Associationism in Epistemology

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Associationism = "two things that are relavantly similar become connected in the mind. This connection or association in turn allows knowledge about one to be inferred of the other."


Explanation

By Stephen Downes at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=33034

'associationism', a type of reasoning associated with (until the advent of logical positivism) empirical philosophy and people such as Hume and Mill.

The central idea of associationism is this: two things that are relavantly similar become connected in the mind. This connection or association in turn allows knowledge about one to be inferred of the other. Thus, if we experience one tiger-like creature, and it tried to eat us, then if we see a relevantly similar tiger-like creature, we are led (as hume would say, naturally and senselessly) to believe that it will try to eat us as well. Eventually, a complex of beliefs about tiger-like creatures is formed, and some indeed become strong enough to allow us to contemplate a new (and dangerous) category of entity, given the name 'tiger'.

Various types of associationism exist, from association of impressions postulated by Hume to the similarity of phenomena described by Tversky. Two major types of associationism are relevant to us here:

The first is simple associationism, sometimes known as 'Hebbian associationism', which is postulated to be (and probably is) foundational in the forming of neural connections in the mind (its applicability to the world outside the mind is much less evident). The principle, specifically, is that if two neurons fire at the same time, a connection will tend to be formed between them. This is, of course, an 'all else being equal' hypothesis: the neurons have to be the sort of neurons than can form connections, there needs to be some sort of proximity between them, and they need to be (computationally and physically) compatible with each other. A lot like a love story.

The second may be classified under the (inaccurate) heading of Boltzmann associationism. Derived from the idea of the Boltzman machine, this sort of associationism is an expression of (something like) thermodynamic forces. Think of it as the network attempting to settle into a 'balanced' or 'harmonious' state. The idea behind Boltzman associationism is that a certain amount of energy applied to a system will create a certain amount of kinetics - in other words, your brain goes on thinking even though its not receiving input. In the absence of external influences to cause Hebbian connections, the brain settles into a (thermodynamically) stable configuration.

Whether such modes of associationism, or any other method of connection-forming, is at work within any particular system, is a question for empirical observation. Probably, in any given system, it will be a combination. And as before, in addition to specific connection-building mechansisms, there will be a requirement for enabling factors, such as proximity." (http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=33034)