add those numbers? Two what? Two apples? Two dollars? This is what I would call undetermined. Using Ross's standard, the indeterminate nature of 2 means we don't have a specific, determinate meaning in mind. This is the nature of math and of formal languages in general. Math is designed to mean anything depending on what we want it to mean.

Ross tries to explain: "This is a claim about the ability exercised in a single case, the ability to think in a form that is sum-giving for every sum, a definite thought form distinct from every other." But this muddles the issue. He jumps from "meaning" to some vague thought process. "Meaning" in this context is vague enough on its own. What is this "definite thought form" if not an algorithm? He doesn't explain. He just expects us to believe it must be fundamentally distinct from what a computer does. The burden of proof is still on him to show us what that difference is. So far all we can guess is that it has something to do with "meaning."

But Ross lacks precise definitions of his terms. When we add, right or wrong, we really do mean it. We kick ourselves if we're wrong. It's hard to disagree with that. For some unclear reason this is very important to Ross:

"The trait that determines the tail of the comet, the trait that 'settles every relevant case, including all countercases,' marks the contrast with any physical process: a physical process has no feature that can do that."

Yet Ross has not shown that the physical brain has no feature that can do this. That's his assumption for sure, but assumptions have no weight when the object is to prove the assumption. Nevertheless, he admits this boldfaced assertion, this begging of the question, "grounds my main argument." Somehow he thinks this presumption makes it "logically impossible" for what happens in the brain "to be a consequence of any physical process, or function among physical processes, whatever."

I repeat, nowhere has he demonstrated this either logically or empirically. He has merely wasted our time discussing what he thinks a "pure" function must do to be "determinate." This had nothing to do with the only important thing to be considered, that is, why we should believe the physical processes in the brain cannot do what he claims for his ideal, semi-physical mind. Nor has he shown how his concept of a semi-physical mind is different than the physical brain. He simply assumes they are different.

Next he goes to the trouble of telling us why we should consider physical processes indeterminate. As examples he uses calculators, computers, adding machines, and falling bodies. I could argue that calculators are determinate in the sense Ross is using it. I could also argue that falling bodies follow well-established laws of gravitation. But all of that would be a waste of time. His point seems to be that we could describe these things in multiple ways including the wrong ways. This is trivially true. There's no doubt Ptolemy described the workings of the solar system quite differently than Newton. But were both equally correct? I would hope Ross escaped the 12th century enough to know both descriptions are not equally valid. There is a truth to the matter even though we are never exactly correct with our current models. But again, this is simply a waste of time. It's a tangent that misses the crucial issue.

Now we come to the error that any first-year philosophy student should have seen. Ross has gone to the trouble of giving us examples he claims exhibit indeterminate processes. These are calculators, computers, adding machines, and falling bodies -- purely physical bodies for sure. He's sure none of these exhibit determinate processes. Since they're all physical, we're supposed to keep our eye on that so he can pull the wool over our eyes with his free hand. But guess what he leaves out of the "purely physical" list? People! He conveniently excludes humans from his physical examples as if humans should not be considered part of his ideal physical universe. This simply begs the question in a most outrageous way.

This is the way Feser describes the logic:

(1) All formal thinking is determinate, but
(2) No physical process is determinate, so
(3) No formal thinking is a physical process.

The flaw in the logic passes straight over Feser's head. So I'll explain so even a right-wing professor of philosophy might understand. Notice what (2) expects of us. Formal thinking is in category (1). Physical processes are in category (2). So right from the beginning Ross has separated "formal thinking" from "physical processes." But he provides no evidence these belong in separate categories. No materialist would accept they belong in separate categories. A materialist would insist that "formal thinking" is a subset of "physical processes." Yet (3) exclaims, " WOW, we've just proven 'No formal thinking is a physical process!'" Ross has merely proven he can restate what he assumed to begin with. The human counter-examples to his thesis are shoved over into a non-physical category. Why? Because that's exactly what he wants to prove. He expects us to go along for the ride. Humans think determinately. So let's put them in a non-physical category because we don't want them to dirty up our assumptions. It's all so easy when we assume what we want to prove.

Nowhere does Ross explain how Ross can add 2+2. Ross would agree Ross can add. But nowhere does he explain why his ability to add belongs in this non-physical category. He just assumes his audience will accept examples designed and trimmed to fit neatly into his conclusion.

Ross's last attack is on those who would be stupid enough to deny humans can think determinately. He writes:

"We cannot really add, conjoin, or do modus ponens? Now that is expensive. In fact, the cost of saying we only simulate the pure functions is astronomical. For in order to maintain that the processes are basically material, the philosopher has to deny outright that we do the very things we had claimed all along that we do. Yet our doing these things is essential to the reliability of our reasoning."

Ross must first show us why the "simulation" which gets the correct answer is inferior to his proposed "pure" function. Let's not forget "simulation" is Ross's characterization, not the physicalist's. If "simulated" modus ponens works as well as any other scheme Ross can imagine, then there's no expense whatsoever. If the computer is asked via input for the output of 2+2, is the answer given of 4 a mere simulated truth? Ross has never established a precise difference between a "pure" function and a simulated one. That doesn't stop him from asking others to do that for him. To those who might object that only simulated functions exit, Ross asks for a "worked-out contrast between adding (which no one, apparently, can do) and simulating adding." This request would be more compelling if he had bothered to work-out that contrast himself for his own argument.

His only criteria for that contrast seems to be that we know what we're doing whereas the computer does not. So the truth of the matter is not in the physical facts themselves, but rather in how we interpret them or use them. It sets up humans as final arbiters of truth. All truth statements become human convention. We are allowed to interpret the facts of nature like Derrida interprets literary text. This is the post-modern world of the Aristotelian-Thomas philosopher.

In the end Ross has made only one trivial point: We sometimes mean what we claim we mean, which is odd since it's difficult to see what nature means (he claims). He has not shown that the minds that sometimes contemplate odd things must be immaterial to do that.

-- Don Jindra


Gerard O'Neill said...

Claiming that something is immaterial immediately puts you outside the realms of the empirical, thus any demand for physical proof can be met with the answer that the immaterial is outside the bounds of the knowable. It's intellectual hucksterism.

RC said...


A brief comment.

Modus ponens is a type of deductive argument, the validity of which depends strictly on form. Your rock-throwing examples seem to have to do with causal reasoning, which is not deductive. (You could claim that "if I do x, then y results" is a necessary truth, but it is difficult to find x's and y's such that your statement always comes out true.) So it seems that you and Ross are talking about different things.