Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Project Capua Suspended

After evaluating last week's interactions, I'm more convinced than ever that my experimental philosophy project is worth doing, but I'm convinced it can't be done on a blog. A blog tends to produce "star-shaped" interactions (which means all the commenters interact with the poster at the center) or "bi-polar" interactions (in which two commenters engage in a verbal dogfight). Project Capua can't work unless the participants develop a "spirograph" pattern of interactions, and I don't see a way to get there from here.

I'd love to try this again sometime, but I think we'd all need to spend at least week together to lay the foundation for the conversation we could have.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Project Capua: Day 3

Exercise 3:

Is this a unicorn? Why or why not?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Project Capua: Day 2

As we learned yesterday, words trigger many different memories in different minds. The linguistic hypothesis we are testing in this project is that a "word" is the unique location in cognitive space (the hyperdimensional phase space created by every neuron of every hearer and/or reader of that word). If the hypothesis is correct, then "banana" can connote Harry Chapin songs, knock-knock jokes, and innocent Russian children biting through their bitter peels.

Today we'll use the word "rhubarb" to explore another aspect of cognitive space. (I am indebted to Nick Barden, a student at Patrick Henry College, for the discovery of "rhubarbiness.") "Banana" evokes a host of different experiences that generally don't conflict with each other. "Rhubarb," by contrast, tends to evoke contradictory responses. Some people love rhubarb. Some people hate it.

We all know the subjective differences between people. Tastes differ--but does that mean that "everything is relative"? Is there an objective truth about rhubarb?

In our hypothesis, there is an objective truth about something as subjective as rhubarb. If each word is a unique point in the shared cognitive space of every hearer/reader, the contradictory individual opinions about rhubarb tell us something important about that point in cognitive space. In a metaphorical sense, "rhubarb" lies somewhere between the individual observers who collectively make up the logosphere.

The most familiar analogy for this feature is binocular vision. Two eyeballs gather information about an object from slightly different perspectives which is joined within the vision center of the brain as a three-dimensional scene. The closer the object is to the observer, the more different the two perspectives become. If the object is brought right up to a person's nose, the left eye may not see a single thing that is the same as what the right eye sees.

"Rhubarbiness," using this analogy, means that something is so "close" to different observers that they "see" substantially different images.

Exercise 2:

  • What is your opinion of rhubarb?
  • Pick another word that seems "rhubarby" and explain why.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Project Capua: Day 1

Welcome to our first exercise! If you're in a hurry, scroll down to the last paragraph and follow the directions there. If you want to know why you're doing this, read on!

Project Capua is based on a linguistic hypothesis and a metaphysical methodology. The linguistic hypothesis is that words enable the neurons in individual human brains to form a larger network. The participants in the project don't need to understand the new technology of neural networks, but there are a few terms that we'll be using throughout the project that are based on neural network theory.

For purposes of this project, cognitive space means a multi-dimensional phase space composed of every neuron in an interconnected whole. In a system composed of just two neurons, the cognitive space would be a square. Three neurons form a cube. Adding more neurons adds more dimensions, The average human brain has about 100 billion neurons,creating a hyperdimensional phase space.

How "big" is a hundred-billion dimensional phase space? If every neuron can fire at varying rates from 0 to 10, it has a volume of ten to the hundred billionth power. How big is that? Well, the observable universe is about 15 billion light years across (on the order of 10^26 meters) and an electron is 10^-15 meters across. That means you could line up this many electrons in a row across the universe:
Cube that (10^41 ^3) and you get 10 to the 123rd power. That's how many electrons you can cram into our observable universe. By contrast, you can cram 10 to the 100,000,000,000 power different cognitive states into your brain. Cognitive space is much bigger than space/time!

The linguistic hypothesis behind this project is that words activate the cognitive space of each reader or hearer. For purposes of this project, the word "word" means a unique point in the phase space created by all the neurons in each brain of every reader or hearer.

When I type the word "banana," every neuron in the brain of each reader of this blog is affected to some degree. For most Americans, "banana" conjures up the same basic image of a yellowish green fruit with a little blue sticker on the shelf of the local supermarket, but each one of us adds our own personal experience. I can't say "banana" without humming a Harry Chapin tune. You may remember your grandmother's banana-nut muffins. A political refugee from El Salvador may shudder at the memory of slithering through a field of young banana plants with the death squads hot at her heels.

Exercise 1: Introduce yourself and share a personal experience with bananas.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Project Capua: Introduction

Welcome to Project Capua, an experiment in linguistics and metaphysics.

Why experiment? Philosophers at Yale put it this way:
Experimental philosophy, called x-phi for short, is a new philosophical movement that supplements the traditional tools of analytic philosophy with the scientific methods of cognitive science. So experimental philosophers actually go out and run systematic experiments aimed at understanding how people ordinarily think about the issues at the foundation of the philosophical discussion.
Why Capua? This project is inspired by the Siege of Capua in 1098, where St. Anselm of Canterbury met with Muslim soldiers serving under the Norman lord of Sicily. (The Normans conquered Sicily about the same time they conquered England, and Anselm was temporarily in exile because of a church/state dispute with his own Norman king back in Britain.) The Saracen troops had heard reports of Anselm's deep spirituality and were eager to talk theology with him.

We don't know what St. Anselm and the Saracens talked about, but we can imagine--beacuse imagination may well be the core of what they talked about. Anselm defined God as "that being greater than which nothing can be imagined." It's important to be precise here: Wikipedia misquotes Anselm as calling God "the greatest possible being we can conceive."

If Anselm thought God was whatever he imagined, his discussion with the Saracens would have broken down pretty quickly. The two sides would have staked out antithetical positions: "God is One!" "No, God is Three!" "No, God is One!" But if God is that being Who is greater than our imagination, the discussion would be very different.

Imagine Anselm saying something like this:
Muslims say that Allah is one, and Christians call God three. Buddhists seek nirvana more like zero while Hindus worship 330,000,000 deities. Perhaps we are all making the same mistake--using the created category of numbers to count the Uncreated.
This kind of answer is what George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would have referred to as a "synthesis." Project Capua is designed to explore the contours of our collective imagination in the spirit of St. Anselm.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Experimental Philosophy Project

Experimental Philosophy is an interesting new approach to an ancient discipline. Most "X-Phi" is done using surveys (similar to psychology), but I'm getting ready for an applied metaphysics project at this site in a few days.

I'm looking for a team of about six VERY different people to participate. I won't disclose the details (because I don't want to skew my test group through selection bias) but I can say this much--it will be an exercise in communication and imagination.

If you might be interested in participating, comment below.