Communication and Philosophical Arguments

I’ve never formally studied philosophy. I do, however, have some experience with logic in computer science and engineering contexts. Philosophical arguments may be structured in a similar logical format. This post discusses the approach of communicating philosophical ideas in a structured and logical way that will be tested in upcoming edits and posts on this website.

The structure of a philosophical argument may include premises and conclusions. A premise is a proposed statement of fact. Premises can be combined to make conclusions. An argument may be presented as (numbered) premises and conclusions, a common example being,

P1: All men are mortal.
P2: Socrates is a man.
C1: Socrates is mortal.

Communicating philosophical arguments is a challenge for a number of reasons. Trying to communicate arguments as prose can obscure the important points by burying them in paragraphs and sentences: the structure of an argument, the premises and conclusions, must be extracted.

In future posts and additions to this website, it will be aimed to present philosophical arguments arguments as enumerated lists of premises and the conclusions. Prose may be used to elaborate premises or present thought-experiments that are believed to strengthen arguments; however, clarity and succinctness will still be a goal. Wherever possible summaries will be provided.

As an aside, I have an interest in the practise and failings of debate in general.

I was struck by the exchange of emails between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris being an example of an attempt at a discussion that struggled to gain traction. Chomsky and Harris both have a great command of the English language, but they seemed to lack a process to conduct a discussion that could allow them to succinctly and accurately communicate their own beliefs and determine the beliefs of the other.

Spoken debates often demonstrate the same failing. A spoken debate may allow the speakers to demonstrate their skill as orators, but the aim should probably be to share and learn from sound arguments. Presently, debates are often a situation where we are subject to the full range of tricks used to persuade. Spoken debates suffer at least two big challenges as a mode of presenting arguments: 1) the audience can only keep a few items in their mind at one time, 2) claims of supporting facts and evidence cannot be checked for truth.

Given that logic is a foundation of modern philosophy it seems odd that its use is not emphasised. The point-by-point approach to expressing an argument seems to provide an improved, straightforward process for conducting debates and discussions. It may be difficult and it may make debates seem even more abstract and dry, but it might improve the value of discussion and debate as a tool for learning.

I’m interested in taking this approach in communicating my philosophical arguments and I hope that it makes any discussion or debates that I have more concise and fruitful.

If all arguments are conveyed as a set of premises and conclusions, anyone with an opposing view should be able to state which premises they do not believe to be true or which conclusions are not valid. Probing the reasons for disagreeing with the truth of a premise or the structure of the argument should lead to a refinement of the argument or adoption of a position that is valid.

In cases where the truth of a statement is not (or cannot) be known, there may be many ways of approaches to find a resolution. It is reasonable to make an attempt to search for evidence that may indicate the truth or falsity of the claim. If evidence is unavailable, experiments may be considered and performed that may provide that evidence. If experiments are not feasible, the effect of truth or falsity on the argument may be examined or an attempt may be made to construct an argument that does not rely on that premise.

Spoken debates may be more educational if conducted with a whiteboard (or similar) used to list the form of arguments made and to act as a visual aid for participants and the audience. Speakers would be required to list the premises and the form of their argument. Responses could come in the form of annotation of the arguments listed, pointing out which claims are dubious or where there is a gap in the argument structure. Evidence and sources could also be provided. This approach would likely change televised debates significantly.

Now that I’ve refined my approach to communication, I just need to actually do some communicating.

Meaning, Value and Life: Contents

Writing the summary of the Meaning, Value and Life webpage has been difficult to complete. This may be because starting with a summary may be likened to putting the cart before the horse. Finding an effective approach to writing content is an ongoing goal in the development of this website.

Rather than start with a summary, an attempt has been made to draft the section headings of the webpage. The next step will be to fill in the sections with outlines of their contents. These outlines will gradually be replaced with detailed prose.

The section headings and their contents will continue to be subject to revision in the likely event that writing them reveals a clearer and more concise approach to explaining the ideas or, perhaps more likely, making these thoughts precise in writing reveals important gaps. Nevertheless, the list below provides an indication of the future contents of this webpage. The current section headings for the Meaning, Value and Life are as follows:

0. Summary

1. Meaning

This section will explore the concept of “meaning”.

1.1. Usage of “Meaning”

The usage of the word “meaning” will be discussed.

1.2. Examples of Meaning

Things that have meaning will be discussed.

1.3. The Existence of Meaning

When does something have meaning? When does something cease to have meaning? Exploring these questions will provide insights into the nature of meaning.

1.4. Interpretation

The act of interpretation and the importance of interpreters in the existence of meaning will be discussed.

1.5. A Definition of Meaning

From these points a definition of “meaning” will be proposed.

2. Value

This section will explore the concept of “value”.

2.1. Usage of “Value”

The word “value” has many uses. These will be discussed and uses of particular interest will be highlighted.

2.2. Examples of Value

What things have value? What actions are valuable? What are values? Examples of value will be discussed.

2.3. Impetus for Action

The relationship of value to action will be discussed.

2.4. The Existence of Value

How does something acquire value? When does something lose value? The conditions that are necessary for existence of value are discussed.

2.5. A Definition of Value

These discussions lead to a proposal for a definition of “value”.

3. Life

This section will explore the concept “life”.

3.1. Usage of “Life”

The word “life” may have fewer uses but the term is somewhat nebulous.

3.2. Examples of Life

Examples of what is considered to be living provide insights into the necessary conditions for what should be considered alive.

3.3. Alive

The examples of life highlight entities that are on the fringe of being considered alive. When does something qualify as being alive? When does something no longer qualify as alive? This discussion will further dissect the usage of the terms “life” and “alive”.

3.4. The Value of Creating Meaning

Value and action are related to the acts of interpretation and creation that are intrinsic to life.

3.5. A Definition of Life

In conclusion, a definition and meaning of “life” is proposed.


Mind the Leap: Introduction

BlogIntroIt’s been a long time since I created this blog.  I wrote a lot of draft posts, but never edited or posted them; until now.  The best place to start is probably a more detailed description of the things that I want to cover in this space.  Hopefully it will not only inform potential readers of what they might expect from this blog, but also keep me on track to writing on the main topics I want to share ideas on.

First: My day job (although I’m not currently getting paid) is postgraduate research on robot intelligence.  As one of the few PhD students who hasn’t become jaded after working on the same research topic for years, I still find studying robotics and artificial intelligence really engaging and enjoyable.  A part of this blog will be devoted to talking about these topics, but usually at a non-technical, conceptual level.

Second: Intelligence is such a fraught term though, that I have spent a lot of time looking into the underlying neuroscience and thinking about biological intelligence, consciousness, the mind and the brain.  This continues to be a big influence on my approach to robot intelligence.  While the some additions in the path to the evolution of the human brain might not be necessary for functional robot intelligence, people are the primary example of the general intelligence we want in our robots.  Some of this blog will discuss how neuroscience and cognitive science might translate into AI and robotics.

Third: As the brain becomes less of a mystery, the soul is no longer a necessary hypothesis.  Physicalism, the belief that the world is only matter and energy and without a spiritual dimension, is a starting point a lot of my thoughts about the world.  A significant amount of what I would like to discuss is more philosophical in nature.  While I usually try to have a scientific underpinning—or use a thought experiment as an intuition pump—philosophical, moral and ethical issues often remain disputable.  Nonetheless, I think about these issues, and I think they are important enough that another voice can’t hurt.

Those are the main themes and topics this blog will cover.  The style of writing is something I want to be conscious of too.  There are a fine lines between entertaining and obfuscating; informative and long-winded; and concise and plain.  Many of my drafts were possibly drifting towards long-winded attempts to be entertaining.  With a personal credo of trying to improve at all things I do, I’ll look for a balance.  Humour, like morality, is subjective.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of doing these things better.  Potential readers beware: there’s no telling what you’ll be subjected to.  Even, sentences that a preposition they end in.  Yoda would be proud.  Or really disappointed.  Or just confused… I’m not sure.  ( Lame grammar joke, Star Wars reference, and smiley face: check. 😀 )

Hello World?

HelloWorld“Hello World!” is a common test program when learning a new programming language or testing some new hardware.  Getting the computer to say “Hello World!” shows that a simple program is working.  We programmers can say, “Hello,” back, but the computer doesn’t actually comprehend anything (yet).  The internet, however, is a place full of real humans, just like me, tapping away at computers or smartphones.  While I’m content sending my words into the void, maybe someone will see something I’ve written here.  Then the World might say, “Hello,” back…