Followup: messy confusions

My last post was a long enthusiastic ramble through a lot of topics that have been in my head recently. After I finished writing it, I had an interesting experience. I’d temporarily got all the enthusiasm out of my system and was sick of the sight of the post, so that what was left was all the vague confusions and nagging doubts that were sitting below it. This post is where I explore those, instead. (Though now I’m getting excited again… the cycle repeats.)

Nothing in here really invalidates the previous post, so far as I can tell. I’ve just reread it and I’m actually pretty happy with it. It’s just… more mess. Things that don’t fit neatly into the story I told last time, or things that I know I’m still missing background in.

I haven’t bothered to even try and impose any structure on this post, it’s just a list of confusions in more-or-less random order. I also haven’t made much effort to unpack my thoughts carefully, so I don’t know how comprehensible all of this is.

I probably do have to read Heidegger or something

My background in reading philosophy is, more or less, ‘some analytic philosophers plus Kant’. I’ve been aware for a long time now that that just isn’t enough to cover the space, and that I’m missing a good sense of what the options even are.

I’m slowly coming round to the idea that I should fix that, even though it’s going to involve reading great lumps of text in various annoying writing styles I don’t understand. I now have a copy of Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World, which isn’t exactly easy going in itself, but is still better than actually reading Heidegger.

Also, I went to the library at UWE Bristol, my nearest university, the other weekend, and someone there must be a big Merleau-Ponty fan. It looks like I can get all the phenomenology I can eat reasonably easily, if that’s what I decide I want to read.

One thing: worse than two things

Still, reading back what I wrote last time about mess, I think that even at my current level of understanding I did manage to extricate myself before I made a complete fool of myself:

There is still some kind of principled distinction here, some way to separate the two. The territory corresponds pretty well to the bottom-up bit, and is characterised by the elements of experience that respond in unpredictable, autonomous ways when we investigate them. There’s no way to know a priori that my mess is going to consist of exercise books, a paper tetrahedron and a kitten notepad. You have to, like, go and look at it.

The map corresponds better to the top-down bit, the ordering principles we are trying to impose. These are brought into play by the specific objects we’re looking at, but have more consistency across environments – there are many other things that we would characterise as mess.

Still, we’ve come a long way from the neat picture of the Less Wrong wiki quote. The world outside the head and the model inside it are getting pretty mixed up. For one thing, describing the remaining ‘things in the head’ as a ‘model’ doesn’t fit too well. We’re not building up a detailed internal representation of the mess. For another, we directly perceive mess as mess. In some sense we’re getting the world ‘all at once’, without the top-down and bottom-up parts helpfully separated.

The main reason I was talking about not having enough philosophical background to cover the space is that I’ve no idea yet how thoroughgoing I want to be in this direction of mushing everything up together. There is this principled distinction between all the autonomous uncontrollable stuff that the outside world is throwing at you, and the stuff inside your head. Making a completely sharp distinction between them is silly, but I still want to say that that it’s a lot less silly than ‘all is One’ silliness. Two things really is better than one thing.

Sarah Constantin went over similar ground recently:

The basic, boring fact, usually too obvious to state, is that most of your behavior is proximately caused by your brain (except for reflexes, which are controlled by your spinal cord.) Your behavior is mostly due to stuff inside your body; other people’s behavior is mostly due to stuff inside their bodies, not yours. You do, in fact, have much more control over your own behavior than over others’.

This is obvious, but seems worth restating to me too. People writing in the vague cluster that sometimes gets labelled postrationalist/metarationalist are often really keen on the blurring of these categories. The boundary of the self is fluid, our culture affects how we think of ourselves, concepts don’t have clear boundaries, etc etc. Maybe it’s just a difference in temperament, but so far I’ve struggled to get very excited by any of this. You can’t completely train the physicist out of me, and I’m more interested in the pattern side than the nebulosity side. I want to shake people lost in the relativist fog, and shout ‘look at all the things we can find in here!’

How important is this stuff for doing science?

One thing that fascinates me is how well physics often does by just dodging the big philosophical questions.

Newtonian mechanics had deficiencies that were obvious to the most sophisticated thinkers of the time — instantaneous action at a distance, absolute acceleration — but worked unbelievably well for calculational purposes anyway. Leibniz had most of the good arguments, but Newton had a bucket, and the thing just worked, and pragmatism won the day for a while. (Though there were many later rounds of that controversy, and we’re not finished yet.)

This seems to be linked to the strange feature that we can come up with physical theories that describe most of the phenomena pretty well, but have small holes, and filling in the holes requires not small bolt-on corrections but a gigantic elegant new superstructure that completely subsumes the old one. So the ‘naive’ early theories work far better than you might expect having seen the later ones. David Deutsch puts it nicely in The Fabric of Reality (I’ve bolded the key sentence):

…the fact that there are complex organisms, and that there has been a succession of gradually improving inventions and scientific theories (such as Galilean mechanics, Newtonian mechanics, Einsteinian mechanics, quantum mechanics,…) tells us something more about what sort of computational universality exists in reality. It tells us that the actual laws of physics are, thus far at least, capable of being successively approximated by theories that give ever better explanations and predictions, and that the task of discovering each theory, given the previous one, has been computationally tractable, given the previously known laws and the previously available technology. The fabric of reality must be, as it were, layered, for easy self-access.

One thing that physics has had a really good run of plugging its ears to and avoiding completely is questions of our internal perceptions of the world as it appears to us. Apart from some rather basic forms of observer-dependence (only seeing the light rays that travel to our eyes, etc.), we’ve mostly been able to sustain a simple realist model of a ‘real world out there’ that ‘appears to us directly’ (the quotes are there to suggest that this works best of all if you interpret the words in a common sense sort of way and don’t think too deeply about exactly what they mean). There hasn’t been much need within physics to posit top-down style explanations, where our observations are constrained by the possible forms of our perception, or interpreted in the light of our previous understanding.

(I’m ignoring the various weirdo interpretations of quantum theory that have a special place for the conscious human observer here, because they haven’t produced much in the way of new understanding. You can come up with a clever neo-Kantian interpretation of Bohr, or an awful woo one, but so far these have always been pretty free-floating, rather than locking onto reality in a way that helps us do more.)

Eddington, who had a complex and bizarre idealist metaphysics of his own, discusses this in The Nature of the Physical World (my bolds again):

The synthetic method by which we build up from its own symbolic elements a world which will imitate the actual behaviour of the world of familiar experience is adopted almost universally in scientific theories. Any ordinary theoretical paper in the scientific journals tacitly assumes that this approach is adopted. It has proved to be the most successful procedure; and it is the actual procedure underlying the advances set forth in the scientific part of this book. But I would not claim that no other way of working is admissible. We agree that at the end of the synthesis there must be a linkage to the familiar world of consciousness, and we are not necessarily opposed to attempts to reach the physical world from that end…

…Although this book may in most respects seem diametrically opposed to Dr Whitehead’s widely read philosophy of Nature, I think it would be truer to regard him as an ally who from the opposite side of the mountain is tunneling to meet his less philosophically minded colleagues. The important thing is not to confuse the two entrances.

This is all very nice, but it doesn’t seem much of a fair division of labour. When it comes to physics, Eddington’s side’s got those big Crossrail tunnelling machines, while Whitehead’s side is bashing at rocks with a plastic bucket and spade. The naive realist world-as-given approach just works extraordinarily well, and there hasn’t been a need for much of a tradition of tunnelling on the other side of the mountain.

Where I’m trying to go with this is that I’m not too sure where philosophical sophistication actually gets us. I think the answer for physics might be ‘not very far’… at least for this type of philosophical sophistication. (Looking for deeper understanding of particular conceptual questions within current physics seems to go much better.) Talking about ‘the real world out there’ just seems to work very well.

Maybe this only holds for physics, though. If we’re talking about human cognition, it looks inescapable that we’re going to have to do some digging on the other side.

This is roughly the position I hold at the moment, but I notice I still have a few doubts. The approach of ‘find the most ridiculous and reductive possible theory and iterate from there’ had some success even in psychology. Behaviourism and operant conditioning were especially ridiculous and reductive, but found some applications anyway (horrible phone games and making pigeons go round in circles).

I don’t know much about the history, but as far as I know behaviourism grew out of the same intellectual landscape as logical positivism (but persisted longer?), which is another good example of a super reductive wrong-but-interesting theory that probably had some useful effects. Getting the theory to work was hopeless, but I do see why people like Cosma Shalizi and nostalgebraist have some affection for it.

[While I’m on this subject, is it just me or does old 2008-style Less Wrong have a similar flavour to the logical positivists? That same ‘we’ve unmasked the old questions of philosophy as meaningless non-problems, everything makes sense in the light of our simple new theory’ tone? Bayesianism is more sophisticated than logical positivism, because it can accommodate some top-down imposition of order on perception in the form of priors. But there’s still often a strange incuriosity about what priors are and how they’d work, that gives me the feeling that it hasn’t broken away completely from the unworkable positivist world of clean logical propositions about sense-impressions.

The other similarity is that both made an effort to write as clearly as possible, so that where things are wrong you have a hope of seeing that they’re wrong. I learned a lot ten years ago from arguing in my head with Language, Truth and Logic, and I’m learning a lot now from arguing in my head with Less Wrong.]

Behaviourism was superseded by more sophisticated bad models (‘the brain is a computer that stores and updates a representation of its surroundings’) that presumably still have some domain of application, and it’s plausible that a good approach is to keep hammering on each one until it stops producing anything. Maybe there’s a case for the good old iterative approach of bashing, say, neural nets together until we’ve understood all the things neural nets can and can’t do, and only then bashing something else together once that finally hits diminishing returns.

I’m not actually convincing myself here! ‘We should stop having good ideas, and just make the smallest change to the current bad ones that might get us further’ is a crummy argument, and I definitely don’t believe it. But like Deutsch I feel there’s something interesting in the fact that dumb theories work at all, that reality is helpfully layered for our convenience.

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics

Just flagging this one up again. I don’t have any more to say about it, but it’s still weird.

The ‘systematiser’s hero’s journey’

This isn’t a disagreement, just a difference in emphasis. Chapman is mainly writing for people who are temperamentally well suited to a systematic cognitive style and have trouble moving away from it. That seems to fit a lot of people well, and I’m interested in trying to understand what that path feels like. The best description I’ve found is in Phil Agre’s Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI. He gives a clear description of what immersion in the systematic style looks like…

As an AI practitioner already well immersed in the literature, I had incorporated the field’s taste for technical formalization so thoroughly into my own cognitive style that I literally could not read the literatures of nontechnical fields at anything beyond a popular level. The problem was not exactly that I could not understand the vocabulary, but that I insisted on trying to read everything as a narration of the workings of a mechanism. By that time much philosophy and psychology had adopted intellectual styles similar to that of AI, and so it was possible to read much that was congenial — except that it reproduced the same technical schemata as the AI literature.

… and the process of breaking out from it:

My first intellectual breakthrough came when, for reasons I do not recall, it finally occurred to me to stop translating these strange disciplinary languages into technical schemata, and instead simply to learn them on their own terms. This was very difficult because my technical training had instilled in me two polar-opposite orientations to language — as precisely formalized and as impossibly vague — and a single clear mission for all discursive work — transforming vagueness into precision through formalization (Agre 1992). The correct orientation to the language of these texts, as descriptions of the lived experience of ordinary everyday life, or in other words an account of what ordinary activity is like, is unfortunately alien to AI or any other technical field.

I find this path impressive, because it involves deliberately moving out of a culture that you’re very successful in, and taking the associated status hit. I don’t fully understand what kicks people into doing this! It does come with a nice clean ‘hero’s journey’ type narrative arc though: dissatisfaction with the status quo, descent into the nihilist underworld, and the long journey back up to usefulness, hopefully with new powers of understanding.

I had a very different experience. For me it was just a slow process of attrition, where I slowly got more and more frustrated with the differences between my weirdo thinking style and the dominant STEM one, which I was trained in but never fully took to. This reached a peak at the end of my PhD, and was one of the main factors that made me just want to get out of academia.

I’ve already ranted more than anybody could possibly want to hear about my intuition-heavy mathematical style and rubbishness at step-by-step reasoning, so I’m not going to go into that again here. But I also often have trouble doing the ‘workings of a mechanism’ thing, in a way I find hard to describe.

(I can give a simple example, though, which maybe points towards it. I’m the kind of computer user who, when the submit button freezes, angrily clicks it again twenty times as fast as I can. I know theoretically that ‘submitting the form’ isn’t a monolithic action, that behind the scenes it has complex parts, that nobody has programmed a special expediteRequestWhenUserIsAngry() method that will recognise my twenty mouse clicks, and that all I’m achieving is queuing up pointless extra requests on the server, or nothing at all. But viscerally it feels like just one thing that should be an automatic consequence of my mouse click, like pressing a physical button and feeling it lock into place, and it’s hard to break immersion in the physical world and consider an unseen mechanism behind it. The computer’s failure to respond is just wrong wrong wrong, and I hate it, and maybe if I click this button enough times it’ll understand that I’m angry. The calm analytic style is not for me.)

(… this is a classic Heideggerian thing, right? Being broken out of successful tool use? This is what I mean about having to read Heidegger.)

On the other side, I don’t have any problem with dealing with ideas that aren’t carefully defined yet. I’m happy to deal with plenty of slop and ambiguity in between ‘precisely formalized’ and ‘impossibly vague’. I’m also happy to take things I only know implicitly, and slowly try and surface more of it over time as an explicit model. I’m pretty patient with this, and don’t seem to be as bothered by a lack of precision as more careful systematic thinkers.

This has its advantages too. Hopefully I’m getting to a similar sort of place by a different route.

3 thoughts on “Followup: messy confusions

  1. gavinrebeiro October 29, 2017 / 8:25 pm

    I think when it comes to physics it’s good to think of mathematical models as just that – models. They are approximations of what occurs in ‘reality’ – speaking in a common-sense way that you describe. I don’t think thinking too hard about the ontology of things is going to be very beneficial for the physical scientist. It’s more important to try and work out better models which “subsume” the old ones – using your words.

    Paraphrasing a section from the book Mathematics It’s Content Methods and Meaning: ‘back in the old days rigour in mathematics meant making sure the experimental results matched with what the theory predicted.’ And that’s probably the reason for the success scholars have had in the past without the levels of rigour we use in foundations today.

    Philosophy has it’s place, but I think there are practical considerations which make philosophy quite far away from many parts of the sciences. I like the way Gian Carlo Rota put it in his book Indiscrete Thoughts: “Philosophy ends with a definition.” I see that being the main function of philosophy.


  2. G Gordon Worley III October 30, 2017 / 10:13 pm

    I generally recommend against directly reading Heidegger or for that matter any philosopher directly unless you feel really, really compelled to. These days you can usually find great summaries online of all the key ideas and arguments rewritten and packaged up more clearly and concisely than the original philosopher’s work along with additional analysis and context not available in the original works.


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