Thursday, March 08, 2012

"I shot the cat with my proton gun."

I often listen to lectures and audiobooks when I drive more than 2 hours because I don't always have the privilege of enjoying a good conversation with a passenger.  Recently I was listening to some philosophy of science podcasts on my iPhone while driving from Boston to New York when the following sentence popped into my head:

"I shot the cat with my proton gun."

I had just listened to three separate Podcasts (one about Kant, one about Wittgenstein and one about Popper) when the sentence came to my mind.  What is so interesting about this sentence is that while it is effortless to grasp, it uses two different types of concepts in a single sentence, a "proton gun" and a "cat."  It is a perfectly normal sentence, and the above illustration describes the sentence fairly well (photo credits to for the kitty, and for the proton gun).

Cat == an "everyday" empirical concept
"Cat" is an everyday "empirical" concept, a concept with which most people have first hand experience (i.e., empirical knowledge).  It is commonly believed that such everyday concepts are acquired by children at a young age -- it is an exemple of a basic level concept which people like Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein discuss at great length.  We do not need a theory of cats for the idea of a cat to stick.

Proton Gun == a "scientific" theoretical concept
On the other extreme is the "proton gun." It is an example of a theoretical concept -- a type of concept which rests upon classroom (i.e., "scientific") knowledge.  The idea of a proton gun is akin to the idea of Pluto, an esophagus or cancer -- we do not directly observe such entities, we learn about them from books and by seeing illustrations such as the one below.  Such theoretical constructs are the the entities which Karl Popper and the Logical Positivists would often discuss.  

While many of us have never seen a proton (nor a proton gun), it is a perfectly valid concept to invoke in my sentence.  If you have a scientific background, then you have probably seen so many artistic renditions of protons (see Figure below) and spent so many endless nights studying for chemistry and physics exams, that the word proton conjures a mental image.  It is hard for me to thing of entities which trigger mental imagery as non-empirical.  

How do we learn such concepts?  The proton gun comes from scientific education!  The cat comes from experience!  But since the origins of the concept "proton" and the concept "cat" are so disjoint, our (human) mind/brain must be more-amazing-than-previously-thought because we have no problem mixing such concepts in a single clause.  It does not feel like these two different types of concepts are stored in different parts of the brain.

The idea which I would like you, the reader, to entertain over the next minute or so is the following:

Perhaps the line between ordinary "empirical" concepts and complex "theoretical" concepts is an imaginary boundary -- a boundary which has done more harm than good.  

One useful thing I learned from Philosophy of Science, is that it is worthwhile to doubt the existence of theoretical entities.  Not for iconoclastic ideals, but for the advancement of science!  Descartes' hyperbolic doubt is not dead.  Another useful thing to keep in mind is Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and his account of the acquisition of knowledge.  Wittgenstein argued elegantly that "everyday" concepts are far from "easy-to-define." (see his family resemblances argument and the argument on defining a "game.")  Kant, with his transcendental aesthetic, has taught me to question a hardcore empiricist account of knowledge.

So then, as good cognitive scientists, researchers, and pioneers in artificial intelligence, we must also doubt the rigidity of those everyday concepts which appear to us so ordinary. If we want to build intelligent machines, then we must be ready to break down own understanding of reality, and not be afraid to questions things which appear unquestionable.

In conclusion, if you find popular culture reference more palatable than my philosophical pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo, then let me leave you with two inspirational quotes.  First, let's not forget Pink Floyd's lyrics which argued against the rigidity of formal education: "We don't need no education, We don't need no thought control." And the second, a misunderstood, yet witty aphorism which comes to us from Dr. Timothy Leary reminds us that there is a time for education and there is a time for reflection.  In his own words:  "Turn on, tune in, drop out."