Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Virtual Road Less Traveled

Bob Doyle the information philosopher has, as one might expect, a lot of information on his website and YouTube channel.

He's a technologist and a philosopher which makes him somewhat unique in our age of STEM obsession.

I think what he's writing and talking about sounds important, interesting and challenging (based on watching this video and noodling  around his web pages for an hour or so). I stumbled upon his work while I was trying to learn something about Gottlob Frege's ideas on the limits of language.

The title of this blog post refers to the fact that Bob Doyle's YouTube channel has about 1,500 subscribers and the video I watched has about the same number of views. In contrast this is the top trending YouTube video as I write this, with over 7,000,000 views (as I edit this) on a channel with over 18,000,000 subscribers.

I don't know what that popular video is about but I think it's trying to sell something, maybe makeup or a life - so caveat emptor.


The future is calling.

It needs some people capable and willing to carry the flame of wisdom before it's extinguished in a sea of idiocy, hate, sensationalism, and self glorification.

Some people need to keep the wisdom and beauty of humanity alive as we enter a new and unfamiliar world due to the climate crisis. There is always hope because no matter how much the world changes there is always space for individual courage, love, and acts of kindness.

I started thinking about this when Bob Doyle says in this video that Tim Berners-Lee's biggest concern about storing important information on the web was the lack of a persistent archive. We all see how changing technology makes persistent storage of things important to us (home videos, photos, essays, stories, letters) very difficult.

You could put all your important stuff on a digital storage device but there is no guarantee that you or anyone else could retrieve it in a few years or decades.

I think the best solution may be a Socratic one. Socrates distrusted the written word and believed that the way to communicate meaning is through speech. If not for his student Plato writing things down we would only have many different (or perhaps no) stories of what Socrates had to teach us.


Who cares?

We all should. Human nature changes little over thousands of years. Great thinkers have invented the wheel so to speak and unless we want to reinvent the wheel over and over it would behoove us as a species to save and review what wise people before us had to say about being in the world.

Perhaps instead of trying to create and save a digital archive of our individual existences it makes more sense to share stories with those we care about.

One can make a case for speech being the preferred means of communication for what is truly important to us as humans - love, companionship, hope, could also make a case that music, dance or painting are better than language - but I digress.

Meaning is highly dependent on body language, eye contact, tone - all lacking in the written word. This lack of face to face contact is one reason why people writing about imprecise things like religion or politics fail to communicate meaning and often end up with misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

In our analysis of "failure to communicate" we could also consider those of us who repeat something we heard on television, radio or the internet without having much, if any, understanding of what the words we are repeating signify in the real world considering context, completeness and individual levels of knowledge or ignorance.

Another reason people fail to communicate either in writing or verbally, which I find fascinating, is that words have no meaning.

To be more precise words have no meaning, other than what we as individuals assign. Parrots can say words without having any consciousness of their meaning. It might be more precise to say parrots make sounds signifying nothing. Humans share this ability with the exception that we can think we know what we are saying and assume others do as well.

For words to have meaning they must signify something to the recipient. What words signify to any individual recipient we cannot know with any accuracy.

A good example of this is our use of words like conservative or Christian - absolutely meaningless - without context (and a lot of it).

Thinkers like Frege, Husserl, Russell, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein explored the limits of language and either attempted to create a precise language based on mathematics and logic, or gave up on language for communicating what is truly important and turned to faith. This is a gloss but my words are limited.

The promoters of formalized language, as opposed to everyday language, believed that humankind's ills could be cured if we truly understood what other people are communicating. Utopian no doubt but also empirically evident when we consider the ability of humans across cultures, nations and times to collaborate using scientific/mathematical terms.

Maybe this quote helps. It's from the chapter, Ordinary Language and Formalized Language, in the book A History of Western Philosophy Volume V by W.T. Jones

A weakness of ordinary language is that it is multifunctional; it does much more than merely make assertations that are true or false; it commands, pleads, requests, suggests, attempts to deceive, entertains, bores, and so on. As a cognitivist, Frege was interested in language that is capable of conveying information about the world, not in language that implements some social aim of the speaker such as "setting the hearer on the right track."