Friday, April 21, 2006

Another Wittgenstein Essay

Wittgenstein's notion of "language games" compares favorably with the emergent notion of "namespaces" in computer science: in order to disambiguate and avoid gratuitous "name collisions" we must specify the context, using a notation for doing so.

Thusly, what language community A means by 'ego' or 'syndicate' might be distinguished from meanings in community B, much as we distinguish fiction or philosophy titles. A lion in Narnia needn't be the spitting image of Nietzsche's lion in Zarathustra or Wittgenstein's in the PI or whatever, even if there's a family resemblance.

"A failure to recognize context" might be the epitaph carved in the cold stone over the grave of AI, which overpromised and never delivered. But humans netted a lot of useful spin-offs from that push nevertheless, including this "namespaces" business, which may be used to formalize and manage machine world, even if the machines aren't really aware of them on their own.

Wittgenstein's genius was to show that these namespaces aren't just vague fuzzy blobs, as if a context were like an atmosphere or gas (don't just accept such images, question them). Rather, we're talking about intricate machinery, finely tuned clockworks in many cases. So the insight was closer to Einstein's, about the relativity of coordinate systems, even if there's some elemental grammar connecting them all (so-called "constants of nature" and so on).

Per some earlier posts to this list, I think Wittgenstein's later philo is being quite properly appropriated by pragmatic engineer types looking for ways to untangle ostensibly at-odds rule-based cultural practices.

We're able to collaborate at a high level, on such technologies as TCP/IP, so let's take it to the next level. Religious discourse especially might be less violence-prone once informed by this science of namespaces (aka "forms of life"). Religion plus a stronger computer science equals a less rancorous and hostile memepool, or that's the fond hope at least.

As a Friendly delegate to the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town in 1999, I've long taken an interest in what philosophy might do to diffuse religious tensions, so it's small wonder that I'm seeing ways to deploy Wittgenstein to the front lines in this context. He's quite effective in battle, and not unfriendly to more Asian patterns of thought.

Related reading:  "Language Game" as a Philosophical Term (December, 2013)