A Physicalist Theory of Ideas

Hewson, Claire and Vogel, Carl (1994). A Physicalist Theory of Ideas. In: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (Deliège, Irène ed.), ESCOM. Centre de Recherche et de Formation Musicales de Wallonie, Liège., Liège, pp. 167–168.

URL: http://www.escom.org/proceedings/ICMPC3_ESCOM2_Lie...


The starting point of this paper is a physicalist assumption extreme enough to unite the realism of situation semantics (Barwise & Perry, 1983) with platonic idealism. We discriminate ideas in the platonic sense of existing independently of any human apprehending them from thoughts which are apprehended or constructed ideas. Apart from the empirically testable consequences of this theory, there are certain implications for theories of emotions and aesthetics of music. For instance, it is an implication of this thesis that music can have an inherent semantic content.

Suppose that everything we can think of has an associated wave form which identifies it uniquely. The mathematically defining aspect of waves is their periodicity. Mathematically, wave functions can be continuous or discontinuous; they need only obey the property that 3p∀n/(n) = f(n + p). P, even if it is real valued, has a discrete quality. It causes the signal to be divisible into clean units of length p, giving a sense of order not present in arbitrary functions (yet, there are as many wave functions as there are functions in general). Order and cyclicity are aspects which people tend to find in the world (later we will discuss how an individual can order some aspects of the world even if it has its own organization). lf people think the cosmos to be a relatively systematic, well-ordered place, it is because it is not comprised of wholly random disturbances. Periodicity is articulated in world views (karma and samsara seem to be manifestations), in popular tastes in fashion, in political opinions, folk psychology (people in fact express affinity for folks who are 'on the same wavelength'), in the seasons, the tides ... the list of cycles is endless. In all its blatant logical inadequacy, the principle argument that justifies the claim that a wave form identifies every idea and object in the universe is that cycles are ubiquitous. The universe is full of things and ideas and the 'noise' that these things and ideas create. Given a chair, we can talk about that chair's unique wave form, and we can talk about the approximation of that wave form to the wave form of the idea of chairness. Objects project wave forms. Ideas are wave forms that exist physically and perceptibly in the universe.

Brain is unique among objects in that it projects wave forms qua object, but it also directly interacts with the waves that it processes. Cognitive agents, particularly, the cerebra of cognitive agents, are mildly imperfect wave form replicators. An agent recognizes an object as the object that it is when it receives the object's wave form, replicates it, and sends it back. Moreover, the receive-replicate process is constitutive of not only the perception of objects, but also the apprehension of ideas: an agent thinks an idea when it receives the wave form which constitutes the idea, replicates it, and projects it back. The incoming wave stimulates the brain to reproduce it, and this is a physical process that occurs with massive throughput. Mild imperfections in the replicated wave form come from the physical nature of the cerebrum. Since the physical structure of no two brains is identical, there are individual differences in perception across humanity. Differences in opinion are caused by the interaction of the received wave form with the totality of wave forms simultaneously
undergoing replication in the individual and with the physical peculiarities of particular brains. This is consistent with the very old argument that thought is constrained by both physical and socio-historical factors. The autonomous role of mind in the receive-replicate-return process is to eliminate dissonance from wave activity while still maintaining activity. Without offering any criteria for detecting dissonance in a wave form, we suppose that some waves are more pleasing than others and that something is more pleasant than nothing (a null signal would be returned when all the waves undergoing thought cancel each other out).

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