Category: epistemology

Brain Gibberish with a Convincing Heart

Elon Musk believes that direct brain interfaces will help people better transmit ideas to one another in addition to just allowing thought-to-text generation. But there is a fundamental problem with this idea. Let’s take Hubert Dreyfus’ conception of the way meaning works as being tied to a more holistic view of our social interactions with others. Hilary Putnam would probably agree with this perspective, though now I am speaking for two dead philosphers of mind. We can certainly conclude that my mental states when thinking about the statement “snow is white” are, borrowing from Putnam who borrows from Quine, different from a German person thinking “Schnee ist weiß.” The orthography, grammar, and pronunciation are different to begin with. Then there is what seems to transpire when I think about that statement: mild visualizations of white snow-laden rocks above a small stream for instance, or, just now, Joni Mitchell’s “As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl.” The centrality or some kind of logical ground that merely asserts that such a statement is a propositional truth that is shared in some kind of mind interlingua doesn’t bear much fruit to the complexities of what such a statement entails.

Religious and political terminology is notoriously elastic. Indeed, for the former, it hardly even seems coherent to talk about the concept of supernatural things or events. If they are detectable by any other sense than some kind of unverifiable gnosis, then they are at least natural in that they are manifesting in the observable world. So supernatural imposes a barrier that seems to preclude any kind of discussion using ordinary language. The only thing left is a collection of metaphysical assumptions that, in lacking any sort of reference, must merely conform to the patterns of synonymy, metonymy, and other language games that we ordinarily reserve for discernible events and things. And, of course, where unverifiable gnosis holds sway, it is not public knowledge and therefore seems to mainly serve as a social mechanism for attracting attention to oneself.

Politics takes on a similar quality, with it often said to be a virtue if a leader can translate complex policies into simple sound bites. But, as we see in modern American politics, what instead happens is that abstract fear signaling is the primary currency to try to motivate (and manipulate) the voter. The elasticity of a concept like “freedom” is used to polarize the sides of political negotiation that almost always involves the management of winners and losers and the dividing line between them. Fear mixes with complex nostalgia about times that never were, or were more nuanced than most recall, and jeremiads serve to poison the well of discourse.

So, if I were to have a brain interface, it might be trainable to write words for me by listening to the regular neural firing patterns that accompany my typing or speaking, but I doubt it would provide some kind of direct transmission or telepathy between people that would have any more content than those written or spoken forms. Instead, the inscrutable and non-referential abstractions about complex ideas would be tied together and be in contrast with the existing holistic meaning network. And that would just be gibberish to any other mind. Worst still, such a system might also be able to convey raw emotion from person to person, thus just amplifying the fear or joy component of the idea without being able to transmit the specifics of the thoughts. And that would be worse than mere gibberish, it would be gibberish with a convincing heart.

The Ethics of Knowing

In the modern American political climate, I’m constantly finding myself at sea in trying to unravel the motivations and thought processes of the Republican Party. The best summation I can arrive at involves the obvious manipulation of the electorate—but that is not terrifically new—combined with a persistent avoidance of evidence and facts.

In my day job, I research a range of topics trying to get enough of a grasp on what we do and do not know such that I can form a plan that innovates from the known facts towards the unknown. Here are a few recent investigations:

  • What is the state of thinking about the origins of logic? Logical rules form into broad classes that range from the uncontroversial (modus tollens, propositional logic, predicate calculus) to the speculative (multivalued and fuzzy logic, or quantum logic, for instance). In most cases we make an assumption based on linguistic convention that they are true and then demonstrate their extension, despite the observation that they are tautological. Synthetic knowledge has no similar limitations but is assumed to be girded by the logical basics.
  • What were the early Christian heresies, how did they arise, and what was their influence? Marcion of Sinope is perhaps the most interesting one of these, in parallel with the Gnostics, asserting that the cruel tribal god of the Old Testament was distinct from the New Testament Father, and proclaiming perhaps (see various discussions) a docetic Jesus figure. The leading “mythicists” like Robert Price are invaluable in this analysis (ignore first 15 minutes of nonsense). The thin braid of early Christian history and the constant humanity that arises in morphing the faith before settling down after Nicaea (well, and then after Martin Luther) reminds us that abstractions and faith have a remarkable persistence in the face of cultural change.
  • How do mathematical machines take on so many forms while achieving the same abstract goals? Machine learning, as a reificiation of human-like learning processes, can imitate neural networks (or an extreme sketch and caricature of what we know about real neural systems), or can be just a parameter slicing machine like Support Vector Machines or ID3, or can be a Bayesian network or mixture model of parameters.  We call them generative or non-generative, we categorize them as to discrete or continuous decision surfaces, and we label them in a range of useful ways. But why should they all achieve similar outcomes with similar ranges of error? Indeed, Random Forests were the belles of the ball until Deep Learning took its tiara.

In each case, I try to work my way, as carefully as possible, through the thicket of historical and intellectual concerns that provide point and counterpoint to the ideas. It feels ethically wrong to make a short, fast judgment about any such topics. I can’t imagine doing anything less with a topic as fraught as the US health care system. It’s complex, indeed, Mr. President.

So, I tracked down a foundational paper on this idea of ethics and epistemology. It dates to 1877 and provides a grounding for why and when we should believe in anything. William Clifford’s paper, The Ethics of Belief, tracks multiple lines of argumentation and the consequences of believing without clarity. Even tentative clarity comes with moral risk, as Clifford shows in his thought experiments.

In summary, though, there is no more important statement than Clifford’s final assertion that it is wrong to believe without sufficient evidence. It’s that simple. And it’s even more wrong to act on those beliefs.

The Dynamics of Dignity

My wife got a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon a few days back. It has necessitated a new education in off-road machinery like locking axles, low 4, and disconnectable sway bars. It seemed the right choice for our reinsertion into New Mexico, a land that was only partially accessible by cheap, whatever-you-can-afford, vehicles twenty years ago when we were grad students. So we had to start driving random off-road locations and found Faulkner’s Canyon in the Robledos. Billy the Kid used this area as a refuge at one point and we searched out his hidey-hole this morning but ran out of LTE coverage and couldn’t confirm the specific site until returning from our adventure. We will try another day!

Billy the Kid was, of course, a killer of questionable moral standing.

With the Neil Gorsuch nomination to SCOTUS, his role in the legal and moral philosophies surrounding assisted suicide has come under scrutiny. In everyday discussions, the topic often centers on the notion of dignity for the dying. Indeed, the autonomy of the person (and with it some assumption of rational choice) combines with a consideration of alternatives to the human-induced death based on pain, discomfort, loss of physical or mental faculties, and also the future-looking speculation about these possibilities.

Now I combined legal and moral in the same sentence because that is also one way to consider the way in which law is or ought to be formulated. But, in fact, one can also claim that the two don’t need to overlap; law can exist simply as a system of rules that does not include moral repercussions and, if the two have a similar effect on behavior, it is merely a happenstance. Insofar as they are not overlapping, a moral argument can be used to criticize a law.

In formulating a law, then, and regardless of its relationship to a moral norm, the language that is used performs a significant function in directing the limits of the application of the ideas involved. And the language goes further by often challenging the existing holistic relationships in our individual and mental representations of the term. This is also why objective morality seems so nonsensical: in making a moral proposition one is assuming that the language and terms are identifiably externally and internally referential to the objective basis. It is an impossible task that results in either everyday revisionary squeamishness (“Well, sure, ‘do not kill’ should be ‘do not murder,’ but that might exclude killing in warfare or retribution because, well, look at the fate of the Amalekites,”) or a reversion to personal feeling over the matters at hand. Hardly objective at all.

Dignity, then, should be considered as part of this dynamic definitional structure. It has evolved in the legal framework to have at least three meanings, as Lois Shepherd analyzes in some depth in her article, “Dignity and Autonomy after Washington v. Glucksberg: An Essay about Abortion, Death, and Crime,” in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. For the topic of assisted suicide or euthanasia, SCOTUS and lower courts have used a definition that is in accord with the notion that the individual should be allowed to avoid extreme discomfort and loss of faculties. In so doing, they preserve their physical and mental dignity that arises from their autonomous and rational selves. Any concerns over the latter bring additional scrutiny as to whether they can be said to have autonomy.

The other ideas of dignity, though, include the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to represent herself. And, if given assistance from a court-appointed attorney, the assistant must act in a manner that preserves the perception of the jury as to the dignity of the defendant. And, finally, again related to the autonomy of the individual with regard to medical decision-making, that there it interferes with the dignity of a woman when denied the right to abort a fetus because such an action imposes a barrier to her autonomy and that autonomy has precedence over any case for the fetus to, as yet, have legal status as an individual.

These are arguable points as we all know in the struggles and opposition to abortion and assisted suicide rights. And it is just this dynamism in definitional limitations that has evolved through the legal engagement at the edge of dignity semantics.

(As a postscript to this post, I’ll just add that I’m not trying to specifically pull out legal positivism versus natural law distinctions. Instead, I think there may be an overlooked area of philosophy of language and its intersection with epistemology that could use some emphasis. Where the positivists might agree with me on the general disconnect between moral and legal justifications for laws, they might not have embraced the role of linguistic evolution that is apparent in the definition of terms like “dignity.” It is there, I suggest, that law gets shaped, as we can surmise from any consideration of “fairness” as a legal concept.)

Desire and Other Matters

From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons
From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons

“What matters?” is a surprisingly interesting question. I think about it constantly since it weighs-in whenever plotting future choices, though often I seem to be more autopilot than consequentialist in these conceptions. It is an essential first consideration when trying to value one option versus another. I can narrow the question a bit to “what ideas matter?” This immediately externalizes the broad reality of actions that meaningfully improve lives, like helping others, but still leaves a solid core of concepts that are valued more abstractly. Does the traditional Western liberal tradition really matter? Do social theories? Are less intellectually-embellished virtues like consistency and trust more relevant and applicable than notions like, well, consequentialism?

Maybe it amounts to how to value certain intellectual systems against others?

Some are obviously more true than others. So “dowsing belief systems” are less effective in a certain sense than “planetary science belief systems.” Yet there are a broader range of issues at work.

But there are some areas of the liberal arts that have a vexing relationship with the modern mind. Take linguistics. The field ranges from catalogers of disappearing languages to theorists concerned with how to structure syntactic trees. Among the latter are the linguists who have followed Noam Chomsky’s paradigm that explains language using a hierarchy of formal syntactic systems, all of which feature recursion as a central feature. What is interesting is that there have been very few impacts of this theory. It is very simple at its surface: languages are all alike and involve phrasal groups that embed in deep hierarchies. The specific ways in which the phrases and their relative embeddings take place may differ among languages, but they are alike in this abstract way.

And likewise we have to ask what the impact is of scholarship like René Girard’s theory of mimesis. The theory has a Victorian feel about it: a Freudian/Jungian essential psychological tendency girds all that we know, experience, and see. Violence is the triangulation of wanton desire as we try to mimic one another. That triangulation was suppressed—sublimated, if you will—by sacrifice that refocused the urge to violence on the sacrificial object. It would be unusual for such a theory to rise above the speculative scholarship that only queasily embraces empiricism without some prodding.

But maybe it is enough that ideas are influential at some level. So we have Ayn Rand, liberally called-out by American economic conservatives, at least until they are reminded of Rand’s staunch atheism. And we have Peter Thiel, from PayPal mafia to recent Gawker lawsuits, justifying his Facebook angel round based on Girard’s theory of mimesis. So we are all slaves of our desires to like, indirectly, a bunch of crap on the internet. But at least it is theoretically sound.

Subtly Motivating Reasoning

larson-sheepContinuing on with the general theme of motivated reasoning, there are some rather interesting results reported in New Republic, here. Specifically, Ian Anson from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, found that political partisans reinforced their perspectives on the state of the U.S. economy more strongly when they were given “just the facts” rather than a strong partisan statement combined with the facts. Even when the partisan statements aligned with their own partisan perspectives, the effect held.

The author concludes that people, in constructing their views of the causal drivers of the economy, believe that they are unbiased in their understanding of the underlying mechanisms. The barefaced partisan statements interrupt that construction process, perhaps, or at least distract from it. Dr. Anson points out that subtly manufacturing consent therefore makes for better partisan fellow travelers.

There are a number of theories concerning how meanings must get incorporated into our semantic systems, and whether the idea of meaning itself is as good or worse than simply discussing reference. More, we can rate or gauge the uncertainty we must have concerning complex systems. They seem to form a hierarchy, with actors in our daily lives and the motivations of those we have long histories with in the mostly-predictable camp. Next we may have good knowledge about a field or area of interest that we have been trained in. When this framework has a scientific basis, we also rate our knowledge as largely reliable, but we also know the limits of that knowledge. It is in predictive futures and large-scale policy that we become subject to the difficulty of integrating complex signals into a cohesive framework. The partisans supply factoids and surround them with causal reasoning. We weigh those against alternatives and hold them as tentative. But then we have to exist in a political life, as well, and it’s not enough to just proclaim our man or woman or party as great and worthy of our vote and love, we must also justify that consideration.

I speculate now that it may be possible to wage war against partisan bias by employing the exact methods described as effective by Dr. Anson. Specifically, if in any given presentation of economic data there was one fact presented that appeared to undermine the partisan position otherwise described by the data, would it lead to a general weakening of the mental model in the reader’s head? For instance, compare the following two paragraphs:

The unemployment rate has decreased from a peak of 10% in 2009 to 4.7% in June of 2016. This rate doesn’t reflect the broader, U-6, rate of nearly 10% that includes the underemployed and others who are not seeking work. Wages have been down or stagnant over the same period.

Versus:

The unemployment rate has decreased from a peak of 10% in 2009 to 4.7% in June of 2016. This rate doesn’t reflect the broader, U-6, rate of nearly 10% that includes the underemployed and others who are not seeking work. Wages have been down or stagnant over the same period even while consumer confidence and spending has risen to an 11-month high.

The second paragraph adds an accurate but upbeat and contradictory signal to the more subtle gloom of the first paragraph. Of course, partisan hacks will naturally avoid doing this kind of thing. Marketers and salespeople don’t let the negative signals creep in if they can avoid it, but I would guess that a subtle contradiction embedded in the signal would disrupt the conspiracy theorists and the bullshit artists alike.

Euhemerus and the Bullshit Artist

trump-minotaurSailing down through the Middle East, past the monuments of Egypt and the wild African coast, and then on into the Indian Ocean, past Arabia Felix, Euhemerus came upon an island. Maybe he came upon it. Maybe he sailed. He was perhaps—yes, perhaps; who can say?—sailing for Cassander in deconstructing the memory of Alexander the Great. And that island, Panchaea, held a temple of Zeus with a written history of the deeds of men who became the Greek gods.

They were elevated, they became fixed in the freckled amber of ancient history, their deeds escalated into myths and legends. And, likewise, the ancient tribes of the Levant brought their El and Yah-Wah, and Asherah and Baal, and then the Zoroastrians influenced the diaspora in refuge in Babylon, until they returned and had found dualism, elemental good and evil, and then reimagined their origins pantheon down through monolatry and into monotheism. These great men and women were reimagined into something transcendent and, ultimately, barely understandable.

Even the rational Yankee in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court realizes almost immediately why he would soon rule over the medieval world as he is declared a wild dragon when presented to the court. He waits for someone to point out that he doesn’t resemble a dragon, but the medieval mind does not seem to question the reasonableness of the mythic claims, even in the presence of evidence.

So it goes with the human mind.

And even today we have Fareed Zakaria justifying his use of the term “bullshit artist” for Donald Trump. Trump’s logorrhea is punctuated by so many incomprehensible and contradictory statements that it becomes a mythic whirlwind. He lets slip, now and again, that his method is deliberate:

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Bullshit artist is the modern way of saying what Euhemerus was trying to say in his fictional “Sacred History.” Yet we keep getting entranced by these coordinated maelstroms of utter crap, from World Net Daily to Infowars to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh. Only the old Steven Colbert could contend with it through his own bullshit mythical inversion. Mockery seems the right approach, but it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the conspiratorial mind.

Motivation, Boredom, and Problem Solving

shatteredIn the New York Times Stone column, James Blachowicz of Loyola challenges the assumption that the scientific method is uniquely distinguishable from other ways of thinking and problem solving we regularly employ. In his example, he lays out how writing poetry involves some kind of alignment of words that conform to the requirements of the poem. Whether actively aware of the process or not, the poet is solving constraint satisfaction problems concerning formal requirements like meter and structure, linguistic problems like parts-of-speech and grammar, semantic problems concerning meaning, and pragmatic problems like referential extension and symbolism. Scientists do the same kinds of things in fitting a theory to data. And, in Blachowicz’s analysis, there is no special distinction between scientific method and other creative methods like the composition of poetry.

We can easily see how this extends to ideas like musical composition and, indeed, extends with even more constraints that range from formal through to possibly the neuropsychology of sound. I say “possibly” because there remains uncertainty on how much nurture versus nature is involved in the brain’s reaction to sounds and music.

In terms of a computational model of this creative process, if we presume that there is an objective function that governs possible fits to the given problem constraints, then we can clearly optimize towards a maximum fit. For many of the constraints there are, however, discrete parameterizations (which part of speech? which word?) that are not like curve fitting to scientific data. In fairness, discrete parameters occur there, too, especially in meta-analyses of broad theoretical possibilities (Quantum loop gravity vs. string theory? What will we tell the children?) The discrete parameterizations blow up the search space with their combinatorics, demonstrating on the one hand why we are so damned amazing, and on the other hand why a controlled randomization method like evolutionary epistemology’s blind search and selective retention gives us potential traction in the face of this curse of dimensionality. The blind search is likely weakened for active human engagement, though. Certainly the poet or the scientist would agree; they are using learned skills, maybe some intellectual talent of unknown origin, and experience on how to traverse the wells of improbability in finding the best fit for the problem. This certainly resembles pre-training in deep learning, though on a much more pervasive scale, including feedback from categorical model optimization into the generative basis model.

But does this extend outwards to other ways in which we form ideas? We certainly know that motivated reasoning is involved in key aspects of our belief formation, which plays strongly into how we solve these constraint problems. We tend to actively look for confirmations and avoid disconfirmations of fit. We positively bias recency of information, or repeated exposures, and tend to only reconsider in much slower cycles.

Also, as the constraints of certain problem domains become, in turn, extensions that can result in change—where there is a dynamic interplay between belief and success—the fixity of the search space itself is no longer guaranteed. Broad human goals like the search for meaning are an example of that. In come complex human factors, like how boredom correlates with motivation and ideological extremism (overview, here, journal article, here).

This latter data point concerning boredom crosses from mere bias that might preclude certain parts of a search space into motivation that focuses it, and that optimizes for novelty seeking and other behaviors.

Quantum Field Is-Oughts

teleologySean Carroll’s Oxford lecture on Poetic Naturalism is worth watching (below). In many ways it just reiterates several common themes. First, it reinforces the is-ought barrier between values and observations about the natural world. It does so with particular depth, though, by identifying how coarse-grained theories at different levels of explanation can be equally compatible with quantum field theory. Second, and related, he shows how entropy is an emergent property of atomic theory and the interactions of quantum fields (that we think of as particles much of the time) and, importantly, that we can project the same notion of boundary conditions that result in entropy into the future resulting in a kind of effective teleology. That is, there can be some boundary conditions for the evolution of large-scale particle systems that form into configurations that we can label purposeful or purposeful-like. I still like the term “teleonomy” to describe this alternative notion, but the language largely doesn’t matter except as an educational and distinguishing tool against the semantic embeddings of old scholastic monks.

Finally, the poetry aspect resolves in value theories of the world. Many are compatible with descriptive theories, and our resolution of them is through opinion, reason, communications, and, yes, violence and war. There is no monopoly of policy theories, religious claims, or idealizations that hold sway. Instead we have interests and collective movements, and the above, all working together to define our moral frontiers.

 

Rationality and the Intelligibility of Philosophy

6a00d83542d51e69e20133f5650edd970b-800wiThere is a pervasive meme in the physics community that holds as follows: there are many physical phenomena that don’t correspond in any easy way to our ordinary experiences of life on earth. We have wave-particle duality wherein things behave like waves sometimes and particles other times. We have simultaneous entanglement of physically distant things. We have quantum indeterminacy and the emergence of stuff out of nothing. The tiny world looks like some kind of strange hologram with bits connected together by virtual strings. We have a universe that began out of nothing and that begat time itself. It is, in this framework, worthwhile to recognize that our every day experiences are not necessarily useful (and are often confounding) when trying to understand the deep new worlds of quantum and relativistic physics.

And so it is worthwhile to ask whether many of the “rational” queries that have been made down through time have any intelligible meaning given our modern understanding of the cosmos. For instance, if we were to state the premise “all things are either contingent or necessary” that underlies a poor form of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, we can immediately question the premise itself. And a failed premise leads to a failed syllogism. Maybe the entanglement of different things is piece-part of the entanglement of large-scale space time, and that the insights we have so far are merely shadows of the real processes acting behind the scenes? Who knows what happened before the Big Bang?

In other words, do the manipulations of logic and the assumptions built into the terms lead us to empty and destructive conclusions? There is no reason not to suspect that and therefore the bits of rationality that don’t derive from empirical results are immediately suspect. This seems to press for a more coherence-driven view of epistemology, one which accords with known knowledge but adjusts automatically as semantics change.

There is an interesting mental exercise concerning why we should be able to even undertake these empirical discoveries and all their seemingly non-sensible results that are nevertheless fashioned into a cohesive picture of the physical world (and increasingly the mental one). Are we not making an assumption that our brains are capable of rational thinking given our empirical understanding of our evolved pasts? Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism tries, for instance, to upend this perspective by claiming it is highly unlikely that a random process of evolution could produce reliable mental faculties because it would be focused too much on optimization for survival. This makes no sense empirically, however, since we have good evidence for evolution and we have good evidence for reliable mental faculties when subjected to the crucible of group examination and scientific process. We might be deluding ourselves, it’s true, but there are too many artifacts of scientific understanding and progress to take that terribly seriously.

So we get back to coherence and watchful empiricism. No necessity for naturalism as an ideology. It’s just the only thing that currently makes sense.