philosophia perennis

In the Valentine’s edition of The New Yorker, there was a rather nice portrait by Larissa MacFarquhar of Paul and Pat Churchland, connubial philosophers of the mind-body problem at UC San Diego.  For years they have been basically decrying in the wilderness against the way that philosophy of mind was being done without any regard for the experimental data being produced by studies in neurophysiology.  In the article, Pat Churchland says this prevalent approach was the result of Anglo-American common language philosophy, which holds that the object of philosophy is to clarify our ideas by analyizing language. The problem, as she sees it, is that clarifying incorrect notions about the relationship between mind and body does not get us to truth, but rather leads us simply to have sophisticated bad ideas.  The mind-body problem had become a problematic (to borrow from Foucault), when the evidence from neurophysiology was very clear — there is the brain and that’s it.  Everything else is language games.

The article continues on a disappointed note:

These days, many philosophers give Pat credit for admonishing them that a person who wants to think seriously about the mind-body problem has to pay attention to the brain.  But this acknowledgment is not always extended to Pat herself, or to the work she does now.


The common language philosophy that Pat Churchland critisizes has its roots in german philosophy and the general post-Kantian diminishing of the relevance of Metaphysics.  The deathknell for metaphysics in the 20th century may have arrived with Wittgenstein’s pronouncement in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that  “[w]ovon man nicht sprechen kann, darĂ¼ber muss man schweigen.”  There are different ways to take this, of course, one of which is to say that, as with the dove-tailing of Kant’s first and second critiques, it delimits metaphysics in order to make room for faith (or occultism, or theosophy, or whatever).

The other is that it states what is already well known, that Metaphysic is dead, and there is nothing more to say about her.  But if philosophers can no longer talk about metaphysics, then what shall they talk about?  For years in Anglo-American philosophy, they talked about language.  Instead of the relation between appearance and reality in the world, they talked about appearance and meaning in language instead.  What the Churchlands found disturbing about this was that this seemed simply to be a way to practice metaphysics underground.  Philosophers could dismiss metaphysics on the one hand, but then reintroduce it in their conversations about language instead — though insisting that all they were doing was discussing how we talk about metaphysical notions, not metaphysics itself.  Like vampire hunters to the rescue (though under-appreciated, as indicated above) the Churchlands moved in and reapplied Wittgenstein’s dictum to this underground metaphysics.  I like to think of them as latter day versions of Maximus the Confessor, pointing out that the compromise monothelite christology was in fact simply the monophysite heresy under a new guise.  Claiming that Christ has two natures but one will is no better than claiming that he has one nature.  Claiming that mind and body are the same in the world but separated in language is no better than claiming that they are different in the world, also.

The natural endpoint for the Churchlands is, then, to make our language conform to the world, in order to remove these errors of thought.

One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home.  My dopamine levels need lifting.  Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.'”  Paul and Pat have noticed that it is not just they who talk this way — their students now talk of psychopharmacology as comfortably as of food.


But if we cannot do metaphysics, and we should not even talk of it anymore, what should philosophers do with themselves?  Open Court Press may have found an answer with their Popular Culture and Philosophy series.  Not all the books listed below are from their press, but they do emphasize the point that if we cannot speak of metaphysics, that is if we cannot use philosophy to go beyond what we already know, then we ought to use her instead to explore those things that we are familiar with.  We should practice the perennial philosophy.

  1. The Beatles and Philosophy
  2. Monty Python and Philosophy
  3. U2 and Philosophy
  4. Undead and Philosophy
  5. Bob Dylan and Philosophy
  6. The Simpsons and Philosophy
  7. Harry Potter and Philosophy
  8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy
  9. James Bond and Philosophy
  10. The Sopranos and Philosophy
  11. Star Wars and Philosophy
  12. Baseball and Philosophy
  13. The Matrix and Philosophy
  14. More Matrix and Philosophy
  15. Woody Allen and Philosophy
  16. South Park and Philosophy
  17. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy
  18. Poker and Philosophy
  19. Hip-Hop and Philosophy
  20. Basketball and Philosophy
  21. Hitchcock and Philosophy
  22. The Atkins Diet and Philosophy
  23. Superheroes and Philosophy
  24. Harley-Davidson and Philosophy
  25. The Grateful Dead and Philosophy
  26. Seinfeld and Philosophy
  27. Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy
  28. The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy
  29. Bullshit and Philosophy
  30. Johnny Cash and Philosophy

Do Computers Read Electric Books?

In the comments section of a blog I like to frequent, I have been pointed to an article in the International Herald about Pierre Bayard’s new book,  How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Bayard recommends strategies such as abstractly praising the book, offering silent empathy regarding someone else’s love for the book, discussing other books related to the book in question, and finally simply talking about oneself.  Additionally, one can usually glean enough information from reviews, book jackets and gossip to sustain the discussion for quite a while.

Students, he noted from experience, are skilled at opining about books they have not read, building on elements he may have provided them in a lecture. This approach can also work in the more exposed arena of social gatherings: the book’s cover, reviews and other public reaction to it, gossip about the author and even the ongoing conversation can all provide food for sounding informed.

I’ve recently been looking through some AI experiments built on language scripts, based on the 1966 software program Eliza, which used a small script of canned questions to maintain a conversation with computer users.  You can play a web version of Eliza here, if you wish.  It should be pointed out that the principles behind Eliza are the same as those that underpin the famous Turing Test.  Turing proposed answering the question can machines think by staging an ongoing experiment to see if machines can imitate thinking.  The proposal was made in his 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence:

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the ‘imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A.” The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus:

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair?

Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A’s object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer might therefore be:

“My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.”

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as “I am the woman, don’t listen to him!” to her answers, but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks.

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

The standard form of the current Turing experiments is something called a chatterbox application.  Chatterboxes abstract the mechanism for generating dialog from the dialog scripts themselves by utilizing a set of rules written in a common format.  The most popular format happens to be an XML standard called AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language).

What I’m interested in, at the moment, is not so much whether I can write a script that will fool people into thinking they are talking with a real person, but rather whether I can write a script that makes small talk by discussing the latest book.  If I can do this, it should validate Pierre Bayard’s proposal, if not Alan Turing’s.