What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Computers, minds, and Aristotle

The recently published Philosophy of Computing and Information: 5 Questions, edited by Luciano Floridi, is a collection of quasi-interviews with prominent philosophers, cognitive scientists, and computer scientists. (The same five questions were sent to each of the contributors, who were asked to respond to them either question-by-question or in the form of an informal essay. Hence my label “quasi-interviews.”) Several of the contributions are particularly interesting from an Aristotelian point of view.

As readers of The Last Superstition know, I argue there that the “computationalist” view that the mind should be thought of as “software” run by the “hardware” of the brain is either incoherent or (if it is to be made coherent) implicitly committed to a broadly Aristotelian metaphysics. And in neither case can it vindicate a materialist conception of human nature. One reason for this is that the key concepts required to spell out this position – “software,” “program,” “information,” “algorithm,” and so forth (all of which are somehow to be understood as purely physical properties alongside mass, electric charge, and the like, if the materialist is going to make hay out of the view) – are suffused with intentionality, the “directedness” of a thing toward something beyond itself. Now on at least one common interpretation of the computationalist view, intentionality is among the features of the mind the view is supposed to explain – in which case it cannot coherently appeal to notions which presuppose the existence of intentionality. Even those versions of computationalism which do not claim to explain intentionality face the problem that nothing like intentionality is supposed to exist at the level of physics, at least given the mechanistic conception of nature materialists are implicitly committed to. As Jerry Fodor puts it in Psychosemantics:

“I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm, and charge will perhaps appear on their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep.” (p. 97)

Hence the notions in question are simply not available to a consistent materialist. And if a materialist nevertheless digs in his heels and insists that “information,” “algorithms,” and the like really are somehow intrinsic to the physical world, then he will in effect have conceded that something like Aristotelian final causes exist after all, and thus abandoned materialism. For if purely physical processes embody genuine “information,” follow “algorithms,” etc., then that entails that of their nature (by virtue of their form, as Aristotelians would say) they point beyond themselves as toward a goal, after the manner of a final cause. (“Information” is information about something; an “algorithm” has an inherent end the rules it embodies are meant to lead to; and so on.) Materialists fail to see this because, like most modern philosophers, they have only the vaguest idea of what Aristotelian formal and final causes are, and labor under all sorts of crude misconceptions (e.g. that for a physical process to have a final cause is for it to seek a goal in something like a conscious way).

For the details, see The Last Superstition (especially pp. 235-47). It was interesting, though, to see that at least one contributor to Philosophy of Computing and Information seems to have come to something like the conclusion I defend in the book. Specifically, the neuroscientist Valentino Braitenberg says:

“The concept of information, properly understood, is fully sufficient to do away with popular dualistic schemes invoking spiritual substances distinct from anything in physics. This is Aristotle redivivus, the concept of matter and form united in every object of this world, body and soul, where the latter is nothing but the formal aspect of the former. The very term ‘information’ clearly demonstrates its Aristotelian origin in its linguistic root.” (Floridi, p. 16)

In other words, to describe some physical process as inherently embodying “information,” while it does rule out dualism of the Cartesian sort, nevertheless is not consistent with the crude materialist claim that “matter is all that exists”; for it is implicitly to accept something like Aristotle’s notion of formal cause (precisely, I would add, because it is implicitly to accept something like his notion of final cause). As I have put it in earlier posts, the neural processes underlying e.g. a given action are merely the material-cum-efficient causal side of an event of which the thoughts and intentions of the agent are the formal-cum-final causes, to allude to all of the famous Aristotelian four causes. (I develop the point a little bit in this review of the psychologist Jerome Kagan’s An Argument for Mind.)

To be sure, Braitenberg’s own claims are only suggestive, and I do not claim he would accept everything I say about this issue in my book (much less everything, or anything, else I say there!) But he clearly sees that the standard materialist assumptions are faulty, as do some other contributors to the Floridi volume. Brian Cantwell-Smith’s chapter, which is among the more lengthy and philosophically substantial contributions, is very good on the deep conceptual problems underlying much work done in this area. Key concepts are ill-defined, and unjustified slippage between or conflation of various possible senses of crucial theoretical terms (including “computation” itself) is rife. But the key problem, as he sees, is what he calls the “300-year rift between matter and mattering” that opened up with Descartes (p. 46) – that is to say, the early moderns’ conception of matter as inherently devoid of meaning or significance. Cantwell-Smith calls for a new metaphysics to “heal” this rift (being apparently unaware of, or at least not reconsidering as Braitenberg does, the old Aristotelian metaphysics the rejection of which was precisely what opened up the rift in the first place).

In his own chapter, Hubert Dreyfus, summarizing themes that have long characterized his work, also criticizes “Descartes’ understanding of the world as a set of meaningless facts to which the mind assigned what Descartes called values” (p. 80). Attempts to find some computational mechanism by means of which the brain assigns significance or meaning to the world always end up surreptitiously presupposing significance or meaning, and attempts to avoid this result tend to lead to a vicious regress. (This, as Dreyfus argues, is what ultimately underlies the well-known “frame problem” in Artificial Intelligence research and the “binding problem” in neuroscience.) As is well-known, Dreyfus makes good use of the work of writers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty in criticizing AI, and in particular the notion that we can make sense of the idea of a world inherently devoid of significance for us. But this phenomenological point does not answer the metaphysical question of how and why the world, and ourselves as part of the world, have significance or meaning in the first place. For that – as I argue in The Last Superstition – we need to turn to the Aristotelian tradition, to the concepts of formal and final causation rejection of which set modern thought, and modern civilization, on its long intellectual and moral downward slide.


Comments (8)

Great stuff, Professor. I'm a sucker for posts which carry the implication that the ancients understood us better than we understand ourselves.


In respect of those materialsits who would avail themselves of "information" as a way out of their quandary, how do they see that as different than the concept of Form?

Perhaps in-FORM-ation is semantically a step away from the dreaded reality of the ideal, insofar as it seems to be only the result of something ideal, rather than the ideal itself. But it seems to me that a body or cluster of information is still just another word for Forms/Ideas.

Perhaps expecting materialists to be honest about the question is expecting too much. After all, of all the possible metaphysics to which they could have committed themselves, they chose the only one that is self-refuting - and refuse to see it. Their lives constitute an absolute contradiction: They purport to tell us what is true and good by denying the necessary conditions of truth and goodness.

The sciences have become every bit as corrupt as the rest of society. AI is impossible, but faking it is not, which is where these folks are going. With enough computing power and a complex enough program, and restricted access to "deniers," some of these charlatans could make the claim very soon.

I can hardly wait to add "AI denier" to all my other anti-liberalisms.

Kind of off topic but I had to read a bunch of Floridi for a class once. I was not impressed. His concepts of re-ontologization and the ontological primacy of the infosphere was as weird as it was metaphysically unconvincing.

One thing that I find inadequate with Aristotelian causation is the accounting for expanded complexity. As one example Hofstadter gives, the earliest cell phones were dedicated single purpose machines. Nowadays they are multimedia devices with ever increasing programming capacity. To say that a modern cell phone has a final cause is oversimplified, it is complex enough to achieve different ends in various contexts.


The idea is that "information," like all other concepts made use of in attempts at materialistic reduction, can be defined (or redefined) in terms of patterns of what Aristotelians call efficient causation (as opposed to formal or final causation). The question, then, is whether "information" thus defined has anything to do with information in the ordinary sense of the term. Sometimes materialists pretend it does, but the more honest and careful among them (including several contributors to the Floridi volume) concede that it does not. (Significantly, Claude Shannon, the scientist whose notion of "information" is sometimes appealed to as a way of making the notion safe for materialism, was clear from the start that his technical notion had nothing to do with the ordinary sense of information and was intended only to deal with a certain narrow technological problem.)


From an Aristotelian point of view, cell phones, and artifacts in general, are not genuine substances in the strict sense (only natural objects are) and thus they do not have final causes assigned to them by nature, but only by us. So it's not surprising if there's no single, clear answer as to what they are for -- they're for whatever we want to use them for.

In any event, even in the case of natural substances, it must be kept in mind that:

(a) Most final causation does not involve "serving a function" of a biological or quasi-technological sort. (This is a common misunderstanding.) Very simple patterns of efficient causation also manifest final causation. For example, insofar as ice has a natural tendency to make the surrounding air cold (it is an efficient cause of coldness in the air), the coldness can be seen as a final cause of the ice. That is to say, ice "points to" or "aims at" the generation of coldness as a kind of "goal" (though not consciously, of course, since it isn't conscious of anything). This is so even though generating coldness isn't analogous to the sorts of "functions" that hearts or cell phones serve, and it is a mistake to think that talk of final causes in nature always entails an appeal to functions of this sort (sometimes it does, but generally it does not).

(b) Final causation is more complicated than you seem to think. It isn't a matter of finding one single end for evey single thing that exists. E.g. in a complex system like an organism, various organs might serve various ends, those ends might be subordinated to various hgher ends of the organism in a systematic way, etc.

I realize that the following isn't up to my usual intellectual standard, but I thought Ed would get a kick out of it: Tonight, apropos of a deep discussion of the relative merits of baby teeth and adult teeth with my five-year-old, I found myself pretty much unable to get along and communicate what I had in mind without saying, "Baby teeth are meant to fall out. Big teeth are supposed to stay in for your whole life. So it's good for baby teeth to fall out but not good for big teeth to fall out."

As I'm sure you'll agree, Lydia, what we feel comfortable saying to little children often contains much more wisdom than what we feel comfortable saying to our peers in the faculty lounge. Of course, some such peers find this idea incomprehensible, which only proves that achieving true stupidity often requires years of higher education.

Does common sense tell me that a falling tree makes a noise? Of course, but opinion is not proof. Experience and general applications go a long way, though. So why am I reading your "Last Superstition" book? Do I need to know what those old guys thought? Since I believe evidence and sound reasoning are important for sound opinion, maybe so? I'm only part way into your book but it's fascinating and hilarious. I'm enjoying your logic, reasoning, clarity of expression, and those wonderful simplified concrete examples.

Your candid and witty remarks at the ends of paragraphs, bridge the gaps between the old guys and the current ones are LOL funny. Your candidness if refreshing.

Thank you for teaching the "young skulls full of mush" and writing--
"The Last Superstition" may be among the best* of it's Form.

Thank you.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.