Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Universals Crash and Burn

As we observed in the last post, John Locke attempted to update Aristotle's view of universals by saying that we select key attributes for defining categories based upon our objectives. So, we can look at games, decide what salient features they all have in common and define the concept of game based upon those features. It looks like the project might be gaining altitude again. But, instead it will take a nosedive.

David Hume would observe that we form categories based on a subconscious cognitive process that cannot be made explicit. That is, we go about our business in the world, experience games, and form a visceral concept of what a game is. Any attempt to explicitly define characteristics would be artificial and doomed to failure. The Supreme court justice who admitted that he could not define pornography but claimed - "I know it when I see it", was embodying Hume's view of universals.

If Hume steered the project into a nose dive, Wittgenstein let it crash and burn. According to him, the only thing the elements of some categories have in common is that they are members of the same category. He used a, now famous, analogy to family resemblances. If you go to a family reunion and look at the members of the family you will see common elements. Some will have the family eyes. Some will have the family nose or mouth. Some the family brow. And so on. There are overlapping features held by subsets of the family but no set of features common to all. For example, not everyone has the nose. Or not everyone has eyes. Universals, according to Wittgenstein, are made the same way. You cannot define a core set of attributes because there is no core set of attributes that all instances have in common. And the concept he used to illustrate this was - you guessed it - games!

Should we despair at this point and give up our attempt to define what constitutes a game? Should we despair that if this is true knowledge is not really possible? No, that would be a little overly dramatic. Instead we will back up and see where these great minds went wrong. We will go back to some road signs provided by Bacon and Aristotle and try to get back on the right path. And that will be the topic of the next post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Decline of Universals

Aristotle saw universals as constructs based in reality. A tree is a tree because it shares key attributes with other trees. Anybody can look at a tree and a squirrel and see that they are not the same thing. Initially this seems to solve the problem. But in the long run it only makes it worse. It answers the question - where do universals come from? - by saying that they are constructed based upon common attributes. However, it then leads to the question - where do attributes come from? If the squirrel happened to be brown, we could create a universal "brown things" to which the tree and the squirrel would belong. Aristotle might balk at this by citing that "brown" is not an essential attribute and universals should be formed based on common essential attributes. This sounds good and it seems like we are making progress. But, we are not. How do we know that an attribute is essential? Is an attribute essential because it is in the definition of kind? Or is an attribute in the definition of kind because it is essential? That whirring sound in the background is our cognitive wheels spinning in the philosophical mud.

Locke made some progress by saying that the creation of universals involves a cognitive process of abstraction whereby we we select attributes based on some set of objectives. I am going to jump in and help Locke out here by saying that our objective is usually intellectual economy. We create categories because they are efficient ways to organize our knowledge. Otherwise, we get into huge trouble with Locke. We get into trouble because it raises questions such as 1) how do we select objectives?, and 2) how do we know that a particular category is better than another category at meeting those objectives?

Locke has both helped and hindered the pursuit of universals. He has helped in that his claim is intuitively appealing. It does seem to be the case that we look at a collection of particulars and though some cognitive process extract a group based on similarities. In fact, it feels so built in that one has to wonder if it is just a function of the brain. He has hurt in that it has made our understanding even more unclear. How does this process work? Can it be made explicit? How are objectives defined? How are categories evaluated with respect to objectives?

All we were trying to do was to figure out what a game is? How did life get to be so complicated. Any six year old can tell you whether or not something is a game. And, yet, a philosophical adult has to admit defeat. Why is that? Well, David Hume will come to the rescue on this question and, in doing so, take a stab at the larger question. However, as we will see, Hume will jump into the muddied waters and stir up even more mud. Following that, Wittgenstein will show that once you are into muddied waters you can't get out. And that is what we will take up next.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Aristotle and the Notion of Purpose

A central element in Aristotle's metaphysics was the idea that in order to under stand a thing, you needed to understand four causes. This is a little confusing to the modern reader as the word 'cause' has taken on a slightly different meaning. However, if you think about it as 'important things to know' rather than causes, it makes a little more sense.

Aristotle believed that in order to understand a thing, you needed to understand its material cause (what is was made of), its efficient cause (how is got made), its formal cause (what it became), and its final cause (why it was made or what is was made for). Consider a table, for example. The material cause might be wood. It would be very different if it were made of ice, or putty, or sand. The efficient cause might be a craftsman, although it might also be a manufacturing process or a wood carving process. Each would produce a different result. The formal cause would, of course, be a table. However, the wood could have been used to make a boat, or a chair or any number of other things. Finally, no pun intended, we have the final cause, the purpose of table. A table is made to put things on. It could have been made for shade or protection. But the fact that it was made to place things on is an important aspect of a table.

This notion of final causes is central to Aristotle's view of of the world which we call teleological. This comes from two ancient Greek words 'telos' (far off or end state) and 'logos' (rigorous understanding). When we say that we have a teleological understanding of a thing we are saying that we understand it in terms of its purpose.

Teleology was tossed out of physics by Galileo who said that you can understand astronomy without having to resort to any underlying purpose in the universe. This is probably true. But, teleology stayed out of other sciences as well, probably due to physics envy. And there are numerous places where it would be appropriate. For example, when you say that a turtle has a hard shell for protection, it is a teleological claim. Natural sciences other than physics and chemistry are filled with teleological claims.

Taking this a step further, from natural science to social science, you have to ask whether or not it is possible to understand social science at all without referring to purposes. Certainly you cannot understand games without reference to their purpose. This is why Wittgenstein failed and Suit succeeded. But, again, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Next time we will follow the evolution of Aristotle's concept of universals and see why it ends in a train wreck.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Aristotle Points the Way to Destruction

Aristotle's view of universals was quite different from Plato's. Instead of relying on an immaterial World of the Forms, the ever practical Aristotle said that universals are formed simply by grouping things with the same attributes. Initially this seems to solve the problem of universals. Categories may not exist in the world, but things and their attributes do. So, if we just create categories from things with common attributes we are out of the woods as far as the problem of universals goes. Or, so it may seem.

If we try to define the attributes that all games have in common we begin to see how naive this position really is. In fact, Locke, Hume and Wittgenstein will carry this perspective to the point where it seems like knowledge is impossible. And Wittgenstein will use the case of game in particular to show this. Aristotle's approach seems to work pretty well on natural objects like plants and animals. And this makes sense, when you think about it, because, presumably, these things evolved from common ancestors by developing new attributes that distinguished them. Organizing them into categories and even taxonomies is largely an exercise in mapping out their evolutionary changes.

But, not all categories involve natural objects. In fact, most categories involve artificial objects (like games). And artificial objects do not have the benefit of natural evolution to sort them into categories. Unfortunately, Aristotle is leading us down the path to destruction with this view. And the aforementioned great minds will escort us the rest of the way.

But, before we dismiss Aristotle and his wayward ways, we need to consider the fact that he offered a different perspective which will put us back on the path to understanding. This is he notion of teleology which give us great purchase in understanding artificial objects. And that we will take up next.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Plato and the Form of Game

Looking out my window again and seeing a tree, I might ask "is this thing a tree because it is a member of the set of trees, or is it a member of the set of trees because it is a tree?" In fact, Plato wondered this as well. Is category membership derived from essence? Or, is essence derived from category membership? Are the particulars in a category because they are all the 'same' thing? Or do we consider them the 'same' thing because they are all members of the same category?

Plato believed that categories were determined by essence. We recognize a tree as a tree because there is a universal concept of 'treeness'. And even though each individual tree is an imperfect copy of that template, we can still recognize the tree as an instance of that ideal. This sounds pretty good until we ask where did that universal concept of treeness come from? And, trying to answer that, Plato gets into a lot of trouble.

Plato believed in a World of Forms (or templates or ideals) where all of these categories exist independent of the material world. But, he got into trouble trying to explain where this World of Forms came from and how we access it to recognize things like trees. You can have a lot of fun at Plato's expense over this. Plato believed that this World of Forms was somehow more real than the material world which was just an imperfect copy of the Forms. He beleived that the World of Forms was eternal. He believed that you had knowledge of this world prior to being born, but the trauma of birth made you forget it all. So, you spent your life remembering bits of it. This led him to say that you never really learn anything, you only remember things. You can go on and on and have a good chuckle at Plato's expense over this. However, once you have given it some serious thought, you probably have to admit that Plato was right. He didn't get the mechanics down, but the notion of ideal concepts does seem to hold up.

If you forget about immaterial worlds where forms reside and focus instead on intellectual economy and the pursuit of knowledge then it does seem to be the case that there are ideal definitions for concepts. If a thing has an essense and the category is defined based upon that essence then we have achieved the greatest intellectual economy possibl in the organization of our knowledge. These forms do not exist in some immaterial world. They exist in our minds when they are well organized. And organizing our minds well gives us the greatest purchase on the pursuit of knowledge.

A quick example can illustrate this. Consider the Periodic Chart of Elements. Organizing elements based on the number of electrons provides great intellectual economy. Just how far would chemistry be today if the Periodic Chart contained elements like creek water and tree sap. How far would medicine get if the body were made of blood, phlegm and bile? How far would psychology get if personalities were made up of introversion/extroversion,... well I am digressing.

So, back to the topic at hand, there must be an ideal form of game. If we can find that ideal form, it will advance our understanding of games and how games relate to other universals such as happiness, productivity, personal growth, education, and the like. But, before we do that, we will have a major conceptual train wreck thanks to Wittgenstein. And that won't happen for several weeks yet. So stay tuned.