28 July 2010


Polymeron, one of the nice commenters over at CommonSense Atheism thought this was a pithy statement, which makes me happy. It actually exemplifies the reason why I get rather frustrated when listening to people who are supposed to be high-end philosophers, making the same old essentialist fallacy time and time again.

Don't get the wrong idea - I try not to make a habit of hanging out with such types, but we had a chap called Brian Leftow over in Belfast last year, and he gave a talk on the existence of God, which was chocka full of the essentialist fallacy - there is a dude called Alvin Plantinga who tried to reformulate St Anselm's tired old Ontological Argument (check Wikipedia if I'm losing you here), and basically comes up with one that again milks this fallacy like a prize cow. As if "God the Thing" can have "Omnipresence the property". Silly silly silly.

Maybe it's because in medicine we are used to breaking things down and reassembling them, and seeing whether what holds at the micro holds at the macro. Maybe we can see big pictures emerging from the little pictures more acutely than some (not all!) of our Philosophy pals. Indeed, Richard Swinburne was over also, and he made similar mistakes to Plantinga and Leftow in assuming that "mind" and "soul" were *things* that you could say stuff about, rather than viewing the human organism as a system, with internal states, inputs and outputs. Maybe we are just aware that we can mislead ourselves very subtly in our reasoning, and we are careful not to make claims that we can't back up with evidence from another source, or use to generate testable predictions.

I rather think the job of philosophy would be a good deal easier, and half the punters would be able to be more gainfully employed, if this simple principle was emphasised a little more - not just in academic philosophy, but in life in general. Systems display behaviours, folks. Got it?

Now THAT was high-brow for this time of the evening, wasn't it?


  1. So just to confirm Jimmy, one would never say…

    but rather one should say…

  2. So "pain" is behaviour, and a neuro-physiological state, and nothing more?
    What about a "belief"? Is that just a tendency to say "such and such" in certain situations?
    So I think there's more to emergent properties than behaviour.

    And like I've said on W&T, you're not saying anything that Swinburne or Plantinga would disagree with. You can't divide God up into his "omniscient" bit and his "omnipresent" bit. They're not parts of God. (You could certainly divide me up into my constituent atoms. But atoms aren't properties)

    The question is "do these terms adequately describe God?" (or the concept of God).

    On the medical research --- the danger is that a researcher may only be interested in the parts of a system, and correlating these with certain types of behaviour. And, obviously, this sort of reduction is a very successful way of solving problems.

    Then they leap to the conclusion that there is nothing more to describe.

  3. Ha, nice to see this has inspired a whole post. It really IS catchy! I've "buzzed" it as my quote of the week :)

    This sort of confusion leads to a lot of issues, and not just in philosophy but also ones with consequences in real life. Often when people advocate a policy they argue from the stance of properties they perceive things to have, which distracts us from the actual impacts of the policy. More problematically, a legislator may compose a law that applies to people with certain "properties", when such properties may be fuzzy, for instance. I think I'd like to elaborate on that...

    In requirements management, we distinguish between Functional and Non-Functional requirements. The former is "what does it do?" - "When the user presses the Red Button, the Product shall explode". That's pretty straightforward. Non-Functional reqs, in contrast, describe "how well does it do it?", and they are much harder to write. "The Product shall be easy to use", for instance, is worthless - how do I know it's easy to use? Who decides that? What will my engineer need to do to conform to my notion of what "easy to use", some obscure ill-defined property, is? Likewise, "The Product shall be secure", "The Product shall boot quickly", and similar descriptive language is not helpful.
    Laws often contain similarly ambiguous language, which assigns people or objects attributes which are pretty fuzzy. The unfortunate result is that the courts are required to decide if certain situations (systems) display these properties (behaviors). This has been somewhat mitigated by the legal system adopting more-or-less consistent terminology and established ways of determining these properties, but ideally these would be included in the law itself.

    Now, the solution in Non-Functional req writing is to meterize (is that a word?) our requirement. A good requirement is a testable one, so we create a meter by which we can measure, and thereby test, the requirement. If the meter is "the ratio of people who in a survey say the product is "easy to use" or "very easy to use", and my minimum target is 60%, then I have defined a very specific behavior of the system which I can measure. Similar meters and targets can be assigned in the other examples I've given. This effectively eliminates the ambiguity.

    Now, arguably not all provisions of law stand to benefit from such formal definition, but I can see where such attention to relying on observation, rather than definition, can be useful.

    Hope that wasn't too much for a casual evening post ;)

    Graham Veale,
    Leaping to a conclusion and following Occam's Razor are two different things. When the conclusion is that nothing more is REQUIRED in order to describe the system, the scientist stops theorizing (but does not necessarily stop hypothesizing. I'm assuming you understand the difference - the latter generally involves testing i.e. exploring nuances in the system's behavior).

  4. Graham, I rather think you're missing the point. There isn't a god, but you are granting that it has attributes that are very poorly defined, and as you should be able to see, make no sense. Pain is not a behaviour, because it is not a discrete thing; it is part of an overall behaviour, not a separate element. You're not thinking in systems terms - try it for a while. Do chairs "have" chairness? Or are they a system comprising matter that another system can sit on (I.e a behaviour)?

    Polymeron, thanks for dropping by. Systems thinking does resolve a lot of the alleged "paradoxes" that perplex our verbal-thinking pals. There's a book in this somewhere :-)

  5. That would be a capacity for certain behaviour. You might as well just call it a property.

  6. And the felt quality of pain --- that's physical behaviour, or a physical entity?

  7. Graham, that's the heart of the fallacy right there. Yes, that is what we human primates with our human primate brains tend to do - we see things as "things". Take the example of my previous cat, Elton. At one stage he was alive, and later he was dead. We imagine that this collection of cat atoms (?catoms) had this attribute we call "life", but in reality what we had was a system of atoms behaving in a particular way. The system changed when the car hit him, and they behaved in a different way; we imagine that he lost the "life" attribute, and that's fine *linguistically*, but it is not what actually happened - the system was perturbed and behaved differently. The *capacity* to behave in a particular manner is not what is at issue - it is mapping the set of inputs and internal states to the outputs. When we draw generalisations ("this is a chair") we are merely dealing with a subset of the inputs, states and outputs.

    I agree that sometimes it *helps* to view behaviours as "attributes" and systems as "things", but we make an arse of ourselves when we try to apply it outside its bounds of usefulness (as evidenced by the sorites and liar paradoxes).

  8. "Well-fed" was a true description of Elton. OK, Plantinga and Swinburne both agree. And you think "well-fed" can be reduced to statements about particles and behaviour. Again they would agree.

    Can all terms be reduced in this way? I doubt it - you still haven't accounted for the felt quality of pain, for example. But suppose you're a materialist, like Dennett. You've no disagreement with Swinburne over what a property is. You just disagree over which properties can be reduced to more basic properties.

    But some set of properties must be irreducible, or you've an infinite regress.

    So all this talk of systems and behaviours is just a way of asserting that everything can be reduced to particles and their behaviour. No argument is provided. And changing the words doesn't mean that you don't have some hard work to do. You still have to provide the reductions.

    Don't get me wrong, though. Now that I see what you're talking about (I'm a tad slow on the uptake), it's a perfectly respectable position.

    And *everyone* has to provide *some* reductions sooner or later.

  9. BTW:
    Neither Swinburne nor Plantinga would say that a chair has some quality of chairness in it. And they wouldn't see some quality of chairness "floating" in a platonic realm somewhere. (I don't know enough about Leftow to comment...but I'd be very surprised.)

  10. What a load of old bollocks, folks! Would you EVER just go get a life and chill out about all this crap, the lot of you - it's not actually achieving anything, and you're all really smart dudes who could be doing something useful! So swallow your big fat arrogant egos, stop trying to show how clever you are, and let it go!

  11. Dude, what in the name of Holy Benny makes you think we're not doing that TOO? I mean, here you have some of the finest brains ever arrayed, and we're producing some of the most scintillating philosophical discourse of the last 5 millennia - dialogues that will have our names mentioned with the same hushed awe as Plato, Socrates, Aquinas, Dougal Maguire - AND we're saving the world, curing disease, inventing faster-than-light travel, instructing fine young minds in the sciences and humanities, and more besides!

    Here, at Answers in Genes, you have it ALL! You should feel honoured that your intertubical perambulations have led you to this site, this repository of wisdom, this oracular font of coruscating brilliance. Bask in its glow! Wallow in its all-encompassing aurora. Smell the POWER!

    And when your kids ask you: "Daddy, what did you do in the Internet Revolution?" (in joke there - the others won't understand, but we do ;-), you won't simply have to answer: "I posted some inane shite on some loser's crap blog."

    Live the dream!

    And remember to feed the cat.

    [btw the bing is doing great!! Thanks!]

  12. ok, jimmy, i relent - it was me posting that guff just to see how you'd take it. nice response.

  13. Hey Ricko, I thought it was Willo! Ah well, nearly right...