Scientific and Engineering language within a General Theory of Discourse – Rohan McLeod

Rohan Mcleod Green headshot
We have heard many different notions of what the words: science, philosophy and the term ‘philosophy of science’ mean. No doubt if we consult three different dictionaries we will discover three more., and if we consult Wikipedia yet another.
I would hope that those of you more predisposed to enquiry than debate ;even those with with a science and engineering background, like myself; might ask them selves how is it that scientific and engineering discourse is so clear and philosophy (whatever that may turn out to mean) so plagued with with ambiguity ?

Here is a theory’ which for lack of a better title I have described as a “General Theory of Discourse” followed by an attempt to contextualise scientific and
engineering language within it. There is no attempt here to discriminate between ‘technology’ and ‘engineering’, which is here intended as:
-the whole process of invention, design, construction and development of material and intellectual artefacts.

General Theory of Discourse
[I] As a subject matter becomes more ‘ difficult’; there is a tendency for one’s words to
miss-communicate the intended meaning to one’s listener or reader, due to either:
– obscurity, the word conveys no meaning;
-ambiguity, the word conveys many unintended meanings or
– is misleading, the word conveys one meaning, but not that intended.
[II] A partial list of the ways a subject matter can be more difficult would seem to include:
– complex versus simple;
-general versus particular
– subtle versus obvious
– implicit versus explicit
– subjective versus objective
– what exists versus what should / should not be

So all other things being equal; it would be expected for example, that discussing the location of the local post-office should result in less miss-communication in the above sense than discussing some scientific, philosophical, metaphysical or mystical matter, (speculated order of increasing likelihood of miss-communication)

[III] But of course all other things are not equal; any two people will experience greater or lesser miss-communication, in the above sense depending on both the difficulty of the subject (as above) and what I will term their ‘degree of linguistic commonality’

It is such a common place, that we take it for granted, that if a speaker has only an English vocabulary and the listener only a French one; communication will be difficult or impossible. So the idea arises that there may be other matters about which there also needs to be agreement even though the requirement like French or English is optional ?

Perhaps there is an ordering of such agreements, so that one is prerequisite for the next ? Here is what seems like a partial sequence of such agreements

1/ Is it agreed that words will only be used literally and not metaphorically ? if so;
2/ Is it agreed that responsibility for disambiguation of words rests with speaker, listener
or somewhere in between ? if so;
3/ Is there agreement regarding what words are (ontologically) ?
eg. if they are symbols; what ‘is’ (ontologically) the referent of the symbol ?
if so;
4/ Is there agreement regarding the utility of definitions to the end of clarifying the meaning
of words ? if so;
eg Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus might not have agreed with this
if so;
5/ Is there agreement concerning the linguistic form of definitions ?
eg. Should definitions be:
concise, as in using a minimum number of words ?
precise, as in being as unambiguous as possible ?
exhaustive, as in including all intended usages and excluding all other ?
reductive , as in not using words more as or more complex than that being defined ?
if so;
6/ Is there agreement that the definition doesn’t merely describes an arbitrary category
eg.” It all depends how you define “X”;
if so;
7/ Is there agreement on whether words are not just a natural phenomena but also a
social artefact ;the purpose of which is to convey meaning ?
ie. with the implication that a dictionary definition is not an arbitrary construct;
but should be a hypothesis describing preferred usage within a given demographic;
with the further implication that objective ranking of dictionary definitions becomes
meaningful .
If so;
8/ Is there agreement that in a natural language the category so described is not
arbitrary, as in say a legal definition but that it is an attempt at ontological description ?

-as mentioned this seems like a partial list ; that is further criteria may become evident ;
similarly the ordering is tentative and may require adjustment

It is very important to emphasise:
– that the above is just one path through a binary tree of 2^8 = 256 possibilities , where
progress along each path is only indicative of reduced likelihood of miss-communication.
– that just because there is little likelihood of miss-communication does not mean there will
be substantial agreement between speaker and listener;
eg.I may have substantial reservations regarding the existence of angels but at least;
the theologian and myself; will be communicating;
eg. The positivist philosopher may have substantial reservations regarding the utility of
meditation but again she and the mystic will be communicating.

It is also contended the above path would be typical for speaker / listener pairs;  with a common background in science and / or engineering and whilst the subject matter
was limited to scientific and engineering matters. It becomes clear then why such communication is so void of semantic confusion; namely because objective falsification
has imposed very strict constraints on:
-what the desired linguistic form of definitions are considered to be ;
-what the definitions of common terms will be:
eg mass, length, time, energy…..etc.
In some ways the program of positivism and analytic philosophy can be seen as a hope  to eliminate the ambiguity and miss-communication so common in much Greek and
Continental Philosophy. This procrustian .approach seems to have the unfortunate collateral result of excluding most subjects of interest in philosophy; eg ethics, ideology, epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, mystical and spiritual experience

The Revolutions of Scientific Structure – Colin Hales

colin hales orange bg“The Revolutions of Scientific Structure” reveals an empirically measured discovery, by science, about the natural world that is the human scientist. The book’s analysis places science at the cusp of a major developmental transformation caused by science targeting the impossible: the science of consciousness, which was started in the late 1980s by a science practice that cannot, in principle, ever succeed. This impossible science must fail, not because it is malformed, but because it cannot deliver to engineers what is needed to build artificial consciousness.

The book formally reveals how fully expressed scientific behaviour actually has two faces, like the Roman god Janus. Currently we only use one face, the ‘Appearance-Aspect’ and it is measured and properly documented by the book for the first time. Where some scientists accidentally use the other, the two faces are shown to be confused as one. There are actually two fundamental kinds of ‘laws of nature’ that jointly account for the one underlying natural world. The recognition and addition of the second kind, the ‘Structure-Aspect’, is the book’s proposed transformation of science.

The upgraded framework is called ‘Dual Aspect Science’ and is posited as the adult form of science that had to wait for computers before it could emerge a fully formed butterfly from its millennial larval form that is single (appearance)-aspect science. Only ‘Structure-Aspect’ computation can scientifically reveal the principles underlying the nature of consciousness — in the form of the consciousness that is/underlies scientific observation. While this outcome ultimately affects all scientists, initially only neuroscience and physics are those that, together, have the responsibility for the empirical work needed for the introduction of Dual-Aspect science. This is not philosophy. This is empirical science.

More information on this title can be found at: .

Document of presentation available here:

Abstract: Logic and Rationality; Disagreement and Evidence – Greg Restall

gregrestall_1289488138_34The resurgence of fact talk in political and public discourse — primarily seen in the rise of so-called “fact-checking” websites—is welcome phenomenon, but what does it signify, and why should we welcome it? I’ll attempt to explain how care and attention to talk of facts and reasons can play a vital role in our public discourse, even in the midst of significant differences in matters of public policy or private opinion.
Greg Restall is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Queensland in 1994, and has held positions at the Australian National University and Macquarie University, before moving to Melbourne in 2002. His research focuses on formal logic, philosophy of logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of language, and even some philosophy of religion. He has published over 80 papers in journals and collections, and is the author of three books, An Introduction to Substructural Logics (Routledge, 2000), Logic (Routledge, 2006), and Logical Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2006; with Jc Beall). His research has been funded by the Australian Research Council, and he is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

See the slides for the presentation here:

Life, Knowledge and Natural Selection – How Life (Scientifically) Designs its Future – Bill Hall

Bill HallStudies of the nature of life, evolutionary epistemology, anthropology and history of technology leads me reluctantly to the conclusion that Moore’s Law is taking us towards some kind of post-human singularity. The presentation explores fundamental aspects of life and knowledge, based on a fusion of Karl Popper’s (1972) evolutionary epistemology and Maturana and Varela’s (1980) autopoietic theory of life to show that knowledge and life must co-evolve, and that this co-evolution leads to exponential growth of knowledge and capabilities to control a planet (and the Universe???). The initial pace, based on changes to genetic heredity, is geologically slow. The addition of the capacity of living cognition for cultural heredity, changes the pace of significant change from millions of years, to millennia. Externalization of cultural knowledge to writing and printing increases the pace to centuries and decades. Networking virtual cultural knowledge at light speed via the internet, increases the pace to years or even months. In my lifetime I have seen the first generation digital computers evolve into the Global Brain.

As long as the requisites for live are available, competition for limiting resources inevitably leads to increasing complexity. Through most of the history of life, a species/individuals’ knowledge was embodied in its dynamic structure (e.g., of the nervous system) and genetic heritage that controls the development and regulation of structure. Some vertebrates evolved sufficient neural complexity to support the development of culture and cultural heredity. A few lineages, such as corvids (crows and their relatives), and two largely arboreal primate lineages (African apes and South American capuchin monkeys) independently evolved cultures able to transmit the knowledge to make and use increasingly complex tools from one generation to the next. Hominins, a lineage of tool-using apes forced by climate change around 4-5 million years ago to learn how to survive by extractive foraging and hunting on grassy savannas developed increasingly complex and sophisticated tool-kits for hunting and gathering, such that by around 2.5 million years ago our ancestors replaced most species of what was originally a substantial ecological guild of large carnivores.

Tools extend the physical and cognitive capabilities of the tool-users. In an ecological sense, hominin groups are defined by their shared survival knowledge, and inevitably compete to control limiting resources. Competition among groups led to the slow development of increasingly better stone and organic tools, and a genetically-based cognitive capacity to make and use tools. Homo heidelbergensis, that split into African (H. sapiens), European (Neanderthals), and Asian (Denisovans) some 200,000 years ago evolved complex linguistic capabilities that greatly increased the bandwidth for transmitting cultural knowledge. Some 70,000 years ago H. sapiens (“humans”) exited Africa to spread throughout Eurasia and quickly replace all other surviving hominin lineages. By ~ 50,000 years ago humans were making complex tools like bows and arrows, which put a premium on the capacity to remember the rapidly increasing volume of survival knowledge. At some point before the end of the last Ice Age, mnemonic tools were developed (“method of loci”, “songlines”) to extend the capacity of living memory by at least one order of magnitude and some 10,000 years ago as agriculture became practical in the “Fertile Crescent” monumental theaters of the mind (such as Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge) and specialized knowledge management guilds such as the Masons provided the cultural capacity to enable the Agricultural Revolution. 7-4,000 years ago technologies for writing and the use of books and libraries enabled storing and sharing of cultural knowledge in material form external, facilitating the emergence of empires and nation-states.
Around 550 years ago printing enabled the mass production of books and widespread dissemination of bodies of knowledge to fuel the Reformation, Scientific and Industrial revolutions. Around 60 years ago the invention of the digital computer increasingly externalized cognitive processes and controls over other kinds of tools. Databases, word processing and the internet developed over the last ~30 years enabled knowledge to be created in the virtual world and then shared globally at light speed. Personal technologies developed in the last 10 years (e.g., smartphones) are allowing the emergence of post-human cyborgs. Moore’s Law of exponential growth suggests the capacity for a few orders of magnitude more before we reach the outer limits of quantum computing.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Slides available here:



The Shaky Foundations of Science: An Overview of the Big Issues – James Fodor

James Fodor 2013Many people think about science in a fairly simplistic way: collect evidence, formulate a theory, test the theory. By this method, it is claimed, science can achieve objective, rational knowledge about the workings of reality. In this presentation I will question the validity of this understanding of science. I will consider some of the key controversies in philosophy of science, including the problem of induction, the theory-ladenness of observation, the nature of scientific explanation, theory choice, and scientific realism, giving an overview of some of the main questions and arguments from major thinkers like Popper, Quine, Kuhn, Hempel, and Feyerabend. I will argue that philosophy of science paints a much richer and messier picture of the relationship between science and truth than many people commonly imagine, and that a familiarity with the key issues in the philosophy of science is vital for a proper understanding of the power and limits of scientific thinking.

Slides to the presentation available here:

Ashley Barnett

Abstract: Skepticism and the Psychology of Magic – Ashley Barnett

Ashley BarnettOur brain’s simulation of the external world, our conscious experience, is often wrong. Optical illusions demonstrate how our perception of objects can be mistaken. Analogously, magic tricks are cognitive illusions that vividly illustrate how our perception and understanding of events can go awry.  Thanks to recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists we know under what circumstances magic tricks are effective and how we can get better at working out how they are done.  The psychological principles at work are general ones, so understanding them can help us be appropriately skeptical of our observations and to reduce error.




Ashley Barnett is a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He teaches critical thinking and researchers how people can improve their critical thinking skills. Most recently he worked on an experimental course for IARPA, the main research body of the US intelligence community. His online course is available at .  He also performs as a stage magician – see

Abstract: Can Religion Accommodate Science and Must Science Accommodate Religion? – John Wilkins

wilkins_picIt is often said that some or all of science and religion conflict with each other, and that one must choose between them. In this talk John Wilkins will look at how science and religion interact, and show that the issues are more complex and subtle than often claimed.

What is the relationship between religion and science, if we accept that science is our best way of knowing about the natural world? Can science accommodate religion, or does religion need to adapt to science even when core beliefs are challenged? Dr Wilkins, who has written on the issue online and in print for over 25 years, will explore this issue and present a solution.


John Wilkins is a historian and philosopher of biology, especially evolutionary biology, and has published the standard history of the idea of species in biology. He blogs at Evolving Thoughts.