Your red isn't my red! Connectionist Structuralism and the puzzle of abstract objects (draft)


This draft preprint presents a nine step argument for “Connectionist Structuralism” (CS), an account of the ontology of abstract objects that is neither purely nominalist nor purely platonist. CS is a common, often implicit assumption in parts of the artificial intelligence literature, but such discussions have not presented formal accounts of the position or engaged with metaphysical issues that potentially undermine it. By making the position legible and presenting an initial case for it, we hope to support a constructive dialogue between AI researchers and philosophers of metaphysics that helps both sides to refine the position. CS proposes that each abstract object we can draw on in human analysis corresponds to a particular subset of an individual person’s brain structure whose functionality is isomorphic to a subset of the nodes and connections in a suitable connectionist network. In other words, abstract objects are physically realised, but in individual brains, rather than only in the referent objects (pure nominalism) or in metaphysical universals (pure platonism). This paper’s minimum claim is that CS can account for all abstract object predicables regarding sensible properties, such as “is red” or “is a square”. Using evidence from cognitive neuroscience, machine learning, and evolutionary biology, as well as a fully traceable toy example, we describe how CS can support our core cognitive uses of such sensible properties and can account for our core phenomenal experiences of them. In the former, CS provides sufficient albeit imperfect inferential safety, whose limitations are argued to strengthen rather than weaken the case for CS as describing human behaviour. In the latter, four target phenomenal features are accounted for – abstract objects as feeling intangible, non-located, transparent, and unchanging - along with accounts for further phenomena such as semantic refinement, the Stroop effect, synaesthesia, semantic clarity, sensory overload, and satiation. Our minimum claim concerns the day-to-day usage and felt experience of abstract objects, but we suggest also an extended claim in which CS can form the basis of a pragmatic sufficient logic. As such, the initial outline of a response is provided for five common objections to positions that seek to ground abstract objects without reference to metaphysically stand-alone universals: referential opacity; identity of indiscernibles; infinite regression; non-physical concepts; and necessary truths. These outlines lay the foundation for (but do not seek to formally demonstrate) an extended CS account that addresses other abstract objects, including issues relating to their use in mathematics and formal logic. The CS account leads to a four-layer hierarchy of similarity for whether your “red” is the same as mine. Considering both semantic and phenomenal similarity, we conclude that our “reds” are likely non-identical but can be made close enough for practical purposes. Finally, we describe how future work could elaborate CS as a metaphysical project and how confidence in it could be tested through empirical research.

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