#63 On magic tricks

Dear Mat,

First off, we’re accusing one another of “essentialism” and “foundationalism”. I think we’re both against those things and think that science should be done accordingly. Truce? More importantly, I feel we’ve lost sight of what these skyhooks are, the ones for which I have a “hatred”. I don’t think we’re talking about discredited skyhooks from the past like creationism or vitalism. Personally, I’m thinking of spooky theories of consciousness — which Popper was into and Deutsch refuses to dismiss — and a kind of magical version of knowledge creation “ex nihilo” as in Deutsch’s idea of creativity. These remaining skyhooks are, tellingly, all about the knower, not the known.

With that in mind, here’s something interesting about magic tricks: every bit of stage magic has three audiences. Continue reading #63 On magic tricks

#62 On Foundations

Dear Jamie,

Congratulations for drafting the final chapter of your thesis! You’ve already managed the whole thing with much more grace than I did.

I’m writing this bit before I read your letter in order to explain what my original assumption was about your policy. I did say you’re dismissing skyhooks because of “human, political concerns (sic :S)”. To explain it in a way that only you and I are likely to understand, that mainly meant “protecting the dynamic aspect of our society”. This is because, as you’ve always pointed out, belief in phony bad skyhooks causes real bad problems. Indeed they do.

I assume this “no skyhooks” policy, whoever it is held by, is the result of an escape as far as possible from supernatural and religious explanations, while desperately holding on to justified true belief as one runs. I know you’re fuming right now, but honestly I see a strain of it. Let me explain how. Continue reading #62 On Foundations

#61 On cranes and skyhooks

Dear Mat,

I’m pondering my reasons for adopting a no skyhooks policy. I’d be genuinely interested in what you think the political agenda is behind my stance. This rambling letter is me trying to figure it out and maybe you’ll spot some clues.

First, I genuinely don’t think it’s political in the way you hint at in letter #60. I’ve just written the final chapter of a PhD about popular science. Ensconced in my ivory tower, I’ve spent the last three years reading the thoughts of philosophers of science, historians of science and — most of all — scientists themselves. I can genuinely attest that the Dennettian anti-skyhook view is highly unorthodox. Indeed Dennett’s long list of skyhook merhcants are professional philosophers and scientists — people nominally committed to naturalism. Continue reading #61 On cranes and skyhooks

#60 On scientific confidence

Dear Jamie

However many times I’ve been truly guilty of dastardliness in past letters, my last one was a genuine effort to understand. My brain was having serious trouble remapping this noun “knowledge” to a verb. I was having trouble quite generally, and so this is an unacceptably late letter.

Since our call the other day I think I know what you mean by knowledge is “what happens”. You’re saying knowledge is nothing magic, it’s the algorithmic unfolding of the physical world. Well, sure, maybe, I mean it’s hard to disagree that the unfolding of the physical world is all there is. It’s clear that in some special cases things unfold algorithmically, i.e. in useful, entropy-reducing or otherwise productive ways. It seems valid for me for you to define it like this, but it doesn’t seem very useful.

However we define knowledge, I’m at least happy to join you in casting off the word truth as an obtainable or even approachable thing. But I’m not willing to say that as we make objective scientific progress we aren’t touching some objective reality. There really does seem to be a convergence and compatibility of our best theories and this suggests a real regulatory force at work on our theories. But I’m not precious about truth. Perhaps the best way to put it is as a conjecture, “truth” itself is a concept invented as a place holder to explain the convergence of theories; analogous to inventing dark matter to explain the distant convergences of matter. But you’re right bad conjectures can lead people down the wrong paths and hold back progress. I’m happy to move on without it in case truth is a bad one.

So perhaps we have different notions of what knowledge is at a very fundamental, physical level, but we think it is doing the same job in practice? That’s philosophy I guess.

We do have different notions but it’s because I don’t pretend to have any theory of knowledge at a fundamental physical level. We don’t need to rectify the independent existence of atoms and knowledge in the same sense that we don’t need to rectify germ theory and atomic theory, or economics and atomic theory. You might argue that even though we don’t need to explain it, it’s a valid intellectual exercise to explain it. It might be a bit of fun but theories are only as valuable as their problem situation is well defined.

In my opinion we don’t know enough about physics and knowledge in the domain they might interact to define a problem. So I wonder invent the theory? My accusation is that you’re proposing one because you’re trying to build a Dennettian crane. And you’re building one because of human, political concerns.

The idea of naturalistic reductionism is a strong claim, but I believe it actually comes from a place of weakness in the scientific community. If one sees the story of science as a plight where science is under threat from superstition and bias, then it makes sense to invent Dennettian cranes to mop up any mysteries that might let people’s imaginations run wild. But this war-like frame of mind forms an underlying belief structure that cuts off creativity and slows the progress of knowledge.*

Whatever threats might generally exist we must indeed defend ourselves practically, but insisting on hole-plugging theories purely because holes make us look bad only spoils the hard-won web of knowledge. We don’t need confidence in our theories, we need confidence in our methods and traditions of science.

Cheers,
Mat

 

* It may well be true that science is continually under siege, but that does not mean theories proposed in its defence have any reason to be true. In fact they’re not solving real, physical problem situation so there’s almost no reason to believe them.

#59 On how the question changes the answer

Dear Mat,

Interesting letter. It was a rollercoaster from my POV because the first few paragraphs appeared to be a dastardly warping of what I was saying, yet by the end of the letter I was nodding my head, utterly in agreement. How can this be?

This might seem lame but I think it’s easiest if I just respond to the relevant points inline. This is you:

I was saying adaptations reflect truths, which is to say they somehow represent (I was saying “encode”) some truth. Instead you say it’s more a “hack”, something that exploits the world without awareness certainly but also even without reflecting any truth. This is most obvious if you manipulate the environment so that the hack fails.

I never said “hack”. Bad start. Continue reading #59 On how the question changes the answer

#58 On the conditions of knowledge

Dear Jamie,

Years ago I heard a story (possibly apocryphal) that after the space race the Russian and American space agencies made things unnecessarily complicated and expensive for themselves when they first had to dock their ships with each other. Docking ships was a solved problem, one had a shaft and the other had a shaft-hole. Vulgar but reliable. Of course, after the manly biff that was the space race the victorious USA wasn’t going to let a beaten foe penetrate one of theirs, and the Russians obviously weren’t keen on a follow up humiliation. At great expense the two collaborated to develop a complicated female-female docking mechanism and from that day forward they’ve symmetrically rutted.

Your lock/key metaphor took a couple of reads to understand but I think I get it. I was saying adaptations reflect truths, which is to say they somehow represent (I was saying “encode”) some truth. Instead you say it’s more a “hack”, something that exploits the world without awareness certainly but also even without reflecting any truth. This is most obvious if you manipulate the environment so that the hack fails.

The idea a hack is informationless and so the knowledge lies externally is just the reverse of the more commonly held extreme that all the knowledge is in the genes and the world is inert. I’m convinced the answer is between these two extremes. Deutsch and Dennett explain the well-known problem of memes and genes both not being valuable by themselves. In each case you need a gene reader (a creature) and meme reader (a person with shared knowledge) which has its own knowledge/hacks. So I’ll argue that the theory/hack/trait ruts against reality and does reflect it.

Just where knowledge resides depends of course on what knowledge is and neither of us are sure of that. If we were to start using the word “hack” to mean extreme complete uninsightful behaviour and “truth” the precise opposite of this, total omniscient fundamental insight, then I define knowledge as whatever’s in between these extremes and connects, like a ramp, one to the other. We don’t need a correspondence theory of truth for this. To avoid it completely we can define knowledge as anything more insightful than a hack, and that there are degrees of insightfulness with either no end point truth or an endpoint so far away it doesn’t matter.

The other thing about knowledge is that it’s only determinable against a matching “problem situation”. Problem situations are fair tests analogous to your locks. The peck contains knowledge when tested against the problem situation of its natural upbringing, but it lacks knowledge when humans manipulate it in an experiment. If you ignore problem situations you’ll find yourself presuming a total lack of knowledge embedded in a Saturn V rocket because it fails to launch from inside an active volcano. There are only a few hundred square meters on planet Earth (actually in the entire cosmos) where a Saturn V rocket can function, now that’s an impotent pecker.

Evolutionary science is a search for problem situations that explain animal traits. A successful explanation like this is a “discovery” in the sense that humans are now aware of the missing half that dis-covered the full nature of the exploitation that was always functioning. In evolution the trait’s “reader” is some genuine “selection pressure”. So long as creatures are always “on the edge of extinction” (as Dennett says all creatures are) then the random mutations of the selected genes make real adaptive progress. What Popper calls a “tradition of scientific criticism” is required to make sure theories are “on the edge of extinction”, hence selected theories really get better at explaining the world.* These two things are more than analogies.

Hacks do not exist, they are illusions brought about from an ignorance of the problem situation. It is extremely hard to tell the difference between a trait whose selection pressure is yet to be discovered and a random unpressured mutation. It’s exactly the epistemological mechanism that limits our awareness of the knowledge in our theories without a valid problem situation to explain or to test them against.

Theories/traits must reflect their problem situation, otherwise the latter would be irrelevant when considering the formers’ utilisable knowledge. As theories and traits reflect their problem situation, and because problem situations can exist at any scale and any level of emergence, real knowledge can be achieved at any level of abstraction. Pecking reflects the reality of the function of “red dots” the way a Saturn V reflects the reality of the function of a “launch pad” the way Newtonian physics reflects the reality of the function of “the force of gravity” the way that general relativity reflects the reality of “curved space time”.** Knowledge is contextual, hence your lock and key metaphor – one needs the other. But the key matches the contours of the lock and both of these are aspects of reality.***

Mat

 

* I CANNOT let this letter end without killing the suggestion that I think science is thrown out and updated every 20 years. No that’s Kuhnnian rubbish. Most pop science books are wrong though, that’s just Sturgeon’s law.

** The correspondence theory of truth is kind of greedy reductionism applied to truth.

*** Evolution is a little more complicated. The birds evolved to peck at red dots in reality. But the red dots themselves evolved to be pecked. Sometimes reality ruts back.

#57 On the key (and lock) to knowledge

Dear Mat,

This is a long letter but I feel we’ve alighted on a fundamental, multifaceted philosophical difference and it’s what I’ve been researching full time for several years so I’ve got too much to say.

OK. The brain is an organ situated in a body (including a gut) and a world (including a culture). The modern brain is in the same kind of body as before, but in a very different world. And the world is where most of a brain’s knowledge is. Insert mind-blowing sound effect. Continue reading #57 On the key (and lock) to knowledge

#56 On systems and their yardsticks

Dear Jamie,

I love snide but every part of your second paragraph tells me you didn’t understand my last letter at all. But the gut/unconscious is a good topic. The politics thread is getting stale.

We’re about to go on an Amazing Race of sorts, a race into the meta. I said that there are lots of ways that we understand ourselves to be wrong (congnitive biases, etc). You went meta and said that even knowing those limitations is evidence that our brain is uniquely suited for knowing things. Fair enough but you can’t stop there if you want to be serious about true knowledge. One more level my friend, take my hand. How the brain and world actually works is independent of our conscious knowledge about it. And that especially applies to brain science.

Our brains and gut function in a way we don’t understand. The brain and gut were the same when our theories of the brain and gut were different 20 years ago. The brain and gut were the same before we even had science to question how they worked. And critically, the brain and gut will be the same in 20 years’ time, when all our theories about them will be refreshed in a new set of pop science books. I know you know this but I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.

Through every twist, dead end and flash of insight science has achieved the rational mind kept thinking and the subconscious kept intuiting. System II has made real knowledge gains, despite it spending a lot of time spinning its wheels and going in the wrong direction. It’s most bountiful yield has been into how rational thought itself should work. And that makes sense. We’ve honed rules of logic and rationality that are very close to reality. And it’s quite clear system II is at its best when it follows these rules.

In contrast the subconscious can do no serious thinking, but it’s not supposed to. Shall we also criticise it because it’s not capable of digesting food? The conscious is an organ for rational thought, the subconscious is an organ for intuitive thought. The subconscious does its thing, we don’t know what that thing is. It’s not thinking that’s for sure. And applying logic as a yardstick is not an indictment of system I, it’s an indictment of the otherwise rational measurer insisting on using the wrong tool.

The subconscious clearly has a ton of hard-won knowledge that our conscious is no-where near grasping.* Just how does it beat the heart 100,000,000 times without fail and under unpredictable stressors? How does it do this and simultaneously control breaths with a similar unrelenting frequency? How does it attract you to a healthy compatible combination of genes in your potential mate without a genetic test? How does it track hundreds of relationships, multi-dimensional hierarchies and intuit social queues? It’s truly mind boggling. Rational theories stretch thin over these systems, they easily tear – simply not up to the task. And system II, failing to understand it, has the nerve to dismiss it as illogical and intervene on the basis of one of its soggy hypotheses?

While we argue and hypothesise it chugs away successfully exploiting real knowledge of complex systems with infinite variables.

Not only has the subconscious honed survival knowledge over the eons, it’s capable of new knowledge too. From a logic point of view that must be true, otherwise how did the existing knowledge get there in the first place? That specific process is probably tectonically slow. But even in our day to day the subconscious contributes to thinking. It clearly has a major role to play in creativity, a critical factor of system II knowledge generation.

You and I are compelled by Deutsch’s optimism to say that anything that isn’t physically impossible is possible given requisite knowledge. So it’s foreseeable in the future we would have the explicit knowledge to make a rational, system II, conscious intervention in heart beating, breathing, hierarchies or even society itself strategically better. Earlier I said intelligent intervention will make it worse, but I do believe that it is possible to make it better. There’s a paradox here I couldn’t shake for a while.

But I recently thought up an obvious answer: Just because it’s possible to rationally solve every problem, doesn’t mean we have the means to rationally solve every problem right now. Last time you visited Canberra I asked under what circumstances would you have your genes engineered by a hospital. You, having just had an organ unnecessarily removed, had the rather question-begging answer “when we know how to do it properly”.

The new (< 10,000 year old) problems you worry about are complex. We should keep pushing system II as hard as possible to understand them, but if we want to survive, I suggest taking system I seriously.

Love,
Mat

The blog of Jamie Freestone and Mathew McGann