Saturday, July 30, 2011

A review of The Mystery of Consciousness

Philosopher John R. Searle writes in The New York Review of Books:

There is so much confusion surrounding the notions of objectivity and subjectivity that I need to say a word to clarify them. In one sense, the objective/subjective distinction is about claims to knowledge. I call this the epistemic sense. A claim is said to be objective if its truth or falsity can be settled as a matter of fact independently of anybody’s attitudes, feelings, or evaluations; it is subjective if it cannot. For example, the claim that Van Gogh died in France is epistemically objective. But the claim that Van Gogh was a better painter than Gauguin is, as they say, a matter of subjective opinion. It is epistemically subjective.
In another sense, the objective/subjective distinction is about modes of existence. I call this the ontological sense. An entity has an objective ontology if its existence does not depend on being experienced by a human or animal subject; otherwise it is subjective. For example, mountains, molecules, and tectonic plates are ontologically objective. Their existence does not depend on being experienced by anybody. But pains, tickles, and itches only exist when experienced by a human or animal subject. They are ontologically subjective.

Clever experienced people rarely make epistemic mistakes, the kind of mistakes that occur when one is using a deficient logic, or misses important facts, or applies a wrong data collection procedure. Even if  such mistakes happen, one's peers immediately pick up on them and eventually the errors get corrected, either by the originator of the idea or his opponents, the process Thomas Kuhn called "normal science."

Ontological mistakes are less obvious, often buried deep in theoretical assumptions, perceived as a natural state of the world, a perception strengthening as epistemic mistakes are corrected in the process of normal science. The same applies to technology or business models where certain assumptions are not questioned because the company that implements the model stays successful for a very long time. If I say today, "Google is dead," people will consider me crazy, but twenty years from now, when Google's practice of free-riding on content created by others will have run its course, the death of Google will be perceived as a triviality.

Widely accepted trade-offs are often indicators of ontological assumptions based on constraints understood as natural and immutable. Exposing such trade-offs is an interesting exercise in biz model analysis and search for new invention opportunities. Since people often confuse epistemically objective with ontologically objective, when a new ontology, e.g. a new technology market, arises all of the old epistemology can be discarded.

tags: trade-off, philosophy, constraints, invention, innovation, theory, system, market, information, method, google, mind, cognition

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