[ExI] Pure Philosophy Dispute: Are Categories Objective?

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Fri Jun 22 14:05:29 UTC 2007

Damien quotes from his dissertation of a long time ago:

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Damien Broderick" <thespike at satx.rr.com>
Sent: Thursday, June 21, 2007 11:20 PM


               Knowledge in Context

    Barnes proceeds to several implications: delocalisation (to know a 
    goose, it also helps to know a swan); hence, there are no 
    free-floating `atomic' concepts (p. 29); the application of a term is 
    a judgment, as we have noted, since `the tension of a term represents 
    a conventional relationship of sameness between the instances within 
    it', and this can always be revised (pp. 30 1); proper usage is 
    agreed usage, so that a creature might be at one time deemed a moth, 
    at another a butterfly: `Cases such as these are sometimes thought to 
    result from an inadequate knowledge of the "real meanings" of terms 
    themselves; and occasionally the achievement of
    consensus in these cases is conceived as a "discovery" of the "real 
    meaning". But such consensus merely marks the successful negotiation 
    of an extension of usage'; and equivalence, which is to say that 
    `different Hesse nets are always equivalent' (p. 33), since 

Here is starts getting good

    `"Reality" does not mind how we cluster it; "reality" is simply the 
    massively complex array of unverbalized information which we cluster. 
    This suggests that different nets stand equivalently in relation to 
    "reality" or to the physical environment', and also `as far as the 
    possibility of "rational justification" is concerned'(p. 33). In 
    short, `alternative classifications are conventions between which 
    neither "reality" nor "pure reason" can discriminate. Accepted 
    systems of classification are institutions which are socially 
    sustained. (p. 33)'
               In my own view, this strong relativist position is surely 
    inconsistent with an implacable universe warranting ostension.

An image of the universe warranting ostentation. The universe implacably
presents or demands obstensive categories (or perhaps something milder
than sheer *categories* which people may and do insist to have very
sharp boundaries, be exactly associated with certain words and so on,
not a view I endorse).

    Barnes offers in support of his case the instance of Karam animal taxonomy, 
    which places cassowaries (a kind of flightless bird) in the special 
    taxon kobtiy, outside that of flying beasts like other birds and bats 
    (pp 34 37), and compares that categorisation with the zoological 
    taxonomy used in an advanced industrial Hesse net:

               How can the pattern of either net distort reality? Rather, 
    reality provides the information incorporated in both nets; it has no 
    preference for the one or the other. (p. 35)

Har. So says Barnes.

    However bracing this might be as a corrective to imperialistic 
    anthropology, it is nonsense if taken literally. DNA sequences, for 
    example, are not `randomly' or `purely culturally' associated with 
    the genomes of each taxa, but contain clear natural-historical 
    markers endorsing the phylogenetic claims of one over the other--that 
    is, the history of their natural selection.

Yass.  That's right.  Those markers are really "out there" and not "in
here" and by amazing coincidence "in here" for myriads of intelligent
Darwinian devices (e.g. humans).

    (These deep links might be of no interest or use to humans, of
    course, and for most of history they have been altogether inaccessible,
    but they remain coded as the DNA `text' or `recipe': an almost
    indelible inscription).

A nice thrust against that nominalist position (?), I must say.


>           Animals and plants, whose phenotypes are the expression of 
> the interaction between environment and coded genotype, are the 
> `naturally-chunked' perceptual fields, or `natural kinds', which 
> humans are prone to tag with lexemes (whatever further totemic or 
> commercial significance they may be given). This perspective--that 
> human language, prior to the legitimate claims of cultural 
> relativity, is founded in its capacity for adaptation to an 
> indefinitely complex interacting universe--gives the lie to Barnes's 
> easy assertion: `"Reality" does not mind how we cluster it.' Reality 
> might not mind, but finding the correct clustering certainly matters.
>           The relativist view has been canvassed by John Dean, who 
> found within our own botanical science two rival taxonomies for the 
> plant Gilia inconspicua, and noted that both `are built upon 
> perceptible, systematizable, stable distinctions between individual 
> plants. In this sense the natural order sustains both taxonomies; 
> neither can be said to be erroneous' (Dean, 1979, p. 226; see 
> especially his taxonomic discussion, pp. 211-28). This view does not 
> convince me that `reality does not mind how we classify it'; it 
> simply reminds us that the reality we notate on our low-dimensional 
> grids is multidimensional. Reality is not, however, utterly or even 
> very indeterminate: it would be very strange to classify Gilia 
> inconspicua as a variety of possum or igneous rock, or to attempt to 
> breed it in the wild with an elephant. True, one might throw it in 
> with anything imaginable for, say, totemic purposes, but that is a 
> different point entirely. Ironically, the arch-conventionalist Pierre 
> Duhem looked to the emergence of naturally-chunked classification: 
> `The more a theory is perfected, the more we apprehend that the 
> logical order in which it arranges experimental laws is the 
> reflection of an ontological order' (cited Lakatos, 1978, p. 21).
>           Taken together, these converging models from artificial 
> intelligence research and the sociology of scientific knowledge offer 
> a useful springboard to the further examination of semiosis: the ways 
> in which humans recognise, construct and manipulate logics and 
> contexts in the service of signification.

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