Friday, June 5, 2015
Eliminativists eliminate. In history, the concepts and theories that we build about the world form a scaffold for our inquiries. As the investigation into some phenomena proceeds, we often find that the terms, the concepts, the equations, or even whole theories have gotten far enough out of synch with our observations to require consignment to the dustbin of history. Demonology was once an active field of inquiry in our attempts to understand disease. The humour theory of disease was another attempt to understand what was happening to Plague victims in the 14th century. Medieval healers were trying to explain a bacterial infection with yersenia pestis 600 years before the microbe, the real cause, had even been identified. Explanations of the disease symptoms in terms of imbalances of yellow bile, blood, black bile, and phlegm produced worthless and ineffective treatments. So we eliminate humour theory of disease, demonology, the elan vital theory of life, God, Creationism, and so on as science marches on.
Eliminativism has taken on the status of a dirty word among some philosophers, a bit like people who are quick to insist that they believe women are equal and all that, but they aren’t “feminists” because that’s too harsh or strident.
But we can and should take an important lesson from EM, even if we don’t want to be card carrying members. Theory changes can be ontologically conservative or ontologically radical depending on the extent to which they preserve the entities, concepts, or theoretical structures of the old account.
That is, we can be conservative; we can hold onto the old terms, the old framework, the old theory, and revise the details in light of the new things we learn.
Here’s how the Churchlands explains the process.
We begin our inquiry into what appears to be several related phenomena, calling it “fire.” Ultimately, when a robust scientific theory about the nature of the phenomena is in place, we learn that some of the things, like fireflies and comets, that we originally thought were related to burning wood, are actually fundamentally different. And we learn that “fire” itself is not at all what we originally thought it was. We have to start with some sort of conceptual scaffolding, but we rebuild it along the way, jettison some parts, and radically overhaul parts of it.
My point then, is that we must take a vital lesson from the eliminativists about the AI project. At the outset of our inquiry, it seems like terms such as “thinking,” “consciousness,” “self-awareness,” “thoughts,” “belief,” and so on identify real phenomena in the world. These terms seem to break nature at the joints, as they say. But we should be prepared, we should be eager even, to scrap the term, overhaul the definition, toss the theory, or otherwise regroup in the light of important new information. We are rapidly moving into the golden age of brain science, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence research. We should expect that to produce upheaval in the story we’ve been telling for the last several hundred years of thinking about thinking. Let’s get ahead of the curve on that.
With that in mind, I’ll use these terms in what follows with a great big asterisk: * this is a sloppy term that is poorly defined and quite possibly misleading, but we’ve gotta start somewhere.
Folk psychological terms that I’m prepared to kick to the curb: belief, idea, concept, mind, consciousness, thought, will, desire, freedom, and so on. That is, as we go about theorizing about and trying to build an AI, and someone raises a concern of the form, “But what about X? Can it do X? Oh, robots will never be able to do X….” I am going to treat it as an open question whether X is even a real thing that needs to be taken into account.
Imagine we time traveled a medieval healer from 14th century France to the Harvard school of medicine. We show him around, we show him all the modern fancy tools we have for curing disease, we show him all the different departments where we address different kinds of disease, and we show him lots of cured patients. He’s suitably impressed and takes it all in. But then he says, “This is all very impressive and I am amazed by the sights and things going on here. But you call yourselves healers? What you are doing here is interesting, but where are your demonologists? In 700 years, have you not made any progress at all addressing the real source of human suffering which is demon possession? Where is your department of demonology? Those are the modern experts who I’d really like to talk to.”
We don’t want to end up being that guy.
We should expect, given the lessons of history, that some of the folk psychological terms that we’ve been using are going to turn out to not identify anything real, some of them will turn out to not be what we thought they’d be at all, and we’re going to end up filling in the details about minds in ways that we didn’t imagine at the outset. Let’s not be curmudgeonly theorists, digging in our heels and refusing to innovate our conceptual structures. But on the other hand, let’s also not be too ready to jump onto to every new theoretical bandwagon that comes along.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 9:31 AM