Alan Turing

The “royal pardon” of Alan Turing is far too little far too late. But I am glad to see it. This story is so shameful that it needs to be etched firmly into everyone’s mind. When I used to lecture to students about the Turing Test I always made a point of telling the story. The injustice and stupidity of the old “gross indecency” laws and of prevailing popular attitudes are simply staggering. But please don’t think we are now free of such evil, especially where sex is concerned. I suggest we all respect an “Alan Turing day” once a year. Let me also add that apologies, however “royal”, are no substitute for right action and real restitution.

The Space Trap

In the next few days I will be publishing on Amazon a new edition of my 1992 novel, The Space Trap. It was originally published in hardback by Duckworth, before the advent of e-books. I have now (with invaluable help) prepared an electronic version of it with extensive revisions. It will be available on Kindle and in paperback form. It is my hope that it will find a new generation of readers. (Let me note that, despite the title, it is not a science fiction novel, but a novel about home and abroad, confinement and liberation, moths and men.)

Comment on Review

A Review

 

I don’t as a rule reply to reviews of my books, but every rule has exceptions. Kerry McKenzie’s review of my Basic Structures of Reality in Mind calls for brief comment. There is much I could say about this review but I will confine myself to one very telling point. She pours scorn on my contention that physics is epistemologically limited in important ways—that physicists (and everyone else) are deeply ignorant of the intrinsic nature of the material world. She contrives to make it sound as if this view is an eccentricity dreamt up by me alone. The reader would never guess from her review that the view in question is derived from the work of Poincare, Russell, Eddington, Chomsky, Galen Strawson, Michael Lockwood, and many others. It is by no means original with me but entirely derivative and commonplace (I cite and quote these authors often). So I am placed by our intrepid reviewer in the same class as these ignorant nincompoops who don’t understand the first thing about physics. McKenzie never mentions any of these figures in her review in connection with the view in question. I wonder why not.

About other aspects of the review I will only remark that it is absolutely hysterical, ad hominem, and completely devoid of any sense of critical decency. Nor did I detect any real philosophy in it.

Logical Positivism

“Logical Positivism”

 

That’s an odd label for the view it purports to describe. The most conspicuous feature of the doctrine in question is its negative attitude toward traditional metaphysics: it is a form of philosophical “negativism” i.e. metaphysics is meaningless and should be abandoned. And what is with the adjective “logical” here? Doesn’t every philosophical doctrine regard itself as “logical”? Who would call their view “Illogical Idealism” or “Poorly Reasoned Relativism”? Doesn’t every proponent of a philosophical position take it to be both “logical” and “positive” (i.e. on the side of the good)? A better description of the doctrine would surely be “Methodological Negativism”, since it subscribes to the view that correct methodology excludes metaphysics. Or it might be called “Semantic Nihilism”, since it declares so much philosophical discourse to be devoid of meaning. But these labels don’t carry the same uplift. Doctrines often catch on because of catchy labels.

I think the phrase “logical positivism” well describes the pro-metaphysical metaphilosophy I favor: that all of philosophy is really logic (the a priori analysis of concepts), but that this conception is maximally inclusive, i.e. “positive”. Even the most non-empirical branches of metaphysics are respectable, because grounded in logic. There is nothing “negative” here! But to avoid confusion I might call this doctrine “Positive Logicism”.

The Origin of Ideas

The Origin of Ideas

Where do our ideas come from? What gives ideas their content? There is an old and natural story about this: call it the “exemplar theory”. Consider the idea of blue (the concept blue, the meaning of “blue”): it arises in the mind by virtue of perceptual contact with exemplary blue things—this contact with exemplars gives it the intentional content it has. We have an idea of a particular sensible quality, which objects can instantiate, and the idea has that content because of its origin in instances of the quality that are perceived by the subject. To be more explicit: the idea refers to a specific universal, viz. the color blue, and it does so as the product of two other relations—instantiation and perception. Particular objects instantiate the universal and then perceiving subjects encounter those instances and derive the concept from them. In some versions the derivation works by simple causation, as the perceived quality causes sensory experiences with the corresponding content; in other versions it is deemed necessary for the subject to perform an operation of abstraction on the perceived instance—the universal is abstracted from the encountered particular.[1] The essential point, however, is that the mind apprehends the universal by way of responding to instances of it in the perceived environment: this process is what mediates the referential link between mind and universal. We come to form an idea of a sensible quality like blue because we interact through our senses with the extension of that quality—with external objects that exemplify it. The exemplar establishes the idea in our mind.

We can think of the exemplar theory as an account of emergence that offers a kind of reduction. Intentionality emerges from a basis in perception of instances: the mind grasps the universal by encountering instances of it—the grasping supervenes on the encountering. Alternatively, the apprehension of universals reduces to the Read more



[1] Locke introduces the notion of abstraction in chapter XI, section 9, of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Penguin Books, 1997), ed. Roger Woolhouse (followed by the charmingly named section “Brutes Abstract Not”). Earlier he states his basic thesis thus: “First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, doconvey into the mind, several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways, wherein those objects do affect them: and thus we come by those ideas, we have ofyellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities, which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions.” 109-10. Notice here the emphasis on external objects: the senses convey the qualities of objects outside of us into the mind—they don’t just present subjective impressions quite distinct from such objects. Just as I think about external objects by perceiving them, so I think about their qualities by perceiving them. I venture to suggest that this is not just a broad philosophical tradition, associated with empiricism, but also the view of common sense: it just seemsobvious that we derive our ideas of the qualities of things by perceiving those qualities inthings. So if this view proves false, a chunk of common sense collapses.

Hitch 22

Hitchens

 

I’ve just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch 22, a sad but stimulating experience. Among many sage observations, he tells us how much he values a sense of the absurd and an ironic mind, as well as linguistic playfulness. Despotisms always seem to be literal-minded, pedestrian, humorless, and linguistically repressive—as well as fanatical and violent. Hitchens always stood for reason and jocularity (he is hilarious on the erstwhile American male fashion of wearing pants that are several inches too short, the better to display the spindly male ankle in all its pale and hairy glory). He also believes deeply in friendship—real friendship, not associations-of-convenience. In friendship there must be honesty and the trust that goes with it. We must always be on the lookout for the inwardly frothing maniac with the calm exterior, the cold-eyed fanatic. Ideologues are always with us, in new guises and with new agendas. Whenever someone is willing to do great harm to others in the service of some alleged “cause” be alert for a new brand of fascism. Hitchens represents intelligence and humor, as against the unsmiling stupidity of the totalitarian mind.