11-02-10

The Auguries of Science

"The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind." Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind., Mariner Books, 1990, p. 446.


There you have it in one quote: all of the beauty and most of the folly of one of the most original thinkers of the XXth century - a scientist that mistook his philosopizing for hypothesis. A thinker lost in the Quine-Duhem-Davidson triangle of changing too much concepts at the same time to be taken seriously by anybody because - in the end - everybody has one concept that is so near & dear to her or his heart that it's a little bit too holy to be touched.

One example being: the naïve concept of truth. The type of truth that settles things, once and for all. The kind of truth that discovers essentialia, in what for some is just a depressingly absurd sequence of events otherwise.

His bold conjecture was this. Consciousness evolved slowly and after man genetically was already a long time more or less the homo sapiens it still is today. Before those conscious times humans that were genetically quasi-identical to us roamed around - in blissful ignorance of the fact they existed. First these people evolved language, & in that language they heard what they denoted as 'the voice of God' giving, literally, commands. Not merely more or less as a schizophrenic would hear voices giving her commands. No, exactly like a schizophrenic would hear voices giving him commands.

Jaynes held that for the majority of the history of the species our predecessors were roaming the world whilst all of them in a never-ending psychotic episode in which God personally told them what to do. What they were hearing in fact were verbally coded and transmitted traditions making up their culture and connecting the lessons learnt by the forefathers with the survival strategies of the group to which they belonged.

This conjecture is of an originality and a beauty that receives better than the scorn it got (up to a point that the original friends, like Dennett, dare no longer speak "that" name again). Nevermind that scientifically he overreached, stumbling upon hilarious self-defeating 'truths'. Nevermind that he failed to appreciate what philosophers had only appreciated in the 2nd half of the XXth century: the relativity of relativity, and a final destruction of the absolutes of even falsifiability.

Nevermind all that and think about it.

Think about how giving up certainties opens up possibilities - the possibility of all of us having developed consciousness up to the level of almost being all of the time in a state of collective neurosis. And the possibility of also overcoming this by evolving into a better state of collective consciousness. A state where we give up on mutual & mutually incompatible Holy Grails. A state where we just live life knowing the past is: as good as it could have been. Knowing that the future will be: better.

Even ridicule will not be able to destroy originality of thought.


Whislt writing this I was listening to Bill Frisell, Disfarmer, Nonesuch.

21:44 Gepost door Guido Nius in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (15) | Tags: jaynes, scientism, language, mind-mind dualism, optimism |  Facebook |

09-01-10

Evidential probability

"The best the logician can do is to recommend gathering more data." Henry E. Kyburg Jr. & Choh Man Teng, p. 200, Cambridge University Press, 2001.


A small series on forgotton (or, let's be optimistic: not yet discovered) pearls of this human endeavour that's called thinking. I learned Mr. Kyburg died a couple of years ago. Given that that ís a fact, one can only hope that he turns out to be an instance of the reference class of great thinkers that have ideas requiring the environment of though of a generation that comes well after their own generation. The series has as its common theme: three B-list philosophers, on which I based my Cognitive Science dissertation (that, recently, became available online by clicking the link "Do Humans Think?' in the top of the right column of this page).

But I'll dispense with the niceties. One can sensibly ask this question: how certain is it that the probability of this coin coming up tails is about one half? Not all coins are the same; and there's evidence of people rigging coins to come up tails more often than our experience with 'normal' or 'average' coins would have us expect. In effect: it's the basic casino fraud to devise a game in which participants expect to have this probability of outcome based on 'everyday' events but where the probabilities of the outcome are drastically different (& skewed toward the offerer of the casino). Maybe, why not?, we should call it a "Humean" fraud because it consists in nothing else then the exploitation of our 'psychological' addiction to straightforward induction - it is the commonest fraud because common sense precisely has it that what happened some way in the past will continue to happen that way in the future.

Explicating this observation has succeeded interesting me in something that I - and not only I - thought to be not particularly interesting: probability. As long as it is the case that philosophy has not integrated probability (and more specifically: Kyburgian probability) at the center of its body of doctrines (the way it did with logic, language, & mathematics in the XXth century) it won't be able to make the next significant and necessary step in its evolution (and, consequently, we humans will not be able to be making the next significant step in our cultural and intellectual evolution).

I'm serious. Dead serious (somewhat aided by the music that's in my ears now - to tell you the whole truth).

Because that's still the towering truth of Hume: we kid ourselves if we believe there's a start for us in certainty. Take the above coin which may or may not be rigged. One perfectly defensible non-probabilistic move might be to say that a rigged coin is not, really, a coin. To say that rigged coins are not a subset of the set of coins poses the type of difficulties grammar-wise that one typically will wabt to avoid but these are in my view not insurmountable difficulties. This move then will keep a pristine & simple probability of one half for tails on all coins and relegate the rigged coins to the class of items that need investigation. This investigation will turn up empty, given there is no statement at all to be made about rigged coins before inspecting a specific coin - and here comes the real problem: there is no statement we can make about any of the coins presented to us prima facie because prima facie it is not possible to make a decision whether or not the coin presented is rigged or not. This is a bummer as it is clear that whatever is presented 'as a coin' is typically non-rigged, and therefore is commonsensically to be attributed with near-certainty the probability of one half - in coming up tails or heads.

That was a painstakingly roundabout way of coming to the following conclusion - in a non-idealized way of seeing the world, we never have probability as such but only an evidence that is more or less corroborating the association of a certain probability to a the type of a certain series of events. Naming (e.g. the naming of certain items as pertaining to the class of 'coins') is the most basic operation; labeling items with the same label is nothing else then saying that, at the level of what is asserted of some thing, there is enough evidence that the labeled item will be as other items with that label have been known to be in the past. Probability comes before the label and not (just or only) after it.

And in the case of labels, or names, we can appreciate why probability is mostly sent off to the outskirts of philosophical and everyday thinking. It makes verbose what is most apparent; that rigged coins are a special subset of coins; that somebody who's bald has between zero and some hairs. Or to try out something again for which I got blasted early on in a 10-year internet career: "Logic always holds but never applies." In most instances our common language has shaped itself around our common way of perceiving our common reality that we can tackle it with the purest deductive logic (with all the limitations that already poses). But when we need to be certain we have to realize the uncertainty of those ways. Not because logic is uncertain (it isn't - also Kyburg's mathematical treatment of evidential probability is certain and non-empty) but because the materials on which our logic operate are terminally uncertain - such that there always is some measurement error & something more of data that needs to be gathered.

Before going all humble and wallowing in guilty feelings of the original 'fallable'-ness of the human kind, let me add this: whatever the limitations of knowledge are - and the history of philosophy is the history of the limit of our knowledge - the knowledge of our limitations is a positive asset. Kyburg's deductions on how to proceed with our inductive reasoning are universally true and inescapable. In all situations in which we would need to use his thought we can be certain that it is sound. The fact that, after using his methods, we wind up with a conclusion that are not wholly certain is not the consequence of his fallibility, of the fallibility of his or other rational thinking - but of the systemic underdeterminedness of our conclusions by our evidence.

To resubmit to the internet another of my epiphanies of old internet-days: "Nothing is true but some things are false." The asymettry of knowledge isn't something that comes on top of knowledge (as, maybe, 'rigged' comes on top of 'coins') but it is an inherent vice of knowledge. I can be conclusive in saying that racism is 'at odds' with knowledge but I can't say that knowledge is conclusively pro-'this or that kind of non racism'. The bummer is that there is a tendency to associate the negative nature of knowledge and truth to mysticism (see as an example in point: Heisenberg): this is a consequence of the psychological fact that we are driven, to take our premises for granted and hence also want to grant that conclusiveness to our conclusions.

Quod non.

(I'll want to reread this once upon a time to make sure it is more than just poetically correct)


Whilst writing this I was listening to: "Earth" feat. Bill Frisell, "The Bee Made Honey in the Lion's Skull" in a genre whose existence I only recently discovered: post-rock or something with as many subgenres as one might expect for a subgenre originatiing in heavy metal ;-)

12:48 Gepost door Guido Nius in Muziek | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: learning, optimism, kyburg, universals, language |  Facebook |

14-10-09

Bleed for me

"(..)

C'mon bleed
C'mon bleed
C'mon bleed
Bleed for me

We'll strap you to a pipe
Electrodes on your balls
C'mon scream
C'mon writhe
Face down in a pool of piss

C'mon bleed
C'mon bleed
C'mon bleed
Bleed for me

In the name of world peace
In the name of world profits
America pumps up our secret police
America wants fuel
To get it, it needs puppets
So what's ten million dead?
If it's keeping out the Russians

(..)"

Dead Kennedys, 1982, any of many lyrics sites.


Indulge me (meaning: I'll indulge myself anyway, thank you very much!).

It's been busy; haven't had a chance to take things in new directions, & feel a need to be outspoken. That means I'll take the liberty to be brief and all mystical-like as behooves one who is convinced the populace needs it short & simple (peace, love & climate change and stuff). In other words: awaiting the time to find a good quote, I will for this once try my best not to be myself.

(anyway, as people slowly realize the 60s were a problem & we're in desperate need of a come-back of the 80s, i.e. it's time for what was marginal in the 80s to become the fucking mainstream already)

As follows:

1. First there was the word. The word created men. Man discovered the world. World & word will never co-incide. The word will converge to the world. The world will be full to the brim of this word. Word and world are forever separated by at least an 'L' (in smaller case, to be exact). Note: when I say 'man' & 'men' I do refer to women.

and,

2. There is always something wrong with Utopian type societies, even in ideal cases. Such was the point of much post-WWII literature. It is really not too much to ask to go figure out what is commonly wrong in all these utopian rêveries. It suffices to go all destructive on this common element & deny existence to anything that has even the remotest tendency to evolve into something that might include that element.

So let's take these two together. Abusing words for the 'good of ..' is the surest no-no. It goes to the core of what we are and ever can be and it is common to Utopian dreams and nightmares from Wilde over Kraus to Orwell.

To take a case in point: let's examine the use of the term 'politically correct'. When somebody uses this term in a pejorative sense you know you have a number 1 that is combined with a number 2 (as per the above numbering scheme).

Indeed, there is nothing pejorative about being politically correct. As can be easily & conclusively demonstrated as per the following:

- using words to express something that is correct is a proper use of words

- expressing something that is correct politically is both possible and informative

On top of which it being obviously highly relevant to be correct from a political point of view. For instance it is politically correct to prefer freedom of speech. On analysis this entails that only such acts as can be properly classed as 'speech' are free. This in turn excludes any pronouncement on non-speech acts such as shouting, singing, baby talk, talking nonsense and - in general - uttering non-propositional content in ways loosely similar to the use of language or words. Not that they are restricted or not allowed; far from it, as far from it being restricted or unallowed to fart in public; they are simply not speech acts. And therefore not to be confounded with politically correctly vindicated free acts of speech.

So here we have a specifically sophisticated (call it: libertarian) abuse of words. The pejorative use of 'politically correct' is incorrect. Not just politically incorrect but just - simply - incorrect. Strictly speaking it's not even a speech act, and it would be fully consistent to disallow that specific use of that specific concatenation of words (which is not to say, obviously, that it should be disallowed or that it would be correct to do so).

To conclude with our specific example: the pejorative use of 'politically correct' is an instance of authoritarian behaviour (this statement is correct, by the way). This type of authoritarian behaviour is a political nuisance at best (this statement is politically correct). The use of this statement under the misleading umbrella of libertarian with a non-coincidental objective of creating pleasurable associations with 'liberty' is, well, doubly misleading (being mild here). There is no limit to this abuse. It has been on record that some 'libertarians' have made use of the work of G. Orwell in defense of their specific though crime (better; absence-of-thought crime).

Clearly there are things (were things, will be things) that are passed off as politically correct which are not (were not, will not be) correct (above you found a very complex one exposed; the simpler ones are - hmmm - simpler to expose). They have to be exposed to be incorrect (or, more narrowly, politically incorrect). That can be done in a variety of ways the most ineffective of which is probably this one.

I will leave it smugly up to the reader to generalize thes messages to other uses of words in an effort to obstruct the progression towards truth and the development of language as such.

A hint for demystification: to illustrate the last two paragraphs I refer to the quote I have quoted above.


Whilst writing this I was listening to Bronski Beat, The Age of Consent.

22:19 Gepost door Guido Nius in Muziek | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: pop culture, decadence, language, universals, boldness |  Facebook |