Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A short discussion about basic level concepts

I first encountered the idea of basic level categorization from Lakoff and Johnson's "Philosophy in the Flesh". I understand this is not a view held only by these two authors. I am also aware that Eleanor Rosch, perhaps with George Lakoff mentioned here, formulated the Prototype Theory in the early 1970's.

Basic level concepts have been defined by Rosch as: "that level that has the highest degree of cue validity". This has a symbiosis with embodiment. That which we would define as a basic level concept (bird, chair, fruit, child, adult, ...) is done so with relation to our physical relations with said concept. A bird is something which soars above our heads, has legs and feet similiar to our own but skinnier, and has wings in place of our arms. A chair is something we bend our knees to sit down on and then are at a level such that our feet rest on the ground. There is more to it than I have mentioned, but these were used as rudimentary examples.

I originally brought up "Philosophy in the Flesh" because technology and scientific inquiry were described in a manner which was novel to me. Many aspects of technology, maybe even all, were described as our ability to bring more and more structures of the natural world into our realm of basic level concepts.

We have not evolved to directly perceive the celestial bodies of our solar system or the molecular systems of our bodies, but we do perceive them.

I remember the first time I saw Jupiter with a respectable telescope. My first reaction was something like: 'My goodness, I feel like I could reach out and grab it.' This is not an uncommon sentiment. After all, is this not what the powers of technology do for the scientific entrepreneurs? It brings aspects of the world previously unknown to a level where we feel we could 'reach out and grab it'.

Not long after my joy at seeing Jupiter at such an un-natural proximity, I experienced a chilling sensation as I tried to extrapolate what was seen in the telescope to what I knew was actually there.

I now come to the primary point of this post. I am writing this in reaction to the more and more prevalent use of the words 'information' and 'design' in reference to DNA. When studying DNA, scientists use tools to bring this structure to a level where it can be characterized at a basic level. (When I use the term characterize in this post I mean it to be in the cognitive sense not the scientific one.) Once more is known about DNA, it becomes apparent where to look above and below for its causes and affects.

Therefore, whenever an individual uses terms like information and design with reference to DNA, and I say this with all due respect for individuals making this argument, they must remember that they have no direct perception of this structure. What they are speaking of is something that exists only after it has been brought up to their level of perceptual ability. In order to fully know the causes of DNA structure one should bring the lower levels of DNA categorization up to observation. Do not take the small amount of knowledge you have obtained about DNA and fill in the gaps with knowledge you have about people and paintings. People and paintings do not behave in the same manner as DNA. DNA does not even exist in the same perceptual framework as architectures and buildings. Do not stop with the basic level of what you have found. Keep going if you really want to know.

What this effectively means is that a legitimate inference can not be made about DNA using everyday natural basic level concepts. DNA exists in a world where things may very well behave very differently than what we are used to. I say: ‘may’, because I simply do not know. What I do know is that it is folly to assume that the practical knowledge I picked up as a toddler is appropriate to use to analyze the causes of micro-machinery.

I will always be skeptical of individuals who spend more time pronouncing that they know the truth than they spend searching for the truth.