Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eat up all your logic, Johnny

For many years, I have been annoyed by writers who thought they could refute a philosopher's views by pointing to passage A in his writings, then to passage B, and then claiming "this is a contradiction". End of argument.

I thought: so A is incompatible with B, so what? Is the world a syllogism? Is a syllogism a syllogism? I began to suspect that Uncle Hegel was at the root of all this. Having now listened in on his lectures, I am fairly certain: not Uncle himself so much as the Marx and Engels engeance.

Thank God for quantum physics, I say, even if most of us don't know more than squat about it. At least it cast the logic-lenders into outer darkness. These are the people who want to maneuver you into a dependency on some supposedly unavoidable way of thinking - Kantian ethics, essentialisms of all kinds, including scientific ones about "the subjective/objective world", some one system of thinking which is supposed to do service in every context.

"Eat up all your logic, Johnny, you know it's good for you - and if you don't, you're not going to get any dessert".

Quantum physics is not illogical, nor has it made the "really real" world illogical. The weakest objection to it was that it was "counter-intuitive". But what does this mean? Pre-Heisenberg and Co., most philosophers / scientists et al. have argued, implicitly or explicitly, that their preferred views were merely an elaboration of the way we think, the way the world is - i.e. they were intuitive and natural when viewed in the right light, the one shed by their proponents. They were simply teasing out, into a system, the way we think, the way things are. There's no way for systematic thinking to be counter-intuitive, right? Whatever intuitions are, they're right, right?

The successes of quantum physics in making scientific predictions about the behavior of the scientific world, and then demonstrating the correctness of those predictions, show that even intuitions must bow to recalibration, even basic restructuring - over time. There were real dog-fights about this among physicists, for decades. "Intuitive", "natural", "impossible" - what loaded terms these be!

One conclusion I draw from this is that it's just not on to be rigid or rancorous about being right. It's not scientific, it's not even polite. Is a certain reserve inimical to knowledge? What is truth? said jesting Pilate. And would not stay for an answer. I used to think he just was going to grab his dessert before Jesus could start nagging. In fact, both of them showed reserve: Pilate was remarkably patient, while Jesus was ... well ... coy. This is neatly glossed by Ray Davis in Three Reputations.

And no, this is not an attempt on my part to get Lacan, Jung, "creationists" et al. a free ride on the bus by sneaking them in the back door. Although it's not very polite, I would at most consider letting them hang on outside at the rear of the bus, keeping an eye out the while to make sure they didn't steal the license plates. On these topics, I highly recommend a book I just finished, by the French physician and biologist Henri Atlan - À tort et à raison: Intercritique de la science et du mythe. To my astonishment and alarm, I found that there are writers in the "Kabbalist traditions" who have had some very reconsideration-provoking things to say. Atlan sez: stay cool, Grumbleby, nobody's going to take your dessert away. They're just showing that it doesn't have to be low-cal pecan pie.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Parrocites, Part 1

This is an occasional series where I collect quotations in which some familiar snippet of text turns out to be not so familiar after all. This occurs when someone cites it in a truncated or otherwise mangled form, or in ignorance of what it meant in its original context.

The original text is being parroted. Not all parrots do a good job of repeating. Some parrots seem to parrot because they've noticed that people think it's cute. I suspect they all don't much care what they do, as long as they get attention. It's not fifteen minutes of fame, but it's a start.

Exhibit 1:
In a phrase, Thomas Gray was right: Ignorance is bliss - at least when it comes to assessments of one's own ability.
This occurs in an annoying article of statistical psychology entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It (top of page 1131). After much sampling and speculation, the authors decide that dumb folks don't know they're dumb, and that they seem unable to learn to see themselves as dumb and then to incorporate this knowledge into a more successful ("calibrated") life-style.

In the "Concluding Remarks", the authors enter the twilight zone. They gaze at themselves in their speculum, and allow as how they might be overestimating themselves and the value of their work.
In sum, we present this article as an exploration into why people tend to hold overly optimistic and miscalibrated views about themselves. We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.
Culpability peeps over the ramparts! Dumb people don't worry about being smart - the authors charge this against them (in the most gingerly thoughtful manner). Smart people worry about being dumb - the authors give themselves credit for this. But haunted by faulty logic, my foot. The authors see other trouble coming, which they hope to deflect in the following way. Having invited themselves to a party by publishing the article, they tell the host: "in the course of the evening, if you're stupid, you may discover that we have peed in your pocket. It is not a sin we will have committed knowingly".

Grumbleby sez: if you're not sure about what you want to say, and whether and how you ought to say it, then don't say it. That especially applies to claims of knowing other people better than they know themselves. Geebus! Did Luhmann live in vain?

There's more than tautology in Wittgenstein's
Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
[Whatever can be said at all, can be said clearly. On things about which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.]
For those with a tin ear, allow me to pump up the volume:
Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, sollte klar gesagt werden; und wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber müßte man schweigen. Also raff' dich zusammen!
[Whatever can be said at all, should be said clearly. On things about which one cannot speak, one ought to zip up. So pull yourself together, dude!]
In the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Gray imagines students at play, and what life will become for them. He does not say "ignorance is bliss" tout court but rather, conditionally, "where ignorance is bliss", namely in young people.
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
Here now, as a refreshing alternative to hand-wringing over other folks, is a witty mathematical paper applying Bayesian analysis to the question of how ignorant it might be to believe that ignorance is bliss, and then act accordingly. The authors quote Gray's stanza in full. The abstract reads:
If ignorance were bliss, there is information you would pay not to have. Hence the question is whether a rationally-behaving agent would ever do such a thing. This paper demonstrates that

1. A Bayesian agent with a proper, countably additive prior never maximizes utility by paying not to see cost-free data.

2. The definition of "cost-free'' is delicate, and requires explanation.

3. A Bayesian agent with a finitely additive prior, or an improper prior, however, might pay not to see cost-free data.

4. An agent following a gamma-minimax strategy might also do so.

5. An agent following the strategies of E-admissibility recommended by Levi and of maximality recommended by Sen and Walley, might also do so.

A discussion follows about how damaging to a decision theory intended to be rational it might be to pay not to receive cost-free information.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Luhmann on sense-holes (there aren't any)

In the 60's, a lot of books on Zen Buddhism were floating around. I remember reading this "standard" koan in one by Alan Watts:
Master: You know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

It was clear to me then that there is no answer to this silly question, yet over the years I have thought back to it from time to time - I can't really say why.

Something else in the 60's also got my goat: the films of Antonioni, Godard and Co. These characters with long faces would hang around, mostly not answering questions other characters would put to them. Not only did they not answer the questions, they exhibited no reaction at all. I thought: all these depressive French and Italian bozos, what's in it for me?

The third ingredient in the resolution of the koan (including the koan itself) came from thinking about Ralf, my heroin-harried friend, who apparently resented some of the questions I would ask him when we talked. Mostly he just didn't answer them, literally not saying anything at all. Exactly as in Godard. Sometimes he would say "I don't know" or "What can I say?". He seemed to take my questions as aggressive maneuvers. But since I had recently read Bodenheimer's On the Obscenity of Questions, I figured I was in the know, and off that hook at least.

Then the illumination. It has to do with hearing what is not being said:
Master: You know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Student: !
The sound of one hand clapping is silence. Some questions have no answer. To some questions, no answer is the answer. To some questions, the answer is not of the kind you're expecting.

With this provisional understanding in my pocket, I could better appreciate Luhmann's detailed discussion of "Sinn" in Soziale Systeme, which I'm now reading.To compress it into a blurb, one might say that Luhmann sez: sense is the I of the beholder.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 2, in English more or less. Unfortunately, I discovered that some of his Sinn-tences are a bear to put into intelligible English. German-wise everything's cool, though. Luhmann was no dark mutterer, but a lucid, learned old sweetheart with the occasional touch of good-humored malice.

With no philosophaster around to jump on my case, I might well, for "Sinn", just say "significance" or "meaning", maybe even "sense". Trouble is, "significance" connotes "signs", whereas Luhmann explicitly distances himself from the view that sense has anything to do with signs - in fact, he shows that signs work only because sense is already around. "Meaning" suggests concepts, intensionalities and all that cognitional-semiotic baloney, and Luhmann is not having any of that either. As Holden would have said, this guy just kills me.

So, in the following excerpt, I mostly left it at "sense" in the sense of "sensefulness", a non-existent word that would be the opposite of senselessness. The link, in German, contains longer passages.
Sense always refers to sense. It can never refer to something outside the domain of sense.... Systems that are tied to sense can never have a senseless experience, or act senselessly. ... [But] a preference for sense over world, for order over disturbance, for information over noise is merely a preference. It doesn't make their counterparts superfluous. Indeed we can say that the process that is sense (Sinnprozess) thrives on disturbances, feeds off disorder, and is supported by noise.

.. The generalisation called "sense" makes it possible to find a pragmatic solution for any logical problem. Even a contradiction, even a paradox, makes sense - as a contradiction, as a paradox. (Auch ein Widerspruch, auch eine Paradoxie hat Sinn.) Logic can exist only because this is the case. Otherwise, at the first contradiction we encountered, we would fall into a sense-hole and vanish. [Sinnloch, I kid you not, G.]
vibrierende Mülleimer