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"The Ontology of Civilisation"
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(Dense philosophy follows. Enter at your own epistemological risk.)

I just got back from a guest lecture at the Hebb Building at the University of British Columbia. The guest speaker was John Searle, famous in philosophic circles for his Chinese Room refutation of strong-AI functionalism.

His lecture was titled “The Ontology of Civilisation”, which vaguely translates from philosophese into English as the consideration of the “reality” of the social construct that is human civilisation. The core observation of his lecture was that people assign a function to things around them, and that there is a distinction to be made between function that is assigned to a thing based on its physical properties, and function that is assigned to a thing based on a collective social agreement (i.e., not having anything to do with the actual thing itself).

For example, “money” is a function that is not inherent in little scraps of inked paper and shaped bits of metal, but is a function that is assigned to them nevertheless. In fact, money can and does exist entirely independently of the medium we use to represent it. It reduces to a value that we collectively assign (and collectively recognise, crucially) to the actual person, and the exchange of money is the voluntary reassignment of a portion of one’s own value to another person. This point in the lecture is where I immediately thought of “wuffie” in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

For the philosophically inclined, ontology, or the philosophy of what is, is a fascinating subject. These bits of the lecture and the rest of the consequences of arbitrary collective function and status assignment play into some of the metaphysical questions I’ve been pondering, about the nature of matter and of the systems implemented in matter, and the systems implemented on top of those systems, and so on indefinitely. I like his distinction between inherent functionality and arbitrarily-assigned functionality, but it does make me wonder what’s so special about our perception of what is “inherent” functionality.

I think we have a scale bias, thinking that physics is “more real” than social systems. Consider: if we were cognitive beings at the level of atomic particles, mightn’t we consider everything more complex than subatomic particles to be “constructed” phenomena, by the very fact of our level of perception? Perhaps social phenomena and particle physics are both equally “real”. Whether that means that physics is a collective hallucination, or that social constructions are as concrete as Newtonian physics, I’m not sure. Though, to be sure, Newtonian physics, electrons, and “solid” matter (among other things) are all perceptual abstractions in themselves, aren’t they?

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I deleted my last comment because I think I misread you. Sorry, it's late. I'd rather blab about it interactively maybe. Talk to you later.

No prob. I see where that comment was going to and coming from, and I think it bears on the ideas... It doesn't directly address them, but sometimes indirect approaches are the most enlightening.

Anyway, yeah, this sort of thing tends to make more sense in person, since it's so easy to lose track of terms and such. A lot of these thoughts are still agitating around my mind and have yet to settle, too, making them better suited for bandying about informally.

As for when, I'm still not sure whether Mouse is free Sunday (she got in late this evening), but I at least am up for new and exciting Indian eats.

saturday is not a possibility?

ok if it's just us two, we can do Yogi's or Tamarind... flip a coin.

hm. I'll try inviting fimmtiu and halfjack. I know they like tamarind and it's closer for them, since they live near UBC. no guarantees though, this is pretty short notice.

say hi to poor tired flying mouse. * hugz *

Saturday, being today, is laundry day for me and is still unpacking for das Maus. Tonight we have a reservation at Il Giardino, so all together it makes it a bad day for trying to fit in another outing.

Tamarind sounds good, since it's new and sounds tasty. If it works out, it does, if not, there's always next week or so on. I'll call when I've talked to Mouse, and we can see about details then.

I'm not much for ontology, me. It's a fascinating subject, but it fails to address several points that the analytical philosophy of language covers quite well. Though I'd never go so far as to say that ontology is outdated, as some language-centric philosophers do.

I'm just not familiar with the analytical philosophy of language... I'm guessing it's about semantics and what that reveals about metaphysics?

Something like that. I'm not good versed enough to give you a good summary, but the criticism is based around what "things" are, if not language-based concepts, and how ontology fails to adress that.

I should revise my stuff on that, as that'll come up again next semester. :>

I agree completely that we have a scale bias. In fact, this scale bias is built into physics. Consider that radio waves pass right through us, but x-rays can induce nasty burns. We naturally interact more strongly with different scales of matter.

However, I don't think this makes these things any more or less real. The galaxy is a pretty big place, and certainly unfathomable by most (if not all) but I don't think that impinges on it's "reality".

Regarding the question of whether physics is more real than social systems... I think we're comparing apples and oranges here. Physics is a collective model of how matter and energy interact. It is a predictive tool. Social systems certainly exist, but I'm not sure anybody has really nailed down the predictive part yet (Asimov's Psychohistory notwithstanding). I think it is this predictive power that we feel emotionally gives physics its reality.

Now if you're asking whether a relationship or a human organizational structure is less "real" than a desk or a pen, I would have to say no. The latest theories from the folks working on a GUT is that everything is just a manifestation of the SAME vibrating superstring. One superstring = one universe (and all phenomena therein). They haven't got all the details worked out yet, but this theory implies that everything is just a pattern, a tune plucked on the same guitar.

All are one. ooooh. That's deep. ;)

All are one. ooooh. That's deep. ;)

Yes. :) I think that's where I'm leaning. Everything is just a manifestation of the uniform underlying reality of... being-ness. "A tune plucked on the same guitar..." so we're circling back to the Pythagoreans and their "everything is a harmony/ratio/number" metaphysics. Maybe they weren't as flaky as we think they were. ;)

Social systems certainly exist, but I'm not sure anybody has really nailed down the predictive part yet

I think that's another reason why we have bias against it being "as real" as something like physics: we haven't figured out the predictive system. Just because we haven't, though, doesn't say anything about the actual predictability that might be there.

(I'm trying to be careful about calling things "more" or "less real", but it's hard: it's in reference to the physical-mental dualist philosophy that "things" exist and the meaning that we impose on stuff is just various degrees of illusion, so "less real". With these thoughts above, though, I'm starting to think that this distinction is "less real" than the dualists think it is. ;) )

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