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On the Philosophy of Taxi Driving

File:London taxi (2847060661).jpg

If you enter a taxi and tell the driver where you want to go, you can just lean back and relax. The driver will do the rest. He will decide a route to go and drive along that route. He will take care of avoiding collisions with other cars, with bikes or pedestrians. He will turn the steering wheel and press the pedals etc. The only additional thing you have to do is to pay and get off.

So the passenger, while in the cab, resides in a world that contains his place of departure and his destination, and to get to that destination, he gives a simple command, later the driver tells him they have arrived and how much he has to pay. His world is simple.

The world of the driver, on the other hand, contains the gas pedal, the steering wheel, the other cars outside, the streets, crossings and roundabouts, red lights, traffic signs and traffic rules and many other items. It is a lot more complex than the world of the passenger.

The driver, in turn, operates the car through a relatively simple interface, consisting or steering wheel, gear lever, some pedals and some switches. This user interface connects him to a system consisting of mechanical, electric and (in more modern cars) electronic and software components. The passengers request, let’s say “Regent’s Park, please”, is translated by the driver into movements of the different controls. These translate it again into electronic signals, electrical currents, chemical processes of combustion and mechanical movements. If we take a closer look at the microprocessors and the software running on them, we would find a hierarchy of programs running each on top of the services of the ones below, with a level of programs operating the hardware that are called “drivers”, a term probably coined with a car driver in mind.

On the interfaces from passenger to driver and from driver to car, from high level software to low level software and to hardware, the components or concepts in terms of which the whole process can be described are changing. The language of description is changing. Moreover, processes and objects on one level may be hidden to an observer or user on another level, thus presenting a simplified view of the system. The underlying system emulates a simpler system and presents a “world” consisting of simpler objects with simpler properties and “controls” of interaction.

I am calling the transition from one conceptual world to another an “ontological transit”. Some system (a “driver”, and here I mean the term not in the narrow technical sense of computer technology or cab driving) creates a simplified view of the system enabling it to be observed or operated in terms of a different language. On the “passenger’s” level, objects exist that might not exist or have a different structure and meaning on the level below the “driver”. One may think of the driver as creating an as-if-construction, constructing a new world of objects from different “underlying” ones, a relationship that could also be called “emulation”. When the passenger looks out of the cab and sees a bus, there is something in his brain translating red dots into the image of a bus and maybe a thought like “there is a bus”. We can think of each concept shaping his or her perception this way as a “driver”, something like a piece of software translating a world of pixels into a world of objects.

If we take a closer look at the cab driver, we might notice that some of the things that seemed to constitute his world are actually out of his consciousness most of the time. He will operate most of the car’s controls automatically. So there is something like a passenger-driver-interface inside his brain as well. He does not have to think about pressing the gas pedal or switching the gear. He will do it automatically. In a way, he might even experience the car as an extension of his body. And he does not have to think about moving his arm or hand or finger. He will not be aware of the single muscles involved in those movements and of the nerves that send the signals to them from the brain. He will not be aware of the processing of the primary signals from his eyes and ears into a three dimensional experience containing cars, pedestrians and traffic signs, something that might appear as raw sense data to him but actually is already the result of complex computations.

And he will not be aware of the chemical processes inside his nerves and muscle cells, of all the organelles and enzymes, the reactions of molecules, of the citric acid cycle and the RNA transcription at his ribosomes and all the other processes of his metabolism, nor of the exchanges of electrons and protons involved and the processes underlying these on the atomic and sub-atomic level. This may be described as a number of layers of description each constituting a different “world” of objects, properties and processes.

The taxi arrives. “Regent’s Park, sir, 5 pounds 20”.

(The picture is from

9 thoughts on “On the Philosophy of Taxi Driving

    • The basic ideas here are actually common in computer science. Programs are built from components and the complexities are hidden in those components, providing simple interfaces to the outside. But I think these ideas can be employed to built up some kind of ontology (not in the metaphysicla sense). An example: on a computer’s hard disk, you have tracks divided into segments or blocks. Some of them contain meta-information. The file system (a program or set of programs) interprets that meta-information. Applications of the file system are then residing in an environment that does not consist of tracks and blocks (these are invisible) but of files and folders. Here you have such an ontological transition. On the low level of tracks or even magnetized particles, you will not be able to understand what the computer is doing, except you look into the disk driver software. Similarly, you will not understand much about the human mind by looking at the neurons. I think there are emulated levels of mental processes that can be understood without looking at the neuronal level (just as you can understand the software of a computer without looking at the electronic level) and that you will not understand by looking at the neurons.

      • i agree – seems i’ve run across some terminologies that are helpful in this regard – either via Paul Kockelman, Jay Lemke, or Andy Clark/Mark Bickhard – those who discuss cross-scaled behaviors and influences. I think it might be Kockelman whose work is quite amenable to this “ontological transition” lingo and I think it a possibly very useful tool spreading across disciplines. There are linguistic, perspectival, scale, discourse “shifters” that consistently alter “what we are talking about,” experiencing, or investigating…it seems. Eager to hear more on this

        • This sounds very interesting, Can you try to find the exact names of the books or articles you have in mind. I am sure there are some authors who have developed similar ideas to my own and your hints could make it much easier for me to do a systematic research of the literature that might be relevant. Since you are a walking library catalogue, your hints are welcome 🙂
          I am definitely going to continue along these lines. This article was only a starter, and I am positively surprised by the number of likes I got for it. The ideas are not new to me but I have never developed them fully. At this time, these are halve-backed ideas. I hope that by writing some articles about these topics, I can get more clarity about them myself. Feedback is always helpful, so keep commenting.
          One interesting point that came to my mind after publishing this article is that there is a parallel financial/economic structure: The money the taxi driver is taking is divided into several parts. Some of it is use to pay for gas, some to pay for the car and its maintenance, some to pay for the drivers food and other needs. Some might be used for information the driver needs (education, maps, navigation devices). The other cars and pedestrians are taken care of by insurance; some money goes into tax from which the streets, traffic signs, street lamps and red lights etc. are financed, and so on.

          • “the meaning of meaning is relation”? I was thinking of Paul Kockelman’s “Agent, Person, Subject, Self” book – but there are many articles exploring it as well. Michel Serres’ “The Parasite” comes to mind as well. And Jay Lemke’s work I track down mostly through his website (bibliography) and Mark Bickhard as well – the inquiries into “downward causation” and “emergence” have something to do with this I think – the effectiveness of crossing scales and introducing levels of perception / form and content…? I’ll stay in touch 🙂

            • Thank you, I am going to check out those authors. “Downward causation” and “emergence” are definitely both ideas connected to what I am thinking about here.

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