On Philosophers & Scientists Using Old Words in New Ways

Ludwig Wittgenstein - second from the right.

i) Introduction ii) P.M.S. Hacker Against New Uses of Old Words iii) David Chalmers on Stipulation iv) “Information” and “Computation” v) “Philosophy” vi) “Consciousness” vii) “Existence” viii) “Thinking” and “Cognition”

Philosophers and scientists often use old words in new ways. Indeed they often use old words in very peculiar and particular new ways.

Think of how scientists use the words “string” (as in string theory), “time”, “particle”, “spin” (as in a particle’s spin), “information”, “wave” (as in wavefunction), “code” (as in the genetic code), “packet” (as in wave packet), “vacuum”, “beauty”, “proof”, “chaos”, “memory” (as in a computer’s memory) and so on. Now also think of how philosophers use the words “truth”, “world”, “existence” (see later), “object”, “representation”, “meaning”, “realism”, “concrete”, “imply”, “world” and so on.

Yet it just so happens that some philosophers don’t like the way other philosophers — and scientists - use old words in new ways. (This position dates back to the Thomas Reid in the 18th century — or perhaps even further back than that.) Or at least such philosophers don’t like specific examples of philosophers — and scientists — using everyday terms in novel and peculiar new ways.

P.M.S. Hacker

The English philosopher P.M.S. Hacker believes in what’s called the “linguistic-therapeutic approach to philosophy; as originally advanced by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Hacker believes that the words and concepts used by everyday people should be taken as given by philosophers. Consequently, he sees the role of philosophy (as did Wittgenstein) as one of dissolving (or resolving) philosophical problems by examining (among other things) how words are actually used in everyday life. More precisely, Hacker deems such philosophical problems to be primarily conceptual in nature. To him, this also means that these problems can be dissolved (or resolved) purely by “linguistic analysis”.

Clearly this philosophical stance is related to what was once called ordinary language philosophy.

This was a philosophical stance (rather than a specific school) which saw traditional philosophical problems as being rooted in the misunderstandings philosophers make when they distort or change everyday words. The upshot was that — to use the words in the title — using old words in new ways can often create philosophical problems, not solve them.

Hacker himself holds a very strong position on the philosophers and scientists who use old words (or terms) in ways that are radically at odds with everyday usage.

So, just to give a taster of this, here is a handful of passages from Hacker’s ‘Languages, Minds and Brains’ contribution to the book Mindwaves:

“But, of course, there is no picture in the visual cortex representing what we see.”
“There are no symbols in the brain that by their array express a single proposition, let alone a proposition that is known to be true."
“[] I flounder in the mixed metaphors [] cells are not in the business of building perceptual concepts [] or any other kind of information in either sense of the term.”
“[W]hen biologists talk of the ‘genetic code’ they are not using the word ‘code’ in the sense in which a code is essentially related to a language…”
“[H]e comes perilously close to saying that when a person sees an object there is a map, a representation of the object. [] But now he must explain who or what sees or reads the map. If it is neither the mind nor a gnostic cell, what can it be?”

Yet despite all the above, philosophers and scientists aren’t the only culprits here. We are too! That is, everyday words often take on new meanings. Indeed it’s a commonplace to state that language changes and adapts. And even in everyday terms, the same word can be used in different ways in different contexts.

Consequently, is what some philosophers and scientists do really that different to what thefolk” do?

David Chalmers on Stipulation

The Australian philosopher David Chalmers often stresses the importance of what he calls “stipulation”. His basic point is that (at least as I read it) if we stipulate what we mean by a particular word, then the answers to any questions we have about facts, data, what x is, etc. must — at least partly — follow from such stipulations. Of course some people will be horrified by the argument that acts of stipulation are decisive when it comes to what we take to be matters of fact. But it’s not that simple.

Sure; there is a problem with over-stressing the importance of stipulation. (There may even be a problem with simply emphasising the importance of stipulation.) So Chalmers sums up this problem with a joke. He wrote:

“One might as well define ‘world peace’ as ‘a ham sandwich.’ Achieving world peace becomes much easier, but it is a hollow achievement.”

As it is, Chalmers only applies his joke to a single case: consciousness. Yet perhaps it can be applied to other cases too. Clearly, even someone who argues that stipulation is important won’t also accept that we can define the words “world peace” as “a ham sandwich”. In turn, some philosophers and laypersons will feel just as strongly about claiming that, say, a computer virus is alive (see here) or that bacteria learn (see here).

Here’s a question from Chalmers:

“Does a mouse have beliefs?”

Well, that depends on what we (or what individuals) mean by the word “belief”. Or, in Chalmers’ case, it depends on what philosophers mean by that word.

As just stated, Chalmers refers to “stipulation”. That is, if we stipulate what we mean by the word “belief”, then the answer to that question must — at least in part — follow from the stipulation.

To simplify.

If x, y and z constitute what it is for something to be a belief, then if a mouse displays (or instantiates) x, y and z, then it has a belief. This is of course a simplified story. That’s because agreement will also have to be made on what precisely x, y and z are, and then on whether not x, y and z are necessary and sufficient for belief. But however complicated this story turns out to be, stipulation will still remain part of it.

In the case of mice having beliefs at least, the following question can be asked:

Is (as it were) beliefness (like aliveness) something over and above the functional, structural and/or physical facts?

Again, Chalmers is keen to accept the importance of stipulation when it comes to such decisions. He also believes — at least as I see it — that much that passes for metaphysics is merely what he — and others — call “verbal dispute”. However, it’s still the case that in some cases (or in one single case!) there is a fact of the matter which makes at least some statements, concepts or theories plain wrong.

Now take Chalmers’ next question:

“Does a mouse have conscious experience?”

In this case, it isn’t all about stipulation or verbal dispute. That’s because Chalmers argues that

“[e]ither there is something that it is like to be a mouse or there is not, and it is not up to us to define the mouse’s experience into or out of existence”.

The Words “Information” and “Computation”

The word “information” has very different uses in science and philosophy. Some of these uses tend to differ markedly from the ones used in everyday life. Indeed we can use the words of Claude E. Shannon (deemed to be “the father of information theory”) to back this claim up. He wrote:

“It is hardly to be expected that a single concept of information would satisfactorily account for the numerous possible applications of this general field.”

The most important point to realise in this debate is that minds (or observers) are usually believed to be required in order to make information… information. However, information is also said to exist without minds (or observers). Some philosophers and physicists argue that information existed before human minds; and it will also exist after human minds disappear from the universe. This position, of course, raises lots of philosophical and semantic questions.

So it may help to compare information with knowledge. The latter clearly requires a person, mind or observer. The former, may not.

Take the position of David Chalmers (again) as a case in point.

Chalmers tells us that “information is everywhere”. He also tells us that there exists both “complex information processing” and “simpler information-processing”. Chalmers cites the case of a thermostat when it comes to simple information-processing (see here).

In the case of a thermostat, we can guess what information is taken to be. Basically, heat and cold can be deemed to be information. However, are heat and cold information actually for the thermostat? Indeed does that even matter? Or is it the case that the actions which are carried out on the heat and cold (by the thermostat) constitute information? Perhaps, more likely, it is the physical nature (its mechanical and physical innards) of a thermostat that constitutes its information.

It’s certainly the case that some — or even many — physicists and mathematicians don’t see information in a strictly philosophical or semantic way (see following section). For example, in contemporary physics such things as particles and fields are seen in informational terms. As for thermodynamics: if there’s an event which affects a dynamic system, then that too can read as being informational input into that system.

Information may well become information-for-us to such physicists. However, it’s still information before it becomes information-for-us.

Perhaps all this simply boils down to the particular definitions of the word “information”. What I mean by that is the way that some physicists define the word will make it the case that information needn’t be — in John Searle’s terms - “observer-relative”. On the other hand, the word “information” can be defined to make it the case that information must be — or always is — relative to persons (or minds).

Is there anything more to this dispute that rival definitions?

The American philosopher John Searle has just been mentioned. So now let’s look at his position on the words “computation” and “information”.

The Word “Computation”

John Searle has a problem with the overuse of the word “computation”. He cites the example of a window as a (to use Chalmers’ words) “maximally-simple” computer. Searle writes:

“[T]he window in front of me is a very simple computer. Window open = 1, window closed = 0. That is, if we accept Turing’s definition according to which anything to which you can assign a 0 and a 1 is a computer, then the window is a simple and trivial computer.”

In other words, does a window (as it were) contain information? By that I don’t mean the information that may exist in a window’s material and mechanical structure. (According to many informationalists, a window — being a physical thing — must contain information.) I mean to ask whether or not a window — like a thermostat — has information qua a technological device which is designed to be both opened and shut.

Searle’s basic point is that just about anything can be seen as a computer. Indeed in the field called pancomputationalism (just about) everything is deemed to be information. In these cases, if that information can be represented (or modelled), then it is a computational system.

Searle believes that these and other examples only display information-for-us.

Searle also has something more to say about information. He writes:

“[Christof Koch] is not saying that information causes consciousness; he is saying that certain information just is consciousness, and because information is everywhere, consciousness is everywhere.”

Searle has a problem. He concludes:

“I think that if you analyze this carefully, you will see that the view is incoherent. Consciousness is independent of an observer. I am conscious no matter what anybody thinks. But information is typically relative to observers.
“[]These sentences, for example, make sense only relative to our capacity to interpret them. So you can’t explain consciousness by saying it consists of information, because information exists only relative to consciousness.”

As for Chalmers’ (possibly) conscious thermostats, Searle has something to say on them too. He writes:

“I say about my thermostat that it perceives changes in the temperature; I say of my carburettor that it knows when to enrich the mixture; and I say of my computer that its memory is bigger than the memory of the computer I had last year.”

The Word “Philosophy”

Philosophy can be described in terms of how it’s been practised in the Western tradition. Alternatively, the word “philosophy” can be defined simply in terms of dictionary definitions or even according to its etymology.

The etymological approach isn’t very helpful. In basic terms, saying that the Greek word philosophia (or φιλοσοφία) means love of wisdom doesn’t help us much.

In addition, saying that philosophy was simply the “study of all examples of knowledge” (at least for some ancient Greeks) isn’t going to get us very far either. For a start, it simply raises the question: What is knowledge?

The English philosopher Bertrand Russell seems to have believed that when it comes to the definition of the word “philosophy” one can’t help but be pragmatic about the issue. In his The Wisdom of the West, Russell wrote:

“Definitions may be given in this way of any field where a body of definite knowledge exists. But philosophy cannot be so defined. Any definition is controversial and already embodies a philosophic attitude. The only way to find out what philosophy is, is to do philosophy.”

So it can now be said that this problem is also the case with the definitions of many other words. That’s unless one simply stipulates the following:

This is how this dictionary — or any S — defines the word w.

Thus, when it comes to the word “philosophy” at least, philosophers using this old word in new ways shouldn’t be too much of a problem when considering the fact that the old definition (or etymology) has become very vague and unhelpful.

The Word “Consciousness”

There’ve been countless definitions of the word “consciousness”. (Indeed there’ve also been hundreds of books on consciousness.) Discussing consciousness can often be pointless because the disputants are nearly always talking about different things when they talk about it. More relevantly, they define the word “consciousness” in very different ways. What’s more, many who talk (or write) about consciousness never actually get around to defining the word “consciousness” at all. True; they may have their own tacit (or unexpressed) pet definitions deep within their minds. However, they rarely explicate (or articulate) such definitions precisely or in any detail.

So perhaps it would also be wise to adopt a deflationary view of the word “consciousness”. And that’s precisely what the English philosopher Kathleen Wilkes did when she wrote that

“perhaps ‘consciousness’ is best seen as a sort of dummy-term like ‘thing’, useful for the flexibility that is assured by its lack of specific content”.

We can agree with Wilkes and see the word “consciousness” as a bundle-term. It is so because it has so many meanings, definitions and connotations.

However, if the word “consciousness” is indeed a dummy-term (or bundle-term), then surely spending any time on neat definitions may seem a little pointless. Then again and in the case of Wilkes’ other example of the word “thing”, if we can even define the word “thing” to some degree of approximation, then perhaps we can do the same with “consciousness”.

Historically speaking, the psychologists James Ward and Alexander Bain (writing at the end of the 19th century and as quoted by Edward Titchener) took a strong line against this ostensible liberalism (or pluralism) toward the word “consciousness”. Ward and Bain believed that it’s precisely the fact that this word is a dummy- term which traps us in the mud. They wrote:

“‘Consciousness’ is the vaguest, most protean, and most treacherous of psychological terms.”

With words like that, one can see how it didn’t take long for behaviourism to take up its (almost) hegemonic position (at least as regards consciousness) in psychology and philosophy in the 1920s and beyond.

In addition, judging by Professor Ward’s use of the word “protean”, one can also conclude that not only did he believe the word “consciousness” to be vague, he also believed that it’s often made to mean whatever any writer, philosopher or layperson wants it to mean. (Think here of how spiritualists or New Agers use the word “consciousness”.)

Thus, as a result of all this, the American philosopher and psychologist William James (writing at roughly the same time as Ward) didn’t offer his readers a single definition of the word “consciousness” in his long and well-known book Principles of Psychology.

And, a little later (in 1913), John B. Watson had this to say (in his paper ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it’) on the word “consciousness”:

“The time seems to have come when psychology must discard all references to consciousness. [] This suggested elimination of states of consciousness as proper objects of investigation in themselves will remove the barrier from psychology which exists between it and the other sciences.”

Of course Watson wasn’t too concerned with the definitions of the word “consciousness”. Instead he had a problem with consciousness itself. That problem was its non-scientific status. However, there’s a connection to be made here. Perhaps the philosophical positions on consciousness are multifarious and vague precisely because of the non-scientific (i.e., private) nature of the subject matter. If consciousness were as intersubjective a phenomenon as a cat or a neuron, then perhaps we wouldn’t have so many multifarious and vague definitions.

Now let’s bring this discussion a little more up to date and discuss the American philosopher Daniel Dennett for a moment. He’s generally thought of as rejecting consciousness entirely. Yet he doesn’t see it that way himself. Why is that? The main reason is that he uses the old word “consciousness” in very new ways.

That said, the first thing that many people may claim about Dennett’s position on consciousness (or what he takes consciousness to be) is that he doesn’t define the word “consciousness” at all. He either tells us what it’s not or (at least according to his detractors) he talks about something else entirely. (For example, he refers to such things as functions, brain processes, behavior, “verbal reports”, evolution, engineering and the like.)

Finally, if all the above is the case, then why should there be any problem whatsoever if a philosopher or scientist uses the word “consciousness” in a completely new way? Or, less problematically, why should there be a problem if a philosopher or scientist uses it a way that some people — or even many people — find disagreeable?

Now let’s move onto a word from metaphysics — “existence”.

The Word “Existence”

Here’s a relevant passage from the American philosopher Michael J. Loux:

“As [Alvin Plantinga] sees the claim of a possibility like Lewis that there exist things that do not actually exist verges on the incoherent; for, according to Plantinga, the only concept of existence we have is that of a thing that actually exists.”

What did David Lewis mean by the word “existence”? Does it matter if Lewis’s usage differs from the everyday definition of that word? Indeed does an everyday definition of the word “existence” so much as exist in the first place?

Specifically, is Lewis’s claim really “incoherent”? His claim may be false or metaphysically flawed; but is it necessarily incoherent? Well, that entirely depends on how Lewis (philosophically) used the word “exist”. And because Lewis used the word “exist” in a very specific way (and, in turn, he argued his case as to why he used it in that specific way), then his position might not have been incoherent at all.

What’s more, Alvin Plantinga must have known that Lewis was using the word “exist” in his own very specific and technical way. That’s partly because Plantinga himself was using the word “exist” in his own specific and technical way. Indeed Plantinga was certainly using other everyday words in his own very specific and technical ways. This means that Plantinga’s employment of everyday terms is just as bewildering to the layperson as Lewis’s. (If, in this case at least, perhaps slightly less so.) That said, Plantinga’s problem was that his usage (or his actual metaphysical position) of everyday words didn’t tie in with Lewis’s.

More specifically, Plantinga is wrong to claim that there is “only [one] concept of existence”. There is no single “concept of” any given word (or term). It’s true that some people’s concepts may be perverse or simply wrong — but that’s a different issue entirely. So, in this case at least, as soon as you buy into Lewis’s definitions (or his actual metaphysics), then all may fall into place. That doesn’t mean one should philosophically agree with Lewis. It simply means that he defined the word “existence” in his own way and therefore his definition (or actual metaphysics) isn’t necessarily “incoherent”.

Now take the following statement (which kind of sums up Plantinga’s position):

Possible worlds are abstracta which exist; though they don’t “actually exist”.

Isn’t that an odd use of the word “worlds”? Surely possible worlds can’t be abstracta. Yet here again we’re debating word usage. And even seeing possible worlds as abstracta may still not be a incoherent position. It depends on how these words are used and metaphysically defended. (This isn’t the place to go into detail on this well-discussed metaphysical issue.)

Prima facie, if Plantinga argues that to exist is to “actually exist”, and Lewis’s possible worlds don’t actually exist, then that seems to be a complete denial of possible worlds on Plantinga’s part. Yet Plantinga accepts possible worlds. To him, they are “states of affairs of a certain kind”. Does that mean that Plantinga accepts some other kinds of… existence for possible worlds? Yes; they have an abstract existence. However, possible worlds still don’t actually exist. (All this basically means that Plantinga doesn’t believe that possible worlds are concrete” entities; as in Lewis’s possible-worlds “realism”.)

Here again Plantinga too uses everyday terms in his own very specific ways. For example, he uses to the words “state of affairs” in a way that’s not used by most laypeople. Plantinga believes states of affairs to be abstract entities. And these abstract state of affairs can — or do — constitute possible worlds.

What’s more, Plantinga also seems to accept that he exists in other possible worlds. However, that may be no big deal once one realises that he simply means that

“there are possible worlds other than the actual world which are such that had any of them been actual, I would have existed”.

Yet why does Plantinga accept the phrase “I would have existed in these other possible worlds” at all (i.e., even if that claim is qualified)? Well, here again Plantinga is free to use the word “exist” as he wishes; just as Lewis did.

Now let’s discuss the word “thinking” and the newer word “cognition”.

The Words “Thinking” & “Cognition”

The word “cognition” is often taken as a (kind of) synonym of the word “thinking”. In 1966, Ulric Neisser (the “father of cognitive psychology”) wrote these words:

“[T]he term ‘cognition’ refers to all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations.”

Then Neisser concluded in the following way:

“[G]iven such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon.”

Thus, because of these and other complications, Alan Turing suggested bypassing the question “Can a machine think?” entirely. Or at least he didn’t attempt to define the word “think”. Instead, he asked us whether or not a person would ever believe that he was having a conversation with another person (say, by letter, phone, behind a screen, etc.) when, in fact, he was actually conversing with a computer.

That said and in Turing’s case only, it wasn’t really that philosophers, scientists and Turing himself were using an old word in a new way. It was that an old word wasn’t clear and tight enough to serve much of a purpose in such a debate. Thus the solution was to either stop using the word “think” or to create a better and more precise alternative.

This meant that Turing didn’t actually use the old word “think” in a new way. He simply suggested that — when discussing computers/machines at least — this old word should be abandoned.