Saturday, June 06, 2015

Bertrand Russell, Crank

On the Post Topic

Some great thinkers compare their work to the works of Nicolaus Copernicus or of Galileo:

"The old logic put thought in fetters, while the new logic gives it wings. It has, in my opinion, introduced the same kind of advance into philosophy as Galileo introduced into physics, making it possible at last to see what kinds of problems may be capable of solution, and what kinds must be abandoned as beyond human powers. And where a solution appears possible, the new logic provides a method which enables us to obtain results that do not merely embody personal idiosyncrasies, but must command the assent of all who are competent to form an opinion." -- Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field For Scientific Method in Philosophy (1914).

" imagination better stocked with logical tools would have found a key to unlock the mystery. It is in this way that the study of logic becomes the central study in philosophy: it gives the method of research in philosophy, just as mathematics gives the method in physics. And as physics, which, from Plato to the Renaissance, was as unprogressive, dim, and superstitious as philosophy, became a science through Galileo's fresh observation of facts and subsequent mathematical manipulation, so philosophy, in our own day, is becoming scientific through the simultaneous acquisition of new facts and logical methods.

In spite, however, of the new possibility of progress in philosophy, the first effect, as in the case of physics, is to diminish very greatly the extent of what is thought to be known. Before Galileo, people believed themselves possessed of immense knowledge on all the most interesting questions in physics. He established certain facts as to the way in which bodies fall, not very interesting on their own account, but of quite immeasurable interest as examples of real knowledge and of a new method whose future fruitfulness he himself divined. But his few facts sufficed to destroy the whole vast system of supposed knowledge handed down from Aristotle, as even the palest morning sun suffices to extinguish the stars. So in philosophy: though some have believed one system, and others another, almost all have been of opinion that a great deal was known; but all this supposed knowledge in the traditional systems must be swept away, and a new beginning must be made, which we shall esteem fortunate indeed if it can attain results comparable to Galileo's law of falling bodies." -- Bertrand Russell, ibid.

The "new logic" Russell refers to is set out in, for example, Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. So Russell is comparing himself to Galileo.

An Approach to a Book Review

I'm glad I read this book, although I think it is basically mistaken. Not surprisingly, given their interactions at Cambridge before World War II, Russell's exposition reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Although clearly written, Russell's book has a quite different literary style than Wittgenstein's gnostic utterances and hierarchical structure. Both argue that everyday observations about, say, tables and chairs, should be decomposed into logical conjunctions, negations, and disjunctions of atomic facts, which cannot be further broken down. Russell and Wittgenstein differ on the nature of these atomic facts. For Wittgenstein, the referents for entities in atomic facts are quite mysterious; the specification of what these entities are is not a matter of logic, but of its application. Russell is quite clear that these entities include unintegrated sensations, something like "red patch here now."

Russell outlines how one might combine statements about such entities to construct entities that we see, hear, taste, smell, or feel. He goes on to analyze claims about other minds. The analysis of time leads to comments on Zeno's paradoxes and the mathematical theory of continuity. He also explains the idea of infinity, explaining the then recent theory of Cantor. He tries to present a popular overview of these topics. He acknowledges that some of his exposition is more mathematics than philosophy. But, as you can see above, he thinks previous philosophers and many of his contemporaries stumbled into error because they did not possess these logical and mathematical tools. For later developments along the lines, I gather one can look at such works of logical positivism as Rudolf Carnap's The Logical Structure of the World. I have never read Carnap, but I have read A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic.

I recently stumbled somewhere across an argument that Noam Chomsky's approach to linguistics supercedes Russell's application of logic to philosophy. Russell and Chomsky agree that sentences of very different structures can have a close surface appearance, and that the same structure can be exhibited in sentences of different surface appearances. In deciding whether or not propositions are true, or even make sense, one should supposedly concentrate on the meaning captured by this deeper structure. But in trying to analyze the meaning of such propositions as, "The king of France is bald", Russell takes an a priori approach. The adequacy of grammar, however, to characterize sentences in a language is an empirical question. And semantics should be based on the parse trees derived from grammatical analysis of the surface appearances of language, not a logical analysis of the surface appearance. This approach, as I understand it, is analogous to how compilers operate. They apply a semantic analysis to a computer program only after first completing a parsing phase. And Chomsky's approach, I gather, has been influential in Artificial Intelligence.

One can argue that just as Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, showed his earlier approach in the Tractatus was mistaken, so he also showed Chomsky's approach in linguistics to be mistaken. A fortiori, AI is not possible either. Exposition of the parallelism between Russell and Chomsky's analysis of language makes these claims a bit more clear to me. (I guess Sraffa was not too impressed by Chomsky, either.) I suppose one might look at Norman Malcolm's Wittgenstein: Nothing is Hidden, for a fuller argument against Chomsky along these lines. (I did not get much out of Malcolm when I read him years ago.)

No comments: