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Entries by Stuart W. Mirsky (96)

9:26AM

Subjects and Objects

A consideration of the differences between subjects and objects and why awareness of these states seems to exert a conflicting, and seemingly irreconcilable, pull on our thinking.

. . . the world stands before us, those of us with the right systems of course, and it is that world in which we live, in which we find ourselves when we open our eyes. But sometimes some of us take an extra step, especially among the subspecies of primates that we belong to, and then we become aware of this very fact of awareness itself. We think about how the entire world we encounter through our sensory faculties, our remembered experiences and the pictures we build of these, in what we sometimes call our mind’s eye, when we imagine or plan or seek to make sense of the things we recall, is really just our awareness of it. Subtract awareness and we are as inert as a stone, or as a mechanical device which moves through the agency of others and not by its own volition. Nothing is known by a stone and so, for the stone, nothing is.

And now we think here is the truth of it. We are, in the end, subjects and everything else around us is . . . what? Objects only, objects of our experiences. The only reality, it begins to seem to us, is the reality of ourselves, of this moment in which we perceive or remember, or think about the things we perceive or remember. And this now gains a significance for us that has the power to change how we view the world. No longer, we think, are we fellow objects in a world of objects, fellow objects, that is, which are members of a small class of those objects that just happen to have the feature of being aware. Now it seems to us, or to many of us who go down this path, that there is a specialness at work, that the unique trait which our sub-class of objects has and which is denied the others, sets us apart from the rest in some unique and unbridgeable way. We are the observers, they the observed.

Carried to extremes some who think this way may begin to question whether or not even the other members of the small class of objects which give the appearance of a subjective life are, in fact, subjects at all. Can they really be subjects as we are if the only real evidence we have of them is as observed objects? And so the explicit discovery of our own subjectivity leads eventually to the idea that being a subject is outside the world the subject has its subjectivity about, the world of which the subject is aware. We imagine ourselves as a source of light shining on this or that object to illumine it in the glow of our observation and then passing on. . . .

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12:04PM

A Matter of Ethics

Updated on November 7, 2013 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Considers some possibilities in finding justifications for the validity of our moral claims. If the basis of such claims cannot be justified in some bottom line way, can the claims we base on them be argued for at all?

I once tried unsuccessfully to argue that moral claims are based on the general principle of self-improvement and that self-improvement takes many forms and that how we understand it will determine the nature of the moral judgments we make . . . in the final analysis there is only one really reliable form of self-improvement [I argued] because all other options are too limited in scope to truly represent real improvement of the self . . . because, I thought, the self was rather like Kant's transcendental subject, clothed in our experiences, memories, beliefs, etc., and the point was to act in ways that most aligned with this purest core of our being. Alas, for me, the argument could not even withstand my own scrutiny of it.

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3:37PM

A Horse of a Different Color

An exploration of what it means to understand the meaning of symbols, words, and gestures and how the mind manifests this.

A symbol inscribed in some long forgotten language, when unearthed by an archaeologist, would have no meaning attached to it unless and until someone uncovers the key to it. It might not even be recognizable as something meaningful at all until the key is discovered. Absent that, we should take it for nothing more than random markings or the like. But with a key for decoding we find meaning there. What is this meaning we have unlocked?

Wittgenstein might have said it's just the use to which the symbol was put by its long ago makers, a use we discover for ourselves by effective exercises in decoding (possibly through reliance on some standard, e.g., a Rosetta stone, or by using mathematical means to discern linguistic frequencies and deduce, from these, the role the markings once played for their makers in the long lost language). Words and other physical signifiers get their meaning because we give it to them by coming to understand their intended uses.

But what does it mean to understand the use? . . .

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10:16AM

Can Machines Get It?

Considers the nature of understanding and meaning in light of John Searle's argument (in the CRA) against the possibility of computational cognition.

It's long seemed to me that one of the serious flaws in [John Searle's Chinese Room Argument] . . . is its failure to elucidate [the] mysterious feature he calls semantics (i.e., the meaning of a symbol, word or statement, etc.). After all, if machines like computers can't have semantics, we ought to at least know what it is we think they are unable to possess. It can hardly be enough to suppose that what we find in ourselves, at moments of introspection, when we are aware of understanding a symbol, word or statement, isn't available to computers merely because we can't imagine it . . .

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4:50PM

Wittgenstein's On Certainty Reconsidered

An overview and analysis of the insights and implicit arguments in Wittgenstein's On Certainty with attention to the philosophical background which rendered radical skepticism such a compelling challenge to generations of western philosophers

G. E. Moore once claimed that he knew there was an external world (beyond his own mind, i.e., his perceptions, conceptions, etc.) because he could raise a hand and show it when asked (the physical body being part of the external world, the thoughts and our awareness of it being the "internal"). 'I know I have a hand,' he said (I'm paraphrasing), 'because here is one hand and here is another' at which point he held up his second. Moore's was an argument from common sense. Wittgenstein, as he lay dying, was asked to say something about that . . . The text was eventually published as On Certainty [and] takes off from Moore's "argument" to explore what it means to say we are certain of anything. . . .

To be certain is a state of mind, a condition of unwillingness to doubt, whatever the basis for that unwillingness. In that book he shows that there are different reasons not to doubt different things and that, just because we cannot be certain of something for one kind of reason, it doesn't follow that we cannot be certain for another, often quite different, sort of reason.

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