COMPUTATION AND PHILOSOPHY
The modern mind having been deluded by the dazzling successes of the natural sciences into absorbing unquestioningly the basic scientific tenet, that only the objective, the testable, the measurable, yields knowledge and understanding, was further lured by the tantalizing Leibnizean dream of a perfect symbolic language that would reduce metaphysical and moral problems to problems of computation. Ever since a major sector of philosophic thought has been sold to reductionism, which, I will doggedly maintain, is the death of philosophy.
The advent of cybernetics reinforced this harmful trend. Computers could work wonders provided they are fed with information in the form of symbols. This gave birth to Information Technology, a great science that has become all too important for our present-day civilization. But it should be clear that it is, or should be, a science with a strictly defined function: to translate all objective facts into a language that is serviceable for computation. Outside that area it has no competence. It cannot disclose the meaning of anything or determine the value of anything. The confounding of science and philosophy has already done and continues to do grave harm. When we are made to think that it is Information Technology that gives understanding, then – and I mean what I am saying literally – the very being of humanity is threatened. Witness our worthy economists and our worthy generals!
To transform information into symbols, the first prerequisite is to determine the purpose which the symbols are to serve. If the purpose is to launch a rocket to the moon, the consideration that lovers have for aeons delighted in walking side by side in the moonlight is of no relevance. For our specific purpose, the moon is nothing but mass, velocity, and I know not what other characteristics that can be expressed digitally.
To render information in a form serviceable for a strictly prescribed objective, symbols deplete the words of common language of meaningful content. The more of a symbol a word is, the flimsier in meaning it becomes. Thus while symbols may and do enable us to make use of information for specific purposes, they are incapable of performing the original and vital function of words in the common walks of life, namely, to enable human beings to communicate with one another as human beings. A living word suggests, alludes. Vagueness is an indispensable feature of a living word. It is not a defect. A word, when not reduced to a symbol, does not stand for a static thing but relates to the flow and tide of the actual world.
Marginally, I know that the adepts of logical symbolism vaunt of being able to deal with such puzzles as that of ‘reference to Nonexistents’ and the like. I have no desire to enter into that nest of hornets at this point. The problem of negative statements was raised by Plato in the Theaetetus, but left there standing, to be taken up again and resolved in the Sophist, but our philosophers persevere in keeping the conundrum rolling. The thrashing of logical problems and the problems of symbolism may have useful practical applications, but I do not see them as having any philosophical relevance. I think Wittgenstein was right when he said, “The propositions of logic are tautologies. Therefore the propositions of logic say nothing. (They are the analytic propositions.)” (Tractatus, 6.1 and 6.11.)
I do not think that all the labour analytical philosophers expend on the problems relating to truth-value has anything to do with philosophical understanding. It may help in laying down rules for manipulating symbols, but it cannot touch on the content of what the symbols stand for. That is why I shun the word ‘truth’ in my writings. In my view, philosophy proper is not concerned with truth but with insight, and the insight, in the end, if it is genuine philosophical insight, is always insight into our inner reality and our proper value as intelligent (I prefer this word to ‘rational’) beings.
The meaning of a word or a sentence is the subjective presence of the word or sentence. That is the great insight in Socrates’ foolish “It is by Beauty that the beautiful is beautiful.” To symbolize a word or sentence is to drain it of its lifeblood, to turn it into a dry shell. That can be very beneficial for certain specific purposes, but it is not the work of philosophy proper, and its utility should not deceive us into thinking that in that way we can gain any understanding.
Bertrand Russell, in offering an ingenious technical solution to a problem of logical symbolism, lured analytical philosophers into literally interminable quandaries. Neither Russell nor his followers realized that the genius who first gave us number had anticipated them without falling into their folly. A farmer and a weaver go to market. The weaver knows that one of his woollen shirts is worth two cabbages. He barters two shirts for four cabbages. Both the weaver and the farmer praise the gods for the gift of Number, but they are wise enough to know that Two could not give them warmth nor could Four stay their hunger. (I may one day write an article examining Russell’s classical essay “On Denoting”.)
By equating ourselves with computers, by reducing ourselves to information systems, we are in danger of becoming oblivious of our humanity and in the end losing our humanity.
The Socratic elenctic examination of ideas, rightly understood, shows that ideas such as love, friendship, loyalty, etc., cannot be reduced even to other intelligible ideas. You can create a digital counter for love and you can use it for making valid deductions. A robot may be able to calculate and simulate how a human being will behave, given that s/he loves her/his child, but the robot will not understand love unless it were endowed with the gift of experiencing love.
Cybernetics pundits, having modeled computers on brains, now propose that we see our brains (they have no use for minds!) as computers. We are told that our feelings are the response of our brains to information. My feeling is not a response of my brain to information – my feeling, as a subjective reality, is how the whole of my subjective personality answers to a total situation. I cannot accept the reductive implication of making the brain the author of my feelings and my behaviour. The reductive account cannot explain the spontaneity, the freedom, the creativity that are my birthright as a being endowed with intelligence.
Similarly, the attempt to reduce feelings to chemical reactions is equally deluded and equally harmful. I will grant that we can translate feelings into information rendered in terms of chemical reactions, but I would insist that it is morally and intellectually harmful to habituate ourselves to equating our feelings – and the whole of our inner life – with chemical, physical, neurological, etc., processes.
My doctor takes my pulse, my blood-pressure, my temperature, etc., etc. These are all given as digits. They are what are called my vital signs. My life depends on them, a few digits more here, a few digits less there, and I am no longer a living thing, let alone a thinking or feeling thing. To my doctor, in her/his capacity as doctor, these digits sum me up. But I would be gravely offended if my doctor regarded me as no more than a collection of digits on her/his laptop or in her/his notebook.
Again, to say that emotions are triggered in us by the sound of a phrase spoken to us — not, mind you, by the meaningful content but by the physical phenomenon of sound – is, at best, a damaging simplification. The words “I love you” spoken by my daughter or my granddaughter issues in an emotion distinctly different from the emotion which issues when the same phrase is spoken by someone else. To say that my brain triggers the emotion is a shorthand sign for indicating a slice of reality of inexhaustible interconnectedness. The emotion is not a brain response; it is a creative development in the living medium of my inner reality. By all means use your shorthand signs for computation purposes but don’t mistake them for the real thing. The sun also is a system of chemical formulae and physical equations. But the formulae and equations in your computer, however accurate, will not give light, or warmth, or life.
The deluge of information flooding down on humanity from the heights of technological sophistication, even in its positive character, threatens to destroy human civilization. When its pundits tell us that information is not only all the wisdom there is but also all the reality there is, that is no longer a threat; it is sure death.
D. R. Khashaba