Phenomenology: Cotton Candy or Ripe Fruit for Artificial Intelligence?

Phenomenology is the study and description of experience as it’s experienced, without the preconceived notions of what lies behind the experience. “Preconceived notions” can be common sensical or scientific. For more on Husserl’s method of arriving at a phenomenological POV, see this.

Artificial intelligence is, according to Wikipedia, the intelligence exhibited by machines or software. It is also the study of how to create such machines.


In my previous posts, on Husserl’s phenomenological method and on Heidegger ( Part II here and Part III here), I discussed phenomenology from a purely philosophical perspective as a means of solving or doing away with the infamous mind-body problem. The truth is, I barely touched the surface of what phenomenology does. It’s sort of a joke in philosophy…Husserl has a propensity to rehash method, but when will he do phenomenology?  I suspect this constant upheaval of methodology could have something to do with why phenomenology is largely ignored for practical purposes. Now I want to ask whether phenomenology—even if rejected on philosophical grounds as a sort of masked solipsism—can prove fruitful for AI research.

Those of you who are well-versed in artificial intelligence may not see the possible connection, and I’m not sure there is one, but the question has been sitting in the back of my mind for some time. I’ve read a lot of posts concerning the stickier issues in AI: consciousness, self-awareness, mind-uploading, the possibility of AI achieving singularity, AI ethics, etc. I don’t hear as much about the more mundane matters, like how we might create a machine that cleans the house—that really cleans the house—or takes care of the elderly. These mundane robots are what I’m curious about. From what I understand, there’s a lot of work to be done. We have self-driving cars and facial recognition, Siri and Roombas. It’s a great start, but there’s a lot more to be discovered. I’d like to have a robot that will take care of me when I’m older, something that I can have confidence in, something that will allow me to stay in my home. I don’t care if it’s “conscious.”

It seems to me there remain problems in AI that involve interacting with the world, and these are things that seem simple for us. Phenomenology explores these issues, especially the seemingly simple things. And taking up phenomenology for AI research doesn’t require that we buy into  Heideggerian ontological upheaval or dismiss science as fundamentally wrong. We can simply borrow the techniques, or maybe even stick to Husserl’s program of bracketing the natural world.

I’ve often wondered how much implicit phenomenology is happening in certain areas of AI, specifically in perception, object recognition, and embodiment. I finally got up the energy to look into it, briefly.

In my Google searches, I came across Hubert Dreyfus’ criticisms of AI, which started back in the sixties when AI researchers focused on symbol manipulation (GOFAI=”good old fashioned AI”) and made some overly optimistic claims about AI capabilities. Dreyfus was an expert in Heidegger and modern European philosophers. The AI community didn’t respond well to his criticism (and some even refused to have lunch with him, according to Wiki), probably because he reacted to AI optimism with overly pessimistic claims. Nevertheless, he pointed out problems in AI that turned out to be real, problems that phenomenology allowed him to foresee. And according to that same Wiki article, Dreyfus barely gets credit for highlighting phenomenological issues that were later addressed and resolved in a piecemeal way. The article points to the lack of common language and understanding between the AI researchers and phenomenology experts such as Dreyfus:

“Edward Feigenbaum complained, ‘What does he [Dreyfus] offer us? Phenomenology! That ball of fluff. That cotton candy!'”

Well, the “cotton candy” stresses the importance of the so-called unconscious skills that we possess in our human intelligence. These skills rely on holistic understanding of context, embodiment, a background of ‘common sense’ about the world, relevance and intentionality, to name a few.


An analogy of the problem:

Why is it that some people are able to replicate your best friend’s face so well that you can barely distinguish their work from a photograph?

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He’s your BFFE.

They know how to distinguish between what they think they see and what they “really see.” They learn how to be good empiricists, at least in one domain. (BTW, realism in this sense is not phenomenology…this is just a metaphor.)

And yes, there are guidelines for the artist. For instance, objects in the background are grayer, bluer, and less distinct than objects in the foreground, which are more vibrant, warmer, and have greater contrast.

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My photograph from Wasson peak…notice the mountain in the background.

They also know all that stuff you would’ve learned in middle school about perspective and vanishing points on the horizon:

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The artist who can replicate your best friend’s face realistically, photographically, undoubtedly has even greater knowledge. True, many artists have what we call talent, which is to say, an innate knack. But what is talent? I think of it as an ability to quickly and easily acquire a kind of knowledge. Those of us who lack the knack can sometimes achieve the same results, but it requires a lot more labor for us. A lot of what we achieve is done through painstaking conscious effort, whereas the talented person often relies on knowledge that’s more or less subconscious. It’s true that talent needs instruction and practice, but if you’ve ever witnessed a talented person in action, you’ll see that there really is such a thing as talent.

Are there rules for creating art? I suspect I could take classes all my life and never produce anything like the portrait above. We might conclude there are no strict rules, only loose guidelines. Not to mention that realism is not necessarily worthy of being called art. A camera is not an artist. What’s interesting about the portrait is not just that it’s realistic.

Right now it seems to me we are at the point in AI in which we have cameras, but not artists.

Are there rules for human experience? And if there are, can we discover them? The problem is, we are all too talented. If there are rules that govern what we do, they are buried deep. We are like those awful college professors— geniuses in their fields—who can’t teach worth a damn. They don’t know how they do what they do. They just do.

It seems natural to attack the problem through our biology, through scientific understanding. But from what I hear, that method could take a long time. There’s the problem of the sheer amount of information that somehow exists in that squishy stuff between our ears. And what about embodiment? Is perception integral to learning? I don’t know.

It seems to me that a descriptive philosophy of experience could be useful in understanding how AI could evolve. We could uncover some rules (or maybe lack thereof) on a non-scientific basis…in other words, via philosophical reflection. The idea here is that perhaps some progress could be made outside of and/or alongside a full neuro-biological modeling.

I don’t pretend to know what is involved in the human-to-computer/robot translation of human experience. All I know is that we don’t know our own experience all that well. Does this knowledge seem like it might be a start? Or at least a possible means of creating robots that are useful…now-ish? For instance, Roombas that don’t suck at sucking? (I’m aiming low here. I don’t want to get into theories of consciousness or general intelligence. One step at a time.)


Next post: Intentionality. This will hopefully give you a clearer idea of what phenomenology does.

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Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part III: Dualism)

I’ve been threatening to explain Heidegger’s views on why dualism is predicated on a mistake, and I’ve finally done it. Well, I let someone else do it while I held the camera.

Please don’t read my criticism below until after you’ve seen the video. (It won’t make any sense.)


MY CRITICISM

If Heidegger could prove that presence-at-hand arises out of readiness-to-hand, that the world of purpose (teleology) which we inhabit is primordial, that the world of bare existences is dependent on the world of value, then he’s proven that dualism has been misguided. Heidegger shows how presence-at-hand could arise out of readiness-to-hand, but he doesn’t show that it must. The necessary connection is missing, and this weakens the whole of Heidegger’s project as I understand it.

As always, feel free to ask questions, offer criticisms, shower praise on Geordie and his exquisite performance, etc.


Transcript:

Me: Why is dualism predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy?

Professor: Dualism is the view that there are two substances in the world, two kinds of being—mind and matter—and that somehow mind perceives matter, perceives the world. They are separate ontologically—that is, conceptually—but somehow they connect. When Heidegger addresses this problem, he doesn’t do it in the traditional kinds of terms that I just used. I think that the key to understanding him is in his idea of presence-to-hand [presence-at-hand] and readiness-to-hand. And the primacy of readiness-to-hand.

Presence-at-hand is what we modern Westerners think of as simply the way things are. They sit out there and fill up space and time and nothing else. Readiness-to-hand is the object in so far as it has value.

The only thing in philosophy that I know of that is like this is final cause in Aristotle, where objects have certain values insofar as they are good for certain purposes or created by those purposes. The value, then, is in the object. But here in Heidegger it is much broader than that and I don’t think Heidegger had very much respect for the Aristotelian final cause. It comes from the active involvement or engagement of Dasein—that is, human being—with the world. The world exists first as value-laden.

The mountain that sits there as a chunk of matter or worldliness is not simply a volume filled with stuff. It is an obstacle in a path, it is a goal to be climbed, it is a piece of beauty to be looked at and enjoyed. It is all kinds of values first—primordially—and then in Heidegger we subtract from it those values and thus come to the presence-at-hand. So that presence-at-hand is actually derived from readiness-to-hand, not the other way around. And I believe Heidegger refers to this by saying that presence-at-hand is a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand. First of all, it is there in Dasein’s active engagement with the world as a value-ful object, then we subtract the value and come up with the idea of present-at-hand, which he thinks we mistakenly put back into the object and try to imagine Dasein coming across something present-at-hand and adding value to it. That is dualism as Heidegger understands it. For him, it’s wrong.

An example of the relationship that Heidegger gives between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand is the idea of being broken. You start with the primordially-given ready-to-hand…say, a tool, which has a certain value imbued in its being, being good for hammering would be the value that’s in a, well, hammer. Then we are to imagine a hammer breaking, perhaps the handle breaks so that it’s no longer [something in German] ready-to-hand, it becomes now merely present-at-hand, sort of stupid. All I can do with it now is kick it.

Kind of like a car that doesn’t work anymore, the first reaction is to kick it. It just sits there, being, but no longer good for anything. And it is obviously bad for something, but its presence-at-hand comes forward and in this way the present-at-hand is derived from the ready-to-hand. And this is an example, I suppose, of what Heidegger means by presence-at-hand being a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand.

Me: What is Heidegger’s attitude towards science?

Heidegger’s attitude towards science is not that science is simply wrong or anything like that, but that science is a derivative activity that comes up with a purely theoretical view of the world, which it then superimposes back on the world, then imagines Dasein coming upon the world and tries to imagine how it can happen that Dasein knows the world. But in fact, according to Heidegger, Dasein was already there in the world with Being-in-the-world before any of that happened. Of course, the world that Dasein was “in,” so to speak, was a world of readiness-to-hand. Everything was ready-to-hand in one way or another. Either as an obstacle or a source of food—it was good for something or bad for something, let’s put it that way. Dasein was already there, with it in a primordial unity which is what he calls Being-in-the-world. Again, from that primordial unity Dasein has the capacity to withdraw itself from the world, and merely look at the world instead of using it or being engaged with it in some way. And that’s what science is.

Now gravity of course is a scientific idea. And so the idea of gravity is for Heidegger derivative. Derivative, in what sense? Gravity is the idea that all pieces of matter anywhere in the world attract each other with a certain force. It would be closer to the original primordial experience to say something like…well to use the etymology of the word “attract”…that is, it’s not just a motion of two bodies towards each other, but a real attraction in which, in Aristotle’s terms or in old Greek terms, the bodies experience a kind of love. I’m sorry if that sounds romantic or hideously old-fashioned, but that would be closer to what Heidegger thinks. Though, I don’t think that Heidegger is saying that “love makes the world go ’round” or anything like that, but that the world is not simply matter in motion. The world can love, it can hate…it has all sorts of value-laden relations that are involved with motion. It’s just growth. Growth is a motion in Aristotle’s terms, and growth is a much richer concept than mere gravitational attraction.

Back to the mind-body problem:

So now if we’re trying to imagine this primordial unity of Being-in-the-world (in which the world is encountered as value-laden in myriad ways) and presence-at-hand (which is derived from that world), we can see that in order for presence-at-hand to emerge in that way, Dasein must have been already there in the world before it performed that feat of abstraction which lead to presence-at-hand. So Dasein was already there in the world before we separated Dasein and the world and then tried to figure out how to get them back together again. If we begin with the primordial unity of Being-in-the-world, according to Heidegger, we don’t have the mind-body problem. We have the unity of Dasein and the world, which he called, Being-in-the-world.

What do you think?

Join the discussion at philosophyandfiction.com

Thanks for watching!

Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part II: Dasein)

In the last Heidegger post, I promised I’d address why Heidegger thinks that dualism (the mind-body problem) is predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy. I will eventually. I’m putting that off until the next post…I hope you’ll stick around until then. I’m not promising anything, but I hope to make a video. I just downloaded iMovie into my iPad and I’m having fun learning how to use it, but as I said, no promises.

First we need to know a key term—Dasein. Dasein is what we would ordinarily call a human being or consciousness, but these are very poor word choices because they have connotations Heidegger would want to dispense with. I only offer this as something to hold onto briefly, a foothold or scaffolding which should later be taken away.

Normally the word Dasein would be translated into English as simply “existence” or “presence.” For Heidegger, the word takes on a special signification which can be better grasped if we take a look at its roots: Da-There, Sein-Being. Being There. When English speakers read Heidegger, the word is left untranslated to avoid confusion. For people like me who don’t speak German, it comes across in its foreignness as a technical term with a special meaning. I imagine it would be confusing for those whose native language is German, as they would simply think existence in the ordinary way. So perhaps English speakers have the advantage here. Dasein is to be taken as a special technical term.

What is Dasein? Heidegger says:

Dasein is an entity which in each case I myself am. Mineness belongs to any existent Dasein, and belongs to it as the condition which makes authenticity and inauthenticity possible…But these are both ways in which Dasein’s Being takes on a definite character, and they must be seen and understood a priori as grounded upon that state of Being which we have called “Being-in-the-world”…The compound expression ‘Being-in-the-world’ indicates in the very way we have coined it that it stands for a unitary phenomenon. This primary datum must be seen as a whole. (53)

Note: Authentic could mean “the mode in which I can discover Being” and inauthentic “the mode in which I flee from discovering Being.” These words do carry some of the usual connotations. But to keep things simple, just think: authentic=good, inauthentic=bad.

My sloppy interpretation of the quote above: I am always in the world in a unified way. But by “in” I don’t mean that “I” am in the world as water is “in” a glass. As Heidegger puts it, “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein’ with another entity called the ‘world'” (55). Such a relationship is spatial and relies on that mistake I’ve been alluding to.

As Heidegger says: “It is not the case that man ‘is’ and then has, by way of an extra, a relationship-of-Being towards the ‘world’—a world with which he provides himself occasionally.” (57).

So much for Dasein for now. There’s a lot about Dasein that I’ve excluded, but I figure this is enough to take in for now.


In the first post, I explained that Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to uncover the meaning of Being. I explained that Heidegger simply does away with noumena and radically asserts that we can know Being phenomenologically, although its meaning eludes us.

Why does Heidegger say that Being is veiled or hidden from Dasein? 

When we want to inquire into what something is, we tend to look for a definition.

In order to come up with a definition, we seek a genus and species. We want to know how the thing in question is like a certain group of things and how it is at the same time distinguished from those things. Definitions always express a relationship to other entities.

However, Being cannot be defined—there’s nothing broader than Being, so we have no way of offering a genus for a definition, there’s no greater category to which “Being” belongs. Being is not a category to be broken up. Being is not an entity.

Being can be discovered, but because it can’t be defined, it cannot be assessed or judged retrospectively.

We fail to apprehend Being because we are for the most part caught up in the things in the world. This state is what Heidegger would call “average everydayness” and it’s for the most part inauthentic. Our average everydayness gives rise to the problem of dualism.

Thanks for reading! Your comments make this work worthwhile!

My Philosophy

I noticed a lot of people “liked” my last post, but didn’t respond. So I thought perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to ask such ridiculously hard questions without breezily answering them myself. I wonder if you will come back again after you get to know me? This is feeling like a first date.

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

I decided somewhere back in my college days that experience is what matters most to me, it’s epistemologically prior to external causation. In other words, it’s what I know most clearly and directly. So I experience being free, therefore I am. Although I’m going further than Descartes here.

How do you determine right from wrong?

I don’t really know. This is one of the hardest and most important questions, in my opinion. I think it’s intuition and quite a bit of utilitarianism that guides me, and I’m okay with it for the most part, but it doesn’t solve everything. I’m not a relativist in the extreme sense—I believe in a right and wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure that out without taking everything into context, which requires consideration on a case by case basis.

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

I think it would be best to do away with this whole rationalism/empiricism divide and just describe what’s actually going on in experience, without the need to reduce or dismiss anything. I experience ideas as much as or more than ‘sense data’, so why place ideas in some ethereal realm?

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

I look to phenomenology for the answer to this. I admit it doesn’t really solve the problem, it merely looks at things from a different angle, the angle of experience, to be sure, and feels like it’s doing away with the problem. But if you were to put a gun to my head, I’d choose solipsism over reducing everything to the machinations of our brains. I do believe our minds depend on our brains in some way—I experience this every time I’m under the influence of some drug…like ibuprofen!…or when it’s that time of the month…yes ibuprofen!—but these two aren’t quite the same thing. How do the two interact? Do they? I don’t know. I just base my opinion here on experience as epistemologically prior which I spoke of in the first answer.

Does God exist?

I think it depends on what we mean by God. Yeah, this sounds like a lot of hemming and hawing, but really, I’m not a religious person (possibly because I grew up in the Bible belt), so I don’t want to say “yes” without being a bit careful. However, I’d say “yes” if it meant a sort of Aristotelian God as an end to an infinite regression, as a rational explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. I’d even go so far as to call God “Reason” or “the Good”…I know…you think I’m crazy now.

Is there life after death? Why?

Hell if I know.

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

Nope. Not necessarily. Like I said above, God’s existence means nothing, pragmatically speaking, to me.

What is a soul? Does it exist?

I think so. I would call it “mind” to sound more modern, but I feel it.

Do dogs have souls?

Yes indeed. And they go to heaven automatically, whereas we’re stuck in purgatory and forced to crawl around under their dinner tables begging for scraps of meat while they tell us to “get down.”

What about parameciums?

Ugh. Yeah. Okay. Sure.

What is Justice?

Hm. I can’t really answer this one with any detail, but I’ll say it’s a world in which everyone is perfectly happy.

What is Love?

Desire to have full possession of the Good forever. No just kidding. Sort of. I do agree that love is desire, and desire is something you can have only for something you don’t already possess. I think I’d better put this in terms of my relationship with my husband. We’ve been together for nine years. Given the odds of our particular circumstances and what we’ve had to go through, this is quite remarkable. He makes me a better person, the person I want to be deep down. It’s a quiet thing for the most part, and often hard  (because sometimes we don’t know or pursue what’s good for us). I tend to be a recluse, but he knows I’m not, not deep down. So he’ll suggest that I go to a coffee shop to write instead of sitting in my comfort zone here in my office. It’s never a selfish desire to change me, or shape me into something I truly am not. It’s seeing potential and truth and good.

And I like to think I do the same for him, except he doesn’t have much that needs to be corrected. But when he does, I’m on it, I’m on it.

I think when you find someone you understand and who understands you, you’re close to being in love. Getting this far in life is a hard thing. Having real friends is a hard thing too, and I’d extend love here (I could only be saying this because I don’t have that many!) When you have someone who not only understands you, but knows what’s good for you, and makes you see that good, you’ve hit the jackpot. You just go from there trying to return the favor.

What is happiness?

Being in love. (See above). A certain amount of money and good health doesn’t hurt, but isn’t necessarily required.

What is courage?

Knowing and doing the right thing, even though it’s hard. Now this is a tricky question. So don’t take my flip answer at face value.

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

I think happiness does factor into ethics. And I think being a good person means being a happy person for the most part. So this answer seems to conflict with my answer above to the question, “What is courage”? But it doesn’t. Because I believe that when you know and do the right thing, you’ll be happy…for the most part. Why do I say “for the most part”? Because I can imagine some pretty crazy awful scenarios that would challenge this view, but I think, for the most part, it’s correct.

What is the purpose of art?

This is where I expect everyone to get up in arms. I don’t think art is an end in itself. I’m with Tolstoy—I think it must have spiritual ends, otherwise it’s empty.

So now, what’s your philosophy?

What’s Your Philosophy?

BLOGGING EVENT!

Tell the world. Don’t be shy. Yes, we’re used to piggy-backing off the famous philosophers, and that’s why I came up with this prompt. Those well-versed in philosophy will appreciate a grassroots approach, even those who spend every waking hour thinking about the transcendental unity of apperception, believe it or not. No need to read everything everyone’s ever said about anything. Just say what YOU think. So rarely do we get a platform for original philosophical thought. Well, this is it.

No need to answer these any or all of these questions, but I thought they might help stimulate things:

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

How do you determine right from wrong?

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

Does God exist?

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

What is a soul? Does it exist?

Do dogs have souls?

What about parameciums?

What is Justice?

What is Love?

What is happiness?

What is courage?

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

What is the purpose of art?

Please leave a comment to link to your post, or leave your ideas directly in the comment box, if you wish.

Happy philosophizing!