Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, Chapter 2 – Knowing How, Knowing That

In this chapter Ryle seeks to convince us that there is no Ghost in the Machine. The intuition that there is some mental ‘inner’ precursor to external actions is wrong. “…When we describe people as exercising qualities of mind, we are not referring to occult episodes which their overt acts and utterances are effects; we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves” (Ryle 2000, p26).

Ryle seeks to move us from thinking about an inner mental life, some of which leads to or initiates external behaviour. Instead, the view (as I understand it) that he wants us to develop is that our mental life is either expressed in a way observable to an external observer, or in a way that is not. When we talk we are vocalising our thoughts, and when we merely think (in words at any rate) we are doing the same activity a talking but not vocalising it. The introduction of the Category Mistake in the previous chapter was intended to prepare us for this move. Ryle gave an example of the visitor to Oxford University seeing the colleges and libraries, but wondering where the university is. Public thought (e.g. talking to someone) and private thought (e.g. talking to yourself without vocalising) are like the colleges and libraries, and the mind is the university.

Knowing How and Knowing That

Ryle draws a distinction between knowing how and knowing that. This distinction appears to map onto declarative and procedural knowledge.

Misunderstandings and Feints

“Misunderstanding is a by-product of knowing how. Only a person who is at least a partial master of the Russian tongue can make the wrong sense of a Russian expression” (Ryle 2000, p58). Feinting also requires knowing how. It is the “art of exploiting”, or provoking, your opponent’s premature conclusion of what course of action you are following (Ibid.).

Saturday, 23 April 2016


"They ridiculed questions, for fear it would make their ignorance plain"

The Judging Eye, Scott Bakker

Ryle's The Concept of Mind, Chapter 1 - Descartes' Myth

The Official Doctrine

In Chapter 1 Ryle outlines the ‘Official Doctrine’ of the Mind, that mind and body are distinct (substance dualism). Bodies are in space and time, and are ‘mechanical’ (roughly, they are causal systems). Bodies are public, in that their activities can be scrutinised by other parties. Minds on the other hand are in time, but belong in a kind of ‘mental space’ that is linked to the relevant body but isolated from other things in the physical universe. We are blind to the minds of others, and take it on a sort of faith that other people also have minds as we cannot observe them directly.

We have a privileged access to our own thoughts and feelings, and access that nobody else enjoys. This privileged access gives us a direct appreciation, we sort of watch and observe them. While we might be wrong or uncertain about things that occur in the external world, we cannot be mistaken about the happenings that we observe in our internal world.

Ryle calls this the Official Doctrine, as it was the dominant and explicitly/implicitly held belief about minds at the time the book was published in 1949. Ryle refers to the official doctrine “abusively” as the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.

Can you tell Ryle isn’t a fan of the Official Doctrine?

(Another wonderful turn of phrase about the Official Doctrine is Daniel Dennett’s ‘Cartesian Theatre’).

Category Mistakes

Ryle introduces the idea of a ‘category mistake’, whereby someone has incorrectly categorised an entity and then proceeded to treat it as though it belonged to that category. His famous example is of a visitor to Oxford or Cambridge university being shown various aspects of the university, e.g. various colleges and libraries, but then asking “But where is the university?”. The visitor has committed a category mistake, he has already seen the university (or at least parts of it) but is expecting something more because he considers universities to belong to the same category of things as colleges and libraries. Another example is the Home Office and the British Constitution both being ‘institutions’ but being radically different. Or expecting the ‘average family’ to be a similar sort of entity to an actual family (you can’t actually live next door to the average family).

Monday, 12 October 2015

Siri arrgh

Apple's digital assistance - Siri - is a feature that almost works really well, but because of its anthropocentric qualities that 'almost' is enough to drive me crazy. That, and its almost-great voice recognition means that Siri is possibly the first bit of technology that I've ever had that I shout or swear at.

Siri's latest shenanigans/quirk/bug is when activated while a podcast is playing it detects the last word or two that was said on the podcast and try to respond to it. This is infuriating, especially as there doesn't seem to be any easy to use mechanism to carry on with an interaction once you've said no to something. So I get this a lot:

  1. Activate Siri while podcast is playing
  2. Siri does something (or fails to do something) in response to the last word or two spoken on the podcast
  3. I tell Siri that no, I don't want whatever it is trying to offer me
  4. Siri becomes unresponsive to voice commands
  5. Me: "Hey Siri.... Hey Siri...... HEY SIRI.... SIRI... SIRI... HEY SIRI..... AAARGH YOU &*()*$"(*"$%%%"
There's probably something to say here about the intentional stance, about how trying to build human-like interfaces builds expectations of human-like interaction, and so on... but its late and Siri has made me cranky.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Partisanship and Identity Politics

I've been reading some interesting articles and 'Twitter storms' recently that generally assert that majority and privileged groups (usually white males) should not give an opinion on matters that relate to those not in the majority or privileged group. These assertions can range from politely pointing out that the speaker may not know what they're talking about, to anger that they're even expressing an opinion. To avoid any current controversies* the example I'll link to is of a debate that was scheduled to be held at an Oxford University college on abortion, that at least in part caused outrage because the speakers were all male. I bumped into a good response from Steve Bruce (2000) to these partisan assertions that the views of out-groups should not be seriously considered :
"One good reason to be suspicious of this argument is that it is not offered even-handedly, We do not find sociologists arguing that only aristocrats an usefully study aristocracy or that only fascists can study fascism. Such special pleading is offered only by people on their own behalf. Often it has the appearance of being a lazy way of asserting (rather than demonstrating) the superiority of their claims. Clearly, possessing some trait may be useful in understanding others with the same characteristic."
I think Bruce is right, though I would weaken his position that special pleading is only offered on people's own behalf to it being often offered on their own behalf.

We would not try to claim that the views of doctors about cancer patients should be discounted if those doctors have never had cancer, or that only astronauts have anything useful to say about astronauts. A plutocrat might have a very distorted and false view about the life of poor people, and is likely to not have recent experience of being poor, but she might be fully capable of understanding and sympathising with the life of the poor. It is entirely possible that a plutocrat can be right, and the poor person wrong, about something to do with the life and situation of the poor person.

Bruce goes on to say:
"In drawing a line between insiders and outsiders, we have to impute to the group a patently exaggerated (if not downright false) set of common experiences and interests. Obviously not all women or members of ethnic groups share the same experiences or hold the same values. Margaret Thatcher may have been Britain's first woman Prime Minister, but she was remarkably unsympathetic to what feminists defined as women's interests."
We should avoid the temptation to exclude people or groups from public debates because they don't belong to a particular club. If we are tempted to say that Group X cannot understand the situation of Group Y, or that they should not be allowed to express a view, we should turn the relationship around and ask if the reverse is true. If we find ourselves tempted to allow Group Y to comment on Group X but not the other way around, we should pause and examine our reasons to see if they are of equal worth.

ReferenceBruce, S. (2000) Sociology, a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

As an aside, I've found Oxford University Press' "A Very Short Introduction" series to be excellent.

* You can interpret this as laziness if you'd like. You won't be hugely wrong.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Platonic Babies

A story idea

Babies are born knowing. Their minds are fully functioning, and they understand the secrets of the universe. Unfortunately, they are unable to have any direct control over their bodies, and are unable to interact with the outside world. There comes a point for every baby where they make the choice to initiate changes in the brain that will allow them to come to control their bodies and interact with the outside world. The price is high however, and they have to sacrifice all but a small kernel of themselves in order to bring about the change. Their self dies, all their knowledge is lost, but they leave behind a small seed to grow into a new person. The rest of their life is spent struggling to slowly relearn a fraction of what they once knew but sacrificed in order to live in the world.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Tolerating Intolerance?

Are liberals required to tolerate intolerance? Is it paradoxical or hypocritical if they do not?

Tolerance is a strategy to maximise liberty, it is not an end in itself. Liberals should encourage toleration to bring about more liberty, but should be against tolerance when it reduces liberty.

Tolerating the individual lifestyle choices of others, even when you strongly disapprove of those choices, increases liberty. If people wish to wear hats, then a liberal should at a minimum avoid discouraging people from wearing hats. The result of this toleration is that people wear or do not wear hats as they wish; more liberty! A liberal should be against (i.e. intolerant of) someone trying to force others to wear hats, because their actions reduces the liberty of others.

Tolerance of intolerant views is justifiable when those views are not overly reducing the liberty of others. Liberals should be intolerant of intolerance that reduces the liberty of others. Thus, if people make bigoted statements in public about hat wearers, then those statements should be tolerated if they do not adversely impact the liberty of people who wear hats. Toleration does not preclude disagreement or debate, so the liberal can still be free to criticise hatist views. If the bigoted statements about hat wearers has the impact of restricting their liberty (e.g. it makes it more difficult for them to be in public, or to get a job) then those statements and views should not be tolerated.

Liberals are required to tolerate intolerance when that intolerance is not adversely impacting the liberty of others. It is not hypocritical to be intolerant of intolerance when the targeted intolerance is reducing liberty.