Sean Young playing Rachael in Blade Runner, a wistful android thrown in with teeming humanity (1982). Image © Warner Bros.
Postmodernists claim that all of our knowledge, and our entire mindset, ensues from language. Trapped inside the language game, we cannot think without linguistic structures. This philosophical theory condemns us to moral relativism and deprives us of agency outside of the systems that Postmodernists identify. Is this so? Or does language, with its foundations buried in our understanding of time, provide us with a secret trap door? Does time allow us to think outside of language?
Philosophy, Linguistics, Religion. The structure of language derives from our understanding of time. Because we die, we are aware of an end. With that end in mind, we conceive of the future, from there the present, and from there the past. Time is a forward-moving dimension, which has an inevitable end in store for us all. Thus, every word we invent that is associated with 'doing' and 'being' - that is, all verbs - depend on the modalities of time, on the verbal tenses. The philsosopher who is considered the founding father of Temporal Logic as related to the modes of language is Arthur Prior (1941-1969); there are sites devoted to him here and here. There are summaries of the philosophical debates related to Prior's work on tenses here, which remained firmly grounded in his sense that logic and philosophy should derive from reality:
"Much of Prior's work consisted of the tireless exploration of a labyrinth of axiomatic calculi. Yet for him the point of a logical calculus was always that it had a subject matter, be it time, obligation, agency, or even biology, and a concern for philosophical problems never lay far below his theorems. It was the extra-symbolic world that mattered to Prior, not the formal results per se. He wrote: 'Philosophy, including Logic, is not primarily about language, but about the real world. … Formalism, i.e. the theory that Logic is just about symbols and not things, is false. Nevertheless, it is important to “formalise” as much as we can, i.e. to state truths about things in a rigorous language with a known and explicit structure.'"Of course this stance contradicts the Postmodernist approach. Prior's contributions to the logic of time - stemming from his insistence on time as a forward-moving arrow (not a meaningless jumble of chaotic points, or a dimension where all points in time co-exist simultaneously), his focus on reality, and his confidence in language not as a prison, but as a key to metaphysics - all lead to a set of principles that do open that secret door. With Prior in the background, our actions can attain objective value outside our own heads. And true to Prior's convictions, the proof of this lies in the application of his ideas in the real world:
"Applications of Temporal Logic include its use as a formalism for clarifying philosophical issues about time, as a framework within which to define the semantics of temporal expressions in natural language, as a language for encoding temporal knowledge in artificial intelligence, and as a tool for handling the temporal aspects of the execution of computer programs."And further:
"Prior knew something of the potential. He wrote ‘There are practical gains to be had from this study too, for example in the representation of time-delay in computer circuits’... . In Past, Present and Future he remarked concerning logics of discrete time that their usefulness ‘does not depend on any serious metaphysical assumption that time is discrete; they are applicable in limited fields of discourse in which we are concerned only with what happens next in a sequence of discrete states, e.g. in the workings of a digital computer’... . Other logics from the group that he and [Joakim] von Wright pioneered are also finding computational applications, for example epistemic logic in Artificial Intelligence and knowledge-base engineering, and the logic of action in programming theory. It is pleasant to reflect that two major forces in the genesis of these software technologies were Prior's love of ancient and medieval logic and his concern to make conceptual room for freedom of the human will."In other words, the logic Prior developed is being used to create life outside of ours, in the form of artificial intelligence; it provides the necessary temporal logical structures within the fields of computing and informatics. The configuration of non-human intelligence and reactive computer systems depends upon having the ability to complete tasks, learn from that experience, and change as necessary. Yde Venema explains that a machine has to be able to select between operations that are necessary and unnecessary for a multitude of situations. This is called the 'frame problem' from animation - where in a series of frames some parts of an image remain the same, while others change:
"one of the most fundamental contributions that Artificial Intelligence has made to the field of temporal logic, is that of identifying the frame problem. This is the problem of formalizing the properties of an application area that are unaffected by the performance of some action without explicitly summing up all such properties. This problem ... has to be faced by anyone wishing to give a formal account of reasoning about change."Of course, the final line to cross with artificial intelligence is the creation of separate, non-human consciousness. That depends not just on the ability of a machine to cope with and distinguish between a sequence of tasks, or even to respond by adapting after multiple attempts at an action. It depends on a machine's larger comprehension of what those temporal problems, based on rules and axioms that go right back to Aristotle, mean for the machine's own existence.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dust to Dust #1 (2010). © Boom!
What happens when the machine puts two and two together, that is, when it sees that a sequence of actions lead up to experience, and that experience constitutes learning and change, in a sense that ultimately lies beyond itself? What happens if the meanings acquired through these processes become a machine's first terrifying glimpses of love - or death? This brings us to the Recombatants in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner film rendition of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Of course, when we confront androids who fall in love and know they are going to die, we come full circle philosophically, and the androids are in the same quandary we were in at the beginning of the exercise. They become the humans, and we become the androids. Consider the scene where the android Roy confronts his maker, and in an oedipal moment, puts out his eyes, here. Roy's 'Tears in Rain' speech before he dies is here. Boom! reprinted Dick's whole full text novella in illustrated graphic novel format in 2009: preview here.
An android gives its opinion on the problem of death. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dust to Dust #2 (2010). © Boom!
In a sign that these ideas are enjoying a resurgence, Boom! also published an authorized prequel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dust to Dust. That series debuted on May 26, 2010: preview here. Reviews here and here. Both Dick and Scott were speculating on whether the android could escape from its own consciousness. It seems possible, if there is physical proof of an 'other' that somehow inhabits an objective reality.