I Am Learning to Levitate!

"It's true. I am well on my way. I can show you."

(You come to my house.)

"OK, Gene, let's see."

"There you go!"

"But you didn't rise at all: what are you talking about?"

"Well, I have to start somewhere! The first step is "zero levitation": where else did you expect me to start? But now that I've made the first step, we can see how the process will proceed."

"That's ridiculous! No levitation is not the 'first step' on the way to levitating: it's not a step at all."

"No, my man, it's you who are being ridiculous. I just learned from a famous philosopher that building a machine 'without the least smidgen of understanding' is an important first step in showing how understanding arose. You see, even though that step didn't get anywhere at all towards artificially creating understanding, it was still a very important step! So I admit, my first step to learning to levitate hasn't actually gotten me anywhere at all, but, you see, it is still a vital step. Because, you know, emergence, and, um, evolution."


  1. Aristophanes would be proud.

  2. Pedant, my first impression, based on your comment, is that you are just another dumb troll, popping up from under the bridge and yelling scary sounds.

    If I am wrong, and you are actually following this thread, I will gladly publish your comment and respond!

  3. Historically, the exchange was more like this:

    "I've made some fundamental insights into levitation."

    Oh yeah, show me!

    "There, see? 1 sec hang time."

    Okay, great, big whoop -- 1 second off the ground isn't really levitation.

    [later] "What about this? I can stay disconnected from the ground by standing in this floating basket, and get a good five minutes out of it!"

    *rolls eyes* Booooring! Look, what you don't "get" is that levitation is fundamentally impossible. We mortals don't have the fundamental essence of levity like, say, the birds do. So it's just not gonna happen. No human is ever going to be able to stay up in the air for, like, an hour, or be able to travel a mile while floating. *That* is what a real achievement in levitation would look like, not this, bouncy balloon.

    [later] "Hey, look at this! I can stay up for three hours just from refining the equipment and using a bigger balloon and more fuel! I can direct it and travel several miles in any direction!"

    Right, but that's not *real* levitation. You just latched on to something that's really light. Did you turn into a bird? Gain feathers? No and no. That's not real flight. Levity essence? Zero. See if you can go arbitrarily high, like the birds. Just not possible.

    [much later] Okay, right, that's wonderful and all. You went to the moon and back. Never mind that you used a non-biological vehicle, which obviously can never have the fundamental essence of levity that only birds possess. Not to mention you cheated by avoiding feathers and flapping altogether. Elan vital? Nowhere to be found.

    1. Absolutely not, Silas. I am talking about *understanding*. Dennett admits, as I keep pointing out, that a basic computational circuit doesn't have the "least smidgen" of understanding.

      Now, if you want to take that up with him, and insist that it does, be my guest. *I* don't insist that it doesn't! I specifically said (in another post) that the pan-psychist model here makes sense: an adder circuit *does* contain a wee bit of understanding, and you keep piling them together, and you get something that contains a lot of understanding.

      So, it's *Dennett* who is insisting that *no* levitation takes place in step one, but then, if you just keep repeating it, eventually it will add up!

    2. "Absolutely not...": What I mean is, you are clearly not getting what I contend is wrong with Dennett's argument.

      Whether you have the historical debate right or not is beside the point, since I am not critiquing Dennett on that issue.

  4. The parallel is that a rocketship doesn't have a "smidgen" of "levity", elan vital, etc., but produces the functional equivalent, and yet people (ideologically) trivialize the achievement on the basis of this arbitrary metric, while also falsely believing they have derived limits on achievable functionality.

    This has parallels in the history of human flight, mechanical computers, and artificial intelligence -- with your complaint about lack of "understanding" matching previous complaints about "real thinking", "real memory", "levity", etc. (And matching Searle, I might add.)

    1. Silas, you are misreading both me and Dennett. Where did I "complain" about a lack of understanding?

      Dennett is hoping to explain how understanding arose from a purely material basis. I have just noted that showing that a purely mechanistic device can achieve something functionally *like* understanding while admittedly having none gets us nowhere *in terms of showing how understanding arose*.

      Your point of view seems to be "screw these philosophical niceties: just look at all that we have achieved!" That's fine, and I don't have any answer to *that* point of view except "Some of us like this rubbish!" But also note that it's hardly Dennett's view: he is, after all, a philosopher!

    2. Actually, my point of view is more like, "This non/anti-materialistic view consistently errs in terms of:

      - asserting uniqueness in biological beings (their "organic" mater, elan vital, levity, "genuine understanding")

      - predicting what is actually achievable (synthesis of organic compounds from non, sustained human flight, AI problem number 534)

      - trivializing such achievements after-the-fact with pointless distinctions ("but that organic compound still doesn't have any elan vital", "that's not really flying because there's no flapping", "sure it can win at chess, but it doesn't *truly* understand chess ... hey, can you give me a hand with this goalpost?"

      ... all of which were pointed out in my counterexample.

      I know Dennett was claiming that something doesn't have a "smidgen" of understanding; my point was that, when you finally have a functionally equivalent solution (in organics, human flight, computation, AI), all of these supposed shortcomings (no elan vital, no levity/flapping, no understanding, no consciousness) become moot, and yet the tiny "levity-free steps" were important steps indeed!

    3. Yes, Silas, you noted all of this. First of all, I still have no idea why you think you have presented a counter-example. I am (and Denett was asking) asking a philosophical question: you are dismissing that question.

      Or maybe not! If your position is:
      1) Once I can kill the terrorists, I don't care if my unmanned flight "really" knows where they are or not: they are dead, and I am happy...

      Then I have a lot of sympathy for it: philosophy is a useless activity. Some of us just enjoy it.

      But, if you think:
      2) The practical success of some AI application *answers* the philosophical questions I am asking, then you are being very silly.


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