Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Haugeland’s Essay and Understanding Animals

I don’t think that there’s much to say about most of Haugeland’s essay, as it is merely an introduction and overview to the rest of the book’s articles. As for the nature and meaning of “mind design” I’ve so far found it to be a study that uses philosophy to commune between psychology and computer science. Computer science was borne of philosophy and math, still tethered by the umbilical cord of logic; and psychology sprang forth from the same social and ethical philosophies that produced sociology and anthropology. It seems to me that one needs to be a philosopher in order to assimilate abstract concepts from psychology and mold them into concrete forms for computer science.

There is one section that’s worth mentioning, from the end of Haugeland’s piece. He writes,

“It seems to me that…only people ever understand anything—no animals and no artifacts (yet). It follows that…no animal or machine genuinely believes or desires anything either—How could it believe something it doesn’t understand?—though, obviously, in some other, weaker sense, animals (at least) have plenty of beliefs and desires.” (pp 27)

First of all, this seems like a completely disingenuous argument—he first makes a very strong claim about the intelligence of animals, and then backs off by supplying a “maybe it is so, but in a weaker sense.” How can we understand what he means when he gives such vague and slippery arguments? Furthermore, the bar he sets for understanding seems to be met by plenty of animals. In training chimpanzees to speak sign language, the chimps must have those proto-concepts, and they do indeed apply them correctly, as evinced by the fact that Washoe not only used words correctly and in appropriate contexts, but also taught her own children to sign. That “Not all psychologists agree that Washoe did acquire language” doesn’t seem to be detrimental to the fact that she had understanding, as “she had semanticity (understanding)” (see AS Psychology). If she was able to learn only 800 words or achieve only the grammar of a 3rd grader, it does not mean that she had no understanding or intelligence, rather that she had less of it then humans do.

Furthermore, primates are not the only animals that can learn language. Parrots are able to learn words, and will learn despite any active teaching by the owner or trainer. One parrot, trained to know the words “apple” and “banana,” became familiar with pears as well, but was not taught any words for them. On one occasion, the parrot pointed a talon at one sitting next to its trainer and cawed “banapple!” The trainer looked at the pear, knowing what the parrot meant, and proceeded to try to teach it the appropriate word. Yet the parrot insisted on using its own word, having apparently judged it so based on its qualities, being intermediate between bananas and apples. (In fact, it seems appropriate, considering a pear’s softer texture and less tart flavor in comparison to an apple.) If that is not understanding, than what is?

[PS: The parrot example comes from the Scientific American Mind magazine, which is not free, and I was unable to find the sources that the article uses.]

7 Comments:

Blogger Jonathan said...

Okay, I've made two errors: one of memory; the other of logic.

The first is that, because I couldn't find the magazine, and the entire article isn't available online, I slightly misrepresented what actually happened. Now that I've found the actual hard copy that I bought a few months ago, I reread the article only to discover that it wasn't actually bananas, apples, and banapples (pears), but in fact bananas, cherries and banerries. That by itself doesn't really change seem to matter much, but it was the conclusion I drew that I think is now suspect.

I had reason to believe that the parrot had a certain understanding of the concept of the three fruits. The reasons I had were thinking that it "knows what it is like" to taste each of the different fruits, and thus by using that phenomenal knowledge, it was able to codify that "proto-concept" and apply it towards a real object. But of course, this wasn't actually the case, because the fruits that the parrot identified were different from what I thought.

Now, it may still be appropriate to say that an apple is somewhat "between" a banana and a cherry, but any reasons we pick for this to be so (eg: color, size) is merely a sufficient condition for this to be the case. In order to say with absolute certainty what happened inside the bird's brain, we must identify a necessary condition...which means more empirical evidence needs to be gathered.

Unfortunately, "Pepperberg [the researcher] will never know for certain what happened inside Alex's [the bird] brain when he coined the term." An intensive study replicating similar circumstance would be required to prove it one way or the other. As it stands now, the idea that Alex understands anything at all remains scientific hypothesis and a philosophical possibility.

I do have reason to believe that animals have similar phenomenological experiences as we do, though: I once fed my dog a hot pepper, who was glad to recieve any treat at all that a human was recently enjoying. Upon swallowing (having foregone the chewing process) she began to smack her lips with her tongue and rub her mouth with her paw. Her behavior indicated to me that she was in a bit of discomfort. And, to settle any doubts, she never ate any more hot peppers again.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

PS: Banerries means apples. And means doesn't mean mean as in "meaning" but as in "translates to" from Macaw-speak to English. And by Macaw-speak I'm not trying to insinuate that there is any such thing as a Macaw language--which is nutso anyway, since there's no active population of speakers in regular intercommunication that uses the token "banerry."

10:44 PM  
Blogger Phillip Dreizen said...

...concrete forms for computer science.

I really take issue with this insistance that Computer Science is somehow concrete. I think Computer Science is all about abstraction.

"Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes."
--Edsger Dijkstra

2:16 PM  
Blogger Phillip Dreizen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I've had something on my mind about this that I haven't had a chance to offer, so I guess this is a good place to push it on the table.

From what I understand (though not fully laid out in your post here) you maintain that the essence of computer science is not just about merely producing concrete programming, but more about contending with abstract concepts in order to yield formal procedures.

I agree that that is what computer scientists do, but I would go on to say that during the process of turning the abstract into the concrete, the computer scientist is really philosophizing. Now, you might be inclined to say that I'm stretching the definition of philosophy, but I don't think that's the case. I think that this is what philosophy has always done and why logic and lingustics are to this day intimately tied up with philosophy. The philosopher of art seeks to put in specific terms what exactly art is and what makes art good, and in order to do this he must formalize abstract concepts (and what gets more abstract than art?) by using logic and a command of language.

The difference, then, between philosphy and computer science is that the philosopher seeks to describe in formal terms the nature of the subject of his philosophizing while the computer scientist seeks to describe formally a process for carrying out a certain task or simulating a cerain phenomenon. The computer scientist in that way draws on the work done by philosopher, namely the body of formalizations, to continue on transforming the concepts to the pinnacle of formalization--programming.

Now, the last time I mentioned programming, you seemed irritated that I would insult computer science by equating it to programming. I don't think that programming is the only thing that goes on in computer science, but when one studies something like data structures or search optimization, the ultimate product of the research is an algorithm that can be instantiated by writing it out as a program.

And the reason why I see philosophy taking such a major, continuing role in the study of cognitive science is that like most of modern science, the study of the mind began with a philosopher; however, unlike astrology and alchemy, the work done by thinkers from the previous 500 years is still highly relevant to the modern field. Until we work out exactly what we mean by terms like "understand," "thinking," and "meaning" and unravel the nature of experience, computer science will continue to rely on philosophy for its abstractions of those concepts.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I'm going to interject before you respond...

I realize this argument might come down to different definitions of "abstraction." I seem to be using it differently than you, and looking around on the net I've conflicting definitions for it. I could go on for hours laying out a comparitive study of what all the different dictionaries and encyclopedias explain it to be, but I don't really want to go down that road. Instead I'll just simply explain what I mean by:

For me, abstraction is the process of taking the abstract and extracting key features of the subject to produce a formal account of its composition and/or operation. Furthermore, a formal account is concrete in essence. I think of formal programming as concrete because the meanings of its symbols are very specific and lack ambiguity.

So one process of abstraction might be to take note of the interrelation of information in one's head, then form a theory of data structures, and finally produce a formal, symbolic representation of a data structure by using mathematical language.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Phillip Dreizen said...

First it's worth noting what programming is. It's a high level description of a machine. The nice thing about the machine is that any other Universal Turing Machine will be able to simulate that machine - all we have are approximations of those Universal Turing Machines, but with adequate memory it's is sufficient.

Any process that can be described algorithmically will have a machine that can describe that algorithm.

I'm not clear then why the program is the "pinnacle of formalism". A program is just a description of a machine which in turn is a description of an algorithm. Algorithms can be described formally in other ways.

The difference, then, between philosphy and computer science is that the philosopher seeks to describe in formal terms the nature of the subject of his philosophizing while the computer scientist seeks to describe formally a process for carrying out a certain task or simulating a cerain phenomenon. The computer scientist in that way draws on the work done by philosopher, namely the body of formalizations, to continue on transforming the concepts to the pinnacle of formalization--programming.

I'd like for you to elaborate on this. It isn't clear to me that because the philosopher seeks to formalize the subject of his philosophizing that the computer scientist relies upon philosophers in formalizing algorithms. The same holds true for any other field that involves fomalization.

For me, abstraction is the process of taking the abstract and extracting key features of the subject to produce a formal account of its composition and/or operation. Furthermore, a formal account is concrete in essence. I think of formal programming as concrete because the meanings of its symbols are very specific and lack ambiguity.

Precision is important in philosophy too...I'm sure we agree on this.

But I'm confused by what you're saying abstraction is. You seem to think abstraction is the process of formalization. But you also seem to think that formalization is by essence concrete. So, then, are you saying that abstraction is concrete in essence?

2:28 AM  

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