Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Parable of the Crevasse

Rick and Safir, friends for many years, went for a hike in the desert. Their route was a loop of about ten miles, and both the views and the cameraderie were quite enjoyable. After about eight miles, they came upon a crevasse about six feet across and two hundred feet deep. They were on a ridge, so there was no avoiding it.

Rick ran toward the crevasse and leaped across without hesitation. Safir watched and said, when Rick stopped to look back, "though I know I can jump farther than you, I cannot take this chance. I will have to return the way we came." And he did.

After waiting at his car for more than two hours, Rick saw Safir coming down the trail. They greeted, got in the car, and Rick drove off. He had been driving for fifteen minutes on the two lane highway when they caught up to a very slow driver. Rick patiently followed at a safe distance until they reached the only passing zone on the way home.

At that point he gunned the engine and pulled into the opposing lane. They both could see that there was another car coming, and it was not entirely clear whether they would have time to pass. Rick pushed the car to its limit and managed to slide in front of the slow car just as the oncoming vehicle flew past.

Safir admonished him. "You should not have done that. Not only did you put me, your longtime friend, in danger, but you also endangered the people in both of those other cars."

Rick responded, "I am driving, so it is I who must decide what is or is not too dangerous. Simply by driving at all, we put ourselves and everyone else at risk. If I knew, in a quick and straightforward way, what your threshold for risk is, I would respect that, since you are my good friend. But I have no way to know the tolerance of every other driver, and even if I did, it is not at all clear that I would be obliged to consider it."

Safir did not like this answer, but did not know how to respond. He thought about it all the way home.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Critique of Quine's Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), first half

In Section 8, Quine says:

Yet a stimulation must be conceived for these purposes not as a dated particular event but as a universal, a repeatable event form. We are to say not that two like stimulations have occurred, but that the same stimulation has recurred ... Certainly it is hopeless nonsense to talk thus of unrealized particulars and try to assemble them into classes. Unrealized entities have to be construed as universals.

These comments seem to undermine the point of his entire enterprise of elaborating meaning and synonymy through the vehicle of "stimulus meaning." He begins in Chapter 1 with the claim that we learn to associate verbal expressions with stimuli through social reinforcement. Consistent with the comment above, that process would be utterly ineffectual without a built-in mechanism capable of abstracting and recognizing patterns. Thus I am in agreement that this process is essential to both learning and representing the sentence, even though the details of the process remain mysterious. As pointed out in my critique of Chapter 1, the existence of such a process suggests that the social reinforcement element is vastly less important in the process of assembling a meaning, and merely assigns a term (or sentence).

But it also then becomes unclear what work is done by his intermediary notion of stimulus meaning, aside from adding complexity. The method depends entirely on this unspecified abstractive process: to determine whether an actual and particular stimulus will prompt assent, we must either fully understand this process of abstraction and abstractive pattern-matching, or be able to actually perform it. A translator can of course perform the process, though it is entirely possible that he will perform it differently; one of things we do know about such abstraction is that it is dependent on salience to the individual. In any case, instead of selecting an arbitrary and completely unfamiliar notion of a "repeatable event form," it would seem to make more sense to allow that the universal is simply the abstraction thus created. The repeatable form is exactly that which triggers the matching of the pattern of the stimulus against the sentence, and thereby prompts affirmation.

The insertion of this patina of set-theoretic empirical terminology explains nothing. It is entirely dependent on an undefined mental process that is the real source of the "meaning" of either a sentence or a term. Perhaps an explication of this issue is forthcoming later in the chapter or in later chapters. My suspicion is that Quine's approach is an attempt to connect behavior to logic, which might be viewed as a more rigorous treatment. But abstraction is the connection of behavior to logic, and assuming it without explanation avoids the most important topic.

Notes on Quine, Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), first half

In this chapter we consider the extent to which language can be understood through stimulus conditions. and how much the underlying conceptual scheme can vary given consistent verbal dispositions.

Section 7, First Steps of Radical Translation: Simply to say that the underlying meaning varies, but the variance is not reflected in verbal disposiions may be making "a distinction without a difference." We can solve that via an abstract mapping of sentences among each other, or more concretely, via examination of radical translation (i.e., of a language that evolved completely autonomously, and without an interpreter). The only information available for such a translation are the stimuli of the native and the native's verbal and non-verbal behavior. Translation starts with events that are salient to both the native and the translator. The translator must query the native in a variety of stimulus conditions to determine the actual scope of a word, and to accomplish this must first learn how the native signals assent or dissent. The translator then needs to accumulate inductive evidence for both dissent and assent for each sentence, and discern causality properly.

Section 8, Stimulation and Stimulus Meaning: The native's assent is prompted by stimulations, not objects, and we should not think of them as a momentary static irradiation, but evolving patterns of a duration up to a temporal modulus, and in their spatial entirety. Further, such stimuli must be viewed not as particulars that are alike but as universals that repeat. The affirmative stimulus meaning is then the class of all such stimulations that prompt the native to assent, and the negative stimulus meaning those that would prompt his dissent; the stimulus meaning is the ordered pair of the two, but more completely, qualified with respect to the modulus, speaker, and time of assessment.

Section 9, Occasion Sentences. Intrusive Information: Occasion sentences are those that prompt assent or dissent only by current (relative to modulus) stimulation, whereas standing sentences would do so outside the modulus. Stimuli belonging to neither the affirmative nor negative stimulus meaning of an occasion sentence are caused by either "shock" or indecisiveness; for standing sentences it can also be due to irrelevance. Stimulus meaning is most important for occasion sentences. Sameness of stimulus meaning has shortcomings as defining the synonymy relation. Collateral information such as knowledge unique to the speaker, knowledge common only to the speaker's community, or hints provided linguistically to the speaker all create a mismatch. This is difficult to fix, in part because we cannot definitively separate what we are talking about from what we can say about it. Thus, sameness of stimulus meaning is too strict to expect between a native occasion sentence and its translation, so a translator must use significant approximation. Crucial in this project is the natural expectation that people will have simple expressions for common and salient events or objects.

Section 10, Observation Sentences: With expressions of color, the sameness of stimulus meaning comes very close to synonymy. In translation there is a shade grouping issue, but we can handle gradations using reaction time in addition to assent or dissent. In contrast, the stimulus meaning of an abstraction like "Bachelor" is not a good way to describe its meaning. We thus distinguish observation sentences, whose stimulus meaning does not vary with collateral information, and a continuum of observationality ranging from "Red" to "Bachelor." Highly observational expressions tend to have strong intersubjective correspondence of stimulus meaning. Observationality also varies with the modulus. Observation sentences are compatible with traditional notions, including "infallibility" and agreement among observers, though they are about ordinary things rather than sense data. Unlike stimulus meaning, observationality depends on similarity across speakers. Sentences learned ostensively tend to be highly observational. Those low in observationality tend to be based on a largely random personal history and have a random stimulus meaning.

Section 11, Intrasubjective Synonymy of Occasion Sentences: Stimulus meaning is a good stand-in for synonymy with respect to a particular speaker, including across languages, but it is not equivalent to "meaning." We can also test - but not easily hypothesize - intra-language synonymous sentences via the same speaker. Altogether, intrasubjective stimulus meaning is more useful than intersubjective, because it handles observation sentences, speaker shock, and to a significant extent, collateral information. However, in cases of words about words, or where collateral information is precisely the reason for the synonymy, or in the case of community information, even intrasubjectively it can fail. We should stick with short sentences, to avoid parsing errors, but can follow rules to construct longer sentences from them.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Contemptible Casuistry

"Casuistry" is a rarely-used word with two primary definitions. The more contemporary refers to specious or sophistical arguments generally. The earlier (derived from the Latin casus, or "case of conscience") pertains to the application of general principles to particular moral cases. Increasingly in our public discourse, we see claims that fuse these two definitions. Such claims involve a logical fallacy that attempts to avoid the trench warfare of substantive argumentation by launching a syllogistic nuclear attack.

In the event, the proponent cites a general principle that is apparently uncontroversial, then illustrates how it applies to the present circumstances. The opponent is initially struck by this argument, as each leg of the syllogism seems impervious. Nevertheless he recovers quickly upon realizing that in another particular case, the proponent would not follow the principle as stated, i.e., is guilty of intellectual inconsistency.

When charged with this infraction, the proponent follows one of two courses. Either he explains that the second case is different, typically by elaborating and narrowing the scope of one of the terms in the statement of the original general principle; or he explicitly amends the general principle with one or more qualifiers. Both paths create the same result: they exclude the opponent's counterexample from application of the principle while preserving the original case.

The opponent is free to disagree with the updated and now less-general, more-debatable principle. However, as in negotiation anchoring, the force of the original general principle lingers and puts the him on the defensive as the discussion turns to the substantive questions at issue.

In such a scenario it is entirely possible that the proponent is in the right regarding the substantive debate. Whether or not intentional, however, the initial general principle acts as a manipulative rhetorical device. If the opponent is alert, he can return the argument to its rightful place in substance, possibly in a defensive posture; but if not, he may exit the scene with tail tucked.

To illustrate this process, I provide two examples. These particular cases were selected because, first, they are rough descriptions of actual conversations I have had with people; and second, so as to illustrate that this behavior is multi-partisan. Incidentally, I openly acknowledge the risk that I fall prey to a self-referential casuistry in this very selection of examples.

Those opposing the legality of abortion sometimes appeal to the "sanctity of life" as an argument. It is common, though not ecumenical, that these same individuals also favor capital punishment. When this apparent inconsistency is pointed out, the usual appeal is to add the qualifier "innocent." This reduces the universal appeal and power of the principle considerably, and relies heavily on the particulars of "innocent," including one's view of free will, the role of environment and genetics in shaping behavior, risks of epistemic error regarding innocence, etc. Interestingly, it does not seem to include the notion of original sin. In any case, the original proposal that the sanctity of life is key to the discussion is simply a distraction from the substantive question of when life must be respected and why.

Those who express anger at calls for the impeachment of President Obama sometimes refer to the principle that we should not "use the impeachment power frivolously." When one points out that similar calls came from the left for the impeachment of President G.W. Bush, these individuals respond that that is a different situation, it is not frivolous because (for example) Bush lied to the American people, as though Presidential prevarication were extraordinary. This returns us to the substantive matter, which is precisely the question of whether impeachment is actually appropriate.

When presented intentionally, casuistic arguments are at once cynical and hypocritical. Intellectual inconsistency intentionally applied is very nearly the definition of hypocrisy. Such techniques are cynical because they degrade the value of following general principles merely to win an argument or one's preferences. I urge the reader to refrain from casuistry, and to fiercely resist when facing it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Universal Morality

Nietzsche begins aphorism 25 in Human, All Too Human, by dismissing some historical notions of moral guidance, namely God, a sense of manifest destiny, and Kant's categorical imperative. He then calls into question, without fully dismissing, the idea that a universal morality is possible or even desirable. His conclusion is that we need to gain a scientific knowledge of the conditions of culture, and that that is an important task for great minds of the future.

I want to briefly examine what a universal morality is, and in particular, what we mean by "universal." Some possibilities include: a morality that is actually practiced by everyone; one that is internally consistent; or one that "ought to" be practiced by everyone, i.e., it is objectively correct.

The first possibility is straightforward to dismiss. Even in eras and venues where overall conformity to particular moral scruples is high, there has always been non-compliance, both intentional and unintentional. Perhaps more illuminating, one is unlikely to find even a single individual who with absolute consistency practices his own moral code. Though this empirical observation does not prove its impossibility, practice is surely our least promising notion of moral universality.

In contrast, it is easy to show that internal consistency is possible. Nihilism, the complete absence of values, is the simplest example, though vacuous. The categorical imperative, "always act in such a way that the maxims of your will could function as the basis of a universal law of action" enshrines the notion of logical consistency itself as the fundamental principle. However, alone it provides no actual prescriptions, and puts the burden of determining those prescriptions on the individual. Surely not all, and possibly no, individuals are capable of fully analyzing the question of "what could function the basis of a universal law." Further, even with such analysis, wildly divergent views such as "murder everyone I see" and "never harm a soul" both can function as universal laws.

Just as damaging, discerning what components of actions are "maxims of will" and which are mere particulars is an abstractive process that is subject to both error and subjective interpretation. Thus individuals will come to different conclusions and there will be a wide diversity of actual practice.

These examples, which are not merely examples but shining historical attempts to find universality, suggest that logical consistency may be necessary but is probably not sufficient for anything we could reasonably call a universal morality. If the maxim results in very little consistency in practice, it is a merely theoretical exercise that misses the point of practical reason.

Moving on to address the proposal of moral codes that are objectively correct, I enlist the notion of risk profile. While moral problems are often posed in a context of perfect predictability, we humans are never faced with such crisp decision opportunities. Instead, it is necessary to make decisions based on probability distributions and outcome valuations. While these distributions are subject to knowledge limitations, that is not the primary difficulty. Instead, even given an agreed probability distribution and outcome valuation profile, different subjects will prefer different choices. Whether caused by innate inclinations or developmental desires, some individuals are comfortable taking risky actions with the appropriate compensation, while others are more comfortable with the security and lower likely compensation of a less risky choice.

This variation is not subject to an objective determination. As long as risk levels are rationally compensated, one cannot choose among the options without subjective risk profile context. Further, zero risk and unlimited risk approaches are neither possible nor sustainable. Thus any attempt to "draw a line" will have an arbitrary flavor. I conclude that there is no objectively correct universal ethics.

Notes on Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human, Section One: Of First and Last Things

Given that the book takes an aphoristic approach, I have attempted to condense the aphorisms into truly short statements. This necessarily leaves out important material, but my hope is that this condensed version at least reasonably states some of the points made. Note that in some cases I have used words directly from the translation without quotations.

1. Metaphysics denies opposites; historical philosophy holds that they are simplifications of a more basic element. What we need is a chemistry of morality, religion, and aesthetics.

2. Philosophers fail to have a historical sense; they do not recognize that everything evolves, and there are no eternal facts nor absolute truths.

3. Hard won, humble, and enduring truths are superior to grandiose but frivolous metaphysical, or narrow and concrete perceptual, claims.

4. Man tends to think that the world revolves around human concerns, but the truth is more of a two-way street.

5. Dreams are the origin of metaphysics, because without them man would have had no need to divide the world.

6. Philosophy tries to give great depth and meaning to knowledge, life and activity, sometimes through grandiose metaphysics. Science, in contrast, only seeks knowledge.

7. The search for happiness has unfortunately focused and limited the scope of science.

8. Metaphysics uses spirits to explain nature, and mystical approaches are still common today.

9. It is possible that there is a metaphysical world, but we believe in it due to bad methods of knowledge. If it does exist, it is inscrutable and any knowledge of it would be inconsequential.

10. When origins of religion, art, and morality have been described without reliance on metaphysics, we no longer have to concern ourselves with the distinction between thing-in-itself and appearance.

11. Language and logic are powerful, but they are founded on an error, the assumption there are identical things across time.

12. Dreams are like an earlier state of mankind, when hallucinations were frequent and we easily confused things based on superficial similarities.

13. In dreams and sometimes imagination, as in an earlier conscious state of mankind, the mind concludes from the effect to the most obvious cause, yet experiences it as cause to effect.

14. We experience moral and religious feelings as unities, but actually they are complex with many contributing elements.

15. Deep and complex thoughts can be very far from the truth, and an intense feeling that stimulates them guarantees nothing about knowledge.

16. The projections of the intellect from appearance to thing-in-itself are errors, but ones with great value to humanity. Nevertheless, the thing-in-itself is empty of meaning.

17. Metaphysical explanations both reduce our responsibility and make things more interesting; but those same effects can also be gained scientifically through physical and historical explanations.

18. All belief originates in pleasure and pain. We have thus inherited two original errors, that of freedom of the will and that of unconditioned substances and identical things.

19. We invent entities and unities that do not exist; the laws of numbers are only applicable to the human world, not the unconditioned world.

20. Once we get past superstition, religion, and metaphysics, we must then return to them to understand their historical and psychological importance and how much they have actually contributed.

21. If we cannot use any metaphysical explanations, we are likely to become skeptical about the subject.

22. A disadvantage of abandoning the metaphysical is the apparent elimination of the incentive to think and act long-term. But the accumulation of scientific truths can eventually play the same role.

23. The breakdown of provincialism has ushered in an age of comparison regarding views, customs, and culture, as well as the forms and habits of morality.

24. Previously culture developed unconsciously and randomly, but men can choose to develop culture consciously; this kills the old culture and makes progress possible.

25. The notion of a universal morality is widely accepted, but naive and possibly completely undesirable; the great task of the next century is to discover the knowledge of the conditions of culture.

26. Occasionally there are influential people who conjure up a past phase of mankind (e.g., Luther, Schopenhauer), and this demonstrates that the newer tendencies are not yet strong enough. This is crucial to correcting erroneous elements of the new way before moving forward.

27. Religion satisfied real needs for which philosophy will now substitute; we should use art to mitigate the difficulties of this transition.

28. We should not use the terms "optimism" and "pessimism," nor should we use the terms "good" and "evil" except in reference to men, as opposed to the world.

29. Religion and art, and the associated errors of idea, have brought great meaning, and happiness and sorrow, to man. Nevertheless, we understand the world through science, not art and religion.

30. The most common errors are to think that a thing's existence makes it legitimate and if an opinion makes us glad it must be true. The free spirit often is tempted to make exactly contrary deductions, which are usually just as false.

31. The illogical is necessary for man and much good comes from it; even the most rational man needs nature and his illogical basic attitude at times.

32. We are illogical and therefore unfair beings, and we can know this; it is an insoluble disharmony of existence.

33. The ordinary man empathizes as little as possible with others; if he did he would despair about the value of life. Only by rejoicing in the activity of great men, or the great activities of mankind, can one have a positive view, and this is impure thinking.

34. A man's temperament determines the aftereffect of knowledge; the truth can lead to despair, but with a different attitude, by rising above the everyday disputes and evaluations and being content, he can have joy.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Confidence in Decisions and Knowledge

A decision is a mental act whereby one selects or specifies an intended course of action. Importantly, the decision itself is separate from both its antecedent basis (whether perceived or actual) and any subsequent attempts at enactment. In recent conversations, I have noticed people confusing these three things: the how and why of the decision, the actual making of the choice, and the means of implementing the choice, particularly when other people are involved. This bears further scrutiny.

A good decision is rational in a broad sense - it takes into account as much information as is reasonably available, attempts to anticipate outcomes and implications (or their likelihoods) accurately, and evaluates the relative merits of those outcomes. It is impossible to have complete information and knowledge relating to a decision; consequently it is always necessary to combine logical analysis with more intuitive modes of reasoning. In all cases, these processes use confidence-qualified knowledge as their raw material.

For example, a manager of a team may be faced with a budget shortfall and instructions from above to lay off one team member. The manager has relatively complete knowledge of the amount of the budget shortfall and the salaries and other costs associated with each individual on the team. She has varying levels of experience with each team member's productivity, skill sets, and cultural contribution, such experience varying mostly with duration of tenure. She also has some sense of the relationships among the team and the likely emotional reactions people will have to a termination in general as well as to particular terminations.

All of this knowledge contributes to the decision, but note that not all of it is of equal quality and confidence. A rational decision must take knowledge confidence into account. For example, one of the employees might be clearly the least productive, but also well-liked. The manager has a high level of confidence in the productivity impact of a termination, but less confidence in her prediction of the emotional reaction of the team. A low level of confidence on a crucial item may suggest gathering additional information if possible, but this cannot be pursued indefinitely, and at the moment of the decision one must always take knowledge confidence levels into account, even if only intuitively.

After the decision is made (the moment of decision itself is amusingly both vacuous and encompassing), implementation normally follows. For our purposes here, I assume the decision-maker and the implementer are the same, though interesting intricacies arise when the roles are separated. When other people are involved, the implementation can be quite complex, and may include persuasion, amelioration, motivation, and other leadership behaviors and skills. Essential among these is the confidence projected by the leader. Support for a decision (whether required in advance or important in arrears) will not be forthcoming if the leader is publicly tentative about the decision after it is made.

The extent of deviation between a decision-maker's public presentation of confidence after the decision, and his actual confidence in the correctness of the decision, is a question of ethics; by this I mean not just a purely "moral" ethics but also including the practical, long-term reputational impact. Let us not address the details of that question here, but simply assume that there will naturally be some difference.

We have now arrived at the heart of the matter. It is essential that the decision-maker does not propagate this publicly projected confidence backward to his knowledge confidence levels that figured in the decision itself. This would be a clear epistemic error and an irrational confusion, detrimental in two important ways: first, the particular confidence levels that are adjusted might later be used in future decisions, which will then have an implicit bias. Second, this behavior can easily become a progressive habit, whereby the leader mis-leads himself about his knowledge. Among other consequences, he will then be less inclined to seek further information at times when it is rationally warranted, and increasingly use uninformed instinctual processes. Ironically, the risk of this is greatest when a decision-maker has a history of making good and correct decisions, since such outcomes reinforce the public leadership confidence spread.

Returning to the previous example, our manager presents the termination to the team with a confident countenance, and erroneously increments her confidence in the productivity and cultural contribution of one of the remaining team members who was also being considered for termination. Later, she selects that team member over another for an important role, in part based on the incorrect confidence, and this decision backfires. Or, she fails to spend the requisite time required to familiarize herself with a new team member, because she began to confuse her confidence in her decision abilities with confidence in her knowledge.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Critique of Quine's Word and Object, Chapter 1 (Language and Truth)

While the chapter is filled with insights, at least two fundamental elements are seriously misguided: sentence learning and behavioral conditioning.

First, he simply asserts and provides no evidence or justification that we primarily learn sentences rather than words. While we obviously hear and read words in linguistic context, normal speech has no explicit auditory divisions whatsoever until we have learned to separate phonemes, words, and sentences through other means. We know from psychological studies (subsequent to Quine's work) that we can learn to separate spoken words of an unfamiliar language passively, merely through sufficient exposure to the language, via the brain's implicit statistical learning processes. Given that sentences themselves rarely recur, whereas words usually do, there is no basis on which to justify the assertion.

This does not mean that the sentential context does not provide information about the meaning of words, or that Quine's idea that the sentences we know or believe do not form a knowledge fabric. But the problem he is attempting to address is one of the validity of theories and the meanings of theoretical terms, not the psychological processes by which we obtain linguistic semantics. Indeed his description of how sentences push and pull in mutual representation, and vary with usage and context is insightful. It anticipates Landauer's theory of Latent Semantic Analysis (Landauer & Dumais 1997), whereby word learning operates via global semantic adjustment through a fabric of interconnected meaning. Ironically, Quine's concerns (from later chapters) regarding the inscrutability of reference are one of the key targets in this seminal paper.

In any case, beyond the emphasis on sentence as opposed to word learning, Quine seems to have a distinctly behaviorist view of how language is learned. Behaviorism was of course quite in vogue at the time he was writing, and it was likely a paradigmatic foundation for most discussions of psychology. Surely in the very earliest stages of a child's linguistic development, there is some repetition, reward, and rebuke involved. However, within a few months of beginning to learn language, a child begins to understand language in general, and entirely different processes enter in.

In particular, a child learns that things have names, and in combination with natural abilities to notice, remember, and group similarities in perceptual stimuli along with motivational elements such as emotional significance or perceptual distinctiveness, the child can perform the earliest elements of conceptualization without direct assistance or any sort of social reinforcement. He might even assign a temporary neologism or perhaps an exemplar/memory-based reference to the object, culminating in the question "what's dat?" The answer, which is the only social contribution, is remembered, and the word is now assigned to the representation via a single training example. It does not need to be reinforced.

Of equal concern is the emphasis only on the formal representations of knowledge without consideration of the underlying psychological semantics, including memories of particular exemplars, syntheses of exemplar qualities (both perceptual and otherwise), informal contextual links (e.g., those two words were both learned when I was hungry - perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not), and emotional valence. A word brings to mind all these things, not just the object of reference, and the fabric of connections among words and concepts operates through these elements as well as directly through the words (contra Landauer as well). Models like those of Barsalou (Barsalou 1999) that have amassed considerable evidence illustrating how non-symbolic representations that co-activate in the brain (called "simulations") push and pull and both contribute to learning and provide a great deal of semantic content.

In short, while Quine's approach may provide important insight into the formal propositional structure of theories and knowledge, his forays into developmental psychology are found mostly wanting.

Notes on Quine, Word and Object, Chapter 1, Language and Truth

Section 1, Beginning with Ordinary Things: We learn language from other people. The emphasis on sense-data as an attempt to find an underpinning for language and concepts is misguided, among other reasons, because we need ordinary physical things to even consider something like sense-data, or to question what objects really are. Ordinary physical things are the foundation of conceptual structure - we must start in the middle.

Section 2, The Objective Pull: Society's way of teaching language is by rewarding correct usage and penalizing incorrect usage. This means that in teaching situations the critic must have access to the ground truth. There is variation in how public concepts are, both across concepts and across circumstances within a concept, and this relates to how "objective" the concept is. To learn inductively, instances have to be enough alike that the learner can perform the generalization, and "they have to be enough alike from simultaneous distinct points of view to enable the teacher and learner to share the appropriate occasions." The pull toward objectivity - the latter condition - is a strong pull away from the former, subjective criterion. This is how we achieve uniformity in usage. Yet, we all get there in different ways: "Different persons growing up in the same language are like different bushes trimmed and trained to take the shape of identical elephants" - because the inner branches are completely different.

Section 3, The Interanimation of Sentences: We would not be able to say much if our learning of sentences were only as wholes by direct conditioning or by analogical substitution. Instead, we associate sentences with other sentences. Thus, a "theory as a whole... is a fabric of sentences variously associated to one another and to non-verbal stimuli by the mechanism of conditioned response." It is much like an arch, where blocks are supported by each other and down to the foundation (which in the case of sentences, would be those learned by direct association). When making theoretical conclusions we tend to skip the direct supports via "transitivity of conditioning," in particular sentences that are always true, whether logically or factually. Note that our theories are joined together by sentences as well, and one's entire base of knowledge is tied together in a single larger fabric, though the details of this fabric differ for each individual despite the uniformity in communication.

Section 4, Ways of Learning Words: We can learn words in isolation or contextually as part of sentences (via abstraction), or via description of the intended objects. Substantives, adjectives, and verbs are occasionally learned in isolation. For insensible things we use extrapolation - a form of analogy - to describe them. The more abstruse these things are, the more it is a reciprocal effect: the distinction between using the term to explain the phenomena, and using the phenomena to understand the word, becomes increasingly blurred. Finally, "differences in ways of learning words cut across the grammatical differences and also across the referential ones."

Section 5, Evidence: Generally we need evidence when there is a conflict between the immediate stimuli and the sentences in a theory that project the expected circumstances. We normally bias toward the stimuli, but a strong enough theory enables us to discard data points due to measurement or other failures. This is generally a passive process, but when it is active we tend to seek the simplest story. Even the determination of whether a recognized object is repeated vs. a different very similar object requires this simplicity evaluation. "Whatever simplicity is, it is no casual hobby." Simplicity also usually enhances a theory's scope. Familiarity of principle is another guiding preference when deciding between the evidence and the theory - we try to minimize revisions to a theory that generally makes good predictions. Sufficient reason is another tacit guide: "it is a rejection of the gratuitous."

Section 6, Posits and Truth: "the simplest possible theory to a given purpose need not be unique." Extraordinary things (by this he means the ostensible referents of theoretical terms) are just more vivid and consciously denoted than ordinary things - there is no real difference in their validity on that basis. "We can never do better than to occupy the standpoint of some theory or other." Also, "scientific method is the way to truth, but it affords even in principle no unique definition of truth." Sentences are only meaningful relative to the theory to which they belong - this is how the words and sentences gain their meaning. This is not relativism because we understand our theories in the context of an overall world-theory that delimits how far we can deviate.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Potential Dilemma of Perspective

Some thoughts on the Preface to Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human.

A crucial component of the development of the free spirit is perspective - recognizing that there are many (or perhaps, unlimited) perspectives on all things, and then being able to see things from those other perspectives. The free spirit is striving toward "that mature freedom of the spirit which is fully as much self-mastery and discipline of the heart, and which permits paths to many opposing ways of thought." And he has to "learn that all estimations have a perspective, to learn the displacement, distortions, apparent teleology of horizons, and whatever else is part of perspective..."

In its most basic form, perspectivism develops as "theory of mind" in children, where they begin to understand that other people have separate minds and in particular, that their physical situation provides them with different perceptual inputs. Further development leads to grasping that other people have different emotional and even intellectual perspectives. While virtually everyone eventually grasps that these other perspectives exist, considerably fewer people develop the ability to apprehend the world from these other perspectives; fewer still can appreciate those perspectives and reserve judgment, and almost none can identify and address in this way a very wide range of perspectives.

Nietzsche seems clearly to hold that development toward these perspectival abilities is good, because of its link to justice: "power and justice and breadth of perspective grow upward together." claims there is a "necessary injustice in every For and Against," though this is likely not a pure relativism because "you had to see clearly wherever injustice is greatest."

Because this perspectivism applies to all things, in itself perspectivism is also only one perspective. There is at least one perspective that differs from perspectivism, viz., the meta-perspective that there is one universally privileged perspective (without specifying the particular perspective that is privileged). Thus there are injustices inherent in perspectivism itself - perhaps that it is painful to achieve: "Why so apart, so alone?"

If one were to take the approach of analytic philosophy in relation to this topic, the strong claim that perspectivism is privileged is manifestly contradictory when applied to itself. But Nietzsche is not an analytic philosopher, he makes no such claim, and he couches the entire program of the free spirit in a sweeping emotional flow that enables him to advocate and prefer perspective without contradiction.

Notes on Preface to Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human

This note and notes about subsequent chapters refer to the Marion Faber translation, which includes only the first installment or volume of the work.

The original 1878 edition included, in lieu of a preface, an inspiring paragraph from Descartes' Discourse on Method. My sense is that Nietzsche included this not only because it makes a substantive point about philosophy, but also because it is illustrative of the sort of free spirit he is discussing. Descartes has a task and a strong will to pursue it, and as a result "all else seemed of no account."

The preface under discussion is therefore that of the 1886 edition. It is primarily an explanation of why he created the notion of the "free spirit" and the evolution of the psychology of such a person. Coincidentally, I just recently read Ken WIlber's The History of Almost Everything, and the influences on Wilber (which he acknowledges, though not with specifics) are manifest. This is most apparent in the emphasis on the word hierarchy. Based on Nietzsche's frequent reference to health and to isolation, as well as the fact that he explicitly states that there are no such free spirits - that this is actually a personal account of his own struggle,

Section 1 somewhat pridefully recounts the reactions readers have had to his work, in particular his challenging of virtually all established beliefs and practices: "I myself do not believe that anyone has ever looked into the world with such deep suspicion." He goes on to point out the personal cost this sort of stance has, and justifies a degree of artistic license ("counterfeiting") because he needs it. This is best captured in his parenthetical: "And what have poets ever done otherwise? And why else do we have all the art in the world?"

In particular what he needed was kinship, the idea that someone agrees with him, thus in Section 2 he explains that this is why he invents - as opposed to merely describes - the "free spirit." They do not yet exist, but he believes they could, foresees that they will, and hopes that his efforts here encourage them.

Section 3 describes the initial flowering of a free spirit; the first step he refers to as the "great separation." This is a sudden event in which one rejects one's obligations, traditions, and past - and seeks out the new, the forbidden, the dangerous. It feels to the subject like a great, first victory, though the nature of that victory is unclear, and it leads to taking great risks as the individual first truly exercises his freedom and will. And, by asking such questions as "Cannot all values be overturned?" finds himself isolated and therefore lonely. It is much like a modern account of teenage rebellion, though referring to a distinctly intellectual rebellion.

In Section 4 Nietzsche attempts to describe an intermediate stage, with a long distance still to travel, on the path to achieving "mature freedom of spirit" with its "superabundance." In this present stage there is still risk of settling on some particular and narrow set of beliefs rather than being able to view the world from many different perspectives. The metaphor - or perhaps it is not merely a metaphor - of health is used repeatedly here, and during this stage there are many painful steps during which health seems present, but perhaps is not. By the end of this stage, "no longer chained down by hatred and love, one lives without Yes, without No..." This seems to be a description of the emotional content of what a thoroughgoing perspectivism brings.

Section 5 describes a stage of self-analysis - looking at oneself, back at one's past, and at one's intellectual and emotional errors ("ill health") with detachment and even pleasure, to truly see and understand what one is and has been. The progress is slow and incremental but this adds to the wisdom one gains.

In Section 6 the now-relatively-developed free spirit looks further back at the great separation itself and asks why (since it was so costly) - and actually comes up with an answer. Nietzsche describes those things that one had to do or learn - gaining mastery over virtues, control over the "For and Against," and "learn that all estimations have a perspective," which leads to injustice, which is inherent in life and determines it. Life necessarily is the purpose and measure of things and self-preservation drives its perspectives and choices. Finally, the free spirit grasps the problem of hierarchy though it is not really elaborated here.

Section 7 has the free spirit recognizing his task, his destiny, which is the problem of hierarchy, and only now does he fully realize that all the tribulations explorations of his inner world have been necessary to prepare just for recognizing that as the problem, which is a new problem. "Here is a Higher, a Deeper, a Below-us, an enormous long ordering, a hierarchy which we see..."

Section 8 points out that a psychologist can see where these stages of development fit in, but laments that there are no real psychologists in Germany, though there are elsewhere in Europe; and explains that the book (the first edition) was not well-read in Germany because "it demands too much," in particular a state of mind and set of sensitivities that Germans do not currently have.

Disproportionate Consequences

As I was climbing a long, narrow mountain ridge the other day, I got to thinking about what it is that makes me so nervous about height exposure. It occurred to me that the issue is that a minor error could lead to a major disaster. The phrase that came to mind was "disproportionate consequences."

Walking down a suburban sidewalk, if I were to trip or slip, or if the wind caused me to lose my balance, the worst that could happen is that I would fall and scrape my knee, or perhaps in freak circumstances bump my head. On a ridge, depending on how narrow it is and how steep the sides are, a similar error could easily be fatal. Relative to the typical consequences of an everyday error, the potential outcome is disproportionate.

A similar concern may drive some people's fear of flying. In our everyday experience, mechanical problems with vehicles are common but the consequences are usually very limited. The consequences of a mechanical problem with a jet in flight can be dire, hence the discomfort.

This notion is not limited to negative outcomes. It is also applicable to lotteries, early stage investing, meeting new people (particularly for introverts), and flyfishing. In economic terminology, we can characterize this situation as one where the value or cost of a discrete outcome possibility is substantially greater than the expected value or cost, where expected value is the product of the cost or value of an outcome times its probability of occurring. There is much to explore here, including the fact that humans generally seem to have different behavioral inclinations and emotional experiences in relation to such risk disparities; or that there seems to be no fully objective or purely rational means of determining the right course of action in the face of choices of this kind - which, given that sometimes the outcomes affect other people, makes me suspicious of any claims to universal ethical standards; or how this plays into the assessment and uncertainty surrounding the outcome value or cost and the probabilities of those outcomes.

What I'd like to consider, though, is a relatively simple deviation from the usual claim that we should maximize expected value or minimize expected cost (and excluding those relatively rare - usually emergency - situations where the primary outcomes both good and bad are both far from the expected value). In cases of disproportionately negative consequences, we might bias toward increasing expected cost in order to substantially reduce the probability of maximum cost; and for positive consequences, we might be willing to tolerate a lower (but not negative) expected value to increase the probability of a high value. I'll provide one example of each.

On that high mountain ridge, I can choose between walking erect along the top, or staying on the less exposed side and having to scramble a bit over rocks and deal with an uncomfortable but not dangerous sidehill. The latter requires considerably more effort, such that the expected cost is considerably higher than the former, but on the truly exposed sections of the ridge, it may be (depending, I suppose, on one's skills and emotional inclinations) the better choice. A fall would bring my expected value maximization strategy to an abrupt end.

In the field of entrepreneurship, I have often encountered founders who have a choice between a very solid but size-limited business opportunity and a highly risky but potentially industry-changing approach. If the company has venture capital investors, the investors will almost always show a preference for the risky strategy even though the expected value is probably lower. This might be counterintuitive (investors have numerous investments and would seem to be prime candidates for expected value maximization), but it is the better approach because the upside is unknowably large and they are seeking outsized overall returns.

The actual analysis in individual cases is complex. The point is that an expected value approach is increasingly suspect as the maximum cost or value deviates from the expected cost or value.