The Von Neumann Mind: Constructing Meaning

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The homunculus fallacy: attempting to explain understanding in terms of representation begs the question of how that representation is itself understood, leading to infinite regress.

Turn your head to the left, and make a conscious inventory of what you’re seeing. In my case, I see a radiator upon which a tin can painted with an image of Santa Claus is perched; above that, a window, whose white frame delimits a slate gray sky and the very topmost potion of the roof of the neighboring building, brownish tiles punctuated by gray smokestacks and sheet-metal covered dormers lined by rain gutters.

Now turn your head to the right: the printer sitting on the smaller projection of my ‘L’-shaped, black desk; behind it, a brass floor lamp with an off-white lampshade; a black rocking chair; and then, black and white bookshelves in need of tidying up.

If you followed along so far, the above did two things: first, it made you execute certain movements; second, it gave you an impression of the room where I’m writing this. You probably find nothing extraordinary in this—yet, it raises a profound question: how can words, mere marks on paper (or ordered dots of light on a screen), have the power to make you do things (like turning your head), or transport ideas (like how the sky outside my window looks as I’m writing this)? Read more »

Evil and Meaning in Life

“The message is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some of the monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.”


To many religious believers, one of the hardest aspects of maintaining their faith is steeped in mental gymnastics: using the pole of a loving god to leap over the reality of a horrible world. There are many clever and not-so-clever ways that religious people pacify themselves; often, in the most obscure, self-congratulatory way: the creation of Original Sin, free-will, gays, drugs, abortion. The “problem of evil”, as a whole, deserves a special consideration, however, in a way that may be secularised.

ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 17 10.49 The philosopher Susan Neiman has an entire reworking of the history of philosophy with this in mind. Her book, entitled Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy, ignores the usual Cartesian beginnings of modern philosophy. She begins rather with her “first Enlightenment hero”, Alfonso X, king of Castille.

Alfonso, who lived in the 13th century, commissioned several Jews to instruct him in astronomy. One, Rabbi Isaac Hazan, completed what became known as the Tablas Alfonsinas. Years after studying them, Alfonso remarked: “If I had been of God’s counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better.”

Upon Alfonso’s death, his reign fell into ill repute. Commentators used this single sentence as a means to undermine his memory: one spoke about Alfonso’s entire family being struck by lightning and another detailing the “fires of heaven” burning in the king’s bedroom. There were no doubt many reasons for trashing Alfonso, but one reason we can be fairly certain of rests in his heroic blasphemy. Some even suggested that the reason the kingdom faired so poorly arose as a result of that single sentence (or some version of it).

This mattered for one very important reason: a human presumed himself smarter than god. A human saw the fallaciousness of many of god’s designs. Calling god out on an imperfection was the first step toward denying him all together. This Promethean attitude would lead us to take a firmer grasp of reality, an attempt that would begin and build science, and lead to undermining every aspect of religion. It also, however, leaves us searching for answers.

Along with Neiman, many philosophers – like Bryan Magee – have stated their annoyance with colleagues, who appear to take a lax interest in the relation between the world and philosophy. These philosophers’ main criticism is that their colleagues have either lapsed into jargon and technical obscurity about pointless subjects or are simply not interested in public matters. Nigel Warburton describes this stereotype as someone who is excellent at solving logical or abstract puzzles, but can’t boil an egg. Whether this is true or not is not my point here. Its importance rests in how Neiman takes her challenge further.

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