Haunted by models

We live in an age so bewitched by models that very smart people can think that, when they make a cup of tea, what they are really doing is "executing the algorithm for making a cup of tea." It is as though, after seeing a chart of the human skeletal system, they come to think of themselves as really being outline drawings of some bones, with their flesh and blood only being some sort of illusion hiding the real picture.

12 comments:

  1. Wikipedia describes an algorithm as

    'Starting from an initial state and initial input (perhaps empty),the instructions describe a computation that, when executed, proceeds through a finite number of well-defined successive states, eventually producing "output" and terminating at a final ending state'

    Based on this I'm pretty sure that that the recipe for making a cup of tea qualifies as an algorithm (if one extends the use of the word "computation" to allow it to be used more generally for non-computational actions).

    On models: If you had a simplistic model like the one you describe it wouldn't serve you well because it would be inaccurate. If you had a model of your body based on input from the top specialists in each area then I submit that that model would actually be a pretty good guide to what your body really was like - certainly way better than one based on just on your own perceptions.

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    1. "Based on this I'm pretty sure that that the recipe for making a cup of tea qualifies as an algorithm"

      It certainly does Rob. And a recipe is an abstraction from any actual instance of making a cup of tea. My point exactly.

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    2. This is just what I mean by being "haunted by models." Our education in modernity has taught us that we understand how to do something by first understanding an abstraction of how to do that thing. But this is logically absurd. How in the world could someone who did not know how to make a cup of tea formulate a recipe for making a cup of tea? Concrete knowledge is always prior to abstract knowledge.

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  2. Your post comes across as objecting to the use of the phrase "I am executing the algorithm for making a cup of tea" to mean the same as "I am making a cup of tea" - but your response seems to confirm that you agree that they actually do mean the same thing

    It sounds like what you are really objecting to is the claim that a real thing can be seen as the implementation of the algorithm for that thing.

    While this is a weird of looking at things I think it is defensible.

    When I make a cup of tea this process becomes an instance of the tea making algorithm.

    If a physicist could come up with a model that described how the universe worked then the universe would be an instance of the algorithm captured in the model.

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    1. "but your response seems to confirm that you agree that they actually do mean the same thing"

      Not at all! They no more mean the same thing then do driving on actual roads and tracing the roads with one's finger on a map mean the same thing.

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    2. I'm confused. Surely "I am driving on actual roads" and "I am executing the algorithm for driving on actual roads" mean the same thing. "I am tracing the roads on a map with my finger" would mean something totally different.

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    3. "Surely "I am driving on actual roads" and "I am executing the algorithm for driving on actual roads" mean the same thing..."

      Well, no they don't. The latter is an abstract model of what is going on in the former. You could not possibly be giving a better Illustration of what I mean In saying that we are in modernity hypnotized by models.

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  3. "How in the world could someone who did not know how to make a cup of tea formulate a recipe for making a cup of tea?"

    Surely human advancement has been built on people formulating recipes for things (making fire, doing heart transplants etc) where no recipe previously existed ?

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    1. No Rob, they did things that had not been done before. Only after they had done them, could they have possibly formulated a "recipe" for doing them.

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  4. "A is executing the algorithm for making tea" =/=> "A is only executing the algorithm and doing nothing else."

    Just like

    "The Intel chip is implementing half-adder truth table" =/=> "All that the Intel chip is doing is implementing a half-adder truth table".

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    1. Good point, Silas: even in the case of the chip, the algorithm is merely an abstraction from all it is doing.

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  5. I agree with what I take to be Gene's overall point in this post. I don't think the first example is a good one. I think the second example ("chart of the human skeletal system") is very good.

    When people talk about philosophy, the words "only" and "just" are usually wrong.

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