From Ants Drawing Pictures of W.C. to Brains in Vats

Suppose you watch an ant on your favorite beach and as it moves about it makes a line in the sand. Slowly, gradually the lines come together and form a picture of Winston Churchill.

Has the ant, in fact, drawn, traced or crawled the face of Winston Churchill? Or is it an accident?

Now, you look closely at the ant and see that Antman is riding it like a horse, directing it.

Is it now a picture that refers to or represents Winston Churchill?

As many of you already know, this is just a rewording of Putnam’s opening argument in Reason, Truth, and History, but I’m curious to see how people answer the question before presenting the rest of the argument and for the problems of reference.

Some people can look at a dirty window and say that they see a clear picuture of Mary holding the baby Jesus. So, one can look at your ant in the sand and claim the outline is that of Winston Churchill.

As for Antman. If I thought I saw that, I would promise myself to give up drinking.


You know, sometimes I think we are like that ant.
We do great things and we marvel at them unaware that there may be an Antman using us as a vehicle to do his great deeds. What if everything we are doing or have ever done… me writing this post… you reading it… Hitler rising to power… what if that’s not because there was a ‘will’ or an ‘intent’ on our part (our meaning humanity)…what if it were all because of Antmen, riding us like horses, making us do what they please.

The question I’d ask is whether or not the ant depends on Antman. Can it indeed make a picture of Winston Churchill on its own if it wanted to? Can it even want without Antman?

You can play around so much with that idea… but ill just stop there… or maybe i should say… My Antman is gunna have me move on to something else now. yeehaw :sunglasses:

Kennethamy wrote:

Yes, people do that. But the point of the thought question is whether intent is necessary for it to be meaningful. People ascribe intent (a miracle of God) to that dirty window so the example doesn’t apply.

I guess you’ve never read old Marvel comics. I’ve seen Antman (and I’m not going to stop drinking). Though, actually, when I wrote that I was thinking about an old Saturday Night Live skit (John Belushi was the Hulk). :slight_smile:

So we don’t intend to do things? How does such a thought work in practice?

Nice move.

Yeah, but it’s still the same thing as the dirty window scenario. You’re still inscribing intent to something else. Intent doesn’t disappear, it’s just reassigned.

And to someone who is a few centimeters tall.

I would say if an ant drew a convincing portrait of Winston Churchill, that would be an example of genuine accident but I guess miracles can happen.

If it is a genuine accident then I would argue that it cannot also be a miracle. It’s highly unlikely that the ant would draw it but if it does it’s just an improbability not a miracle. Still that’s wavering off the point slightly…

It’s interesting that many people are more interested in finding aways to ascribe intent than in asking whether the picture actually refers to W.C. Honestly, I hadn’t expected that. Putnam’s answer is that, after a little thought, we would not say that it was a picture of Winston Churchill but a genuine accident. a fluke, or an anomaly. I did think many might have taken the ‘postmodern,’ hyperindividualist route and state that intent is irrelevant to your interpretation, that you can let it be whatever you think it to be.

So, we have three ways of looking at the interpretation:

  1. Ants can’t know who Winston Churchill was so it can’t be a picture of W. C., it’s an accident, a mistake to associate the picture with the man.

  2. Ants, through some mysterious force as being directed by a higher power – Antman, aliens, God – can either know who W.C. is or at least be a tool of someone who can know who W.C. is so that it is a picture of W.C…

  3. It doesn’t matter if the ant knows W.C. or not, this is what I see. The truth value is irrelevant to my interpretation as nobody really knows, can ever know, an ant’s, an author’s, or the world’s intent.

‘1.’ is Putnam’s answer and since no one has really committed himself to that answer (except me but that may be just because Putnam immediately answers the question on the first page and I want to follow his argument).

‘2.’ and ‘3.’ get you into some problems however.

A long time ago, in a country far away (for me), I took a class on Milton and I remember it quite fondly. In one class, we were discussing the war in Heaven between God and Satan in Paradise Lost, God wins the war by arriving on the scene in a chariot that moved by itself and fired lightning into Lucifer’s army.

My professor said, “Now, read that, what is it? What is it? It’s a tank!”

And there is a book written during WWII that says Paradise Lost is an allegory of WWII. I’ll look up the reference if anybody’s interested.

It’s a great way of putting it, but nobody really, even for a moment, actually believed that Milton had knowledge of real tanks. However, if you accept ‘2.’, and Milton would have, then Milton’s description is that of a tank because he was directed by God. He actually does this in his description of Lycidas by the way, claim that the poem actually predicted the future.

In ‘3.’ the whole point is rhetorical. It is speculative and I would defend such readings for their entertainment and interest, even in their ability to generate new thoughts, but the question avoids asking a very real question:

Do you believe it?

Do you believe Milton intended the description of the chariot to be read as a description of a tank?

I don’t. If you do, and if asked the question, “Why do you believe it?” It seems that you necessarily have to fall back on ‘2.’. A ‘postmodernist’ (I know, I know, I’ve been called a postmodernist, but that’s only because I defend writers who don’t actually say anything like the description I’ve given above, many just think they do. I’m using ‘postmodernism’ as the caricature presented by its detractors and not referring any writer in particular.).

The standard response to this is, perhaps with an ironic, half-smile, “Who knows?”

But that is waffling. Belief is not saying the same thing as it’s possible. Indeterminacy in language does not mean some things aren’t just wrong. If you do believe it, you have to offer an explanation for why. (Many at this point, might say, no I don’t, I don’t care what you believe, I just know what I believe), and this comes out as soon as you deal with something of significance, of importance.

‘3.’ is only possible when there isn’t anything that you really care about. When you do care, it matters a lot, and that is why Milton literary studies has never taken the ‘tank’ hypothesis very seriously.

Brad, up until your last post i would have thought that you were taking this topic in a different direction. i thought it had to do with what made us human. i’ll give you my response anyways to your first ant picture.

first, the ‘brain in vats’ part of the title reminded me of a daniel dennet example for the conception of the self…does this relate to anything?

anyway, the ant did not deliberatly draw the picture of winston churchill because a quintessential human behaviour is the abilty to be creative. this invovles using an immagination, picturing what one is about to do, and then performing this action. the ant simply was moving, without regard to the pattern it was forming.

i’m not too sure what is Antman. a person? if so, then yes, the picture of winston is deliberate and is a true picture. if not, then the image is just a bunch of strachings in the sand, meaningless.

your last post suggests the role of interpertation a reader/viewer should carry in the studied piece. going by judging the intent of the artist seems to be a valid standard. the ant doesn’t have artistic intent, milton doesn’t have any intent to foreshadow modern warfare in his works.
as a post-script, literary students can still accept the parell between the chariot and a tank as an (arguable) example for milton’s impart on history.

Trix, I might very well agree with you but I feel that there is art even in habit, and whether it is programmed behavior or not, it still must be looked at as somewhat of a habit. The ant (the over-ground visible ones, i.e. the soldier or gatherer ants) has a particular habit of motion that although it is quite irregular has a purpose that is quite efficient for both self-defense and for covering a good deal of surface area.

Let’s try this again, have you ever stared up the clouds and seen pictures in the clouds themselves, the game kind of thing, you know, where you say you see this and another person tries to see the same thing.

Are the pictures there? Are they in your head? Does it matter?


No, I really wasn’t concerned with defining humanity. What I wanted to do was show that intent and reference are important for meaning and that the ‘brains in vats’ idea is actually incoherent (and so is the Matrix) as a description of reality as a result. But it’s taken and unsuspected turn.

We ascribe meaning to the appearance of the clouds, but the structure of the clouds themselves are devoid of inherent meaning, ie. like being the face of Hitler.

I their anything not devoid of inherent meaning?

Hegel would say that history used the chosen ant to realise the image…

All this means is that the causality from the beginning of time led the ant to creating that face, not that the ant intended to inscribe that specific image.

I will rewrite this to better understand (since there is two negative statements) it to:

Is there anything that has inherent meaning.

I see where your going with this, in a grand scheme of things and being a staunch determinist/atheist/materialist, I don’t think anything has inherent meaning, but I was using it in the loose sense of meaning that certain objects are created for a purpose and so is designed with meaning inscribed into them, like a carpenter creating a chair. The chair’s inherent meaning is wrapped up in the function designated to it by its creator.

So you’re saying that if by chance all humans died tomorrow, all the chairs that we made would still have the meaning the designer intended?

I dislike the definition of inherent meaning as “created for a purpose”. I would argue that it’s not the purpose involved in it’s fabrication that gives it meaning, but the continued valuation of those that use it. Which would do away with notions of “inherent meaning”.

Sure, it would just become latent.

I would have to disagree, because if a chair is forgotten in a basement it doesn’t cease to have inherent meaning because no one is using it and evaluating it as being a chair.

Its like when archaeologists discover ancient tools and can’t quite figure out what they were used for, but they know that it has some sort of latent meaning, or like Stonehenge or any other structure built for a purpose that has been forgotten.

Let me propose another thought experiment. What if instead of a face, the ant creates a circle in the sand. Is the circle not a circle? And, a related question, is the ant only an ant because that’s what it intends to be?
I think questions like these lend credence to something having creator independent meaning. But that’s not to say that a drawing of W.C. done by an artist and one done by an ant mean the same thing, but rather that meaning is not all or nothing.

I’m not sure I follow, the meaning that stonehenge had is lost on humanity, but you maintain that it still has “inherent meaning”(whatever it was designed for), and this is proven by the fact that we know that it was used for something, meaning we know that at one time it was meaningful. What I don’t follow is that if it had “inherent meaning”, wouldn’t we be able to tell right away exactly what it was used for. This might not be an argument against “inherent meaning”, but it certainly isn’t an argument for it.

If inherent meaning means self evident, then I agree with you and withdraw my meaning, but if inherent meaning doesn’t mean self evident, then I stand by my reasoning.

I don’t think ants have intentions and an ant doesn’t have inherent meaning. If the ant was genetically engineered from scratch (ie. none of the DNA was borrowed from another organism) and designed for a specific purpose, maybe to irrigate the root system of plants, then the ant would have inherent meaning.

And the circle created is still a circle, just like a rock is still a rock, even if an ant carves it into a sphere on accident. It might be a spherical rock, but its still a rock.

Its the different between inherent meaning and attributable meaning. The latter meaning that we see something in nature and then attribute a meaning to it without reformulating it. Like if we sit on a rock shaped accidentally in the form of a stool, the rock isn’t a stool just because someone used it as one, it is once a person looks at the rock and says, this is now a stool that it becomes a stool, notice in this instance the stool was merely created by the creator in attribution.

I don’t want to formulate meaning as having two possible aspects. If I make a scultpture, say, and I also use it as a coat rack, it has multiple meanings for me. And if someone asks me “what’s that?” and I say “it’s a sculpture,” how does its meaning as a sculpture relate to its meaning as a coat rack?

And do you mean to say that the ant has drawn a picture of Winston Churchill?

And Brad, when are you going to turn this into a BIV discussion? That’s where the money’s at.