Eidos and AI: What is a Thingamajig?

To understand this post, you might have to read part I and part II on phenomenology and artificial intelligence.

The question I’m asking is not: Can computers think? Or: Can AI have consciousness? But: Can meaning “run ahead” for AI the way it does for us? Can we program intentionality, the “about-ness” or “directed-ness” toward things, as well as the horizon that makes things/objects possible? And, most of all, does it matter what processes are involved in arriving at the correct response or behavior?

For the last question, I don’t know. I see efficiency in the way we experience, but a specific kind of efficiency. Our efficiency is not in grasping everything equally and honing in on the correct answer or response. When we make mistakes, it’s often not just computational error. Error sometimes comes from grasping meaning and relevance in context, grasping it in a plausible and maybe reasonable way, but not necessarily in the technically or scientifically-correct way. Can a lookup device be designed to act as we do (in a timely manner)?

I’m starting to break free from the well-known philosophers here. If you hope to learn about phenomenology as it appears in the history of thought, in a technically precise way, you might not want to read this. I’d recommend my other post on Husserl as a starting point (which has been checked by the in-house philosopher).

Things might get messy, but hopefully not messy in a pedantic, overly-hyphenated-German-philosophy way.

Also, I’d promised some of you I’d bring up things in this post that I’m not actually going to bring up now. I realized I’d crammed too much into one post and this is not the platform for long discourses. Speaking of brevity…

The Ashtray Example


What do you see above?

This isn’t a trick question. It’s an ashtray. Or you might say it’s a representation of an ashtray, being an image on a blog post. In any case, let’s pretend it’s a physical ashtray sitting before you, one in which you can put out a cigarette if you so desire.

The act of calling an ashtray an ashtray may not seem particularly amazing, but consider this: the ashtray has an infinite number of perspectives. You are looking at it right now from one perspective, and you will never in fact see with your eyes or feel with your fingers the entire ashtray in all of its possible states. (We won’t talk about the smells or tastes…) You could spin the thing around and around all your life, but hopefully you won’t—in this case one glance gives you all you need: ashtray. More importantly, one unified object.

First of all, let me make clear that we are not talking about a priori ideas in the usual way. There is no ashtray-form sitting in your mind and some ashtray-ish-stuff ‘out there’ pushing the impression buttons of your senses, which then get interpreted by the mind. We’re still doing phenomenology and we’re still confining ourselves to experience as it’s experienced. There’s no mind vs. objective mind-independent stuff in our investigation. There’s only experience.

Plus, we needn’t compare various ashtrays and wonder how it is that from this multitude of ashtrays, each one of which is not exactly identical to any other, we are able to label them all the same: ashtray. We’re not looking at what every single possible ashtray has in common. We’re not talking about ashtray-ness. We’re talking about one particular ashtray. This ashtray. (Okay, strictly speaking, the hypothetical physical one before you.) How is it that this ashtray, despite it’s infinity of perspectives, is perceived as one unified self-same object?

Take another example, an object you’ve never seen before. Let’s imagine it’s a solid plastic wad. You have no idea what its function is, but you still experience that nameless plastic as a unified object.

You could argue that we err in leaping to this unity, that we shouldn’t say we actually experience a unified object, but instead particular moments of the ashtray. When we see a particular moment of a particular ashtray in a particular way, we theorize about the rest of the ashtray. The unity of the ashtray is nothing but leaping to conclusions, a story we tell ourselves to get by, a quick synthesis, perhaps subconscious. We impose unity. Since the unity itself is never something we actually see (with our eyes), it’s “just” a theory. Like gravity. Like causality. Like necessity. Completely invisible and possibly not really there. We had a sense impression yesterday that the sun rose, and the same impression the day before that, but who’s to say the sun will rise tomorrow? (If you start having apocalyptic nightmares, you can blame David Hume). In other words, there is no visible or perceivable necessary connection between events/impressions. We see event A, then event B. That’s it. Like constellations in the night sky, it’s we who connect the dots and make up stories about them.

Kant comes in here to say something like: “Wait. The sun’s rising is not just a theory! Necessity, causality, synthesis of the manifold of experience, etc. are indeed ‘in our heads,’ but they cannot be taken off like a pair of sunglasses. We couldn’t experience anything at all without these a priori conditions.”

I’d argue that neither have hit upon experience as it’s experienced. Hume errs in supposing that experience is equal to or derived from sense perception. Kant errs in making this same presupposition, but he adds that knowledge is derived from both experience (sense perception) and the a priori conditions which make experience possible. Kant nobly tried to bridge the rationalist-empiricist divide, but maybe a bridge wasn’t needed. Perhaps experience itself needed to be re-examined. It seems we’ve made ‘experience’ too narrow.

Here is where you must decide for yourself by ‘looking at’ your own experience.

The ashtray’s unity comes first in most ordinary experience, and this entails assuming properties about the object that are not strictly visible with the eyes in the moment (I use the word “assume,” but this is not meant to be taken as an active thought process or a matter of logic…it’s grasped immediately, intuited wordlessly.) The object appears to us all at once in its past and possible states, maybe only in a vague way, but it’s all there in that moment. We don’t experience these disjointed perceptions—a certain temperature + a certain color + a certain shape + a certain weight, etc.—and then add on unification, except when we theorize about experience in analysis. But in that case, when we theorize, we experience a theory, not the disjointed perceptions that we suppose we’ve experienced, at least not directly and “in the order in which they were received” (to quote telephone answering services, which may be a faulty analogy, but I couldn’t resist.)

In other words, when we theorize about experience by analyzing it, we change the experience from a naive ordinary one to a conceptual one. I repeat, this sort of theorizing is also within experience as a certain kind of experience, and therefore it’s possible to study phenomenologically too…but that’s a complex matter that I don’t want to get into. That’s advanced phenomenology, and we’re in phenomenology 101. Here we’ll stay with this: the “adding up” of sense data doesn’t quite fit the bill as an explanation of the ordinary, original experience.

Much of what we experience as we experience it isn’t given as sense data. 


Husserl uses the term “eidos”—literally “seen,” but here we’ll go with: shape, form—in a way that’s similar to what I’ve called “leaping ahead” in previous posts. His term is way better than mine for technical reasons, but I thought “leaping ahead” might make more sense in earlier contexts, as a means of preparation and to avoid scary words.

So, eidos = form, like Platonic ideas. However, Husserl does not use eidos in a fully Platonic sense; he does not (and cannot) posit a world of forms separate from the world we experience, but rather, eidos is constrained by its particular manifestations. I think of Aristotle here, but I hesitate to make that comparison…so take that with a unified self-same grain of salt.

With eidos Husserl seeks to do a different kind of analysis, one which he thought would uncover the basic elements of phenomena.

The Eidetic Reduction is described in the IEP, which I’ll quote here:

The eidetic reduction involves not just describing the idiosyncratic features of how things appear to one, as might occur in introspective psychology, but focusing on the essential characteristics of the appearances and their structural relationships and correlations with one another. Husserl calls insights into essential features of kinds of things “eidetic intuitions”. Such eidetic intuitions, or intuitions into essence, are the result of a process Husserl calls ‘eidetic’ or ‘free’ variation in imagination. It involves focusing on a kind of object, such as a triangle, and systematically varying features of that object, reflecting at each step on whether the object being reflected upon remains, in spite of its altered feature(s), an instance of the kind under consideration. Each time the object does survive imaginative feature alteration that feature is revealed as inessential, while each feature the removal of which results in the object intuitively ceasing to instantiate the kind (such as addition of a fourth side to a triangle) is revealed as a necessary feature of that kind. Husserl maintained that this procedure can incrementally reveal elements of the essence of a kind of thing, the ideal case being one in which intuition of the full essence of a kind occurs. The eidetic reduction compliments the phenomenological reduction insofar as it is directed specifically at the task of analyzing essential features of conscious experience and intentionality.

In other words, in the eidetic reduction, we seek to determine whether the “actual thing” (not thing in itself, remember) qualifies as an instance of the eidos we assign it. What we seek is whether or not the particular instance meets the essential qualifications of, say, a triangle, or a building. The eidetic reduction is a process in phenomenology which is indeed descriptive, but on the more theoretical side, being analysis. So what, then, makes this sort of analysis truer to experience as it’s experienced? I don’t have the answer. The use of the term “eidos” seems fine, but then to go on and try to create a science out of it seems to be a stretch. All I can say is my inner Plato lover is completely biased in favor of such an exploration, but I’ll admit that few have taken this “science of essences” stuff seriously. Perhaps this is the particular juncture at which people turn away from Husserl. It’s not quite Plato reincarnate, but it’s close enough.


Science of Essences: why we should resurrect Husserl

It seems to me that eidetic intuition applies everywhere in ordinary experiences, including those cases in which we experience something novel. Taking this as given, we might then use analysis to find out more about essences, a science of essence for a specific purpose. We might find out general things about essences; for instance, there’s an infinite number of them, given that each particular is unified in eidetic intuition. The plastic wad is a unity by virtue of being one thingamajig, and there can be an infinite number of such thingamajigs (that’s my technical term). Then there are named unified objects that we classify either according to likeness or some other classification system. Trees, bushes, flowers, vegetables, etc. might have a different classification system than plate, chair, ashtray or 3.14, -5, 1/2 or justice, truth, God. Plus, objects that were designed for one purpose can be used for other purposes, and often are (those of you who’ve taken a sip from a beer bottle-turned-impromptu ashtray know this all too well.) The difference may not be so much in the material, but in the function. Function is an important part of the way we classify things. Other times the classification will depend on the material. There are so many ways of adjusting our lenses here to suit our purposes.

For soft AI, perhaps a “science of essences” could be applied in a particular environment in which we can predict and control the objects within that environment according to essence classification alongside image identification (which already exists to some degree.*) The assumption of eidetic intuition is not to be taken lightly in philosophy, but in AI, it seems to make sense of the problems AI research has faced by explaining that there’s this bizarre unity of the manifold in our experience. It’s a tangible problem, regardless of how it arises in the human brain or whether it arises there or whether it has something to do with self-awareness or consciousness. The mere fact of this “transcendence within immanence” might be enough to outline a strategy to be taken in replication.

A quick Google search showed me that algorithms for object identification have come a long way. The difficulty lies in speed of object recognition. I’d guessed that there must be some sort of way to eliminate unlikely possibilities, to cut corners, but apparently that process is not as good as random sampling. Weird.

Claire, the Robotic Maid

Let’s get concrete. Let’s create a maid robot and name her Claire. This way we start small: the confines of a house. We don’t have an infinite horizon—otherwise known as the entire universe—on top of an infinite number of perspectives of each individual object. That’s just too hard.

Also let’s assume either: a) we don’t need an infinite number of perspectives to have Claire identify a self-same object* or b) we can figure out how to replicate an infinite number of perspectives in a unified way, which sounds impossible, but maybe it isn’t.

And let’s assume the robot mechanisms work fine. Maybe she’ll be better than human in terms of mechanics. Now it’s a matter of getting her to see objects as we see them—to know when that plate is not being used as a plate, but as a saucer; to know that a photograph of a human is not a real human; to know that she doesn’t need to water the plastic fern; to know to stay away from the rare book collection and not smoke your stash or rat you out, etc.

If an object appears to us with all possible variances of it alongside the self-same-ness of it, we should want that for Claire…to some degree. After all, she must know that the refrigerator is dirty, not that it’s a new thingamajig that doesn’t need her attention. And she shouldn’t need to know what a refrigerator looks like after it’s been smashed to smithereens at a monster truck rally either. There must be some threshold of experience that mimics our awareness of differences in objects. Claire might have the capacity right now to know what a refrigerator is—the mere name—but she also needs to know what various components do or at least how to deal with them, what to use to clean them, that she doesn’t need to clean the Coke bottle in there, etc. Perhaps for moveable objects she needs to know their function as dictated by the environment, but for other things she doesn’t need to know much. She doesn’t need to know what an escutcheon is in order to clean it (hence our need for a class of objects called thingamajigs). If she wasted her time finding out what an escutcheon is, that would be inefficient.

*I’ve taken Husserl’s object identification—an infinite number of perspectives somehow alongside a unity of this infinity—throughout this post as true. In consulting with my own experience, I wonder if the unity we perceive, while still being a priori in a phenomenological sense, is not quite infinite, but a shadow of the infinite. In other words, perhaps this “infinity” he speaks of is theoretical and not directly experienced, and what we actually experience is openness or possibility, but not quite infinity. Maybe we experience a very larger number of possible perspectives, but at some level there’s a vanishing point. Maybe infinity as we actually experience it in our usual naive way is nothing more than: “A lot more than I wanna count.” Not infinity infinity. (And certainly not infinity times infinity.)

How would you create Claire? What stumbling blocks do you foresee? What is an escutcheon?