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The New Atlantis: We're Entering a New Age of Philosophy

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Linked in on Real Clear Science was this article from The New Atlantis. The link was labeled: We're entering a New Age of Philosophy

Why Information Matters 

By Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford

When we use a computer, its performance seems to degrade progressively. This is not a mere impression. Over the years of owning a particular machine, it will get sluggish. Sometimes this slowdown is caused by hardware faults, but more often the culprit is software: programs get more complicated, as more features are added and as old bugs are patched (or not), and greater demands are placed on resources by new programs running in the background. After a while, even rebooting the computer does not restore performance, and the only solution is to upgrade to a new machine.

Philosophy can be a bit like a computer getting creakier. It starts well, dealing with significant and serious issues that matter to anyone. Yet, in time, it can get bloated and bogged down and slow. Philosophy begins to care less about philosophical questions than about philosophers’ questions, which then consume increasing amounts of intellectual attention. The problem with philosophers’ questions is not that they are impenetrable to outsiders — although they often are, like any internal game — but that whatever the answers turn out to be, assuming there are any, they do not matter, because nobody besides philosophers could care about the questions in the first place.

The brain is the hardware, the mind is the software analogy. The end of the first paragraph results in a hopeless solution. Upgrade to a new machine. Well, you cannot simply replace your brain, given the technology today. By the time the end of the second paragraph is reached, echos from The Ominous Parallels begin to reverberate and resonate to the frequency of "whatever the answers turn out to be, assuming there are any, they do not matter, because nobody besides philosophers could care about the questions in the first place." Listen closely and see if you can hear a similar message in this:

The intellectuals are ignorant of philosophy's role in history—because of philosophy. Having been taught by philosophers for generations that reason is impotent to guide action, they regard the mind and its conclusions as irrelevant to life. Having been taught that philosophy is a game, with no answers to offer, they do not look to it for answers. —Page 314

Two paragraphs later, he reiterates the issue in a similar manner invoking linguistic analysis.

Do not try to understand these lines. I produced the first two using a “Postmodernism Generator,” and the second two using an “Analytic Philosophy Generator.” They sound like real examples of contemporary scholasticism — philosophy talking about itself to itself in its own jargon. Such scholasticism is the ultimate freezing of the system, the equivalent of a Windows computer’s “blue screen of death”: so many resources are devoted to internal issues that no external input can be processed anymore, and the system stops working. The world may be undergoing a revolution, Rome may be burning, but the philosophical discourse remains detached, meaningless, and utterly oblivious. Time for an upgrade.

Again, give up, for you cannot replace your brain, grafted onto what Ayn Rand put forth in The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 18  June 5, 1972, "Fairness Doctrine" For Education

Most of today's philosophy departments are dominated by Linguistic Analysis (the unsuccessful product of crossbreeding between philosophy and grammar, a union whose offspring is less viable than a mule), with some remnants of its immediate progenitors, Pragmatism and Logical Positivism, still clinging to its bandwagon. —Page 79

Nine paragraphs in, the surface is finally scratched.

The answers will have to do with this particular time in human history. Philosophical “upgrading” moments are rare, and they are usually prompted by important transformations in the surrounding reality. Since the Nineties, I have been arguing that we have reached one of those moments — a turning point in our history. The epochal transition from an analogue to a digital world and the rapid development of information technologies are changing every aspect of our lives: education, work, and entertainment; communication, business, and commerce; love, hate, and anything in between; politics, conflicts, and peace; culture, health, and even how we remember the dead. All this and more is being relentlessly transformed by technologies that have the recording, transmission, and processing of information as their core functions.

I must have missed something in the collegiate college courses I did not attend, about philosophic answers being applicable universally, regardless of the "when" in human history. It is the mark of the subjectivism that preface their claims with "It may have been true then but . . . " By this time the crow is starting to kick in, because I can't look this one up on a searchable CD, and don't recall off the top of my head which of ARI lectures I got it off of, although it was probably one of Peikoffs.

By the twelfth paragraph, pay-dirt.

This means that if philosophers are to help enable humanity to make sense of our world and to improve it responsibly, information needs to be a significant field of philosophical study. Among our mundane and technical concepts, information is currently not only one of the most important and widely used, but also one of the least understood. We need a philosophy of information.

Didn't someone write an introductory  book about the basic nature and role of concepts? It is, in essence, the philosophy of information, 'unless-ons' we are just playing linguistic analysis word games.

The rest of the article drifts back into rationalizations about computers while introducing the Turing test. By the end of the next section, How to Ask a Question, I can halfheartedly agree. The twenty-second paragraph says:

What philosophy can offer to contemporary debates that involve the concept of information, whether we discuss the intelligence of computers or the makeup of the universe, is clarity about how to ask the right questions so that answers are possible and useful. Failing to ask the right questions can only lead to confusions and misunderstandings.

This resonates with a question I've asked myself several times: If the right questions lead to the right answers, where might the wrong questions lead? As John Galt responded to Mr. Thompson in the Wayne-Falkland Hotel on page 1011 of Atlas Shrugged:

John Galt: "Will you tell me just one thing: if you're able to pretend that you haven't heard a word I said on the radio, what makes you think I'd be willing to pretend that I haven't said it?"

Mr. Thompson: "I don't know what you mean! I—"

John Galt: "Skip it. It was just a rhetorical question. The first part of it answers the second."

Rand's philosophy has been available to the world now coming up on 60 years.

Meanwhile, Ellisworth Toohey asked, "But Mr. Talbot as a man? "What's his particular god? What would he go to pieces without?"

In the radio room across the hall somebody was twisting a dial. "Time," blared a solemn voice, "marches on!" —The Fountainhead, page 689

 

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We absolutely need a "philosophy of information" today, although I don't know how complex it would need to be. Wouldn't a few solid (and philosophical) definitions suffice?

I am sick of seeing this concept used, well beyond its rational context, to camouflage otherwise-blatant irrationality as being in any way "scientific".

 

Great article on your part, though.

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Thanks, Harrison.

Having taken some computer programing back when the lines of code were still numbered, I gained some insight with what could be done using it by writing a program that emulated many of the responses of the IBM370 mainframe used for the class.

One of my classmates commented often how he mistyped his program name while trying to execute it. I saved the 'emulator' under that name. Inevitably, he ran the program, and both he and the teacher where at their wits ends trying to exit from it.

I don't think it is a need for a "philosophy of information". I think just having a sound rational approach can be applicable for a great many things.

 

I printed out the 'emulator' program and turned it in as a bonus along with the 'euchre' program I wrote for the final 'exam'.

Edited by dream_weaver

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On 4/9/2017 at 0:19 AM, dream_weaver said:

The world may be undergoing a revolution, Rome may be burning, but the philosophical discourse remains detached, meaningless, and utterly oblivious. Time for an upgrade.

From the article.

But this is basically what philosophy of mind a information needs to be a significant field of philosophical study. Among our mundane and technical concepts, information is currently not only one of the most important and widely used, but also one of the least understood. We need a philosophy of information. nd language does.

He's not wrong, but he's behind the times. Perhaps ethics is a bad field to be in. From my limited experience in upper level academia, the jargon-laden works are in a some humanities like sociology or gender studies. Philosophy isn't doing so bad. On the other hand, cognitive science is my area. I only really deal with people concerned about information, knowledge, and concepts.

Edited by Eiuol

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On 4/22/2017 at 3:09 PM, dream_weaver said:

Thanks, Harrison.

You don't have to thank me for telling the truth. What I mean about a 'philosophy of information', though, is this.

 

An old-fashioned, physical book contains "information" in a very real and valid sense. We can learn new skills and knowledge from them or use them to safeguard what we already have against the frailties of our own memories.

However, all of these benefits depend on actions that we must initiate, ourselves. A book without a reader is only so much paper, without any purpose or meaning, and can't be said to have any "information" at all. Think of all the inscriptions we've found, written in dead languages; as long as we can't read them, they inform us of nothing.

 

"Information" is an attribute of consciousness. Language, writing and computer programs are conceptual tools which can augment our own mental abilities (and possess "information" only in this derivative sense) but without a mind to use them they mean nothing whatsoever.

 

Now, I think we might be able to create an artificial mind someday, but not if we keep attributing some undefined form of knowledge to our mental tools (or, worse still, to any rock or star that strikes our fancy).

 

I don't know what more than that really needs to be said.

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