Philosophy and mapping

Novel uses of computing are being brought to the aid of many modern challenges. So why not philosophy as well!

Philosophy since ancient times was born of the need for interdisciplinary inquiry and understanding. Without that foundation, opportunities for circular speak become endless. Futilely so.

Modern philosophy has splintered, and that trend cannot be separated from the compartmentalization of knowledge through economic monitization, data mining, and academic and other quasi-tribal territorial struggles over knowledge. With the proliferation of knowledge as a thing of value, interdisciplinarity, and the shared meanings it requires, have been uprooted — and philosophy along with it.

I suggest that embracing shared meanings is the avenue for mapping philosophy (among other disciplines) in ways that captures the metaphorical topographical features, population centers, transportation routes of the field through the Ages, and most importantly informing future analyses in novel ways.

Embracing shared meanings offers one solution, a solution likely so complex in relation to its topic that it would be best achieved by utilizing computing resources.

Such a thing of course requires a complex architecture to map to. That's where I would like to see ONT come in.

Original publish date Nov 3, 2017

1 thought on “Philosophy and mapping”

  1. Comments made at original Quora question
    Yohan John
    Nov 2
    Is there any such thing as “computer-aided philosophy”? How would it be different from applied math or scientific simulation?

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 2
    Here are some initial somewhat indefinite thoughts. If I had more, I’d not have asked the question.
    If one assumes that applied math and scientific simulation exhausts the range of philosophy, then there wouldn’t be. But I think it would be hard to find philosophers, and probably mathematicians, who believe that. And few seem to regard philosophy as a scientific discipline — if anything it’s classified as a branch of the humanities. Science / mathematics and philosophy are staked out separate areas of concern, and regarded by many as incommensurate. There are purists / fundamentalists in either area who would like to see one assimilated into the other. Some have worked in both areas, e.g. W V Quine, with interests in epistemology and electrical engineering. Most discussion of such figures and their interests is of a specialized and discipline-bound meta-philosophical variety which does not pursue the creation of well-defined methods that might be operationalized into tools that might be packaged as “computer aid”. On the other hand, an analogous development is digital humanities, which seem to be going in that direction through adaptation of methods from corpus and computational linguistics (for example). In any case, computer-augmented conceptual and intellectual activity need not depend on a meta-philosophical assimilation of one philosophical framework into another. Nor should we assume that “computer-aided” requires the ability to “automate” (i.e. simulate and replace) human intellectual activity. As a relevant tangent, augmentation is different than automation, something I think is a general point of confusion for AI research more generally.
    So is there “any such thing” as “computer-aided philosophy”? I’d say there’s no problem in principle, and that the prospects for such depend on imaginative acts of cross-discipline bridging, along with (and catalyzing) the more gradual development of symbolic computing tools that are specialized for specific academic disciplines. such as philosophy.

    Yohan John
    Nov 2 · 1 upvote from Jeff Wright
    I just can’t think of any example of a computation that would be uniquely relevant to a philosopher. After all, the philosopher’s home base is language, and computations doesn’t really produce language.
    What would a philosopher do with a computer that isn’t already being done by a scientist or mathematician?

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 3
    I find that question somewhat confusing … what a philosopher would do would be … philosophy …As these are distinct intellectual endeavors, what a philosopher would do is not the same as what a scientist or mathematician is doing with a computer.
    Mainly, providing specialized computational support for a complex intellectual endeavor. Here are some recent answers that may be relevant.
    Mirror For Your Thoughts: White Paper version by Michelle Kathryn McGee on Celebrate Mind
    Michelle Kathryn McGee’s answer to What are some potential methods and broader prospects for computer-aided philosophy?
    Michelle Kathryn McGee’s answer to What are examples of or more general prospects for software-aided contemplative practice?
    Another relevant area is the rather large literature on computer-aided discourse and deliberation, which seems ripe for specialization towards philosophical practice.

    Yohan John
    Nov 6 ·
    What I was asking for is something much more specific.
    “Mainly, providing specialized computational support for a complex intellectual endeavor.”
    I just don’t know what this means. What specific kind of intellectual endeavor unique to philosophy requires computation?
    The first link sounds like regular productivity app type stuff with a bit of a psychology spin.
    The second link might be a little closer to philosophy I guess.
    “Embracing shared meanings offers one solution, a solution likely so complex in relation to its topic that it would be best achieved by utilizing computing resources. I foresee embracing shared meanings as a road to mapping philosophy (among other disciplines) in ways that captures the metaphorical topographical features, population centers, transportation routes of the field through the Ages, and most importantly informing future analyses in novel ways.”
    But this also could be understood as historiography, sociology and/or data science, rather than philosophy. In any case these maps will only be feasible after considerable progress in psycholinguistics and language parsing technology. No currently-existing methods can extract metaphors, let alone place them in “topological” frameworks.
    The third link seems to be about therapy and meditation, which again isn’t really philosophy, is it?
    I’d say that computation might show up as a topic for philosophical analysis. But in the end the format of philosophy is discourse, so simulations still need to be transformed into normal language through linguistic interpretation.
    One philosopher you may be interested in is Manuel DeLanda.
    Philosophy and Simulation
    Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy
    He uses mathematical and computational ideas as his central metaphors, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t simulated anything himself in order to come to his insights.

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 6
    Thanks for the thoughts, and the links.
    What specific kind of intellectual endeavor unique to philosophy requires computation?
    I’m not sure right now how specific it’s possible to get with the idea of computer-aided philosophy, given that philosophy itself is not a specific endeavor in that way. Philosophy entertains a vast number of other areas as topic and content, and meanwhile those other areas have their “philosophy of” and philosophical elements.
    I don’t think “computer-aided” methodological support requires either being “unique to philosophy” or the use of computation narrowly construed. But that doesn’t mean something interesting of that sort may be specified. I just think it doesn’t match the full scope of either philosophy practice or computer augmentation.
    The difficulty with the question is that philosophy and information systems engineering currently have mostly non-overlapping conceptual paradigms and communities of practice. It can only be answered by seeking conceptual overlaps or bridging the gap, one which is not well-explored or imagined from either side. Some “market research” is obviously needed.
    This is really a disciplinary Venn diagram where philosophy crosses historiography, sociology, data science, philosophy of information, philosophy of engineering. Along those lines I think one can make a good case that “philosophy proper” is not really “a thing”, but more a product of academic professionalization.
    As I conceive this question, there’s the intersection of philosophy, particular topic areas, and the potential to specialize computational tools (including knowledge representation, communication, semantically modeled software, etc.) to support whatever it is that philosophers do at that intersection.
    When people do work with overlapping disciplinary concerns and constructs, there’s an emergent knowledge flow in both directions. For instance, philosophy of “web” engineering potentially has influences on philosophy as well as on engineering.
    Looking at continental style philosophy, it appears to overlap quite a bit with sociology and social theory, insofar as it’s concerned with theorizing social ontology. This would seem posed to benefit from more explicitly modeled ontologies that could be explored using agent-based simulation and perhaps also model checking. This may aid one of the main problems in the field, which is ambiguous models and difficulty of comparing or combining models from different researchers. It may even be possible to link these models with “big data” sets and the “reality mining” methods being explored at MIT to start to move philosophy from being an a priori or armchair endeavor to include some empirical methods as envisioned in the “experimental philosophy” notion.
    Analytic philosophy meanwhile has an ethos of attempting to specify concepts unambiguously and apply logical reasoning to reach various kinds of conclusions, but at present does not routinely use any kind of concept modeling or reasoning methods. There has been a concern with exploring the logical affordances of various kinds of modal logic but there has been no concerted effort to create operational tools on the basis of those logics, that might be used to apply, ratify, compare, or simply to better understand the application of the models to philosophical discourse and other practices.
    The closest is, perhaps the rather large literature on computer-guided discourse and deliberation, which for the main part uses a very minimal logical model. It also does not prioritize the exploration of the models themselves, whereas in practice philosophy mixes itself indiscriminately with metaphilosophical concerns. In addition to this there are no machine-readable and searchable knowledge-bases designed to keep track of this process, including longstanding controversies and open issues.

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 7
    JW, thanks for inviting me to join in. (I failed to follow the question myself — new user error!!)
    You are both articulating, with a great deal of sensitivity and foresight, matters highly relevant to philosophers interested in advances in their profession at this time in history. Together, though mostly in counterpoint, you’ve unpacked some of the intersection of IT and discourse specific to philosophy in modern times.
    It’s not a comfortable intersection. Why? And what, if anything, makes IT necessarily problematic towards discourse?
    There’s plenty of ‘empirical data’ on just how problematic the IT-facilitated world of discourse can be. (Excepting Quora of course 😉 Just look at, well, everything that’s anything goes and not administratively policed online. (The policing can prove just as problematic.)
    It’s my sense that this disturbing discourse trend is a big reason many people would question that any useful intersection between IT and dialogue is possible. In true ironic form, it’s also exactly the reason we need philosophy to step up to it. It’s not only possible, it’s critical.
    My own efforts (linked in JW’s comment above) center on 1) helping doers of discourse (anyone) experience the relational structure of reality reflected in their own searching thoughts and 2) facilitating the intersectional mapping of models in diverse disciplines and contexts by experts. In theory, the first can be accomplished at a basic level (no results would return as far as specialized terms that require mapping) with what I’ve already developed — the relational database ONT. The second, once undertaken, creates positive feedback and widens the interdisciplinarity of the first and professional relevance of both. Of course, not all models would derive benefit from intersectionality, but those that would have a relational digitial tool with which to engage.
    I hope it’s obvious from this analysis that such an endeavor is relevant to philosophy precisely because it is concerned with structuring discourse.
    I’ll wrap it up with a bit of philosophy name-dropping, as I’m sure the idea of inviting an amateur philosopher anywhere near the ship of professional discourse seems a bit absurd.
    About — Luciano Floridi has downloaded and examined a digital copy of ONT and called it “fascinating.” (This was two and a half years ago, just before he was really consumed with deliberation on digital ethics.)
    Louis deRosset, chair of the philosophy dept at UVM and specialist in modal primitivism, likes to keep apprised of my work. I met him some eight years ago when he instructed me during the course Naming and Necessity (mostly Kripke) at UVM.

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 7
    This all seems clear. The project “in the large” is highly interdisciplinary, including necessary themes from fields outside either information technology or philosophy narrowly construed. Dealing with that narrow construction and with multi- or trans-disciplinarity seems unavoidable. But I think we can at least name a preliminary set of foundational disciplines for this idea — many of which are themselves undergoing emergence and change as a result of this increasing contact. Each of the participating disciplines has particular “sacred cows” or ontological commitments that may be called into question and require tending or being sent out to pasture. Another general meta-comment is that I believe much paradigmatic change occurs in unobvious or even unintentional ways, and through various intentional (or not) Trojan horse vehicles. This reframes certain methodological premises regarding clarity, transparency, and precise specification.
    Here’s a question I regard as a kind of key indicator for this kind of project — do you assess your own project as providing sufficient capability and affordances for reflexive modeling (of itself)?
    Some other things I’d like to mention at this point (1) Pierre Levy’s collective intelligence work and its attempt to operationalize itself using a modeling language he calls IEML. (2) Dana Boyd’s concept of “context collapse” which speaks to the need to design and structure the social contexts in which the use of such techniques are applied.

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 7
    I’m not 100% sure I can comprehend the question of sufficiency, especially in relation to the other projects you cited. But I’ll riff on what it makes me think of…
    There’s one aspect of its reflexivity that I have not been able to conceptualize (likely because I have a knowledge gap as far as computational versatility). There’s the mapping capacity, which seems straightforward to me because it is based on categorical and ordinal relationships. Yet, a computing language that could engage it directly from an operational standpoint is not obvious to me. I’ve talked to a few folks about agent-based systems, but that doesn’t seem to fit. I don’t right away see a fit after reading the first hit I found on IEML, but that doesn’t mean there’s sufficient functional parity with something existing.
    re: context collapse in an existential sense, did you see my blog post?
    Reality morphing — a simple visualization — on The Existential Kitchen
    I like the reasonable and graceful subversiveness argument 🙂

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 8
    This may be slightly off your point, but my overall opinion is that for this application we need to distance ourselves conceptually from typical assumptions of concept / knowledge processing regarding (a) “old school”, primarily symbolic knowledge representation, and (b) automation and detached simulation of human cognition. These IMO just don’t scale to the level of emergent social computation (which is how I classify the problem area).
    Taking a metaphor from from your “reality morphing” disappearing figure / variable assumption diagram the above are the background color, the water that the fish swim in. (BTW, there are transparent fish). A background switch would result from realizing how much context, knowledge, information, etc. has been discarded in order to create and distribute textual language.
    Two alternative frames (“reality morph”) that reverse the background are: (1) imagine that all text were born digital — constructed that way — via context-preserving (and context enhancing) media. (2) Use knowledge processing technology that integrates both symbolic and statistical data and inference. This requires booting one sacred cow out of the barn — the idea in modernist linguistics and analytic philosophy of language —which is that semantics inheres and can be grounded in symbolic representations (i.e. syntax).
    So in my opinion the correct developmental direction is to construct systems that exploit dual symbolic / statistical features that have a high degree of poly-vocality (um. add equivalent terms here: ambivalent, approximate, vague, equivocal, … what I need is a thesaurus, but you get the idea I hope).
    This seems to be the edge of development in machine learning, the paradigm called “multi-model” learning. Basically there are flexibly assigned multiple feature recognizers that are merged within a larger ensemble, pretty much analogous to the human brain. Although in machine learning this is somewhat reductively thought of as a classification problem, with a little philosophical reframing we can see it as a representation problem. The little twist is that it is not purely representative in the abstract sense (i.e. as an independent, adequate representation) but is instead an emergent, dialogical relationship between multiple semantic agents.
    For a bit more on the machine learning issue, see the following:
    Chomba Bupe’s answer to What do machine learning researchers think of the “one model to learn them all” approach?

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 9
    This set of points is not just relevant its terribly insightful (from what I can extract given I’m in a bit over my head with computing theory).
    You seem to grasp the Bind of Partiality that academia is currently in in relation to reality models, which is the Essential Knowledge Bind. The other binds ISO resolution with it are the Mystical Bind and the Allegory Bind (the three background combos in the reality morphing image). Within each bind there is a dual tension between seen perspectives that keeps participants actively fueling each others’ partiality. (The two colors that DO show up.)
    Freedom from partiality at the level of reality model is the experience/condition of Meaning is Everywhere. You seem to be working to elucidate what that condition might require from a computing standpoint.
    I love that you brought yourself to the point of wishing for a thesaurus while riffing on poly-vocality… that’s the real syntactical accomplishment that’s needed. Specialized operational syntaxes for separate fields can be as lovely as fresh flower arrangements but eventually the cut flowers wither and the beauty is lost. 

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 9 · 1 upvote from Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Great metaphors and perspective names.
    Riff indeed. As I think you see, given that you interpreted the thesaurus parenthesis as I intended, the operationalization we need from a computer assisted philosophy or contemplation system must enact a semantics that is both emergent and responsive in the moment, like a configurable musical instrument used in an improvisational jazz band.

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 9
    And about the whole sacred cows part… not hard to imagine what that will sound like…

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 9
    Funny. I was trying to listen to Ken Nordine yesterday… no dice… but Mark Murphy was doing okay. I usually read past genre but think style goes all the way down. This will I imagine be a problem for future hybrid intelligence.
    Jazz and more generally improvisational music is a good analogy for ensemble cognition.
    Analogously, one can riff without the archetypal analytic philosopher looking over one’s shoulder insisting that all terms must be precisely defined before use (in terms of existing conceptual forms). After all, the sacred cow of linguistic descriptivism has already left the barn (if it was ever there to begin with).
    Imagine one were to construct a computer-based system to support, scaffold, augment, (insert thesaurus call here) “contemplative” ensemble cognition. Give it a grounding (instantiating … also insert thesaurus) context — a social media service such as Quora would do fine for that. Then, one can take problematic events from the instance context, “lift” them via an abstraction process that is (back-traceable…) classify the events at the abstract-with-instances level, design some kind of handler protocol, re-instantiate it in the instance system. The lifting and instantiating moves may be able to be evaluated by tracking the residuals — if possible? — e.g. the phenomenological elements that appear to be obscured by the context switch (here referring to your tryptich diagram).
    For instance, in Paul Brocklehurst’s answer to What is the role of intuition in philosophical argumentation?, one of the flaws, from the perspective of the question writer, is that the question was answered from an OUGHT perspective rather than an IS perspective. The “problem” involves (a) this occurrence is endemic in Quora at large, (b) there’s no semantic affordance specifically to designate that as an intended aspect of the question, (c) people are generally not aware of the distinction, (d) this (essential / mystical / knowledge) bind and consequent disconnect prevents (deeper, further, contemplative) inquiry, (e) there’s no affordance for tracking the residual, for quality assessment, later continuation, instructive feedback to the Q&A interlocutors… (etc., more issue classes can be designated).

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 9
    I suspect you are correct in expecting some lag time for human communication and contemplative capacity in diverse populations to catch up to what could be accomplished computationally quite a bit more efficiently.
    For those motivated to learn to play existential jazz (“get with the program” BAD word choice!) I see Mirror For You Thoughts as a sort of personal cognitive training ground.
    I can almost hear your wheels turning!

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 9 · 1 upvote from Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Yeah, I sometimes make the wheels louder :), like guitarists who make it possible to hear the friction of the fingers on the strings.
    No doubt that personal cognitive training is a prime application for these ideas.
    Over time though, my contemplation of these issues has moved away from individualistic or personal augmentation frameworks in the direction of social cognition / computation, and at this point I direct more research effort— pretty much limited to reading and thought at this point — to emergent work in that area.

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 9
    So you can’t just make a few calls and make this happen. That stinks!

    Jeff Wright: Yeah, what an annoying dilemma. It could try the patience of a saint!
    Three ideas, which seem better?
    (1) “If it was possible, someone would’a already done it.”
    (2) Well they are in a consensus reality trance, and the ones who aren’t don’t have the technical chops to pull it off.
    (3) We’re dealing with an “unknown unknown” here, and in fact a higher grade of the same, which is an emergent problem in which the foundational issues have not only not been articulated, but are still emerging from the bridge between actuality and actual possibility.

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 9 · 1 upvote from Jeff Wright
    Not to be a hopeless optimist, but I’m pretty sure 3

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 9 · 1 upvote from Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Actually on that basis I think it’s not really possible for the task to be accomplished in a purely computational way, and that we might look twice at the potential negative side effects of “efficiency”. What I think we need to do us uproot this vestige of the “Cartesian Cut”, that conceptualizes computation as separate from naturalized human cognition — or even takes the former as foundation for the latter. However, I suspect the “existential” operator might take care of that.

    Michelle Kathryn McGee
    Nov 9 · 1 upvote from Jeff Wright
    Like I said, in truly ironic form, that has so far escaped me — hidden, damn.
    Here’s a few more metaphorical bits to chew on
    Beyond Binary

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 9
    Reminds me of the (true, false, NULL) triad in data stores. NULL is pretty cool, since it gestures at and thumbs its nose at the “closed world” ontology of modern data representations.
    So how about 1 = “true” and 0 = “Oh!”

    Jeff Wright
    Nov 9
    Adding yet another metaphorical “bit”:
    It’s been said that the simplest and most basic list of human emotions and (disposition toward) experiences is:
    (YUM!, YUCK! and YOW!)

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