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Re: [ontolog-forum] Inventor of the Web Gets Backing to Build Web of Dat

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Wed, 7 Apr 2010 20:39:43 -0700
Message-id: <724FBB10-9C28-4502-BC57-9B1D7C93B714@xxxxxxx>
Hi Ali

OK, I've read McLuhan and Postman and many others along these lines. And I just don't buy it. Both of these guys go on and on about their ideas of how the world is going to hell, or at least to some undesirable place, in a handbasket, but neither of them or similar humanist essayists ever cite any actual convincing evidence that these undesirable changes are in fact happening. And neither do you. Details below.

On Apr 4, 2010, at 5:16 AM, Ali Hashemi wrote:

Dear John and Chris,

Sorry for the delay, I've been traveling the past while...

On Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 7:09 PM, Chris Partridge <mail@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

I think you may underestimating some of the post-language changes.

I'd like to reinforce Chris' point - I don't think there's anything to be gained in minimizing or mitigating the effects of "cultural" or technological interaction on how we come to understand the world.

Well, first, lets actually get it established that there *are* any such cultural effects on how we come to understand the world. Presumably these would show up in cross-cultural studies of childhood development, done by psychologists interested in the details of how we come to understand. Can anyone cite any such studies that show any significant cultural influence on development?

While it is undeniable that by virtue of being human and how are brains are structured, we are all predisposed to process the world in broadly/roughly the same way, the impact of environment plays a very significant role in our "fundamental" processes.

So many people keep saying. And for which I have never seen a scrap of convincing actual evidence.

Here are three examples:


1) Consider the basic inference rule - Modus Ponens:

If P then Q
Therefore Q

Contrast the communication / sharing of this idea via spoken word vs. written text. When written, Modus Ponens is much more intuitive and reasonable.

??? It is?? Do you have any reason to make this claim? I don't see why written language would be more convincing than spoken language.

The visual component of Modus Ponens lends that statement the semantic reasonableness / agree-ability which makes it a natural inference rule.

How would you give a visualization of modus ponens anyway? Its not representable as a Venn diagram: that would be for (ALL P are Q, x is a P, so x is a Q). And in any case, it seems to me that MP is almost purely linguistic rather than graphic. The parallelism that makes it intuitively convincing is surely that between the statement (if A then B) and the proof sequence 
A; therefore, B: the statement mirrors the act of consequence drawing. But there is nothing *visual* about this. If anything, it uses an analogy between the narrative conventions of language used to describe an act of inference, and the grammatical sequencing within a statement. 

You might similarly use a diagram to communicate it, instead of written language, however the point is that the *intuition* of this type of semantics is closely coupled to the media in which it is presented.

I simply find this claim almost obviously false. Intuitively, that is. I cannot understand even why you are claiming it, it seems quite unintuitive. 

The auditory route is much more circuitous and less obvious, and it is certainly not nearly as intuitive. The invention of writing changed our sense ratios, from one focused on hearing, to one focused on visualizing, which very probably led to the adoption of this inference rule. Is this changing human nature? It certainly changed how we think :D.

This seems like complete fantasy. Can you cite any historical evidence for this claimed shift in human nature? Early writing systems were almost all based on rebus phonetics (a picture of a thing is used to represent the phonemic sound of its name), which seems to be completely based on existing spoken language use. Why would this represent a fundamental change in how people think? 

Again, this isn't to say that an oral culture wouldn't discover or accept Modus Ponens, just that it arises much more naturally in a visual culture.

Is there any evidence that there are 'visual' vs 'nonvisual' cultures? 


2) A recent study done by the Rotman School of Management ( http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-03/uotr-rpf032510.phphttp://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/newthinking/fastfood.pdf ) indicates that what we eat affects our disposition. Now it doesn't alter human nature, but if human nature consists of a range of predisposed possible reactions to situations, then different environments (and technologies, and foods) will alter how and the ratios in which that nature is expressed.

Specifically, the study indicates that eating fatty / fast food type meals biases people's disposition to be more impatient. And particularly, if certain types of reasoning are associated with impatience (i.e. less deliberation, more rash, quick, short judgments), then I hope you agree that there is a marked change in our manifested fundamental process of thinking.

To be clear, an analogy I prefer here is to compare our cognitive faculties to the weather. While there may be certain basic rules that govern how weather across the earth generally operates, conditions in the arctic are drastically different than those near the equator. To wit, while our "fundamental processes" afford us a range of cognitive / perceptual processes, our local environments and interactions bias and tease out only parts of this potential range.


3) Which brings me to the last example. Consider communities where the predominant form of transport is:

a) driving
b) biking
c) walking

Each person in these communities will have a fundamentally different conception of space, location, time etc.

Again, I think this is highly unlikely; and I know that there is no evidence for it. When railway travel was introduced to English culture, nobody had ever travelled faster than about 20 mph, and many doctors predicted that speeds over 35 mph would be fatal. But they weren't, and the introduction of the railway, while having many profound social and economic changes, did not seem to change people's notions of space, location or time. It is often claimed that the invention of the mechanical clock changed European notions of time in the 13th century, but again the historical record does not bear this out. If anything, the importance of the early clocks was that they allowed people to fix their pre-existing notions of temporality, and it was this that gave them their extraordinary economic importance. 

And the reason for this, while they may all share roughly the same "fundamental processes" is that they are engaging these processes, manifesting them, in drastically different ways. Each time someone opts to bike instead of drive, they use a different set of faculties with which to interact with the world, which in turn affects longer, more subtle perceptions. Similar to the food study above, repeated engagement of certain cognitive faculties when interacting with the world will affect how / which components of cognition one will choose to process other aspects of the world.


Going back to the first example, people in a society where thought is often visualized will be more likely to intuit / discover / propose Modus Ponens than another society.

This is complete fantasy. For a start, I have never seen any evidence that there are societies where thought is visualized more often than in other cultures. 

This isn't to say that it is impossible. Only to point out that the effects of social and technological habituation / interaction are significantly more important than what seemed to be implied in your recent posts.

For further reading, I would highly recommend:

All good reads (though Dewey is a lot better than Postman, IMO) , but not a shred of objective evidence in any of it. These people are *essayists*. For some actual observations, try Irving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 

Pat Hayes

* John Dewey - Experience and Nature - 1925 ( http://www.amazon.com/Experience-Nature-John-Dewey/dp/0486204715 )

* Marshall McLuhan - Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man - 1964 - (http://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Media-Extensions-Marshall-McLuhan/dp/0262631598/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270382776&sr=1-1 ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding_Media:_The_Extensions_of_Man), from the wiki:

McLuhan says that the conventional pronouncements fail in studying media because they pay attention to and focus on the content, which blinds them to see its actual character, the psychic and social effects. Significantly, the electric light is usually not even regarded as a media because it has no content. Instead, McLuhan observes that any medium "amplifies or accelerates existing processes", introduces a "change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action", resulting in "psychic, and social consequences";[2][3] this is the real "meaning or message" brought by a medium, a social and psychic message, and it depends solely on the medium itself, regardless of the 'content' emitted by it.[2] This is basically the meaning of "the medium is the message".

* Neil Postman - Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business - 1985 - (http://www.amazon.com/Amusing-Ourselves-Death-Discourse-Business/dp/014303653X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270382803&sr=1-1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death ) - from the wiki:

The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that "form excludes the content," that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus Rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against by the medium of television for the aforesaid reason. Owing to this shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and "news of the day" becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.
Drawing on the ideas of media scholar Marshall McLuhan — altering McLuhan's aphorism "the medium is the message", to "the medium is the metaphor" — he describes how oral, literate, and televisual cultures radically differ in the processing and prioritision of information; he argues that each medium is appropriate for a different kind of knowledge. The faculties requisite for rational inquiry are simply weakened by televised viewing. Accordingly, reading, a prime example cited by Postman, exacts intense intellectual involvement, at once interactive and dialectical; whereas television only requires passive involvement. Moreover, as television is programmed according to ratings, its content is determined by commercial feasibility, not critical acumen. Television in its present state, he says, does not satisfy the conditions for honest intellectual involvement and rational argument.



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