My own specialty is A.I., but I figure this is an essentially philosophical topic. The existence of patterns and of change, or, said differently, of continuous change at multiple levels of abstraction, in space or in time, seems (to me) to be the basic prerequisite underlying much of machine learning. Without patterns or without change, there is nothing to learn and no reason to learn. This of course leads to questions such as: why are there patterns rather than none (e.g. galaxy clusters, galaxies, star systems, forests, species, communities; re-usable skills, generalization between images, etc.); what's a pattern anyway; is this a characteristic of the world or our perception; etc.

I'm looking for work that focuses on these specific topics. That might include philosophical work, but also work in mathematics or physics or information theory that formalizes the issue satisfactorily. I figured philosophy was the most general starting point, and I'd like to find very general thinking on the issue, hence my asking this question here.

As far as I know, philosophy of AI is largely still "stuck" on completely different questions that stem from a logicist approach to A.I.; and reflexions based on connectionism do not seem to be nearly as sophisticated.

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    Great question! I'm on the move right now, but you might want to look at integrated information theory. It's getting big in philosophy of mind (I think Tononi has a forthcoming in Mind or Phil Review?).
    – commando
    Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 14:53
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    Two suggestions; 1) Have you read chaos theory? If not, a good starting book is "Chaos: Making a New Science" by James Gleick and 2) "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter has other later books which tie into AI, but the first is a classic. Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 14:56
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    See Michael Resnik's "Mathematics as a Science of Patterns" (either the book or the two articles if you have access). In general, structuralism in the philosophy of mathematics might be of interest to you. Stewart Shapiro would be another big figure there.
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 4:46
  • @commando: I'll take a look, but I'm a bit wary of discussions on consciousness, which are rarely related to practical AI progress. The wikipedia page you linked to presents the structure and compositionality of experience as axioms. But this is precisely something that I'd like to see discussed in depth, not assumed.
    – tom_q
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 10:54
  • @Dennis: this sounds very interesting! My knowledge of the philosophy of mathematics is very limited, but this should be next after Benacerraf and Putnam's "selected readings".
    – tom_q
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 10:59

1 Answer 1


I would think that Whitehead would be what you want. From Wikipedia...

Beginning in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Whitehead gradually turned his attention from mathematics to philosophy of science, and finally to metaphysics. He developed a comprehensive metaphysical system which radically departed from most of western philosophy. Whitehead argued that reality consists of processes rather than material objects, and that processes are best defined by their relations with other processes, thus rejecting the theory that reality is fundamentally constructed by bits of matter that exist independently of one another.[18] Today Whitehead's philosophical works – particularly Process and Reality – are regarded as the foundational texts of process philosophy.

The notion of "process" is just another word for change.

In Whitehead's view, then, concepts such as "quality", "matter", and "form" are problematic. These "classical" concepts fail to adequately account for change, and overlook the active and experiential nature of the most basic elements of the world. They are useful abstractions, but are not the world's basic building blocks.[86] What is ordinarily conceived of as a single person, for instance, is philosophically described as a continuum of overlapping events.[87] After all, people change all the time, if only because they have aged by another second and had some further experience. These occasions of experience are logically distinct, but are progressively connected in what Whitehead calls a "society" of events.[88] By assuming that enduring objects are the most real and fundamental things in the universe, materialists have mistaken the abstract for the concrete (what Whitehead calls the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness").[76][89]

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). Process and Reality, Macmillan, New York.
Whitehead, Alfred North. "Process and Reality corrected edition", Griffin, David Ray and Sherburne, Donald W., The Free Press, New York (Kindle Edition)

You'll also find more at


... process philosophy regards change as the cornerstone of reality...

There's even:

The Center for Process Studies was founded in 1973 by John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin to encourage exploration of the relevance of process thought to many fields of reflection and action


  • Dang, you beat me to Whitehead. But it might pay to take only a half-step into wooly formlessness that is Process-philosophy. 'Science and the Modern World' is a bit more comprehensible, and introduces the focus on 'organism', which is easier to grasp than 'process' because it is still an object -- even though each level of organism is defined by the boundary around its own self-maintenance process -- so the two are ultimately equivalent.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 4:26
  • Thank you! Given the type of question (reference request) and its vagueness, it's unlikely that any answer will be exhaustive. I'll accept this answer in a week, waiting a bit in hope that I'll get some extra answers.
    – tom_q
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 9:24

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