Category: Ethics

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.

Spurting into the Undiscovered Country

voyager_plaqueThere was glop on the windows of the International Space Station. Outside. It was algae. How? Now that is unclear, but there is a recent tradition of arguing against abiogenesis here on Earth and arguing for ideas like panspermia where biological material keeps raining down on the planet, carried by comets and meteorites, trapped in crystal matrices. And there may be evidence that some of that may have happened, if only in the local system, between Mars and Earth.

Panspermia includes as a subset the idea of Directed Panspermia whereby some alien intelligence for some reason sends biological material out to deliberately seed worlds with living things. Why? Well, maybe it is a biological prerogative or an ethical stance. Maybe they feel compelled to do so because they are in some dystopian sci-fi narrative where their star is dying. One last gasping hope for alien kind!

Directed Panspermia as an explanation for life on Earth only sets back the problem of abiogenesis to other ancient suns and other times, and implicitly posits that some of the great known achievements of life on Earth like multicellular forms are less spectacularly improbable than the initial events of proto-life as we hypothesize it might have been. Still, great minds have spent great mental energy on the topic to the point that elaborate schemes involving solar sails have been proposed so that we may someday engage in Directed Panspermia as needed. I give you:

Mautner, M; Matloff, G. (1979). “Directed panspermia: A technical evaluation of seeding nearby solar systems”. J. British Interplanetary Soc. 32: 419.

So we take solar sails and bioengineered lifeforms in tiny capsules. The solar sails are large and thin. They carry the tiny capsules into stellar formations and slow down due to friction. They survive thousands of years while exposed to thousands of rads of interstellar radiation without the benefit of magnetic fields or atmospheric shielding. And once in a great while (after all, space is vast) they start a new ecosystem. Indeed, maybe some eukaryotes are included to avoid that big probability barrier to bridging over to multicellular organisms, specialization, and all that.

The why of all this is interesting. Here is the list from Section 9 of the paper used to create an ethics of “Life”:

  1. Life is a process of the active self-propagation of organized molecular patterns.
  2. The patterns of organic terrestrial Life are embodied in biomolecular structures that actively reproduce through cycles of genetic code and protein action.
  3. But action that leads to a selected outcome is functionally equivalent to the pursuit of a purpose.
  4. Where there is Life there is therefore a purpose. The object inherent in Life in self-propagation.
  5. Humans share the self-propagating DNA/protein biophysics of all cellular organisms, and therefore share with the family of organic Life a common purpose.
  6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard and propagate Life. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.
  7. The human purpose defines the axioms of ethics. Moral good is that which promotes Life, and evil is that which destroys Life.
  8. Life, in the complexity of its structures and processes, is unique amongst the hierarchy of structures in Nature. This unites the family of Life and raises it above the inanimate universe.
  9. Biology is possible only by a precise coincidence of the laws of physics. Thereby the physical universe itself also comes to a special point in the living process.
  10. New life-forms who are most fit survive and reproduce best. This tautology, judgement of fitness to survive by survival itself, is the logic of Life. The mechanisms of Life may forever change, but the logic of Life is forever permanent.
  11. Survival is best secured by expansion in space, and biological progress is best assured by adaptation to diverse multiple worlds. This process will foster biological and human/machine coevolution. In the latter, control must always remain with organic- based intelligences, who have vested interests to continue our organic life-form. When the future is subject to conscious control, the conscious will to continue Life must itself be forever propagated.
  12. The human purpose and the destiny of Life are intertwined. The results can light up the galaxy with life, and affect the future patterns of the universe. When the living pattern pervades nature, human existence will have attained a cosmic purpose.

Many of these points can be scrutinized for both logical entailments and, yes, for a bit of fun. OK, let’s get started. The paper deals effectively with any complaints about teleology in 3-5 by using an argument that the appearance of purpose-like outcomes is equivalent to purposeful outcomes and therefore not necessarily the same. Fair enough. Teleonomy is a fine term to deploy in these circumstances.

So then we get to 6. Couldn’t we equally say that the purpose of human life is to safeguard human life to the exclusion of other life forms. Deploying the Red Queen Hypothesis concerning the evolution of sexuality, for instance, would mean that we should be engaged in a carefully orchestrated battle against parasites that continuously lay siege to us? And, indeed, we are, with just today minor victories against Ebola. What would our Red Queen alternative to 6 look like? Maybe:

6. Assuming free will, the human purpose must be self-defined. From our identity with Life derives the human purpose to forever safeguard Life such that it maintains the highest order of achievements by living things and their preservation against contending living organisms. In this pursuit human action will establish Life as a governing force in nature.

This might be argued is too limiting because the advanced state of human existence is necessarily tied to the panoply of parasitic threats that we evolved “around” and therefore should be embraced as part of the tough love of life itself, but such an ethics among humans would be considered ridiculous and cruel. Propagate the Ebola virus because it holds a seat among the host of heavenly threats?

Among other problems with this list (and they are manifold) is 11, whereby survival, being a good thing for Life (capitals per the original), is best promoted by expansion in space. It’s a kind of biological Manifest Destiny: go up, young biome, go up! This assumes there is nothing really out there, for one. Our life, though possibly seeded from space, is clearly vastly different, having been magnified through multiple probability lenses into the aggressive earthly forms of today. It could wreak havoc on indigenous forms already out there in a kind of infectious plague against the natives. If we value Life, shouldn’t we also value existing Life?

And we get down to the overall goal in 12. Is a “cosmic purpose” a desirable goal for human life? It sounds good at the surface, but we generally regard more narrowly focused goals as ethical goods, like building better societies for our children and eradicating those pesky biological parasites that used to wipe them out in large numbers. If we have a cosmic purpose, built upon our strivings in this universe, it might be best served by survival, true, but it might be best if that survival is more intimately human than the spurting of our seeds throughout the undiscovered country of the future.

Instrumenting Others

slave-marketJerry Coyne takes down Ross Douthat’s New York Times column in The New Republic along multiple dimensions, but perhaps the most interesting one is his draw-down of the question of what exactly Christian morality amounts to? We can equally question any other religious morality or even secular ones.

For instance, we mostly agree that slavery is a bad idea in the modern world. Slavery involves treating others instrumentally, using them for selfish outcomes, and exploiting their human capacity. Slavery is almost unquestionable; it lacks many of the conventional ambiguities that dominate controversial social issues. Yet slavery was quite acceptable in the Old Testament, with the only relief coming for the enslavement of Jews by Jews with the release of the slaves after six years (under certain circumstances). Literal interpretations of the Bible resort to expansive apologetics to try to minimize these kinds of problems, but they are just the finer chantilly skimmed off human sacrifice, oppression, and genocide.

So how do people make moral choices? They only occasionally invoke religious sentiments or ideas even when they are believers, though they may often articulate a claim of prayer or meditation. Instead, the predominant moral calculus is girded by modern ideas and conflicts that are evolving faster than even generational change. Pot is OK, gay marriage is just a question of equality, and miscegenation is none of our business. Note that only the second item has a clear reference point in JCM (Judeo-Christian-Muslim) scripture. The others might get some traction using expansive interpretations, but those are expansive interpretations that just justify my central thesis that moral decision-making is really underdetermined by religious thinking (or even formal philosophical ones). Moral decision making is determined by knowledge and education in an ad hoc way that relies on empathic and intellectual reasoning. There is no central reason why it should be the way it is, though it is unlikely that a complex and peaceful society could arise at the scale we observe without these ad hoc principles evolving out of the mists of religious and family concerns in the past.

And this brings us back to Sam Harris’ notion of a moral adaptive topography that Jerry Coyne expresses indirect scorn for. If there are ethical stances that result in increased success for large groups, shouldn’t we expect drift along the contours of that topography? It largely doesn’t matter whether such a perspective is objective or relative because the language for formulating that distinction is mostly just pejorative. Instead, the moral perspectives are adapting and changing with a clear utility function that seeks to maximize freedom without compromising the freedom of others. No one is an instrument. All are human.

In Like Flynn

The exceptionally interesting James Flynn explains the cognitive history of the past century and what it means in terms of human intelligence in this TED talk:

What does the future hold? While we might decry the “twitch” generation and their inundation by social media, gaming stimulation, and instant interpersonal engagement, the slowing observed in the Flynn Effect might be getting ready for another ramp-up over the next 100 years.

Perhaps most intriguing is the discussion of the ability to think in terms of hypotheticals as a a core component of ethical reasoning. Ethics is about gaming outcomes and also about empathizing with others. The influence of media as a delivery mechanism for narratives about others emerged just as those changes in cognitive capabilities were beginning to mature in the 20th Century. Widespread media had a compounding effect on the core abstract thinking capacity, and with the expansion of smartphones and informational flow, we may only have a few generations to go before the necessary ingredients for good ethical reasoning are widespread even in hard-to-reach areas of the world.

Red Queens of Hearts

redqueenAn incomplete area of study in philosophy and science is the hows and whys of social cooperation. We can easily assume that social organisms gain benefits in terms of the propagation of genes by speculating about the consequences of social interactions versus individual ones, but translating that speculation into deep insights has remained a continuing research program. The consequences couldn’t be more significant because we immediately gain traction on the Naturalistic Fallacy and build a bridge towards a clearer understanding of human motivation in arguing for a type of Moral Naturalism that embodies much of the best we know and hope for from human history.

So worth tracking are continued efforts to understand how competition can be outdone by cooperation in the most elementary and mathematical sense. The superlatively named Freeman Dyson (who doesn’t want to be a free man?) cast a cloud of doubt on the ability of cooperation to be a working strategy when he and colleague William Press analyzed the payoff matrixes of iterated prisoner’s dilemma games and discovered a class of play strategies called “Zero-Determinant” strategies that always pay-off regardless of the opponent’s strategies. Hence, the concern that there is a large corner in the adaptive topology where strong-arming always wins. And evolutionary search must seek out that corner and winners must accumulate there, thus ruling out cooperation as a prominent feature of evolutionary success.

But that can’t reflect the reality we think we see, where cooperation in primates and other eusocial organisms seems to be the precursor to the kinds of virtues that are reflected in moral, religious, and ethical traditions. So what might be missing in this analysis? Christophe Adami and Arend Hintze at Michigan State may have some of the answers in their paper, Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everything. The reasons for instability are several, but one key one is that in the matrixed encounters between individual players, geography interferes with the capacity for one player to exploit any other players; the mathematics breaks down because of the inability of individuals to recognize one another. Interestingly, though, a method for improving recognition memory or by “tagging” the other players for enhanced recognition becomes subject to an evolutionary arms race. And this is a Red Queen effect, running forever to stay in place through development and counter-strategies.

Expanding towards a consideration of the ethical and moral consequences of cooperation brings us to the Red Queen of Hearts.

FICLO Forever

hairballEdward Snowden set off a maelstrom with his revelation concerning the covert use of phone records and possibly a greater range of information. For those of us in the Big Data technology universe, the technologies and algorithms involved are utterly prosaic: given the target of an investigation who is under scrutiny after court review, just query their known associates via a database of phone records. Slightly more interesting is to spread out in that connectivity network and identify associates of associates, or associates of associates who share common features. Still, it is a matching problem over small neighborhoods in large graphs, and that ain’t hard.

The technological simplicity of the system is not really at issue, though, other than to note that just as information wants to be free—and technology makes that easier than ever—private information seems to be increasingly easy to acquire, distribute, and mine. But let’s consider a policy fix to at least one of the ethical dilemmas that is posed by what Snowden revealed. We might characterize this by saying that the large-scale, covert acquisition and mining of citizen data by the US government violates the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, going back in the jurisprudence a bit, when we expect privacy and when there is no probable cause to violate that privacy, then the acquisition of that information violates our rights under the Fourth. That is the common meme that is floating around concerning Snowden’s revelations, though it is at odds with widespread sentiment that we may need to give up some rights of privacy to help fight terrorism.

I’m not going to argue here about the correctness of these contending constructs, however. Nor will I address the issue of whether Snowden should have faced the music, fled, or whether he simply violated a rule and an oath requiring secrecy. Instead, I want to drill into one technical aspect of the way in which data was apparently acquired. The methodology that was employed (and more details may change this description) involved certification of the legality of the program by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. The order from the court was closely held since it was all secret, of course, though there may have been a path for the telco providers to appeal to the FICA (Foreign Intelligence Court of Appeals) and possibly even to the Supreme Court under the terms of the Protect America Act of 2007. But why would the telcos bother unless it posed a risk of time, money, or peccant customer aggravation in some distant future?

So the point I am making is that there should be a path for judicial review that provides for an adversarial engagement with the Justice Department and the Intelligence Community. When Justice or Three-Letter Agency ABC wants to tap 50 million phones, they can approach the FISA court with their request. The court then provides the request to a cleared group of Constitutional lawyers who report to some Judicial Branch Office of Special Defense and are charged with representing the American people in these deliberations. I call them the FICLOs (Foreign Intelligence Court Loyal Opposition). These attorneys will be sworn to secrecy, as well, but will have an out in their secrecy clause that says that if they identify clear malfeasance in the process of FISA to FICA to SCOTUS escalation they are required to inform Congress (sure, initially in the Intelligence Committee). The end result injects a modicum more scrutiny into the process and perhaps saves us all from excessive overreach while providing a path for necessary secrecy.

Bravery and Restraint

In 1997, shortly after getting married and buying our first house, I was invited to travel to Japan and spend a little over a month researching Japanese-Chinese machine translation under a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education. It was a disorienting experience, like most non-Japanese find Japan, and the hours spent studying my translation guide helped me very little. In the mornings I would jog through downtown, around the canals, and past the temples. Days were spent writing and optimizing statistical matching algorithms for lining up runs of characters that I didn’t understand in an early incarnation of the same approach currently used in Google Translate.

I, of course, visited the Peace Memorial Park several times and toured the museum there, ultimately purchasing a slim volume of recollections from the day the bomb fell that was written in Japanese and English on facing pages. There was also one thing that struck me and I later inquired about to a Japan expert who worked in the Intelligence Community: the narrative presented in the museum was that the Japanese commoner had little understanding of the war effort; they were victims of the emperor and the elite classes. It was a moral distancing that resonated with similar arguments about the German volk being non-complicit in the Holocaust, and an argument that I found distasteful.

With this background, then, I was intrigued when I discovered that the father of my new boss wrote a memoir on being perhaps the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Kenneth Harrison’s book, The Brave Japanese, was originally published in 1966, then republished in 1982 under The Road to Hiroshima due, in part, to the controversy in Australia over ascribing bravery to the Japanese. The book is now available in Epub and PDF forms for free and for a nominal price on Amazon.

This is not my usual cup of tea but I thought I would read it since it describes Hiroshima and, initially, I was worried that I had gotten into something that was a tedious example of genre fiction concerning how to ambush tanks in jungles. I was trapped on a pair of weather-enhanced flights to Tokyo and then on to Taipei, so I stuck with it. And it turns out to be a remarkably good book. Remarkably good, but also filled with an astonishing amount of horror. The war goes badly for Allied Forces in Southeast Asia in the early years, as you recall, but for Ken and his fellow soldiers it goes amazingly downhill, very fast. They are injured, escape capture, become part of an insurgency, are further injured, surrender, and become POWs in some of the most barbaric situations imaginable. In turns, they harm themselves or even ask to be killed rather than continue on working ceaselessly while waiting for the next beating by their Japanese captors. The injuries are supplemented by typhus, cholera, malaria, and festering skin ulcers. The POWs become expert thieves to stay alive while lamenting their participation in helping the Japanese war effort.

Finally, in 1944, a group is transported to the Japanese homeland to build ships and then dig coal until the war finally ends (indeed, I was reading about their sailing from Formosa to Japan as I was en route from Tokyo to Taipei). The scene becomes Gravity’s Rainbow as the fabric of Japanese society breaks down in a bombed-out world and Ken’s motley band wander peripatetically from stealing Japanese swords to investigating Hiroshima and, later, Nagasaki.

The book is flawed in a few ways, but those flaws don’t minimize its impact. First, it appears to have been scanned, OCR’d, or rapidly typed-in to make the digital copy and there are about a dozen typos in the epub version I read. These are easily ignored, moreso since the volume is free. More interesting to me is the question of how to interpret the moral reasoning that dominates the book. Could the Japanese character be generously granted as having the “basic virtues of loyalty, cleanliness, and courage…[and] were soldiers of tremendous bravery” given the extensive dehumanization, cruelty, and beatings suffered by their prisoners? Indeed, dehumanization is probably the most pervasive human character in the book, from the Sikhs who join the Japanese, to the treatment of the Chinese Communist rebels in the Malaysian hills, to the Thai prostitutes who warn away the Aussies because they are reserving their diseases for the Japanese. We see a world where xenophobia dominates and nationalistic passions are an amplification of tribal drives. The last grasping hands of colonialism cling to the region as a new imperial master replaces the oppressive exploitation with rapacious cruelty.

I reflect on a suggestion by Richard Dawkins (and dealt with ad nauseam in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Ourselves) that something has happened in the last 50 years that has accelerated our moral feelings to such an extent that using fire bombs and atomic weapons against civilian populations can’t even be imagined as serving a productive or retaliatory role in military conflict. And even in Ken’s time, torture and slavery were unthinkable to the Australian mind that had supported indentured servitude only a few generations earlier. Perhaps the best conclusion is that we are all becoming better, and should strive to do even more, and let Ken’s amazing story of resourceful courage remind us that even in the face of enormous cruelty, it is our restraint that makes us better.

Bats and Belfries

Thomas Nagel proposes a radical form of skepticism in his new book, Minds and Cosmos, continuing his trajectory through subjective experience and moral realism first began with bats zigging and zagging among the homunculi of dualism reimagined in the form of qualia. The skepticism involves disputing materialistic explanations and proposing, instead, that teleological ones of an unspecified form will likely apply, for how else could his subtitle that paints the “Neo-Darwinian Concept of Nature” as likely false hold true?

Nagel is searching for a non-religious explanation, of course, because just enervating nature through fiat is hardly an explanation at all; any sort of powerful, non-human entelechy could be gaming us and the universe in a non-coherent fashion. But what parameters might support his argument? Since he apparently requires a “significant likelihood” argument to hold sway in support of the origins of life, for instance, we might imagine what kind of thinking could result in highly likely outcomes that begin with inanimate matter and lead to goal-directed behavior while supporting a significant likelihood of that outcome. The parameters might involve the conscious coordination of the events leading towards the emergence of goal-directed life, thus presupposing a consciousness that is not our own. We are back then to our non-human entelechy looming like an alien or like a strange creator deity (which is not desirable to Nagel). We might also consider the possibility that there are properties to the universe itself that result in self-organization and that either we don’t yet know or that we are only beginning to understand. Elliot Sober’s critique suggests that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics results in what I might call “patterned” behavior while not becoming “goal-directed” per se. Yet it is precisely the capacity for self-organization that begins at the borderline of energy harvesting mediated by the 2nd Law that results in some of the clearest examples of physical structures emerging from simpler forms, and in an inevitable way. That is, with a “significant likelihood” of occurrence. Can we, in fact, say that there is a meaningful distinction that can be drawn between an inevitable self-organizing crystal process and an evolutionary one that involves large populations of entities interacting together? It seems to me that if we can conceive of the first, we can attribute an equal or better weight of probability to the second.

Are there other options? Could the form of this “new teleology” that is non-materialistic in nature achieve other insights that are significantly likely? One possibility would be if a physical property or process showed a unique affinity for goal-directed behavior that could not be explained by bridging rules that straddled known neuropsychological and evolutionary models. Such a phenomena would be recognized for its resilience to explanation, I think: there are no effective explanations for creativity; it is a uniquely human quality. Yet we just don’t have any compelling examples. Creativity does not appear to be completely resilient to explanation, nor does any human mental process.

Our bats, our belfries, remain uniquely our own.

Intelligence versus Motivation

Nick Bostrom adds to the dialog on desire, intelligence, and intentionality with his recent paper, The Superintelligent Will: Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced Artificial Agents. The argument is largely a deconstruction of the general assumption that there is somehow an inexorable linkage between intelligence and moral goodness. Indeed, he even proposes that intelligence and motivation are essentially orthogonal (“The Orthogonality Thesis”) but that there may be a particular subset of possible trajectories towards any goal that are common (self-preservation, etc.) The latter is scoped by his “instrumental convergence thesis” where there might be convergences towards central tenets that look an awful lot like the vagaries of human moral sentiments. But they remain vagaries and should not be taken to mean that advanced artificial agents will act in a predictable manner.

Multitudes and the Mathematics of the Individual

The notion that there is a path from reciprocal altruism to big brains and advanced cognitive capabilities leads us to ask whether we can create “effective” procedures that shed additional light on the suppositions that are involved, and their consequences. Any skepticism about some virulent kind of scientism then gets whisked away by the imposition of a procedure combined with an earnest interest in careful evaluation of the outcomes. That may not be enough, but it is at least a start.

I turn back to Marcus Hutter, Solomonoff, and Chaitin-Kolmogorov at this point.  I’ll be primarily referencing Hutter’s Universal Algorithmic Intelligence (A Top-Down Approach) in what follows. And what follows is an attempt to break down how three separate factors related to intelligence can be explained through mathematical modeling. The first and the second are covered in Hutter’s paper, but the third may represent a new contribution, though perhaps an obvious one without the detail work that is needed to provide good support.

First, then, we start with a core requirement of any goal-seeking mechanism: the ability to predict patterns in the environment external to the mechanism. This is well-covered since Solomonoff in the 60s who formalized the implicit arguments in Kolmogorov algorithmic information theory (AIT), and that were subsequently expanded on by Greg Chaitin. In essence, given a range of possible models represented by bit sequences of computational states, the shortest sequence that predicts the observed data is also the optimal predictor for any future data also produced by the underlying generator function. The shortest sequence is not computable, but we can keep searching for shorter programs and come up with unique optimizations for specific data landscapes. And that should sound familiar because it recapitulates Occam’s Razor and, in a subset of cases, Epicurus’ Principle of Multiple Explanations. This represents the floor-plan of inductive inference, but it is only the first leg of the stool.

We should expect that evolutionary optimization might work according to this abstract formulation, but reality always intrudes. Instead, evolution is saddled by historical contingency that channels the movements through the search space. Biology ain’t computer science, in short, if for no other reason than it is tied to the physics and chemistry of the underlying operating system. Still the desire is there to identify such provable optimality in living systems because evolution is an optimizing engine, if not exactly an optimal one.

So we come to the second factor: optimality is not induction alone. Optimality is the interaction between the predictive mechanism and the environment. The “mechanism” might very well provide optimal or near optimal predictions of the past through a Solomonoff-style model, but applying those predictions introduces perturbations to the environment itself. Hutter elegantly simplifies this added complexity by abstracting the environment as a computing machine (a logical device; we assume here that the universe behaves deterministically even where it may have chaotic aspects) and running the model program at a slightly slower rate than the environmental program (it lags). Optimality is then a utility measure that combines prediction with resource allocation according to some objective function.

But what about the third factor that I promised and is missing? We get back to Fukuyama and the sociobiologists with this one: social interaction is the third factor. The exchange of information and the manipulation of the environment by groups of agents diffuses decision theory over inductive models of environments into a group of “mechanisms” that can, for example, transmit the location of optimal resource availability among the clan as a whole, increasing the utility of the individual agents with little cost to others. It seems appealing to expand Hutter’s model to include a social model, an agent model, and an environment within the purview of the mathematics. We might also get to the level where the social model overrides the agent model for a greater average utility, or where non-environmental signals from the social model interrupt function of the agent model, representing an irrational abstraction with group-selective payoff.