Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Concepts

Heard a really nice talk by Wendy Haylett on the Diamond Cutter Sutra (among other things) at the Tibetan Buddhist centre. One of the things from the talk impressed upon me yet again one of the first reason that I'd found Buddhism so interesting: it seemed to coincide with some observations in cognitive science. Wendy went through an exercise of trying to ask, what is it in/of a pen that is its 'pen-ness'? Is it the function? (that depends on who is holding it) is it the shape? the materials? the color? And of course, there isn't any one thing or set of things that you can point to as being a pen. Just as, as Chomsky pointed out (and I simply cannot find the reference right now), if the human race were to disappear, there suddenly would be nothing like a garbage can. Both pens and garbage cans as distinct entities are just in the mind. A similar point is raised by the Amazing Gleitmans, Lila & Henry; e.g. in this paper (with Sharon Armstrong). As they point out, if one looks at a dictionary,
...(m)ost of the words in the language are defined there in terms of one another, with most words - unfamiliar ones excepted - acting as defined on some occasions and definers on others. It is as if all the words made their living by taking in each others' washing.
The idea here is that concepts are not the sum of their features. How remarkably similar is this to the endnote in the Quantum & the Lotus, which explains the argument of Chandrakirti that a "chariot" has no inherent existence:
  1. A chariot is not intrinsically the same as its part (wheels, axles, etc.), for they are multiple, and the entity of a chariot would then become multiple. If one insists that the chariot is really "one" entity., then all of its parts must be a single entity. Thus, absurdly, the agent (the moving chariot) and that which draws it along (its parts) would be one.
  2. A chariot is not intrinsically different from its parts, for if it were, then it would be an entity totally distinct from its parts. But ontologically, independent and simultaneous phenomena cannot act on one another, and so cannot be connected by a causal chain[1]. The chariot should then be perceived as being separate from its parts, which is not the case.
  3. The parts of a chariot do not depend intrinsically on the entire chariot, for if they did, then the parts and the whole of the chariot would have to be intrinsically "different", which returns us to the previous point.
  4. For the same reasons, a chariot does not intrinsically depend on its parts.
  5. A chariot does not possess its parts, as a farmer owns a cow or a man his body. For that to be true, the chariot would have to be either intrinsically distinct, or indistinguishable from its parts. Both of these possibilities have already been refuted.
  6. The chariot entity is not a simple composite of its parts: (a) the form of its parts cannot be a chariot; and (b) the form of the composites made up by the parts cannot be a chariot, because the forms of these parts remain unchanged, i.e., they are a chariot neither before nor after coming together.
  7. The form of the composite is not a chariot, because the composite formed from the parts is not an entity with a distinct existence. There is no composite of the parts different from the parts themselves, otherwise we could perceive the composites without perceiving the parts. As we have seen, the composite cannot be identical to its parts, for if it were, either the "composite" entity would be multiple, or the parts would be a single object, To sum up, the form of the composite exists only through a conceptual imputation.
Not bad for someone from the seventh century A.D. :)

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