What is possibility?

    In a response to this post by Francis Berger, the commenter Tom uses an analogy which I found quite thought-provoking.  He writes:    

    "What if Shakespeare had invented the English language?  No one would have understood anything he wrote, that's what.  It could be explained in the contex of another language, by taking the persistent elements of that language to explain Shakespeare's new one.  Without that context it would be unintelligible nonesense, and arguably not creative at all. 


    The genius of Shakespeare is not that he invented the English language, but that he understood so well the pre-existing tools he had to work with that he was able to assemble them in brilliant new ways.  So even the combinations no one had heard before his plays, like upstairs, were immediately intelligible."

    In what sense was Shakespeare creative?  In theory his plays are just arrangements of letters, spacing, and punctuation.  This has led to the famous thought-experiment that the text of the plays could be produced by a sufficiently large number of monkeys typing for a sufficient length of time.  


    And besides the text, what about the English language itself?  Is it true that once the rules of the English language and the given words have been set up then speaking and writing are just picking combinations out of this vast universe of possibilities?  

    In terms of speaking and writing, this has been satisfactorily explained by pointing out that when humans make words and sentences, they are choosing to combine letters to communicate meaning.  The meaning is what distinguishes any particular choice of speaking or writing from a random choice out of a universe of possibilities.  This is because, from the perspective of randomly generated text or speech, meaning doesn't come into it.  Even the fact that the words are in English is unimportant when considered purely in terms of permutatination of letters, spaces, and punctuation.  It may as well be permutations of pebbles. 

    But when we go to bigger topics, we have to even go beyond that.  I believe that the model of possibility as actualizing a universe of possibilities that are already "there" is unsatisfactory when coming to terms with creation and free will.  (And this is true whether creation and free will are considered according to the traditional understanding or according to the pluralist understanding).  

    For instance, Leibniz famously believed that God chose to actualize the best of all possible worlds.  But the key word here is "possible".  When we think of possible worlds in practice we think of our world but modified in various ways, great or small.  But what does possible world mean before any worlds are created?  

    Or in terms of free will, choices are sometimes conceived in terms of actualizing prior possibilities.  But then this leads us to strange scenarios like the idea that whenever someone makes a choice, the universe splits and all the choices that weren't made happen in some other universe.  And this comes from the idea that those choices are already "there" before they were made.  While it is true that our actions are already constrained because the world is not made by us, I think there's still something more there.  

    Or also, the idea of the Great Chain of Being as something like a probability distribution of beings where God chooses which beings to actualize and which to leave uncreated.  But then that leaves us in a strange situation: where are these uncreated beings?  In fact, if God does create beings from nothing and it really is nothing, not even His thoughts (if such a thing be possible), then that might be one way that free will comes to exist.  

    In pluralist metaphysics, we are faced with the same issue.  There are an indefinite number of beings, each unique.  (On a side note, I will say that the base assumption of pluralism does not specify the characteristics of these beings; there may be many different genera that they fall into).  But then what governs the characteristics of these beings - is it some sort of prior distribution of being or are all possibilities (whatever that would mean) expressed?  I don't think either of those are satisfactory either.

    The nature of possibility is something that human beings will never fully comprehend, but I believe that it is still worth thinking about.  In order to understand creation and free will at a more fundamental level, we need a better understanding of possibility and in particular, we need to understand what it means for something to be truly new, not just selected from a universe of predetermined possibilities.  

The three stages of Institutions

    In the course of their decline, institutions go through three stages.  In the first stage, institutions are a crystallization of a purpose or goal of a group.  The institution is not separated from the underlying purpose and the understanding of that purpose.  

    In the second stage, the institution becomes dominated by rules.  The formal rules which previously had taken second place to the underlying purpose now take precedence.  This stage is the stage of legalism.  If the original institution was good, those who made the rules were well motivated and further, if the rules themselves are good, clearly stated, and respected, then this stage may not be that bad.  In fact, it may actually have much good.  But the weakness is that when the rules have taken primacy, the institution can be manipulated by changing rules and procedures.  

    If this goes far enough, then we get to the third stage, when the institution is co-opted either to do something different from or even opposed to its original purpose.  In this stage, the rules that previously were interpreted legalistically, but fairly, are now selectively (and dishonestly) interpreted to serve whatever the new agenda.  

    All institutions will not progress through these stages.  Some may be simply be outright destroyed in the first two stages.  Or an institution may be taken immediately over by force rather than gradually.  Or an institution may be revitalized by recovering the original impulse or another purpose before reaching the third stage.   

    However, these three stages are useful because this is the path that the institutions in the West have followed over the past century (with roots going back before this).  

    An example of this in a concrete sense is education.  For most of human history, education was in the first stage.  People learned directly from family or community members or through apprenticeship or through schools that were directly connected to the purpose of passing down knowledge and values.  For instance, schools in which teachers were directly paid by parents to teach children or schools connected to churches such as the Cathedral schools during the Middle Ages.  

    Then in the second stage, education was viewed as a "functional system", eventually becoming a free-floating system such that whatever happens in a building called a school is deemed education.  And finally, we have the current stage where education is increasingly being used for cultural subversion, in direct opposition to its original purpose to pass on culture.      

    In a recent post, Bruce Charlton discusses alternative insitutions and the difficulty of building them under the current circumstances.  If institutions are primarily institutions, then they will only succeed by luck.  In other words, if people believe that rules, procedures, and techniques alone will prevent institutions from being co-opted, then this is a mistake.  Rules, procedures, and techniques can be helpful so long as they are at the service of the original purpose and the people in the institution stay true to that purpose.     

The real AI agenda

    On a post  by Wm Briggs, about artificial intelligence, a commenter with the monniker "ItsAllBullshit" writes:           "...