Empiricism, Rationalism, Super Empiricism: Recent Changes In the Concept of Mind

Part 1: From Behaviourism To Generative Grammar

Story 1

Let’s start with a story. It’s World War Two and an American soldier is in London. A weird pattern emerges: the location of his one night stands are all located in a place that the Germans subsequently bomb. His penis seems to be able to predict war. How? Well, it’s unclear, but an explanation offered is that it’s an instance of classical conditioning, a central tenet of the behaviourist psychology that would have been big at the time.

The war-torn London Tyrone Slothrop inhabited (or would have inhabited if he weren’t fictional).


There are a couple of key points. First, behaviourism is a paradigm empiricist theory, concentrating only on the given of experience, eschewing not only more speculative notions like Freudian unconscious but even the notion of consciousness itself, in the hope that this could put psychology on a scientifically firm footing. Second, responding to a theory of behaviourism about the use of language forms a sort of pivot in the 20th century as thinking of the mind turned away from empiricism towards rationalism. To see this, let’s look at the behaviourist theory of language of B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky’s take down of it in his famous 1959 article ‘Review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour’.

Generative Grammar

Chomsky’s work in linguistics is marked by several important questions, theoretical tools, and a methodology which differ markedly from the behaviourist’s. Methodologically, it is concerned with nitty-gritty details about how language is used, with the small but still important difference between, say, the two readings of each of the below sentences:

  1. Old men and dogs get on well together
  2. The shooting of the hunters was atrocious

Part 2: Machine Learning And Super Empiricism

Again let me start with a story.

Story 2 (cn: suicide)

A man went to the doctor with a cold. They took his medical information, consulted his charts, and told him there was a good chance he would try to kill himself in the next two years. A piece of software they used had told them so, and they were wondering if he could consider staying on as in-patient to receive the help the computer thinks he needs.

Neural Networks, 1

Oftentimes, an object has a property, or might have a property, thanks to its having another, different property or properties. For example, if someone has the properties of being over 35 and under 65, born in the US, male, and of having attended an Ivy League and law school, worked in government, and been the subject of widespread media attention, then the probability of that person trying to run for presidency is higher than for someone lacking those properties.

Function convert(kilogram){pounds=kilogram x 2.205Return pounds
i= Get input “Tell me the weight in kgs you want converted”Print convert(i) “ is the weight in pounds”
Function convert(kilogram){pounds=kilogram x 3Return pounds}
pounds=kilogram x 2.5
pounds = kilograms x 2.3

Philosophical Interlude: Big Empiricism

Before going on to a slightly more complicated — and optional — example, let me make some philosophical points. A function is basically a rule of the form: if you get this in, give this out. And the big idea of machine learning is that we can let computers work out functions of interest to us. Moreover, we’ve seen that machine learning can be used to yield almost spooky predictions about us, like about what our medical future has in store for us, in the face of which it can seem we are in the presence of a mind: the computer knows, we might think.

Neural Networks, 2

The example of weight, while it does foreground the important concepts, is sufficiently trivial that you might wonder how the method underlying it could be used to give the great predictions machine learning seems to be capable of. Accordingly, in this section I’ll consider some details of how a slightly more realistic and powerful neural network might function, but if don’t care about those details feel free to skip.

This is what a neural network would look like that thinks number of followers and day of the week is important to a tweet’s going viral but language isn’t
Imagine that the left nodes were labelled as in the previous diagram, and that the colour of the connection indicates the strength of the signal (where blue, say, means >0.7). The rightmost node is the output, which is determined by the middle nodes which represent combinations of input properties and themselves have a strength associated with them.

Story 3, Conclusion

Here’s a third and final story to end things. Oedipus doesn’t know who his parents are; he goes to an oracle and it doesn’t tell him, but does give him the kind of bummerish news that he’ll kill his dad and have sex with his mum. Then his town gets sick and he’s told that it’s due to pollution caused by the murder of his father, and he needs to find out the murderer to make the town better, but again the oracle doesn’t tell him the somewhat important info that he himself is the murderer. And that’s comparatively straight speaking from the oracle, which is at other times prone to talk in annoying riddles.



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Matthew McKeever

Matthew McKeever

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/