26 May 2011

from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting: what is an idea?

Please read important request:

Dear friends,
This Sunday we are certainly discussing an important issue in philosophy
and maybe a few other disciplines for good measure. What is an idea?
The subject is an old issue in philosophy dating back to early times of
Greek philosophy and maybe even that is not early enough. No matter how
old this problem is, I don't seriously believe we are about to solve it
some day soon. But in the meantime let's try on Sunday at 6:30pm at the
Centro Segoviano.
The important request is that we should be most grateful if late comers
would buy and pay for their drinks before they join us at the table. Now
that was a great idea!

See you Sunday,
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
What is an idea?
I am tempted to think that the concept of an idea in philosophy has been
somewhat a Jack of all trade and a master of none. I mean that the
history of what is an idea is long and varied. Changing and flipping as
the fashion of the time dictated.
So at the beginning, we have to start somewhere, we have Plato's notion
of ideas being perfect and unchangeable. The Forms existed in the
universe of metaphysics but have epistemological implications for us.
And our epistemological notion is nothing near the perfection ideas of
what the forms are.
Hume considered that ideas where vague reconstructions of perceptions
that are based on experience. Locke and Hume more or less agreed on the
point of experience.
In more modern times, Dawkins compares, at least some ideas, as having
the same kind of properties as genes; that is they can evolve and
survive in the same way that genes evolve and survive in the biological
world. Religious beliefs can be sort of memes.
Ideas, as I have already said, seem to be imprecise concepts and we try
to understand what they are by the language and mental tools we have at
a given time. However, one thing is clear, despite Plato's slight
objection, ideas reside in the realm of the mental. Of course today we
know at least that ideas reside in the brain.
But what is exactly residing in the brain? On the one hand, it cannot be
just the neurons or collection of neurons that give rise to the idea
since the neurons that gave rise to the idea must have been in the brain
before the conception of the idea. So there is a bit of a paradox here,
the same neurons (figuratively speaking) but yesterday they were not the
idea we have today. Something must have happened. This is analogous to
walls, before a wall can be constructed the bricks must first exist.
However, the bricks themselves on the back or a lorry do not make a
wall. And the wall won't exist no matter how much we mix and match the
bricks. Something else must take place.
Even in common use the notion of an idea is just as vague. Ideas can be
opinions, convictions, principles, but in all cases ideas are mental
activates. At least we all agree that ideas are mental events, to use
the vernacular, or brain events to be precise.
This makes ideas clearly fall in the domain of epistemology, and for
those who are punctilious about these things, by virtue of being brain
events this also makes ideas fall in the realm of the physical – that
is, metaphysical instead of epistemological.
Today we do not find this duality so contradictory since today we accept
that information, as far as we are concerned, must be represented in a
physical form. Clearly there is a dual relationship between ideas as
epistemological events and ideas as metaphysical events.
Once again we should not find this strange, since we have had a
manifestation of this phenomenon since writing has been invented. The
meaning of a written concept, such as –the white cat- does not exist in
the physical words (that you about to see) – the white cat. The physical
words do not include in them the meaning of what they say; this is not
to be mixed up with autologous and heterologous words, this is about
properties and not meaning (English is an autologous word because it is
written in English). Ironically the meaning of words resides in our
brain as language speakers of English. The metaphorical similarity with
genes is not lost here. The genes (plus the extras) that make up the
liver in us do not have liverness in them.
So what are ideas? Ideas belong to a set of mental/brain events some of
which we would identify as intuition, knowledge, hunches, thinking,
imagination, reasoning, and beliefs, to mention the most obvious. So
from what is an idea? Cannot really be investigated without at the same
time investigating what are ideas for?
So instead of asking what are ideas? we also have to ask what are ideas
for? I am of course, not trying to shirk away fro the original question
itself, since even if we can associate an idea with a specific number of
neurons, and we can see them with some FMRI machine, we still have the
issue of joint duality between meaning (what the idea represents) and
physical manifestation of the idea (neurons and whatever other physical
elements are at play).
Furthermore, by enquiring what are ideas for, helps us investigate
another issue, which I think helps us clarify the subject. The issue is
how do we achieve the meaning of ideas (does it make sense?) since these
surely sprout in our private brain? If language, according to
Wittgenstein, cannot be private, can ideas be private? After all ideas
must make sense over time in the same way that language must make sense
over time if, that is our language has to have any meaning at all. How
do we know that yesterday's idea that the cat needs to go to the vet, is
today the same idea?
Hence, the function question about asking what ideas are for. But first
let's have a look at what ideas are not. On the one hand we have
believes that are mental events of what is true or false ( the cow
cannot jump over the moon). On the other hand we have imagination that
seems to be some sort of quasi random generator of representations of
the world based on quasi real world concepts (the cow jumps over the
moon). I would places ideas as mental events that represent in us what
we think and believe is possible in the real world ( the cow can be put
in a spaceship and send it around the moon and back).
If ideas are mental events of what is ontologically possible, then surly
the function of ideas is to represent in our brain the world as it
should be (maybe even ought to be). A kind of plan a bricklayer would
use to build a wall. The plan is not the wall, loose bricks are not the
wall, but a wall are the bricks (plus the extras) that follows the shape
of a plan. Now, we cannot put bricks in the plan, it is made of paper,
nor do architects have brain bricks also made of clay, maybe like play
bricks. What the architect, the bricklayer, the plan and the client have
in common is the versatility of shapes. And the wall must conform to
this shape which also conforms to the shape in the brain of the others
and the shape on paper. Somehow the brain is able to squeeze the mental
juice out of the metaphorical physical orange in the brain.
Of course, shapes of walls and ideas of a cow on a spaceship are some
kind of a gold standard that the real wall and the cow is a space ship
are just practical reorientations. Maybe Plato had a point about ideas
being imprecise representations of the perfect Forms (Forms should not
be confused with shapes). Its like saying all roads lead to Rome, but
somehow Plato found himself in New York.
The big caveat here is the assumption that all things being equal. The
meaning-over-time test of ideas, I mention above, is heavily dependent
on the need that our memory had not materially deteriorated since
yesterday. And an even bigger assumption is the need that the our brain
today is functioning in the same correct way as it did yesterday. And
maybe the biggest assumption of all is that our brain is a normal
healthy brain. If our brain is not functioning properly how can we tell
if our ideas are representations of the world out there or maybe simply
false beliefs or random events of the imagination?
But what trumps ideas over other mental events such as false beliefs or
imagination is that it should be possible to represent ideas in real
life. We can actually can put a cow in a space ship and send it round
the moon. But no amount of jumping will get a cow over the moon.
On the other hand some ideas seems as good as done, but at the very last
minute when we compare idea with reality it all falls down. For example,
what is the status of an idea that a politician will be elected in the
polls if they materially reduced the salary of a few million people?
Some ideas are simply not reproducible in the ontological world, even
they seem good at the time. Or as Dawkins might say, some genes are hell
bent in unnaturally deselecting themselves.

from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting: what is an idea?

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