Scholars probe basic philosophical issues

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-04-28

HANGZHOU—A high-end forum on the theme of “cognition, language, and consciousness” was held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on April 1.

Philosophical foundations

“Cognition, language, and consciousness constitute the foundation of contemporary philosophy,” said Han Shuifa, director of the Institute of Foreign Philosophy at Peking University. Research on these elements spawns mutually connected and independent basic philosophical fields, and is also the inevitable means by which Chinese philosophy can enter world frontiers.

Through Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant proposed building subjectivity upon transcendental knowledge structures, harmonizing Rene Descartes’ rationalism and Francis Bacon’s empiricism, and exerting a far-reaching influence on the development of Western philosophy. Mentioning the opportunity of translating a new edition of Critique of Pure Reason, Han Linhe, a professor from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Peking University, tries to interpret Kant from analytic philosophy. According to Kant’s discussions, the deduction of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is not valid. “I think” itself already contains the meaning “I am.” They are essentially the same, representing semantic repetition rather than deduction. “I think” incorporates definite or indefinite perceptions or experience, and is an empirical statement to some degree.

Intelligence and consciousness

“Intelligence and consciousness are often confused in daily life. Their relationships have once again attracted the attention of philosophers due to advancements in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies,” said Ding Sandong, a professor from the Yuelu Academy at Hunan University.

If we comprehend “intelligence” more or less as active information processing, activity, and response abilities that the most primeval creatures already possess, then all creatures have this form of intelligence, Ding added. The evolutionary history of life on earth has witnessed the emergence of three levels of intelligence. “Level-1 intelligence” denotes what is encoded genetically, while “level-2 intelligence” is learned through experiences. Both level-1 and level-2 intelligences are the products of vast spans of evolutionary time, within previous and present dimensions.

The birth of human languages brings forth “level-3 intelligence,” ushering in the temporal dimension of “future,” Ding noted. With language as a carrier, humans constantly create new thoughts and concepts, and under their guidance invent novel tools, systems, and lifestyles, sharing civilizational fruits across the whole of humanity. By virtue of this intelligence, humans are able to transform natural environments while adapting to them, and forge artificial environments.

In the opinion of Ding, the worldwide-prevailing AI model ChatGPT still works within human natural language in terms of operation and generation, bearing the characteristics of human social and historical culture. Nonetheless, if machine intelligence produces language symbols based on its own social and historical deposits, and continues with symbol creation and evolution at speeds far exceeding humans while subjected to interaction with and screening by the physical world, then such machines will likely develop a “level-3 intelligence” distinct from that of humans. At that time, “artificial intelligence” will merely indicate the ancestor in machine intelligence’s lineage. The nature of the relationship the two existents with “level-3 intelligence” will form is still a mystery.

Structures of consciousness

“Language is the carrier of minds, material shell of consciousness. The generation and development of human languages are powerful engines driving the rich changes of minds,” said Li Zhongwei, a research fellow from the School of Philosophy at Zhejiang University. The essential structure inherent in consciousness lies in its intentionality, namely, “the consciousness of something,” directing it to an object. The essential property of intentions underlies the secrets of humanity’s intellectual freedom, ability to objectively construct knowledge, as well as control and freedom.

Revealing the structures and properties of intentionality of consciousness through reflection can strengthen foundations for further research, Li continued. The generation of human intentionality is a natural result of intellectual and linguistic development. Almost all formed intentions are linguistic, and thoughts and signs are an inseparable whole of meaning. Reflection can help us obtain the intentionality structures and other essential properties of consciousness. However, these descriptions are mostly static. They can display the essential structures of consciousness but can’t unravel their origins.

When reflecting on consciousness, it is also necessary not to take for granted that intention is an inherent feature of human mental life, and thus needs no explanations, just because consciousness already has intentionality structures and other properties. Though intention is, to a certain extent, a structural feature intrinsic to consciousness, the generation of intention is dependent on humans as embodied creatures, the development of language competence, and human sociality. The intentionality of consciousness is, originally and operationally, embodied, linguistic, and social all the time, Li concluded.

The seminar was co-hosted by the Institute of Foreign Philosophy and the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Peking University, as well as the School of Philosophy and the Research Institute of Foreign Philosophy at Zhejiang University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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