September 8, 2009

Quotes of the Day: Berkeley and 'Functional Role Semantics'

The second approach [to intentionality on the computational model of cognition] is known as functionalism (actually, "functional role semantics" in discussions of meaning) in philosophy, and as procedural semantics in cognitive psychology and computer science. Functionalism says that what gives internal symbols (and external symbols too) their meanings is how they function ... This picture can be bolstered by a consideration of what happens when one first learns Newtonian mechanics. In my own case, I heard a large number of unfamiliar terms more or less all at once: "mass", "force", "energy", and the like. I never was told definitions of these terms in terms I already knew. (No one has ever come up with definitions of such "theoretical terms" in observation language.) What I did learn was how to use these terms in solving homework problems, making observations, explaining the behavior of a pendulum, and the like. (Ned Block, "The Mind as the Software of the Brain" in Susan Schneider, ed., Science Fiction and Philosophy, 149-150)
Compare:
Euphranor. ... [T]o come to your own instance, let us examine what idea we can frame of force abstracted from body, motion, and outward sensible effects. For myself I do not find that I have or can have such an idea.
Alciphron. Surely everyone knows what is meant by force.
Euphranor. And yet I question whether everyone can form a distinct idea of force.
...
Euphranor. And yet, I presume, you allow that there are very evident propositions or theorems relating to force, which contain useful truths: for instance, that a body with conjunct forces describes the diagonal of a parallelogram, in the same time as it would the sides with separate. Is not this principle of very extensive use? Doth not the doctrine of the composition and resolution of forces depend upon it, and, in consequence thereof, numberless rules and theorems directing men how to act and explaining phenomena throughout the mechanics and mathematical philosophy? And if, by considering this doctrine of force, men arrive at the knowledge of many inventions in mechanics and are taught to frame engines, by means of which things difficult and otherwise impossible may be performed; and if the same doctrine which is so beneficial here below serveth as a key to discover the nature of the celestial motions; shall we deny it is of use, either in practice or speculation, because we have no distinct idea of force? (George Berkeley, Alciphron [1752 edition] 7.6-7)

It is striking that Block uses the very same example as Berkeley to support a similar conclusion. However, since no one every reads Alciphron, it seems unlikely that there is any straightforward historical connection here.

Posted by Kenny at September 8, 2009 8:47 AM
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