31 July 2007

'The Geography of Thought' by Richard Nisbett (2003)

The Geography of Thought
I found this book among the remainders the other day, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s an exploration of the differing perspectives and thought processes between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ (actually looking at data for Americans, Europeans, and East Asians). It’s an easy read, but seems grounded in real science, referring to multiple studies that point out these differences.

Very broadly, in the West people are more ‘object-oriented’; they identify objects, think about the properties of the object, and think of objects essentially as stand-alone (objects certainly includes people as well). In the East there’s apparently much more tendency to see ‘the field’; a set of related things in a certain context, where the individual objects have less distinct identity and more context-dependent behavior. These distinctive ways of seeing the world apparently start at a very early age.

I find such work very interesting, because it can help you identify some of your own cognitive biases, and just may help you to understand other ways of seeing the world.

Here’s a lengthy review that provides more details on the book.

Update: A few more interesting distinctions (note that these are all simply tendencies that are not followed by all members of the group, and through priming can be encouraged or discouraged):

Westerners: tendency to categorize, use either/or, right/wrong distinctions, and think of objects as having static properties (thus less likely to predict change).

Asians: tendency to focus on context and relationships, social importance on harmonious relations, less debate and rhetoric, more comfort with contradiction and complexity, more likely to see change as possible due to shifting contexts.

Nisbett also notes some interesting differences in culture that seem to flow from these different ways of seeing things; for instance, the preponderance of lawyers in the West vs. the East, the notion of holistic medicine in the East, the lack of scientific breakthroughs from the East.

27 June 2007

'Conversations on Consciousness' by Susan Blackmore (2006)

“Conversations on Consciousness” is a book of interviews with scientists conducted by Susan Blackmore, consisting of a very similar set of questions each time. Folks included are Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose, John Searle, Francis Crick and many others. Blackmore is the author of “The Meme Machine” and she is a pretty extreme thinker herself (she writes in her intro, “I long ago concluded that free will must be an illusion, and so over the years I have practised not believing in it”).

I found these interviews quite interesting, as the viewpoints range from a basically functionalist/behaviorist approach to those thinking about some sort of quantum mechanical process in the brain. The reductionist tendency is very strong; there’s a real desire for many of these scientists to map everything down to neurons and neurochemistry, and to call most higher level feelings and experiences as simply ‘illusions’. I found many of these folks to be pretty arrogant and blinkered in their thinking. There are also just a few oddballs – Kevin O’Regan says “Ever since I’ve been a child I’ve wanted to become a robot.”

The interview that I found most interesting was with Francisco Varela, who’s roots are in biology. He puts the objective/subjective distinction onto a spectrum, indicating that if we develop better language and descriptions of internal states, then we can begin to do better science on consciousness. “You see, if you think about so-called objective data in physics or biology, nothing is ever going to be observed unless you have somebody who reports on it. So you inevitably have a first person component to it.”

Varela goes on, “we need to introduce new first person methodologies way beyond those we have at the moment, and that means a sociological revolution in science. Among other things you have to train young scientists to become proficient in the techniques, you need a complete change in the curriculum design and so on. You know, I think we’re extremely naive. It’s like people before Galileo looking at the sky and thinking that they were doing astronomy.”

I think he’s on the right track, but I’m doubtful that many academics are listening…
Also – here’s Blackmore on Hofstadter’s I am a strange loop.

20 June 2007

'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)

A black swan

I’ve been taking my time reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book ‘The Black Swan’ because I find it pretty rich with ideas. The thrust of the book is a look at uncertainty and risk, and it makes the claim that we really don’t do a very good job of understanding the risks that we may face. His claim is that many so-called experts are basing their judgments on the idea that most phenomena follow a bell-shaped curve, with outliers being extremely rare and even then having only nominal effects on the average. Taleb makes the case for the ‘black swan’ – that you can’t know the true risk profile of events in many cases, and that the appearance of the black swan (when all you’d ever seen were white swans, and you assumed that was all that existed) could overthrow all you thought you knew.

So far I’ve just read part one, on ‘how we seek validation’. Some of the ideas he covers are on the confirmation bias (we tend to look for confirmatory evidence to our theories, rather than looking for the evidence that will show us we’re wrong), the narrative fallacy (we respond to stories rather than data, and we make up stories based on partial evidence and then believe that the story is the whole truth), disregarding the silent evidence (we see the few survivors of a long process and assume they must have known what they were doing, forgetting that many tried the same strategies and lost along the way), and other such concepts.

Another intriguing point, as restated by Niall Ferguson in his review:
In any case, as President Bush has learned, you don’t get rewarded for trying to stop bad things from happening, precisely because if you’re successful they don’t happen. On his watch, after all, there hasn’t been another 9/11 (a classic Black Swan event). And Saddam Hussein will never invade Kuwait again. But is anybody out there grateful? Not even Bush himself can be certain that his strategy of pre-emption deserves the credit for non-events.

Taleb has little respect for most stuffed-shirt academics (he himself is a financial trader turned skeptical empirical philospher). Judging from the comments over on Marginal Revolution, many find him arrogant. I’d say he’s a smart man with an attitude, and I like it.

Part two of Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’ is focused on the difficulties of predictions. There are a few important ideas here.

1.  “The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds – so those who delay developing their theories are better off.” p. 144

2.  Taleb distinguishes between ‘experts who tend to be experts’ such as astronomers, chess masters, soil judges, etc. vs ‘experts who tend to be … not experts’ such as stockbrokers, psychiatrists, college admissions officers, intelligence analysts.  Not surprisingly, he throws economists into the second group.  As he puts it, “Simply, things that move and therefore require knowledge, do not usually have experts”. p.147

3.  “I believe that you can be dead certain about some things, and ought to be so.  You can be more confident about disconfirmation than confirmation….  The Black Swan asymmetry allows you to be confident about what is wrong, not about what you believe is right.” p. 192.

27 April 2007

'I Am A Strange Loop' by Douglas Hofstader (2007)

I am a Strange Loop

Self-reference is what this book is all about. Douglas Hostadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (which I never have gotten all the way through), tries in this book to get at what we mean when we say “I”. I found it a pretty good read; some silly parables and stories help illustrate his concepts. Below I’ll try to summarize what I got out of it, and where I think it leads.

1. Hofstadter believes that Gödel’s real breakthrough was creating a mapping system on top of the natural numbers. Once he had done that, he had shown that you can create a kind of ‘universal machine’ for creating new patterns and abstractions (taken to the level of computing by Alan Turing).

2. Hofstadter rejects any notions of dualism, and thus sees physical matter & laws as the bedrock for all we perceive. No mystical notions of elan vital for him!  All must map back down to the physical level of neurons (or atoms, or however far you want to go).

3. He believes that as the brain evolved, it got to a point where it could start to self-reference, and act as a powerful type of ‘universal machine’. He places living things on a scale of consciousness, with humans at the peak, dogs at some low level and mosquitoes at virtually nil.

4. He then posits that as the human brain develops patterns of high-level abstractions and self-references (strange loops), it creates for us an ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage’ that we call “I” (or the soul, or consciousness; he uses the terms to mean a similar thing).

5. Part of what we model in our brains is the patterns of other people; he sees each person’s ’soul’ as existing (in low-res ‘copies’) in a distributed way amongst the people we know.  Thus after we die some low-res version of our ’soul’ is still around as long as someone remembers us.

I’ve obviously simplified a lot, and hopefully not butchered his basic positions.  I plan to comment on a number of these points in later posts.

Given that Hofstadter insists upon the mapping of all brain activity down to neurons, he then wonders about the role of concepts like love, honor, guilt, etc. He asks: “Do such pure abstractions have causal powers?” but I did not sense that he really answered that question. While I agree that one can probably map brain activities down to the pure physical level (with super sophisticated sensing devices), that seems to me to be a not very interesting thing to do. We operate (as Hofstadter acknowledges) at the level of gross abstractions, and I think it’s fair to say that as we consider the abstractions and make decisions, that essentially it is the abstractions that are causal.

I compare this issue to software, where the code is written at a high level of abstraction. Yes, of course this maps all the way down to 0s and 1s, but I’d say it’s the abstract patterns that are manipulating the bits, not the bits manipulating the abstractions. And if the low-level substrate supports abstractions and self-reference, then there’s really little limit to what abstractions can be created (and to the power of those abstractions). At times Hofstadter seems to belittle the abstractions: “I conceived of these “macroscopic forces” as being merely ways of describing complex patterns engendered by basic physical forces” (his italics), but at other points he points out their primacy in our experience.

I find some of the word choice to be deliberately provocative. For instance, he frequently calls the “I” an ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage’. While I get his point that there may not be a physical thing we can point at that is the “I”, I think it makes more sense to refer to it as an ‘emergent property’.

This all reminds me of Robert Laughlin’s book A Different Universe, where he argued that a pure reductionist approach was not nearly enough to find all the interesting properties of matter (see my earlier post on A Different Universe).

25 April 2007

'A Brief History of Everything' by Ken Wilber

A Brief History of 
I found this book while poking around the Amsterdam airport, looking for something interesting; A Brief History of Everything fit the bill. I’d browsed Wilber before, but never read anything; this mass market edition looked inviting enough, with its Q&A format and promise of an overview of his thinking.

While some of the book gets into some pretty abstruse philosophical territory, I’ll try to highlight what I found to be the main points (obviously greatly simplifying). Wilber is trying to integrate a lot of ideas, looking for the overarching patterns and lessons from philosophy and science. An overriding idea is that the interior/subjective is just as important as the exterior/objective (aka Science), and that by concentrating too heavily on one or the other you wind up with a very unbalanced approach. He applies this concept at all levels, so if we think of ourselves, the interior is mind/consciousness, while the exterior is the brain/body. The exterior can be measured and monitored from the outside, while the interior can only be approached through dialog and interpretation.
Wilber's quadrants
Wilber also makes a critical distinction between the individual and the collective; acknowledging that we are social beings, there is interior and exterior to the group as well; the interior may be labeled as the cultural. The cultural is also about values and is subject to interpretation. The diagram above is a simple visual representing what Wilber refers to as the ‘quadrants’. Each quadrant has its own levels and forms of truth.

The third big idea is that evolution occurs in each quadrant, and that evolution creates greater depth with less span, or in other words smaller numbers of more complex things; humans, societies, science, levels of understanding. As evolution proceeds on individuals and groups, interior and exterior, there is greater depth.
This summary may make it all seem a bit trivial, but I’m obviously just scratching the surface. I like the fact that he does not throw out science while insisting on the importance of the interior. At the same time, he feels that the modern condition of denying transcendence leads to a ‘flatland’ that is impoverished and unbalanced.

07 April 2007

Revolutionary Thoughts

While riding the trains in the Netherlands, I read Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, which was well worthwhile. Maybe it’s just a sign of how influential the book has been, but I found his arguments well founded and still very interesting. His notion of scientific paradigms tries to examine what science is about as a collective enterprise, and how it is that new ideas become accepted by a community (not a fully objective, rational process by any means, though rational judgments are made by the participants). Getting inside this subjectivity earned Kuhn some enmity, but I find it a very rewarding approach.

A provocative quote: “In the sciences there need not be progress of another sort. We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.”

Kuhn stresses that no paradigm is a complete model – there are always facts and observations that don’t fit. It seems to me that the paradigm, or context, in which we perceive the world is both a magnifying glass and a set of blinders. As Kuhn puts it, “Though science surely grows in depth, it may not grow in breadth as well.”
In the airport at Amsterdam, I searched the stores for more reading on the way home, and while most shops had virtually the same selection of English titles, in one I found a new paperback re-issue of Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything” (which synchronicitiously makes direct reference to Kuhn), which attempts to integrate many philosophical approaches. I’ll have more to say about that when I finish it.