Whoa, its 2017 ... so what happened to all the millenium problems which were meant to hit us as we entered the 21st century ?
Well, as Robert Anton Wilson has definitively illustrated, the year 2000 was a crowning mark in only one of very many time systems which could have been employed and so there is no real significance attached to it. But anyway let's talk about something completely different (now that I have your attention).
Our concept of concepts is all wrong baby.
Ever since Parmenides declared the world to be a unity and that there was nothing else, it was obvious that binary division would play a large part in theory. And so the riposte came from Democritus that what is not exists too. Neanderthals had of course already grasped the instinctive concept. There was Me-Ape and what was not Me-Ape, food and not-food. Everything can be classified away as either one thing or another.
But recent science has begged to differ. With the advent of chaos theory and discoveries in quantum mechanics, the world is now not the ordered place we thought. In philosophical discussion, structuralism has been replaced by post-structuralism, the academic version of the dreaded po-mo. The binary division supposed to be underlying things has been shown to be ineffective as a tool of analysis, and now we exist in a world full of doubt where we can write our own text. And everything is a text darling.
But what about the way we think ? Who's gonna change that ? We have evolved over the years with binary division drummed in - good / bad, mental / physical, man / woman, North / South, Häagen-Dazs / normal ice scream. But we need to break free and question why Häagen-Dazs is so expensive. And maybe expand our enquiries beyond the frozen goods arena.
Thomas Nagel in a speech to the Royal Institute of Philosophy, which drew a huge crowd with thousands outside howling disappointed and began only after a fire regulations seating fiasco, bored me quite badly. But I fought that sleepy feeling, coz you just can't fall asleep in an environment featuring peers and professors and as I got my second wind I realised that he was talking about how we have got to rejig our mental concepts so as to address better problems in the philosophy of mind.
He's already drawn a useful line to bound potential knowledge by arguing in What is it like to be a bat? that we can never know 100 % the experience of bat-ness because to do so would to be in a very real sense a bat. And then we'd know, but that is impossible, for then we wouldn't be a human possessing this knowledge. Clever huh?
It's not impossible though to build up the knowledge we have now. Even analytic philosophers themselves are beginning to recognise that their subject is in crisis. When I started to write this, there was a poster up in my department inviting philosophers to a conference to address this very problem. Of course nothing will have come of it because they're too trapped in their own reality tunnels to sort it out. However, they're so blinkered that the state of things must indeed be pretty bad if they've noticed.
After years of stagnation in which we want to pretend we're so damn sophisticated and not like animals, perhaps some humility is required and we can accept that we are brute things. We enjoy shagging and get annoyed if we get hungry, so perhaps we haven't got the finely honed technically accomplished brains we give ourselves credit for. Perhaps we still have a way to evolve.
Strange as it may at first seem, the concepts which we use to give meaning to the world seem to be with us at birth, that is, they're innate and all that happens as we grow is that the environment around us triggers them. I know this is ludicrous, I know this is basically Plato's Theory of recollection changed so as to appear scientific, but the evidence is pretty compelling.
Jerry Fodor is an American linguist who is amazed to find that all his research points towards our innate possession of concepts. His theory works along the lines of us having these innate building block concepts which can then be combined in multifarious ways as we progress through life to give us our concepts of things as they pop up. Thus, Fodor claims to pursue "mad-dog nativism" because no-one can refute his arguments. And the more experimental data he come across, the more he is confirmed in his views.
Noam Chomsky, all round good guy, supplies a fine example which you could perform yourself if you were lucky enough to have access to a couple of delightful little kids .....
Get a cardboard box and put one marble inside it and another a bit away from it. Hey presto, it's as simple as that. Next, ask the kids which of the marbles is nearer the box. They will answer that the one you put outside the box is nearer. Ask them why the one actually inside the box is not the nearest and they will screw up their tiny little faces before eventually giving a response along the lines of it being in the box, not near.
All very normal and unremarkable, or so you would think. Chomsky however, takes this as evidence of a sophisticated grasp of a very abstract notion; a three dimensional cube with space inside it that can be filled with many different things, or indeed be left empty, will still be recognised to be a box. This notion of a container thus prevents things inside it being 'near' to it, since there is something absurd about using such a description, which appears to be viewed as a category error.
Just as a French horn cannot sprout flowers because it is in the category of musical instrument, rather than being a plant, so a box is a container and things held within it are trivially near it. All fair enough, I think you'd be inclined to admit, but Chomsky points out that when we model the world we draw 2-D squares or 3-D cubes and find it hard to represent the notion of containment, even though as shown above even at an early age we have an intuitive understanding of a box.
Thus Chomsky concludes, we have an in-built unconscious comprehension of the concept 'box'. Yes this is a weird result, but there simply is no other way to explain the experiment.
Kids from all cultures experience the triggering effect of something in their immediate environment which enables them to recognise a box, but the complexity involved in every person coming to be able to employ such a skill cannot even be modelled by our 'sophisticated' computing knowledge.
We think we have the 'know how' but we don't. I urge researchers to be more humble and open-minded in future. Some nifty cross discipline investigation will reveal steps to be taken. And if philosophers feel inclined to come down from their ivory towers and get their hands dirty, then they are more than welcome.