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.