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A New Kind of Science: The NKS Forum (http://forum.wolframscience.com/index.php)
- NKS Way of Thinking (http://forum.wolframscience.com/forumdisplay.php?forumid=5)
-- Wolfram versus Descartes in philosophy (http://forum.wolframscience.com/showthread.php?threadid=1701)


Posted by David Brown on 08-29-2009 03:40 PM:

Wolfram versus Descartes in philosophy

In NKS, has Wolfram presented a scientifically-oriented philosophical system that ranks with those of Descartes, Newton, and Darwin?
In “Quick takes on some ideas and discoveries in A New Kind of Science,” Wolfram has provided a summary of NKS concepts under 28 different subheadings. Five of these are:
(A) Thinking in terms of programs rather than equations opens up a new kind of science.
(B) Our whole universe may be governed by a single underlying simple program.
(C) The Principle of Computational Equivalence provides a broad synthesis.
(D) Many important phenomena are computationally irreducible.
(E) Mechanisms from simple programs suggest new kinds of technology.
See http://www.wolframscience.com/refer...uick_takes.html .
According to “Handbook in the History of Philosophy” (NY, Barnes & Noble, 1954) by Albert E. Avey:
Descartes established a dualistic separation of the realm of mind from the realm of matter and interpreted the latter so that he profoundly influenced the philosophy of modern science. His definitive expression of mechanism, which revived the approach of the ancient materialists and added the language of mathematics as the key to material nature, came to be known as the “Cartesian Revolution.”
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descartes .
In philosophical terms, does quantum mechanics involve a Cartesian dualism that divides physics into an operational framework with time, space, and energy as the material aspect of the dualism and with the consciousness of the experimenter as the mental aspect of the dualism? Does Wolfram’s system replace Cartesian dualism with a unity of Platonic idealism based upon a Platonic idealist finite machine? In terms of unified Platonic idealist philosophy, are there are really only two basic choices for a model of nature: a Platonic idealist machine with finite mathematics or a Platonic idealist machine with infinite mathematics?
If we believe in ultimate scientific reductionism, then should we believe that knowing, willing, feeling, spirituality, empathy, and consciousness reduce to molecular cellular anthropology? Should we believe that anthropology reduces to molecular cellular biology reduces to chemistry reduces to physics reduces to computation?
Has Wolfram presented a framework for establishing our multiverse as a Fredkin-Wolfram information process that provides the computational method for M-theory? Has Wolfram suggested a new scientific philosophy that contains Cartesian dualism and quantum mechanics as empirical approximations to Wolframian cosmological mechanics?
Is the main value of NKS a framework for thinking of new techniques in robotics, telepresence, and nanotechnology as well as various sciences, arts, and managerial systems? Does NKS suggest ways for thinking of new technological systems that model conscious beings as symbiotic collections of simple programs? Do NKS concepts yield a unified approach to spirituality, consciousness, science, technology, arts, humanities, and informational systems?


Posted by Jason Cawley on 08-29-2009 05:01 PM:

Taking the actual questions severally -

"does quantum mechanics involve a Cartesian dualism"

It need not. There is no subjectivist, mentalistic, or mind-ish component of actual quantum mechanics. It merely restricts its predictions about natural phenomena to statistical statements about class averages. Some external commentators with their own axes to grind have read that restriction in a subjectivist-idealist way, but it is those commentators and not quantum mechanics saying such. There is no "mind" in quantum mechanics, it does not occur as a category or term anywhere within its formalism.

"Does Wolfram’s system replace Cartesian dualism with a unity of Platonic idealism based upon a Platonic idealist finite machine?"

In one sense yes this is fair, in that he sees all intelligences as embodied calculative entities within a single developing rule that is a formalist or mathematical structure only. In another respect it goes too far and begs too many questions - Wolfram nowhere says anything about said formalism being "idealist". Idealist is in this context an ambiguous term. If it means the basic ontological "stuff" is mathlike or formal, then it applies; if it means it is thoughtlike or occurs in a mind, then it need not. Formalism is not equivalent to idealism, in other words. My own position - I call it "formal realism" - is formalist but anti-idealist.

In Plato's Parmenides, when the young Socrates is asked how the ideas exist, he gives two answers. Once he says "as thoughts" and the other time "as patterns in things". The latter is the formal realist position. But then the ideas are an attempt to formulate a theory not of being but of intelligibility, precisely by positing an equivalence (not necessarily an identity, but an equals sign) between those two answers. That inevitably means any claim that one or the other side is more basic can be questioned by the alternative reading that regards the other side of the equation as more basic.

On infinities in Wolfram and QM models, it makes sense to call Wolfram's position more finite, but computational universality gives itself one countable infinity. The history of the universe in Wolfram's position is "as yet" finite, but potentially open-ended in the forward time dimension.

"If we believe in ultimate scientific reductionism"

Reductionism is a separable issue from Wolfram's computational view of the universe, and there are strong and weak forms of it. Universality can arise at any level of analysis, just as one can build a practical computer from many different sorts of components and on any physical scale. It is a property of an arrangement, and arrangements as such are indifferent to the details of the bricks from which they are composed. Universality says the hardware really doesn't matter, to speak tech. Or, once you have a universal hardware what it will do depends no longer on hardware issues but on the specific details of its history, aka the program it is running right now.

"should we believe that knowing, willing, feeling, spirituality, empathy, and consciousness reduce to molecular cellular"

Um, why does the manner in which any such subjective analytics of human experience or behavior gains an effective independence of underlying biology, need to differ from the way software gains effective independence of underlying hardware? Sure there are underlying instruction sets and beneath them some wetware to implement those instructions, but the interleaving of the instructions does all of the work in producing the system's great range of unpredictable behaviors, its ability in principle to achieve isomorphism to any computable sequence of formal states, etc. What's "reductive" about software? Does anybody try to predict what a (platform independent) java program will do by analyzing a printed circuit board, without knowing anything about the programming language or any specific program?

Half the point of universality is that all the answers aren't at the bottom. Knowing that you are dealing with a universal system is already enough to tell you the details of the history are controlling. Nobody is going to try to calculate, say, where a storm will veer next week from the bottom up using a fundamental theory of physics. We can believe that everything that happens in that system is obeying physical laws we know, and we may be able to learn various things about it from those laws. But if you try to place every subatomic particle and calculate where each will go next, forget it. You couldn't compute the next five seconds in the lifetime of the universe with all existing computers doing nothing else. You couldn't set it up. All practical computation starts at the level of analysis native to the behavior one is attempting to model, or very close below it.

"our multiverse"

Wolfram never posits one in the first place. It is a possible addition, but he presents a single-instance, single-history view of the universe as a definite instantiation of a process of sample size one.

"contains Cartesian dualism"

First a meta-point about Cartesian dualism, at the risk of descending into academic controversy. Descartes did not consider himself a Cartesian dualist, or a dualist of any kind. Descartes' own standard of ontology is very clear and simple - to be is to be thinkable. It is the wide variety of readings given to his philosophy - which in fact turned it into half a dozen other-people's philosophies - that gave rise to the notion that Descartes left a dualistic problem. This is most explicit in Spinoza where it simply becomes two "modes" of existence. Everyone else sees that tension and most take a side in trying to resolve it. Hobbes and Locke then went one way with it (two, actually - empiricism is distinct from materialism) and Leibniz and Berkeley another (or two, the minds their idealisms reside within, differ). Then Kant motivates his own noumenal-phenomenal dualism with Descartes mind-body one.

In Descartes himself, body is simply that to which the category of extension applies, which is not divorced from thought but is precisely what is thinkable in a specific aspect. While anything thinkable, is - every real attribute adheres in some real existent. Again there is the issue with equations and their having two sides, but what Descartes specifically intends is an equals sign between "to be" and "to be intelligible". It is other men who "hear" something realist-objective in the first of those, and idealist-subjective in the second. He is equating them.

That is the fate of any theory of correct understanding that readers do not accept. It must equate a mental thing with a real one or it isn't a theory of how they can correspond, and if the reader doesn't accept it he will always still see two things and a mystery between them. It was easy (in Aristotle) to criticize that aspect of Plato's ideas, but it is (nearly) impossible to evade that criticism without shirking the task of explaining intelligibility. (Contemporary skeptical philosophers deal with this by pretending there isn't any, which is false empirically).

"value of NKS a framework for thinking of new techniques"

No, though it has such value I wouldn't say it is the main one, at least in Wolfram's own stated terms. (Anyone else is free to value it for whatever they like, or not do so). He thinks it provides the theoretical ground for understanding natural complexity. Hence the title, which is not "my discrete model of physics". The main claim of the book is that extending the formalisms we use to model the world from traditional mathematics to simple computer programs is necessary and sufficient to capture the specific phenomena of complexity in natural and artificial systems.

"model conscious beings as symbiotic collections"

There are no models of consciousness in the NKS book. There are reflections on aspects of thinking as themselves program-like, and of our techniques of perception and analysis as achieving the complexity and sophistication of simple programs but not exceeding them in either respect. Wolfram claims this explains why complexity strikes us as complex - it matches the sophistication of our methods of analyzing it, so we can't run ahead of and "crush" it. Wolfram presents universality as a requirement for intelligence, and somewhat playfully suggests it may be sufficient as well. This is a deliberate re-defining of the domain of intelligence; "the weather has a mind of its own".

To Wolfram, this is another Copernican point about human beings being less special than they have pretended in the past. It isn't worshipping the weather, but a downgrade to the awe previously felt for human intelligence. Yes it is special, but in a specific and knowable way that lots of other systems reach. We are universal computers, which is as good as it gets. So are lots of other things. If we want to feel more special about something, it will have to reside in the specific computations we actual perform, the details of our history, and not in a bare capacity we possess. Because the bare capacity isn't very impressive, it is lying around all over the place.

I hope this is interesting...


Posted by David Brown on 08-30-2009 01:42 PM:

The main claim of NKS

Wolfram thinks that NKS "provides the theoretic ground for understanding natural complexity ... The main claim of the book is that extending the formalisms we use to model the world from traditional mathematics to simple programs is necessary and sufficient to capture the specific phenomena of complexity in natural and artificial systems."
If the preceding two sentences are true, then the term "formalist realist philosophy" might be the category for the philosophy of NKS. But if the main claim of NKS is true, then wouldn't NKS be a proto-theory of everything and a reductionist basis for all of science and philosophy? Doesn't NKS suggest a fundamental "pseudo free will" that appears as a computationally "independent free will"? Doesn't NKS suggest that belief in God is either an empirical mistake or an unlikely formalist reality combined with a subjective opinion or feeling? If the fundamental claims of NKS are true, then wouldn't any valid theory of consciousness have to take NKS concepts into account?


Posted by MikeHelland on 10-28-2009 09:08 PM:

Originally posted by Jason Cawley
Taking the actual questions severally -

"does quantum mechanics involve a Cartesian dualism"

It need not. There is no subjectivist, mentalistic, or mind-ish component of actual quantum mechanics. It merely restricts its predictions about natural phenomena to statistical statements about class averages.



Just for the sake of philosophy....

.... let's take the Cartesian dualism and expand on it until we have Popper's 3 worlds, roughly:

1. absolute world
2. relative subjective world
3. relative objective world

I would say the QM is not only "involved" in this world-view, but is a direct consequence of it.

Physical matter is like physical space and time: it is RELATIVE.

Relative to what?

Measurement.

That doesn't mean it is subjective. But as Popper explains, it is the culmination and competition of subjective input that eventually yields the objective world.

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