Long time no see

I hope to be around more often, at least for a while.

Meta: Patterns in my posting (and my audience)

I’ve been posting long enough, and have enough reaction from others (mainly in the form of visits, links and posts on other blogs) that I can observe some patterns in how this all plays out.

My posts cluster roughly around three main themes (in retrospect, not by design):

  • Economic thinking, informed more by stochastic game theory than Arrow-Debreu style models
  • The social impact of exponential increases in computer power, especially coupled with statistical modeling
  • Philosophical analysis of emergence, supervenience, downward causation, population thinking, etc.

These seem to be interesting to readers roughly in that order, in (as best I can tell) a power-law like pattern — that is, I get several times as many visitors looking at my economic posts than my singularity / statistical modeling posts, and almost no one looking for my philosophical analysis (though the early Turner post has gotten some continuing attention).

I find the economics posts the easiest — I just “write what I see”. The statistical modeling stuff is somewhat more work, since I typically have to investigate technical issues in more depth than I would otherwise. Philosophical analysis much harder to write, and I’m typically less satisfied with it when I’m done.

The mildly frustrating thing about this is that I think the philosophical analysis is where I get most of my ability to provide value. My thinking about economics, for example, is mainly guided by my philosophical thinking, and I wouldn’t be able to see what I see without an arduously worked out set of conceptual habits and frameworks. I’d enjoy the kind of encouragement and useful additional perspectives I get from seeing people react to the other topics.

Reflecting on this a bit, I think mostly what I’m doing with the philosophical work is gradually prying loose a set of deeply rooted cognitive illusions — illusions that I’m pretty sure arise from the way consciousness works in the human brain. Early on, I wrote a couple of posts that touch on this theme — and in keeping with the pattern described above, they were hard to write, didn’t seem to get a lot of interested readers, and I found them useful conceptual steps forward.

“Prying loose illusions” is actually not a good way to describe what needs to be done. We wouldn’t want to describe Copernicus’ work as “prying loose the geocentric illusion”. If he just tried to do that it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, I’m building up ways of thinking that I can substitute for these cognitive illusions (partially, with setbacks). This is largely a job of cognitive engineering — finding ways of thinking that stick as habits, that become natural, that I can use to generate descriptions of stuff in the world (such as economic behavior) which others find useful, etc.

In my (ever so humble) opinion this is actually the most useful task philosophers could be doing, although unfortunately as far as I can tell they mostly don’t see it an important goal, and I suspect in many cases would say it is “not really philosophy”. To see if I’m being grossly unfair to philosophers, I just googled for “goals of x” for various disciplines (philosophy, physics, sociology, economics, …). The results are interesting and I think indicate I’m right (or at least not unfair), but I think I’ll save further thoughts for a post about this issue. If you’re curious feel free to try this at home.

Metaphysics that matters

I find questions about supervenience, the disjunction problem, etc. fascinating. I think at least some of these questions are very important.

But non-philosophers I know find these questions supremely boring — typically just pointless. These are people who find current “hard problems” in cosmology, quantum physics, mathematics, neuroscience, etc. interesting, even though they aren’t professionally involved in those fields. So why not philosophy?

Esoteric questions in other disciplines always seem to be connected to issues that make sense to non-experts. The dynamics of a probe D3-(anti-)brane propagating in a warped string compactification bear on whether there’s life after the big crunch. But technical problems in philosophy often seem disconnected from issues that matter to non-philosophers.

For example, typical arguments for property dualism assign the non-physical properties such a thin, peripheral, technical role that no one outside of philosophy has a reason to care if philosophers decide that property dualism is true or false. Zombies in some metaphysically possible (but nomologically impossible) world might be a little more or less unreal, and that’s about it. Similar disconnects exist for many other hot topics.

A constructive response

Enough complaining. Here is a list of metaphysical questions framed to emphasize their major implications outside of philosophy. I briefly connect each question with the existing philosophical debate and with some examples of non-philosophical implications, but I don’t provide enough background to make this very accessible to people who don’t already know the philosophical issues. If you want more context, ask!

  • How should we think about the relationship of a coarser grained entity to its finer grained components?

    This is my version of the question of how mind supervenes on the brain, how macroscopic entities supervene on micro-physics, etc. To connect with any field outside of philosophy, we have to accept that coarser grained entities “exist” in some useful sense; the question is what sense.

    This issue is very important in many disciplines:

    • How do individuals make up institutions?
    • How do modular brain sub-systems interact in complex cognitive skills?
    • How do molecular level biological processes coordinate to maintain and reproduce cellular level structure?

    Every discipline addresses these questions in limited, specific ways. However I think most disciplines avoid dealing with them fully and explicitly, because we currently lack the conceptual framework we need to talk about them clearly, or even to know what should count as a general answer. If philosophy can shed any light on the general question, it will help people better come to grips with the specific issues on their home turf.

  • How does a coarser grained entity affect the behavior of its finer grained components?

    This is the question of downward causation, an important issue in the context of supervenience. Again, to engage other disciplines, we need philosophical discussions that accept that disciplines need to think about how coarser grained entities do somehow affect the activities of their components,. Philosophy can potentially provide a schema for handling specific cases.

    Real examples, parallel to the questions above:

    • How do institutions influence the behavior of the people who make them up?
    • How do skills or habits organize the behavior of brain modules?
    • How do cells regulate the molecular processes that maintain them?
  • How can we tell whether a proposed concept picks out a meaningful aspect of the world, or not?

    This is typically discussed as the disjunction problem in philosophy. A recent example was the debate in the both the astronomy community and the public sphere over whether Pluto was “really” a planet.

    The deeper questions behind any specific disciplinary debate are:

    • Is this choice of terms arbitrary (perhaps socially determined), or do some terms actually “carve nature at the joints” better than others?
    • Assuming there are terms that better fit the structure of the world, what criteria tell us that we’ve found them?

    These are hard questions, debated by most disciplines from time to time, as new terms are needed or old ones become questionable. But currently, there is no bridge between the related debates in philosophy over the disjunction problem and more generally the relationship between propositions and the structure of the world, and the needs of practitioners in the disciplines.

  • How should we handle dubious references?

    There are a number of ongoing struggles within philosophy about how to handle problematic references — for example, to Sherlock Holmes’ hat (I’m sure you remember what it looks like). The problem of course is that Holmes never existed so we can’t even say he had no hat. But in various ways similar problems arise for the entities referenced in counterfactuals (“If a large spider had been here, James would have run away”), theoretical entities of uncertain status (the very D3-(anti-)brane referenced above), and even perfectly normal mathematical entities (3).

    Again, the status of hypothetical entities, and even how to debate that status, is an important issue from time to time in most disciplines. For example, the status of the entities posited by string theory (such as the brane above) is a matter of extremely heated debate. The debate is not just about whether these entities exist, but whether it even makes sense to treat them as hypothetical. More violent disagreements along these lines arise in fields such as literary theory, for example.

    Disciplines must answer questions similar to those above, when confronting any given cluster of dubious references:

    • How should we decide whether these references “work” well enough to be worth using?
    • What can we do to make them into respectable references, or alternatively discover that they should be rejected?

    And again, philosophy has an opportunity, if it chooses, to help disciplines make these judgments by finding ways to translate whatever insights can be derived from its internal debates.

So what?

Questions like these now fall into a no-mans land. The specific disciplines where they arise aren’t professionally concerned with the broad questions — they just want to resolve a specific problem and move on. Philosophy, which seems to be the natural home for these broad questions, appears to largely ignore connections to examples like those that arise in other disciplines.

So I would argue that philosophy is missing a major opportunity here, and failing to contribute in ways that would make it a much more credible and important discipline. Whether or not the discipline of philosophy as a whole addresses these questions, I think they deserve attention, and I plan to work on them.

Sorry for the hiatus

I’ve had things to say, but no time to figure out how to say them. I hope to be around more at least for a while.

Against dogmatism

Sometimes the topics I’m writing about, taken together, seem both too diverse and too abstract. Why care so much whether meaning is defined in typological or population terms, whether social practices really exist, and how to reconcile economics with open source?

On reflection, I’ve realized I care about these topics because they can help to counter a rising tide of dogmatism. But I come to that answer through my personal history.

I grew up in a left-wing household, and my parents, while not Stalinists, were sometimes influenced by Stalinist arguments. On the other hand for us the McCarthy hearings (and related frenzies) were a very real threat. I went to a Friends (Quaker) school, and while Friends are more open than many religions, in my school the ones in charge were just as dogmatic about their core beliefs as members of any other religion. I found all these positions unacceptable as a child (perhaps simply because I was exposed to all of them at once) and I became anti-dogmatic, without realizing that’s what I was.

By high school I was trying to understand how social groups can institutionalize non-dogmatic belief formation. Science appealed to me as intrinsically anti-dogmatic (at least in aspiration). I was fascinated by Popper; his emphasis on refutation and his rejection of confirmation seemed almost perfectly anti-dogmatic.

Over time I discovered that scientific disciplines often had their own dogmas, though not so rigidly protected from discussion as most religious and political ones. I also encountered Kuhn’s work, and realized that Popper’s story, though useful, was an inadequate account of scientific belief formation. Kuhn and Feyeraband seem to show that existing rational stories about belief change could not work, but Kuhn, at least, rejected irrationalism. Continued reading in the philosophy of science gradually clarified the issues, but provided no satisfying resolution.

In the 1970s I pursued AI (Artificial Intelligence) as a testbed for social belief formation and transmission. Unfortunately at that point AI was committed to understanding language by encoding “common sense knowledge” into axioms, and then using these axioms to reason about utterances and situations. These commitments had deep roots in the same traditions that led to Popper. Given what I knew about belief change in the history of science, and the diversity of worldviews in ethnographic studies, I could see this approach was doomed to failure. However given my sense of the depth of these commitments, I saw no point in arguing. Those who saw similar problems, such as Hubert Dreyfus, seemed to counsel abandonment of any work toward explicit models of thought, something I was not willing to accept.

I continued to read in philosophy, history, anthropology, linguistics, AI and related areas, gradually piling up some insights but finding no way to tackle the core problems. Finally, by the late 1980s, the original AI program had obviously failed, degenerating into technology for “expert systems”, and new approaches were able to establish themselves. With the rise of statistical modeling for learning, language understanding, and robotics I began to see ideas that offered some hope of breaking the impasse. Evolutionary epistemology also seemed promising but at the time I did not see it as related to the new ideas in AI.

During this period dogmatic political and social positions, which had never been absent, were gaining strength. The last six years has seemed to me a veritable carnival of rampant dogmatism, attacking science, social diversity, and the values that underpin civil society.

In domains such as health care, environmental policy, biology education, economic policy, etc. various interest groups promoted positions using dogmatic tactics that undercut and often simply eliminated civil discussion and decision making. Sometimes these positions were actually advocated for dogmatic reasons, but often their dogmatic framing was simply a convenient way to gain a social and rhetorical advantage. Furthermore dogmatic attacks tend to beget dogmatic counter-attacks. By flying airplanes into buildings, some people with dogmatic beliefs promoted the dramatic hardening and expansion of other dogmatic positions.

These attacks come at a time when our cultural and intellectual resources for combating dogmatism are relatively weak. The self-confidence of the rational enlightenment project has been shattered by wars and genocide during the twentieth century, and by justifiable criticisms of its ethnocentrism during our transition to a much more multi-cultural world discourse. At the same time (and for reasons that are closely related) we have gradually realized that the enlightenment project depended on deeply flawed rationalist assumptions, for example that our discourse takes place in a common language with universal meanings.

I suspect the problems that stumped me for more than twenty years were problems for me because of this very weakness. After all, my interest in them arose from encounters with political and religious dogmatism, and in my search for alternatives I ran squarely into the failure of rational stories about belief change.

This very long road has convinced me that tools such as population thinking and statistical modeling can play a significant role in solving these problems, and making civil discourse powerful enough to contain and manage dogmatism. Though this connection may seem surprising and even dubious, I believe it is very real, and my posts here are aimed at building a bridge over which ideas from these technical domains can pass into wider use.