Saturday, January 06, 2007

Cognitive Edge: Social atomism, Identity & natural numbers 

Cognitive Edge: Social atomism, Identity & natural numbers: "In philosophy the discussion about identity arose early and is associated with the idea of change. The ontological question is What makes this thing the same thing as it was before? and the epistemological question is How do I tell if it is, or is not? One of the best illustrations of this is the paradox of the Ship of Theseus (or Locke’s socks or Grandfather’s old axe, philosophers are great story tellers), given to many a first year Philosophy student. The paradox can be stated thus:

'Theseus returns from slaying the Minotaur and the Athenians preserve his ship as a memorial. As a plank rots, they replace it with a new one storing the old planks in an adjacent warehouse. After a period of time all the old planks have been replaced at which point a local entrepreneur reassembles them into a second ship. The question: which is the Ship of Theseus?'

I don’t intend to summarise all the arguments around this (and there are many and the debate is not resolved). I use it to illustrate that identity is not a simple issue, even for a ship let alone in human systems. It is not a simple matter of categorisation or aggregation. It is complex, fluid and incorporates issues of change, time and abstraction; it is messy. A few corporate taxonomies would benefit from considering this, but that is an aside.

I am still working on this but I think we can identify five (we may as well keep to natural numbers here) characteristics of an identity. I want to illustrate each in the context of family, but remember that a family is only one form of identity.

1. An identity is not the same thing as a role. Within a family I may have many roles such as father, cook, picker up of cat sick, humane disposer of spiders, fault bearer (just keep adding them) which I or others perform at different times. The family has a coherence that is more that the aggregate of its parts or its roles
2. An identity does not have rigid boundaries, nor is it susceptible of precise definition. When does one’s daughter’s boy friend become a part of the family? A cousin twice removed may be an intimate of one family and an unknown relative in another. It is a coalescence, with coherence but also with fuzzy boundaries.
3. Identity is not absolute, it can change in context or over time although the point of transition (the establishment of a new identity) may not be clear either at the time or in retrospect. Identities can inherit characteristics from other identities and can also be polymorphic (represent themselves in different ways). In families people die, they divorce (well or badly) they engage in political disagreements (it’s not just people, it’s also abstractions), they may be separated by civil war or disagreements over probate. Families have histories that provide subtle or not so subtle.
4. Identity in human systems is a strange attractor (to take a key concept from complexity theory). We have historically understood two types of attractor: a point attractor characterised by a pendulum and a limit cycle attractor where activity oscillates between different stable states. Complexity theory has given us a third, strange attractor often characterised by the Lorenz Butterfly. To quote Juarrero “All attractors represent characteristic behaviours or states that tend to draw the system towards themselves, but strange attractors are ‘thick’, allowing individual behaviours to fluctuate so widely that even when captured by the attractor’s basin they appear unique” and “Strange attractors describe ordered global patterns with such a high degree of local fluctuation, that is, that individual trajectories appear random, never quite exactly repeating….” A critical point to realise is that a strange attractor comes into being through evolution not design.
5. Identity is established by robust resilience and if we understand identity from the perspective of a complex adaptive system then interdependence becomes more important than autonomy. A family tolerates failure, it carries as sense of obligation that is not just about individual choice. A family is never stable, it is resilient because it changes. In contrast something clearly independent is a category, associated with stasis and stagnation. This point (and others) is derived from a paper by Juarrero and some of these ideas are taken up in a recent Kurtz-Snowden paper."

Neither Brain nor Ghost: A Non-Dualist Alternative to the Mind-Brain Identity Theory. 

Neither Brain nor Ghost: A Non-Dualist Alternative to the Mind-Brain Identity Theory.: "Chapter Seven: 'The Frame Problem' and 'The Background'

For Dewey knowledge always exists within a background of experience, which is why any attempt to “solve” the hard problem by completely comprehending experience as knowledge was doomed to failure. In this chapter, we see that the failure of symbolic AI supports the validity of Dewey’s insight. Hubert Dreyfus’ critique of symbolic AI showed us that it failed because its goal was a computerized simulation of the Cartesian materialist brain, which tried unsuccessfully to mirror the entire world 'inside the head'. We also see how Searle's concept of 'the background' requires a theory of meaning and mind which make it impossible for language comprehension to be accomplished by a self-contained system that operates entirely inside the head. Language works because, as Searle and Dreyfus propose, we share a background of lived and embodied experience. AI research has produced decisive evidence that it is impossible to capture what we know by simply adding more and more sentences to a system's memory. This seems to imply that language and experience must work together for language to be meaningful at all."

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