Monday, November 29, 2004

Does the Past Matter?

Does the past matter for reasons beyond the present effects it brought about? If some alternative past had identical effects, so the present in each case would be indiscernible, would there be any philosophically relevant differences between this hypothesised "present" and the actual one?

Also, does the past retain any causal powers? (I'm guessing not, but I'd like to make sure.) Assuming determinism, must the state of the universe at time t+1 be entirely determined by the universal snapshot at time t, or is it possible that a combination of times (say t and t-1) together bring about a future state of affairs? If the former, then it would seem that the past becomes entirely irrelevant - the universe could be created ex nihilo in its present form, and the future would unfold in the exact same way. So, for all practical purposes, the past seems entirely irrelevant.

What got me thinking about all this was an issue in Artificial Life. Some have suggested that having evolved is an essential feature of 'life'. That is, to be counted as a 'living' organism, one must belong to a species that has evolved. But if this were true, then Creationism would be not merely false (which it is), but incoherent (which it surely is not). We can imagine God creating human beings in their present form. Such beings would surely still count as alive, despite not having evolved. The past just doesn't seem that crucial here. Perhaps what matters is the future. So a more plausible essential feature of life would be Ray's suggestion, i.e. that the species be "capable of open-ended evolution". (Though even that may admit of counterexamples. Imagine if God created Adam and Eve sterile. Then their species could not evolve. But I'm still inclined to describe them as being alive. Or, for a simpler example: mules!)

Could this dismissal of the past be universalised? Does it ever matter (philosophically) how the present was brought about? I'd quite like to say "no" (to the latter question, i.e. "yes" to the former), but I suspect that's a very radical position. I've heard of several "causal theories of X", for various X (though I don't know much about any of them). A consequence of my position here would be that every such theory is false (since I'm basically saying: "causes don't matter, only effects do".)

From the little I know of this stuff, a causal theory of reference / intentionality might be among the most pressing of these. The idea (if I understand it correctly) is that the meanings of representations (e.g. words, beliefs, etc.) derives, in part, from their causal history.

An example I once heard (I forget who from) is that of a "Swampman" who is miraculously created when a bolt of lightning zaps a swamp and forms an atom-for-atom replica of me. (Alternatively, just imagine God creating Adam.) Is this creature a person? Would their words (which, recall, would not be 'grounded' in past experience in any way) have any meaning?

Or imagine a pile of stones that is carefully arranged by someone to spell out a word. Those stones are then symbols, and have semantic content (i.e. meaning). But imagine if instead they had by chance been blown by the wind into those exact same positions. It seems in the latter case there is no real 'word', no meaning. It's just an appearance. But in each case the present effects are identical, the only difference is in their past causes. So, one might argue, the past clearly does matter.

That seems a quite compelling argument, but I'm still reluctant to accept it. Instead, I want to say that meaning is something we (as observers) attach to things, rather than something instrinsic to the thing itself. If I can have an intelligible discussion with the swampman, then his words have meaning (to me). If you see the windswept stone pattern and interpret it as a word, then those stones contain a meaning (to you). It makes no difference how these things were caused in actual fact; what matters is how we treat them. If we treat them as having meaning, then they (ipso facto) do have meaning (to us). That's all 'meaning' is - something we read into the world, that otherwise would not be there at all.

Does that sound at all plausible?

(I plan to read Dennett's The Intentional Stance soon, which from what I've heard might suggest a similar treatment of meaning to that which I've sketched here. I'm not sure though.)

Also, do you think there any other compelling reasons to accept the past as philosophically relevant? I'm fairly confused (but very interested!) by all this, so any feedback would be much appreciated.

Update: here.

10 comments:

  1. If determinism, then causation is philosophically speaking just an accidence of spatio-temporal relations.

    It is my belief that the past does not exist and nor does the future, metaphysically speaking, but that time is essentially a normalising variable for relative change.

    Time = movement of light = consistent measure of relative change. I have a specific post on my beliefs about time if you are interested, but it's not a common belief.

    Regardling artificial life, I separate the classes "alive", "conscious", "emotive" and "living-and-evolving". One must evolve to be alive-like-a-human because of memory and learning.

    The swampman is assuming what it is trying to prove - that the swampman has no inner life. It is precisely inner life which gives words meaning - appealing to the 'stones' example begs the question of how _anyone_ has inner life. If the swampman has no inner life, then explain your own.

    Why is having a long evolutionary history to ones biological makeup important? 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  2. I find the "one needs evolution to be alive argument VERY weak - I cant see it at all actually.
    It is possible that the past has causal powers but for this to have any meaning those powers would have to pause for a moment for it to be relevant (otherwise their is no way to tell that they exist).
    Anyway, besides that, you seem to have done most of the analysis yourself :) 

    Posted by geniusnz

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  3. I think the 'life implies evolution' idea was not so much intended as a philosophical analysis of our everyday 'life' concept (ask your average American, and they obviously don't require it!). Instead, I think it was supposed to be a 'revisionist' move, suggesting a theoretically elegant re-definition of the word. (The proponents of this view were, if I recall correctly, some quite eminent evolutionary biologists, such as Wilson and Maynard-Smith.)

    It does make a lot more sense if viewed as a scientific, rather than (ordinary-language) philosophical, suggestion. Thought-experiments aside, evolution does seem one thing which sets all actual living beings apart from the rest of the universe.

    So I guess they would say that the hypothesised created being - despite our intuitions - technically fails to meet their scientific definition of life. I'm not sure if that's a problem. After all, H2O is hardly a common-sense/philosophical analysis of water. Sometimes science tells us strange and surprising things. But yeah, I would want to hear a bit more about the advantages of their counter-intuitive definition before I'd be willing to accept it.

    "It is precisely inner life which gives words meaning"

    I hadn't thought of it that way. But I suspect that even non-conscious beings can represent the world in meaningful ways (or, rather, we can more easily explain their behaviour if we posit the existence of such 'meanings'). Fodor's cat waits by the cat-bowl in the morning, presumably in the belief that it will soon be filled with food. Does this require that the cat have some conscious 'inner life'? I wouldn't think so. (But I'm not sure either.)

    Anyway, even if the swampman has an 'inner life' just like we do, doesn't it seem a bit odd that he could meaningfully talk about cows, if he had never so much as seen one, nor talked to anyone else who had, nor been "causally connected" to actual cows in any way whatsoever? That's the challenge. How do his words have meaning? When he vocalises the word "cow", where does the magic connection (i.e. reference) to real cows come from?

    It seems like one must either ground such meanings upon a causal explanation, or else give up on meaning realism, and say it's all just a big illusion. (I sort of opted for the latter in my post above, but I'm having second thoughts!) 

    Posted by Richard

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  4. Well, it only seems odd if you buy into a causal theory of reference. If you rather consider things phenomenologically, consider that he is referring to the experience of cows. I mean, for all you know, you might _be_ a swampman. It's the old brain-in-a-vat argument all over again.

    Don't think that problems of reference must pose problems for consciousness.

    "Thought-experiments aside, evolution does seem one thing which sets all actual living beings apart from the rest of the universe."

    Oh, piffle. :) The planets 'evolved' out of dust, trees evolved but aren't conscious, software evolves. If you're going to say that the planets didn't really 'evolve' then you are already prejudicing the definition of evolution by forcing it to only apply to living things! If evolution is a just any survival-of-the-fittest progression, then many things are like that.

    "But I suspect that even non-conscious beings can represent the world in meaningful ways (or, rather, we can more easily explain their behaviour if we posit the existence of such 'meanings'). Fodor's cat waits by the cat-bowl in the morning, presumably in the belief that it will soon be filled with food. Does this require that the cat have some conscious 'inner life'? I wouldn't think so. (But I'm not sure either.)"

    What about a flower who opens its petals in the morning and closes them in the evening? Or trees which drop their leaves expecting winter to come along.

    Surely in the swampman we have an example of something without causal reference who is conscious, and in the flower an example of something with causal reference that is not conscious, thus proving no 1-1 relation between the two?

    As far as I'm concerned "meaning is the interpretation given by a consciousness". So the swampman "means" things when he talks about cows, but doesnt "refer" to them in any causal sense, because it is not actually cows which have given him his experience of cows. In fact, one might simply regard him as having mistaken beliefs about his past rather than being biologically incapable of consciousness.

    "It seems like one must either ground such meanings upon a causal explanation, or else give up on meaning realism, and say it's all just a big illusion. (I sort of opted for the latter in my post above, but I'm having second thoughts!) "

    A glass, looked at through rose-coloured glasses, is still a glass, and a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

    One can believe in an objective reality that is experienced subjectively. As, indeed, I do.

    -T 

    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

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  5. "If determinism, then causation is philosophically speaking just an accidence of spatio-temporal relations."

    What I had in mind was the idea that each moment in time is caused by the state of the universe at the preceding moment, in conjunction with the laws of nature (physics). By that picture, causation is central, no mere accident. (I omitted indeterminism for the sake of simplicity.)

    "So the swampman "means" things when he talks about cows, but doesnt "refer" to them in any causal sense"

    Hmm, I had previously been using 'reference' and 'meaning' interchangably. A bit slack of me, I suppose, as 'meaning' is sometimes used to mean 'sense' rather than 'reference'. I think I meant 'reference' throughout, however. The question: can we have a non-causal theory of reference?

    "The planets 'evolved' out of dust, trees evolved but aren't conscious, software evolves."

    Trees are living (what's consciousness got to do with this?). Planets didn't 'evolve' in the biological sense of the word. This isn't question-begging, it's just observing the technical-scientific usage of the word. Evolution by natural selection, a prerequisite of which is self-replication. Some software might evolve in this way (e.g. the Tierra programs), but perhaps that simply shows that such software is (technically) alive! But I guess we're getting a bit off-topic here...

    "One can believe in an objective reality that is experienced subjectively."

    Well, sure. But do our relations to that reality depend upon the past? 

    Posted by Richard

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  6. "do our relations to that reality depend upon the past? "

    the problem I have with dealing with this is that it is hard to define what exactly you are testing when you say that. After all what does "depend" mean in this context?
    like your initial approach it is rather like you are asking "if the past and the present were disconnected what connections would remain? As if we are applying some method to disconect them that is imperfect.
     

    Posted by geniusNZ

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  7. An example I once heard (I forget who from) is that of a "Swampman" who is miraculously created when a bolt of lightning zaps a swamp and forms an atom-for-atom replica of me.Swampman is Davidson's example, from "Knowing One's Own Mind." 

    Posted by Brock

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  8. I am leaning towards the swamp man being as much "you" as you are in fact it could even be MORE you than you are if it retains your origional state better.
    The point being the only thing that connects me now to me in the future is the continuity and the causal relationship - as oposed to the specific set of atoms. Thus if such continuity existed in another body it woudl think it was real - from its perspective it will have just jumped into that body - in fact before the event you could not tell if you would wake up next second in its body or yours.  

    Posted by geniusNZ

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  9. Thanks Brock - I was hoping someone would tell me the source of that example :) 

    Posted by Richard

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  10. What a wonderful invention it is, this thing we call the Internet!

    ReplyDelete

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