Day 039 - Avoiding circularity

Submitted by Sam on 28 June, 2011 - 22:57

Some theories of mind merely reproduce or defer the problems that they try to resolve, creating fallacious arguments which result in infinite regress. A particularly well-known example is the 'homunculus argument' of mind, which arises in half-formed theories of vision. In such theories, the light which falls onto the eye's retina is 'watched' and interpreted by some process (or someone, a 'little man', or homunculus) as if it were a television screen. Such a Cartesian theatre merely defers the question of how decisions are made and sensory input interpreted, resulting in an internal homunculus with its own homunculus to interpret its own television screen, ad infinitum.

Questions like “What caused the universe and why?” and “How can you tell what is good?” are characterized by similar slips into circular reasoning as they never seem to have a final cause, always yielding to yet another recursion of “what caused that cause?”. Every culture has evolved strategies to resist such paradoxes, helping to prevent minds endlessly dwelling on such questions and steering us away from endless loops to allow more soluble problems to be tackled. Through social consensus, shame, taboo, awe and mystery, institutions of law, religion and philosophy provide the authority to engender social consensus and defuse such lines of inquiry by offering stand-in responses and ways of thinking to deflect such questions. Whilst this may seem like dogma and indoctrination, it does serve the socially-beneficial function of pushing minds towards productive work rather than wasting time in ultimately fruitless reasoning.

However, in the resonant words of Minsky, it is worth remembering that “one can acquire certainty only by amputating inquiry.”

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