Tag: fallacies

The limitations and fundamental nature of systems are not understood

December 22nd, 2012 — 7:31pm

Recently, I’ve become more and more aware of the limitations of conscious thought and formal models of entities and systems. We don’t understand how political systems make decisions, how world events occur, or even how we choose what to wear on any particular day. Cause and effect doesn’t exist in the form it is commonly imagined. We do not know what our bodies are capable of. We certainly don’t understand the basis of biology or DNA. Aside from the fact that there are so many phenomena we cannot explain yet, the models of chemistry and physics are an artificial mesh that is superimposed upon a much messier world. They work within reason, up to and including the phenomena that they can predict, but to confuse them with reality is insanity. In this vein it is interesting to also contemplate, for instance, that we don’t understand all the capabilities that a computer might have. Its CPU and hardware, while highly predictable, are fashioned out of the sub-conceptual and non-understood stuff that the world is made of. One day we may stumble upon software that makes them do something highly unexpected.

What’s the purpose of all this negative arguing then? What I want to get at when I say that we don’t understand this and we don’t understand that is a new, deeper intellectual honesty and a willingness to face the phenomena anew, raw, fresh, as they really appear to us. There’s a world of overlooked stuff out there.

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Computer science, Philosophy, Software development

The limits of responsibility

December 23rd, 2011 — 2:26am

(The multi-month hiatus here on Monomorphic has been due to me working on my thesis. I am now able to, briefly, return to this and other indulgences.)

Life presupposes taking responsibility. It presupposes investing people, objects and matters around you with your concern.

In particular, democratic society presupposes that we all take full, in some sense, responsibility for society itself, its decision making and its future.

However, he who lacks information about some matter cannot take responsibility for it. And thus we often defer to authorities in practice. Authorities allow us to specialise our understanding, which increases our net ability to understand as a collective, assuming that we have sufficiently well functioning interpersonal communication.

There are whole categories of problems that routinely are assigned to specific, predefined authorities and experts; for instance legal matters, constitutional matters, whether some person is mentally ill, medical matters, nuclear and chemical hazards, and so on. Fields where some degree of extensive training is generally required. (However, under the right conditions, these authorities could probably also be called into question by the public opinion.) The opposite is those categories of problems that are routinely assigned to “public opinion” and all of its voices and modulating contraptions and devices, its amplifiers, dampeners, filters, switches and routing mechanisms.

Responsibility aside, in order to maximise an individual’s prospects for life, and by extension society’s prospects for life, it seems important that the individual possess just the right knowledge that they need in their situation. Adding more knowledge is not always a benefit; some kinds of knowledge can be entirely counterproductive. Nietzsche showed this (“On the use and abuse of history for life”), and we can easily apply the idea of computational complexity to see how having access to more information would make it harder to make  decisions.

This is especially true for some kinds of knowledge: knowledge about potential grave dangers, serious threats, monumental changes threatening to take place. Once we have such knowledge we cannot unlearn it, even if it is absolutely clear that we cannot act on it and that we do not have the competence to assess the situation fully. It  takes effort and an act of will to fully disregard a threat on the basis of one’s own insufficient competence.

On the other hand, knowledge about opportunities, about resources, and about problems that one is able to, or could become able to deal with, would generally be helpful and not harmful. However, even this could be harmful if the information is so massive as to turn into noise.

Even disregarding these kinds of knowledge, one of the basic assumptions of democracy – that each individual takes full responsibility for society – seems to be an imperative that is designed never to be fulfilled. An imperative designed to be satisfied by patchworks of individual decisions and “public opinion”, and whatever information fate happens to throw in one’s way. Out of a basic, healthy understanding of their own limitations, individuals generally assume that the democratic imperative to know and to take responsibility was never meant to be taken seriously anyway, but one does one’s best to match one’s peers in appearing to do so.

It seems to me that the questions we must ask and answer are about the proper extent of responsibility, and the proper extent of knowledge, for each individual. For the individual, taking on no responsibility seems detrimental to life; taking on full responsibility for all problems in the world right now, here today, would also be an impossibility. There would be such a thing as a proper extent of responsibility. One’s initial knowledge and abilities would inform this proper extent of responsibility, and the two might properly expand and shrink together, rather than expand and shrink separately.

In a democratic society, in so far as one wants to have one, we should ask: what is the proper level of responsibility that society should expect from each individual, and what level should the individual expect from himself as an ideal?

More generally, empirical studies of how public opinion functions and how democracies function in practice are needed. It is inappropriate to judge and critique democracies based on their founding ideals when the democratic practice differs sharply from those ideals – as inappropriate as it is to critique and judge economies based on the presumption that classical economic principles apply to economic practice in the large.

3 comments » | Philosophy

Assessing research quality

April 28th, 2011 — 4:48pm

Academic research is difficult to evaluate. In order to know the significance of an article, a result or an experiment, one must know a lot about the relevant field. It is probably fair to say that few people read research articles in great depth unless they work in exactly the area the article is in. PhD theses might cite hundreds of articles, but it seems natural that not all of these articles will be read with the same degree of scrutiny by the author of the thesis.

Hence the trouble with obtaining funding for research. In order to obtain funding, you have to communicate something that seems incommunicable without the full commitment of the reader. Grant dispensers want to know a number on a scale: “what’s the quality of this paper between 0 and 1?”, but this quality number cannot be communicated separately from the full substance of the paper and its environs. And thus we end up with keywords, catchphrases that become associated with quality for short periods of time, as a way of bypassing this complexity, an approximate way of indicating that you are doing research on something worthwhile.

This reflects a broader problem in society of evaluating authorities. I cannot evaluate my doctor’s, or my dentist’s, or my lawyer’s work, since I don’t have the necessary competence. Accordingly, I base my trust on the person and some of their superficial attributes, instead of judging the work by itself. It seems that the same kind of thing becomes necessary sometimes in choosing what researchers to fund.

It also points to a faculty that must have evolved in human being since millennia: the capacity for evaluating important properties of things we do not understand well very quickly, for danger, nutrition, etc. Only that this faculty does not translate well to research…

Comment » | Computer science

Values 1: Philosophy, science, and their relationship

January 18th, 2011 — 10:40pm

This is hopefully the start of a short series of posts in which I attempt to relate the concepts of value and value creation, in particular as they were understood by Friedrich Nietzsche, to the modern world, in some kind of way. Comments of all kinds are encouraged!

In the beginning (understood as ancient Greece), there was philosophy. That is to say, most systematic inquiry into matters worth thinking about was collected under this umbrella term. Ethics, politics, epistemology and metaphysics went side by side with physics, biology and astronomy. As millennia passed, the collective human knowledge and scholarly labour grew, and some philosophical disciplines got their own name, cut the umbilical cord, and got to stand on their own feet.

There are many definitions as to what a philosopher is; one definition would be those who study the academic subject of philosophy in academic institutions. The German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote at length about what a philosopher really is; in his definition a philosopher is someone who creates values. Nietzsche rejected morals and universal truth as laid down by a God or higher authority; instead they are created by subjective human beings, and by philosophers in particular.

Perhaps [the genuine philosopher] himself must have  been critic and sceptic and dogmatist and historian and also poet and collector and traveller and solver of riddles and moralist and seer and “free spirit” and almost everything in order to pass through the whole range of human values and value feelings […] But all these are merely preconditions of his task: this task itself demands something different – it demands that he create values.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, s. 211, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

We may understand a scholar to be a person who processes knowledge. Good scholarship entails marshalling what has been written and studied previously, perhaps with a view to settling a question or supporting a perspective. Scientists and philosophers can make use of scholars in their work. To the extent that the scholar does more than merely process knowledge, he or she is something more than a scholar.

In contrast, a scientist, as we understand him or her today, is someone who combines scholarship and primary investigation (in the form of calculation, experimentation, measurement and so on) in order to create models of nature and the world, in order to gain the power to explain. The classical scientific process involves repeated refinement of hypotheses until one that cannot be proven wrong has been found.

Today, science, which formerly was known as natural philosophy, has grown enormously large, and to most people probably appears to have much greater value than philosophy. The scientific mindset is widely appreciated and respected throughout the world — perhaps too respected. Scientists learn as one of their highest virtues to be skeptical and to reject assertions that are made without a basis in measurement or theory. Paralysis by skepticism is very much a possibility. To see the danger in this, we have to recognise that a great deal of valuable things in human history have been created without such a basis – by people who have been something like the ones Nietzsche describes.

The dangers for a philosopher’s development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all. The scope and the tower-building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows weary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a “specialist” – so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. […]

Indeed, the crowd has for a long time misjudged and mistaken the philosopher, whether for a scientific man and ideal scholar or for a religiously elevated, desensualized, “desecularized” enthusiast and sot of god. And if a man is praised today for living “wisely” or “as a philosopher”, it hardly means more than “prudently and apart”.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, s. 205, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

In fact, scientists today do not, in my experience, work like the ideal scientist described above. Scientists often use their own judgment and their own values in order to influence how their science is to be used. Einstein and Oppenheimer had opinions about the use and misuse of the nuclear bomb. Creators of vaccine may have opinions on how it is to be distributed and may be able to influence this. Sometimes these value statements made by scientists are pure judgments, applications of an ethic that the scientists already believe in. However, sometimes the situation is so new that the scientists effectively have to create values. To the extent that they do this, these scientists dabble in ethics, morality and philosophy, but this is often overlooked, as is the fact that scientific method itself was created by philosophy.

Nietzsche calls for philosophers to make use of scientists and artists, and create values in the service of mankind. He calls for a new recognition of the true role and dignity of philosophy, which does not at all need to mean a reduction of the value of science, but rather an expansion of the whole system. Philosophy stands naturally above science and scholarship and uses them as its tools. The activity of creating values based on philosophical insight by necessity goes on constantly and should not be confined to little nooks in the margins of society. The full extent of and need for this activity needs to be acknowledged.

Has the situation changed since Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil in 1886?

3 comments » | Computer science, Philosophy


July 4th, 2010 — 12:24pm

A characteristic of a naive approach to the digital world is the tendency to record and store everything. JustBecauseWeCan. Every photo, every e-mail, every song, every web site ever visited, every acquaintance who ever added you as a friend on some social network, every message you ever received. Somebody, probably an author, termed this the “database complex”, I think. A projection of a certain greedy tendency to gather and collect things. This does have certain benefits when coupled with a good search function. Every now and then I find myself having to use some information that only exists in an e-mail that I received 6 months ago or so.

A more advanced approach is selective forgetfulness. Humans cannot go on with their lives if they do not forget memories and experiences that are irrelevant and useless. They become unable to set and act on new targets. I think that a slightly less naive digital life would contain a measure of deletion. Deletion of files, old e-mails that have probably become useless, “friends” on social networks who are mere acquaintances or even less, and so on. Taking away the old makes space for the new. It can be especially powerful to see the number of files in your home directory reduced from 50 to 5. A lot of confusion and ambivalence is immediately removed.

Part of taking the next step step deeper into the digital age should be deciding, each for themselves, what one’s personal thresholds and principles of deletion are. What should be deleted, when and why? In our brains it has been managed by evolution for us. Now we must manage it by ourselves.

1 comment » | Life, Uncategorized

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