A year in books: philosophy, psychology, and political economy

If you follow the Julian calendar — which I do when I need a two week extension on overdue work — then today is the first day of 2015.

Happy Old New Year!

This also means that this is my last day to be timely with a yet another year-in-review post; although I guess I could also celebrate the Lunar New Year on February 19th. Last year, I made a resolution to read one not-directly-work-related book a month, and only satisfied it in an amortized analysis; I am repeating the resolution this year. Since I only needed two posts to catalog the practical and philosophical articles on TheEGG, I will try something new with this one: a list and mini-review of the books I read last year to meet my resolution. I hope that based on this, you can suggest some books for me to read in 2015; or maybe my comments will help you choose your next book to read. I know that articles and blogs I’ve stumbled across have helped guide my selection. If you want to support TheEGG directly and help me select the books that I will read this year then consider donating something from TheEGG wishlist.

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Cataloging a year of blogging: the philosophical turn

Passion and motivation are strange and confusing facets of being. Many things about them feel paradoxical. For example, I really enjoy writing, categorizing, and — obviously, if you’ve read many of the introductory paragraphs on TheEGG — blabbing on far too long about myself. So you’d expect that I would have been extremely motivated to write up this index of posts from the last year. Yet I procrastinated — although in a mildly structured way — on it for most of last week, and beat myself up all weekend trying to force words into this textbox. A rather unpleasant experience, although it did let me catch up on some Batman cartoons from my childhood. Since you’re reading this now, I’ve succeeded and received my hit of satisfaction, but the high variance in my motivation to write baffles me.

More fundamentally, there is the paradox of agency. It feels like my motivations and passions are aspects of my character, deeply personal and defining. Yet, it is naive to assume that they are determined by my ego; if I take a step back, I can see how my friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers push and pull the passions and motivations that push and pull me. For example, I feel like TheEGG largely reflects my deep-seated personal interests, but my thoughts do not come from me alone, they are shaped by my social milieu — or more dangerously by Pavlov’s buzzer of my stats page, each view and comment and +1 conditioning my tastes. Is the heavy presence of philosophical content because I am interested in philosophy, or am I interested in philosophy because that is what people want to read? That is the tension that bothers me, but it is clear that my more philosophical posts are much more popular than the practical. If we measure in terms of views then in 2014 new cancer-related posts accounted for only 4.7% of the traffic (with 15 posts), the more abstract cstheory perspective on evolution accounted for 6.6% (with 5 posts), while the posts I discuss below accounted for 57.4% (the missing chunk of unity went to 2014 views of post from 2012 and 2013). Maybe this is part of the reason why there was 24 philosophical posts, compared to the 20 practical posts I highlighted in the first part of this catalog.

Of course, this example is a little artificial, since although readership statistics are fun distraction, they are not particularly relevant just easy to quantify. Seeing the influence of the ideas I read is much more difficult. Although I think these exercises in categorization can help uncover them. In this post, I review the more philosophical posts from last year, breaking them down less autobiographically and more thematically: interfaces and useful delusions; philosophy of the Church-Turing thesis; Limits of science and dangers of mathematics; and personal reflections on philosophy and science. Let me know if you can find some coherent set of influences.

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Realism and interfaces in philosophy of mind and metaphysics

In an earlier post, I discussed three theories of perception: naive realism, critical realism, and interfaces. To remind you of the terminology: naive realism is the stance that the world is exactly as we perceive it and critical realism is that perception resembles reality, but doesn’t capture all of it. Borrowing an image from Kevin Song: if naive realism is a perfect picture then critical realism is a blurry one. For a critical realist, our perception is — to move to another metaphor — a map of the territory that is reality; it distorts, omits details, adds some labels, and draws emphasis, but largely preserves the main structure. Interfaces, however, do not preserve structure. Borrowing now from Donald Hoffman: consider your computer desktop, what are the folders? They don’t reflect the complicated sequence of changes in magnetization in a thin film of ferromagnetic material inside a metal box called your hard-drive, not even at a coarse-grained level. Nor do they hint at the complicated information processing that changes those magnetic fields into the photons that leave your screen. But they do allow you to have a predictable and intelligible interaction with your computer, something that would be much more difficult with just a magnetized needle and a steady hand. The interface does not resemble reality, it just allows us to act. Although the comments section of the earlier post became rather philosophical, my original intention was to stay in the realm of the current scientific discourse on perception. The distinction between realism and interfaces, however, also has a rich philosophical history — not only in epistemology but also in metaphysics — that I want to highlight with a few examples in this post.
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Personification and pseudoscience

If you study the philosophy of science — and sometimes even if you just study science — then at some point you might get the urge to figure out what you mean when you say ‘science’. Can you distinguish the scientific from the non-scientific or the pseudoscientific? If you can then how? Does science have a defining method? If it does, then does following the steps of that method guarantee science, or are some cases just rhetorical performances? If you cannot distinguish science and pseudoscience then why do some fields seem clearly scientific and others clearly non-scientific? If you believe that these questions have simple answers then I would wager that you have not thought carefully enough about them.

Karl Popper did think very carefully about these questions, and in the process introduced the problem of demarcation:

The problem of finding a criterion which would enable us to distinguish between the empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as ‘metaphysical’ systems on the the other

Popper believed that his falsification criterion solved (or was an important step toward solving) this problem. Unfortunately due to Popper’s discussion of Freud and Marx as examples of non-scientific, many now misread the demarcation problem as a quest to separate epistemologically justifiable science from the epistemologically non-justifiable pseudoscience. With a moral judgement of Good associated with the former and Bad with the latter. Toward this goal, I don’t think falsifiability makes much headway. In this (mis)reading, falsifiability excludes too many reasonable perspectives like mathematics or even non-mathematical beliefs like Gandy’s variant of the Church-Turing thesis, while including much of in-principle-testable pseudoscience. Hence — on this version of the demarcation problem — I would side with Feyerabend and argue that a clear seperation between science and pseudoscience is impossible.

However, this does not mean that I don’t find certain traditions of thought to be pseudoscientific. In fact, I think there is a lot to be learned from thinking about features of pseudoscience. A particular question that struck me as interesting was: What makes people easily subscribe to pseudoscientific theories? Why are some kinds of pseudoscience so much easier or more tempting to believe than science? I think that answering these questions can teach us something not only about culture and the human mind, but also about how to do good science. Here, I will repost (with some expansions) my answer to this question.
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Limits of prediction: stochasticity, chaos, and computation

Some of my favorite conversations are about prediction and its limits. For some, this is purely a practical topic, but for me it is a deeply philosophical discussion. Understanding the limits of prediction can inform the philosophies of science and mind, and even questions of free-will. As such, I wanted to share with you a World Science Festival video that THEREALDLB recently posted on /r/math. This is a selected five minute clip called “What Can’t We Predict With Math?” from a longer one and a half hour discussion called “Your Life By The Numbers: ‘Go Figure'” between Steven Strogatz, Seth Lloyd, Andrew Lo, and James Fowler. My post can be read without watching the panel discussion or even the clip, but watching the clip does make my writing slightly less incoherent.

I want to give you a summary of the clip that focuses on some specific points, bring in some of discussions from elsewhere in the panel, and add some of my commentary. My intention is to be relevant to metamodeling and the philosophy of science, but I will touch on the philosophy of mind and free-will in the last two paragraphs. This is not meant as a comprehensive overview of the limits of prediction, but just some points to get you as excited as I am about this conversation.

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Should we be astonished by the Principle of “Least” Action?

QuinceyFig2As one goes through more advanced expositions of quantum physics, the concept of action is gradually given more importance, with it being considered a fundamental piece in some introductions to Quantum Field Theory (Zee, 2003) through the use of the path integral approach. The basic idea behind using the action is to assign a number to each possible state of a system. The function that does so is named the Lagrangian function, and it encodes the physics of the system (i.e. how do different parts of the system affect each other). Then, to a trajectory of a system we associate the integral of this number over all the states in the trajectory. This contrasts with the classical Newtonian approach, where we study a system by specifying all the possible ways in which parts of the system exercise forces on each other (i.e. affect each other’s acceleration). Using the action usually results in nicer mathematics, while I’d argue that the Newtonian approach requires less training to feel intuitive.

In many of the expositions of the use of action in physics (see e.g. this one), I perceive an attempt at transmitting wonder about the world being such that it minimizes a function on its trajectory. This has indeed been the case historically, with Maupertuis supposed to have considered action minimization (and the corresponding unification of minimization principles between optics and mechanics) as the most definite proof available to him of the existence of God. However, along the spirit of this stack exchange question, I never really understood why such a wonder should be felt, even setting aside the fact that it assumes that our equations “are” the world, a perspective that Artem has criticized at length before.
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Philosophy of Science and an analytic index for Feyerabend

FeyerabendThroughout my formal education, the history of science has been presented as a series of anecdotes and asides. The philosophy of science, encountered even less, was passed down not as a rich debate and on-going inquiry but as a set of rules that best be followed. To paraphrase Gregory Radick, this presentation is mere propaganda; it is akin to learning the history of a nation from its travel brochures. Thankfully, my schooling did not completely derail my learning, and I’ve had an opportunity to make up for some of the lost time since.

One of the philosophers of science that I’ve enjoyed reading the most has been Paul Feyerabend. His provocative writing in Against Method and advocation for what others have called epistemological anarchism — the rejection of any rules of scientific methodology — has been influential to my conception of the role of theorists. Although I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on Feyerabend for a while, now, I doubt that I will bring myself to do it anytime soon. In the meantime, dear reader, I will leave you with an analytic index consisting of links to the thoughts of others (interspersed with my typical self-links) that discuss Feyerabend, Galileo (his preferred historic case study), and consistency in science.
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Falsifiability and Gandy’s variant of the Church-Turing thesis

RobinGandyIn 1936, two years after Karl Popper published the first German version of The Logic of Scientific Discovery and introduced falsifiability; Alonzo Church, Alan Turing, and Emil Post each published independent papers on the Entscheidungsproblem and introducing the lambda calculus, Turing machines, and Post-Turing machines as mathematical models of computation. The years after saw many more models, all of which were shown to be equivalent to each other in what they could compute. This was summarized in the Church-Turing thesis: anything that is computable is computable by a Turing machine. An almost universally accepted, but also incredibly vague, statement. Of course, such an important thesis has developed many variants, and exploring or contrasting their formulations can be very insightful way to understand and contrast different philosophies.

I believe that the original and most foundational version of the thesis is what I called Kleene’s purely mathematical formulation. Delving into this variant allowed us explore the philosophy of mathematics; Platonism; and the purpose, power and limitations of proof. However, because of the popularity of physicalism and authority of science, I doubt that Kleene’s is the most popular variant. Instead, when people think of the Church-Turing thesis, they often think of what is computable in the world around them. I like to associate this variant with Turing’s long time friend and student — Robin Gandy. I want to explore Gandy’s physical variant of the Church-Turing thesis to better understand the philosophy of science, theory-based conceptions, and the limits of falsifiability. In particular, I want to address what seems to me like the common misconception that the Church-Turing thesis is falsifiable.
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A Theorist’s Apology

Gadfly of ScienceAlmost four months have snuck by in silence, a drastic change from the weekly updates earlier in the year. However, dear reader, I have not abandoned TheEGG; I have just fallen off the metaphorical horse and it has taken some time to get back on my feet. While I was in the mud, I thought about what it is that I do and how to label it. I decided the best label is “theorist”, not a critical theorist, nor theoretical cognitive scientist, nor theoretical biologist, not even a theoretical computer scientist. Just a theorist. No domain necessary.

The problem with a non-standard label is that it requires justification, hence this post. I want to use the next two thousand words to return to writing and help unify my vision for TheEGG. In the process, I will comment on the relevance of philosophy to science, and the theorist’s integration of scientific domains with mathematics and the philosophy of science. The post will be a bit more personal and ramble more than usual, and I am sorry for that. I need this moment to recall how to ride the blogging horse.
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Models, modesty, and moral methodology

In highschool, I had the privilege to be part of a program that focused on the humanities and social sciences, critical thinking, and building research skills. The program’s crown was a semester of grade eleven (early 2005) dedicated to working on independent research for a project of our own design. For my project, I poured over papers and books at the University of Saskatchewan library, trying to come up with a semi-coherent thesis on post-cold war religious violence. Maybe this is why my first publications in college were on ethnocentrism? It’s a hard question to answer, but I doubt that the connection was that direct. As I was preparing to head to McGill, I had ambition to study political science and physics, but I was quickly disenchanted with the idea, and ended up focusing on theoretical computer science, physics, and math. When I returned to the social sciences in late 2008, it was with the arrogance typical of a physicist first entering a new field.

In the years since — along with continued modeling — I have tried to become more conscious of the types and limitations of models and their role in knowledge building and rhetoric. In particular, you might have noticed a recent trend of posts on the social sciences and various dangers of Scientism. These are part of an on-going discussions with Adam Elkus and reading the Dart-Throwing Chimp. Recently, Jay Ulfelder shared a fun quip on why skeptics make bad pundits:

First Rule of Punditry: I know everything; nothing is complicated.

First Rule of Skepticism: I know nothing; everything is complicated.

Which gets at an important issue common to many public-facing sciences, like climate, social, or medicine, among others. Academics are often encouraged to be skeptical, both of their work and others, and precise in the scope of their predictions. Although self-skepticism and precision is sometimes eroded away by the need to publish ‘high-impact’ results. I would argue that without factions, divisions, and debate, science would find progress — whatever that means — much more difficult. Academic rhetoric, however, is often incompatible with political rhetoric, since — as Jay Ulfelder points out — the latter relies much more on certainty, conviction, and the force with which you deliver your message. What should a policy oriented academic do?
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