Send As SMS

Monday, July 24, 2006

Philosophy's foreign relations

Jon Williamson has just paid me a visit here in Tubingen. Jon and I go back quite a way to the time when we were engaged on parallel projects, studying the interaction betweeen AI and philosophy, at King's College London. We hope to work together in the future on a topic I've addressed in recent posts, namely, maximum entropy, perhaps in the context of information geometry. Over a wheat beer, we mulled over our thoughts on the proper relationship between philosophy and neighbouring disciplines. While I doubt Jon would wholeheartedly support my historical stance, we both are of the opinion that it is important for philosophers to leave their comfort zone periodically to engage with these disciplines.

A good way to catch a glimpse of how practitioners of these disciplines view philosophy comes in the introductory spiel to their invited contributions to philosophical collections. A case in point is the Handbook on the Philosophy of Information. Here are two such views:
The philosophy of X, where X is a science, often involves philosophers analyzing the concepts of X and commenting on what concepts are or are not likely to be coherent. AI necessarily shares many concepts with philosophy, e.g. action, consciousness, epistemology (what it is sensible to say about the world), and even free will. This article treats the philosophy of AI but also reverses the usual course and analyzes some basic concepts of philosophy from the standpoint of AI. The philosophy of X often involves advice to practioners of X about what they can and cannot do. We reverse the usual course and offer advice to philosopers, especially philosophers of mind. The point is that philosophical theories can make sense only if they don’t preclude human-level artificial systems, and this fact has further consequences.
Information in Artificial Intelligence by J. McCarthy

Philosophers of science are concerned with explaining various aspects of science, and often, moreover, with viewing science as a kind of gold-mine of philosophical opportunity. The direction in both cases is philosophy from science. For a theoretical scientist, the primary inclination is often to see conceptual analysis as a preliminary to a more technical investigation, which may lead to a new theoretical development. In short: science from philosophy. This article is written mainly in the latter spirit, from the stand-point of Theoretical Computer Science, or perhaps more broadly “Theoretical Informatics”: a — still largely putative — general science of information. That being said, we hope that our conceptual discussions may also provide some useful grist to the philosopher’s mill.
Information, Processes and Games by Samson Abramsky
Both, then, are seemingly open to dialogue with philosophy. Of course, we should not underestimate the preparation necessary to be able to engage fruitfully with practioners. The main danger of their breaking off contact comes from their perception that you have a peculiarly lop-sided view of their field, driven by some quixotic philosophical position. A philosophically-interested machine learning theorist visiting the MPI, who recommended several of the papers in the Handbook, singled out the contribution by Kevin Kelly, one of the few contributing philosophers, as being disappointingly weak. I believe the perception was that, as the one paper specifically addressed to learning, Kelly's reformulation of Ockham's Razor in terms of the minimum number of retractions you need make as you learn is disappointingly narrow. Fair enough. There are plenty of other loss functions to worry about.


Post a Comment

<< Home