Thursday, April 20, 2017

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

This post, from February of 2012, speaks to my current concerns.
While cruising the web I came across a 1996 book by Brain Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects. Smith is a computer scientist who was, in fact, in search of a theory of computation but found himself smack in the middle of metaphysics. Interesting, no? Just what computing is, is not exactly clear. And with folks, such a Stephen Wolfram (and he wasn't the first), proposing that the universe is, beneath it all, a giant computer of some sort, well, you can see how chasing down the nature of computation could be interesting.

The publisher's blurb was provocative:
Everything that exists - objects, properties, life, practice - lies Smith claims in the "middle distance," an intermediate realm of partial engagement with and partial separation from, the enveloping world. Patterns of separation and engagement are taken to underlie a single notion unifying representation and ontology: that of subjects' "registration" of the world around them.
That had just a whiff of object-oriented ontology about it, though the book's date puts it before the term was coined.

I found an ontology site that had excerpts from the book, from critics, and from Smith's reply. It had this bit from the book's conclusion:
Overall, the project was to develop what I called a successor metaphysics, one that would honor the following pretheoretic requirements (345-246):
1. Do justice to what is right about:
a. Constructivism: a form of humility, or so at least I characterized it, requiring that we acknowledge our presence in, and influence on, the world around us; and

b. Realism: the view that adds to constructivism's claim that "we are here" an equally profound recognition that we are not all that is here, and that as a result not all of our stories are equally good.
2. Make sense of pluralism: the fact that knowledge is partial, perspectival, and never wholly extricable from its (infinite) embedding historical, cultural, social, material, economic and every other kind of context. The account of pluralism must:
a. Avoid devolving into nihilism or other forms of vacuous relativism, and in particular not be purchased at the price of (successors notions of) excellence, standards, virtue, truth, or significance; and

b. Not license radical incommensurability, provide an excuse to build walls, or in any other way stand in the way of interchange, communion, and struggle for common ends.
Two additional criteria were applied to how these intuitions are met:
3. Be irreductionist -- ideologically, scientifically, and in every other way. No category, from sociality to electron, from political power to brain, from origin myth to rationality to mathematics, including the category "human," may be given a priori pride of place, and thereby be allowed to elude contingency, struggle, and price.

4. Be nevertheless foundational, in such a way as to satisfy our undiminished yearning for metaphysical grounding. That is, or so at least I put it, the account must show how and what it is to be grounded simpliciter - without being grounded in a, for any category a.
Along the way, the account should:
5. Reclaim tenable, lived, work-a-day successor versions of many mainstay notions of the modernist tradition: object, objective, true, formal, mathematical, logical, physical, etc."
That site, in turn, sent me to an interesting and curious review of the book by R. P. Loui, that appeared in Artificial Intelligence, 106: 353-358, December 1998. Early on we find this:
ORIGIN OF OBJECTS is thus an important book, even a beautiful book. It reasserts its author as one of the deepest and erudite thinkers of computing. It is also, to this reviewer, an intellectually uninteresting book and thoroughly frustrating to read. These are two separate points: First, the book is a meditation on some metaphysical questions posed by symbol systems, and the author admits repeatedly that this is a purely metaphysical exercise (I would have demanded an apology rather than an admission). The problem is that metaphysics is a love-it or hate-it area of philosophy that has no practical implications (unlike, for example, epistemology which is crucially involved in explicating formal criteria for knowledge and belief). Second, the book frustrates this reviewer because the author, as is his reputation from prior work, is incapable of getting to the point. It is not just that Brian Smith seems to lean toward the semi-literary style of, for example, Friedrich Nietzsche. It is probably due to a mismatch of interests between writer and reader (a mismatch I suspect Brian Smith will have with most readers in AI). Both of these points are developed below.
The remarks about not getting to the point and writing a literary style, they might prick up the ears of my continental philosophical friends. Smith's problematic appears to be this:
What is the idea? Basically, Brian Smith believes that there is one "real world out there" (his "metaphysical monism") while there is an apparent arbitrariness in how we symbolize it (our "ontological pluralism" p. 375). He feels that this mismatch of monism and pluralism is an intolerable situation which must be remedied.
To deal with this problem Smith has recourse to the aforementioned middle distance:
At this new level, there is "registration." It is a level at which reference to the world can be made, but not through linguistic commitment or through symbols that have intentionality (reference). It is the level that philosophers of science might call pre-theoretic: there is an observer, but there are not yet data, since data are not theory-neutral. This level is made possible by the embedding of an observer in the "real world", and of course, Brian Smith aims to permit that observer to be an AI program as well as a biological system.
And so forth and so on. I can't keep going on like this because I'll end up quote most of the review, which doesn't make much sense when you can go there and read it for yourself. Loui concludes by asserting that the book "has catapulted Brian Smith, for a time (as long as the philosophy of computing is mistaken to be the modern philosophy of mind), ahead of all who would today claim to be computing's principal philosopher." He is surely correct in his parenthentical; whatever the philosophy of computing is, it cannot be considered to be a philosophy of mind, real or artificial.

I'll conclude with three (from over a dozen) quotations Loui culled from the book:
... designers, playwrights, artists, ... are drawn into the act ... . Few fields, if any, are being left behind; ... it would be a mistake to think that these people are just users of computation. On the contrary, they are participating in its invention. ... The line between specifically computational expertise and general computational literacy is fading ... (p. 360)

... notions of mathematical proof [are] being revised ... . Other distinctions are collapsing, such as those between and among theories, models, simulations, implementations ... (p. 360)

... we are post-Newtonian, in the sense of being inappropriately wedded to a particular reductionism of scientism, inapplicable to so rich an intentional phenomenon. Another generation of scientists may be the last thing we need. Maybe, instead, we need a new generation of magicians. (p. 361)

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