Thursday, October 28, 2010

Normative shmormative

In the light of some recent discussions on this site (here and here), I thought it might be appropriate for me to make a short statement about my general attitude to science and philosophy. I am not as convinced as some of my interlocutors are about the coherence and value of philosophy as a discipline, but I know this is a personal thing, and I certainly don't presume to tell others what they should do or be interested in!

I tend to think historically, and I see a grand tradition of thinkers who were called philosophers, but many (most?) of the great names (e.g. Descartes, Leibniz) were also scientists and/or mathematicians. What is left of philosophy after all the sciences have been peeled off from it does not attract me - unless it can be reconnected in some way with the sciences. I am not unsympathetic to the Quinean view that philosophy of science is philosophy enough. But there are very different ways of seeing the philosophy of science.

As I have the view that philosophy is not an independent discipline, I tend to see any authority to set epistemic norms and make definite judgements on factual matters as residing within specific scientific traditions, and the role of philosophical thinking as essentially clarificatory; but also speculative in the sense that it may suggest new conjectures to be considered or new ways of conceptualizing or interpreting data.

From what I have said it may seem that my worldview is rather impoverished, but let me hasten to say that my view of the world embraces lots of non-scientific things (e.g. pleasure in language and literature). I see morality and manners as being of central importance, but I am reluctant to accept the need for experts in ethics and similar areas (except in limited pedagogical contexts).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The unity of science

I have always disliked the idea that there is some kind of dividing line between the human sciences and the so-called 'hard sciences' like physics and chemistry. In the 1920s and 1930s the thinkers of the Vienna Circle pursued the 'unity of science' ideal, sensing in the division between the human and other sciences traces of a dualism of mind and matter.

But the unity of science project was strenuously resisted, and attempts (often rather crude) to apply the methods of quantitative science to human questions were - and still are - attacked as 'scientism'. Even the scientifically-minded thinker and  economist Friedrich von Hayek used the term 'scientism' to describe what he saw as misguided attempts to turn economics into a science like classical physics.

But (and I take my cue here from Nassim Nicholas Taleb) Hayek and others who maintain "a hard and qualitative distinction between the social sciences and physics" * are working with an outmoded notion of physics.

The 'hard sciences', we now know, go well beyond the traditional engineering-oriented mentality and the approaches of classical physics - they are far more complicated and shot through with predictive uncertainties (randomness) than was appreciated in the past.

So the idea of the unity of science is given a new lease of life as the nature of science (and reality) is better understood.

Furthermore, socialistic notions of central planning - once claimed to be 'scientific' - are clearly exposed as being based on an inadequate view of science; while the conservative's traditional skepticism about government action and awareness of the dangers of unintended consequences is given (rather belated) scientific support and vindication.

* The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable (Penguin, 2008), p. 181.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Head-hijacking Martians

A reviewer wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Nassim Nicholas Taleb "is an eclectic scholar and a rude man." Yes and yes. He is also provocative, intelligent and informed. (Some other adjectives and epithets appear in the comments section of my previous post.)

Here is Taleb's description of a (typical?) philosophy colloquium [The black swan (Penguin, 2008), p.289]:


A number of semishabbily dressed (but thoughtful-looking) people gather in a room, silently looking at a guest speaker. They are all professional philosophers attending the prestigious weekly colloquium at a New York-area university. The speaker sits with his nose drowned in a set of typewritten pages, from which he reads in a monotone voice. He is hard to follow, so I daydream a bit and lose his thread. I can vaguely tell that the discussion revolves around some "philosophical" debate about Martians invading your head and controlling your will, all the while preventing you from knowing it. There seem to be several theories concerning this idea, but the speaker's opinion differs from those of other writers on the subject. He spends some time showing where his research on these head-hijacking Martians is unique. After his monologue (fifty-five minutes of relentless reading of the typewritten material) there is a short break, then another fifty-five minutes of discussion about Martians planting chips and other outlandish conjectures. Wittgenstein is occasionally mentioned (you can always mention Wittgenstein since he is vague enough to always seem relevant)."

Taleb proceeds then to be very rude to those philosophers "whose curiosity is focused on regimented on-the-shelf topics" and whose critical faculties are "domain dependent." In other words they fail to apply their skeptical methods beyond their philosophical work. For instance, they might blindly believe in the abilities of their pension plan managers.

"Beyond this, they may believe without question that we can predict societal events ... that politicians know more about what is going on than their drivers, that the chairman of the Federal Reserve saved the economy, and so many such things. They may also believe that nationality matters (they always stick "French," "German," or "American" in front of a philosopher's name, as if this has something to do with anything he has to say)."

If Taleb is hard on philosophers, it is not because he doubts the importance of philosophy but precisely because he believes in its importance. "Philosophers," he writes, are "the watchdogs of critical thinking" and "have duties beyond those of other professions."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Of mice and men

Last night, as I was walking on a footpath by the river, I felt something softish roll under my left heel. It was a juvenile mouse (or some such rodent) which had fatally mistimed its dash across the path. It was still breathing, its body apparently split, with yellow stuff coming out. I didn't have the stomach to put it out of its misery and gingerly pushed it aside with the toe of my shoe and walked on.

Later in the evening, I chanced upon this passage, this cri de coeur, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, with the section heading, "The world is unfair":

"Is the world that unfair? I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness. The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature. The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside. Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more fooled by it than they were the previous day. It is becoming unbearable. I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting." *

*The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable (Penguin, 2008), p.215.

[Something lighter next time. I promise!]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fake wisdom

"Half the time," writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The black swan*, " I am hyperconservative in the conduct of my own affairs; the other half I am hyperaggressive. This may not seem exceptional, except that my conservatism applies to what others call risk taking, and my aggressivenes to areas where others recommend caution."

For example, on the stock market, 'safe' blue chip stocks present invisible (and potentially terminal) risks, whereas speculative stocks "offer no surprises since you know how volatile they are and can limit your downside by investing smaller amounts."

There might be some wisdom in this - it is the theme of the book. But this, which follows on the next page, is, I think, more dubious.

"I once received [a] piece of life-changing advice, which ... I find applicable, wise, and empirically valid. My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, "I don't run for trains."

Taleb continues: "I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you are seeking."

The last sentence is good. It makes sense. But my advice on the other matter (for what it's worth) is to run fast and catch the train. (And, more generally, to be wary of anyone who speaks in parables.)

*The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. (Penguin 2008). Quotations from pages 295, 296 and 297.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The randomness at the heart of reality

Is reality ultimately based on randomness? How one answers this question ultimately colors one's outlook (I suggest) in deep and subtle ways. Of course, there are many ways one could approach the issue and there are ambiguities in the question itself. But I am drawn to such questions as this (as a moth to a flame?) and, since I read and think about them, I might as well write about them here from time to time.

Here, then, are a few notes about Vlatko Vedral's view of the issue ...

Vedral draws a distinction between "classical superficial randomness" (e.g. coin tosses) and "quantum fundamental randomness" (see Decoding reality (OUP, 2010), p.163). Randomness approximates to unpredictability and much in our world appears random because it is impossible to predict in practice even if in theory one could do so using the methods of classical physics (if one had all the relevant data etc.). But the quantum world is different. No prediction can be made (even in theory) of certain quantum events. Quantum theory embraces randomness, and sees some quantum phenomena as random in a fundamental sense.*

We can think of scientific theories, Vedral writes (p. 166), as computer programs "with the output being the result of whatever experiment we are trying to model. We say that our theory is powerful, if we can compress all sorts of observations into very few equations."

But any theory will be finite and will (as Gregory Chaitin first fully realized within information theory) only produce a finite set of results. "In other words, there will be many experimental outcomes that could not be compressed within the theory. And this effectively implies that they are random." (p. 167)

Is the randomness in quantum theory due to the theory's incompleteness - our lack of knowledge of a more detailed deterministic underlying theory - as some people think? Or is "randomness inherent in the Universe, and therefore ... [an essential] part of any physical description of reality? Randomness could simply be there because our description of reality is always .... finite and anything requiring more information than that would appear to be random (since our description could not predict it)." (p. 167-168)

Vedral states what he sees as a "very profound conclusion" that this view implies: "that randomness in quantum physics is far from unexpected - in fact according to this logic it is actually essential. Furthermore, it would mean that whatever theory - if any - superseded quantum physics, it would still have to contain some random features." (p. 168)

To me it matters (or seems to matter) whether or not randomness is at the heart of things. Does it matter to you?

* I have revised this passage slightly in response to a comment.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A model of restraint

Moralizing is a perilous business. It's all too easy to convey not just a moral point, but a sense of moral superiority or self-righteousness also. Perhaps I'm oversensitive to these things and see smugness where there is none, but I do react negatively to most moralizers, especially (for some reason) when they happen to be philosophy professors. (Peter Singer comes to mind.)

I was reminded of these issues when I read a recent article by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Any response that I might make would tend to sarcasm. By contrast, Norman Geras remains dispassionate. His critique of Appiah's article is a model of conciseness, clarity and restraint.