How do we know what we know?

If you grew up like me you were brought up in a culture based on a dualist metaphysics, one that asserts that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves (whatever “we” are) and that we know about it indirectly through our senses and conscious reasoning.  This is the basis of the Western traditions of science, liberal arts and symbolic systems (such as mathematics and human language).  Essentially anything that can be studied is part of this metaphysics.  Gödel showed us that this metaphysics will never lead to complete knowing, though everyone agrees we can continually refine our knowledge and thereby at least asymptotically approach enlightenment.

Descartes proved to us that each of us individually do indeed exist, and he tried to argue further that the universe as we perceive it — however imperfectly — does indeed exist too.  But before you drink too deeply from the Cartesian well, keep in mind that his argument for an external


As readers of my blog posts know, I talk a lot about evolutionary systems, the formal structure of cooperation, the role of both in emergence of new levels of complexity, and I sometimes use cellular automata to make points about all these things and the reification of useful models (here’s a summary of how they all relate).  I’ve also touched on this “thing” going on with the system of life on Earth that is related to technological singularity but really is the emergence or (or convergence) of an entirely new form of intelligence/life/collective consciousness/cultural agency, above the level of human existence.

From The Chaos Point. Reproduced with permission from the author.

In a convergence of a different sort, many of these threads which all come together and interrelate in my own mind, came together in various conversations and talks within the last 15 hours.  And while it’s impossible to explain this all in details, it’s really exciting to find other people who are on …

The Limitations & Dangers of Incentives

If you liked this, check out these posts:

What Obama Needs to Do

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

This is part of a brilliant article by cognitive science and linguistics pioneer, George Lakoff (emphasis mine).  His argument about what …

Don't Eat That Marshmallow!

Short but brilliant TED talk by Joachim de Posada.  I love the economic point he makes at the end.


Has anyone played Foldit, the protein-folding game that is designed to advance the science?  This Wired article makes it sound like Ender’s Game meets biochemistry!  Sounds like the Poehlman kid is the protein-folding equivalent of Stephen Wiltshire.  I love the crowdsourcing, the meta-evolutionary algorithm of it (to find the savants), and the implications for science.…

Amazing Feats of Memory

From time to time we hear about people with “photographic” memories who supposedly can remember every detail of something they experienced.  When you look into what’s really going on though, it becomes clear that this is not really the case, and their capabilities are actually limited to certain segments of their experience.…

3 Interesting Articles on The Economy

1) The Quiet Coup

The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

Decision Education Foundation

On Saturday I attended a fundraiser poker tournament for non-profit organization called DEF (Decision Education Foundation).  As it’s name implies, they are dedicated to helping individuals become better decision makers via the education system.  Their strategy is multifaceted, but their core goal at the moment is to introduce decision making explicitly into the curricula of primary and secondary schools around the country.  To do this, they first educate the educators on the components and process of making good decisions.…

The Nature of Innovation

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.…

Behavioral Economics With Dan Ariely

If you liked this talk (as I do), check out Ariely’s 3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal.…

Sleep as the Default State

Just read an interesting essay* which changed my thinking about the role of sleep.  While nobody can claim to understand exactly why sleep is necessary for mammals, most of the explanations focus on some positive, regenerative benefits that we can’t do without (e.g. maintaining the neuronal circuitry).  Martin Kinsbourne puts forth another benefit, which I’d never thought of:…

Individual vs. Systemic Causation

George Lakoff wrote an interesting piece on yesterday called The Obama Code.  I will focus on one of the sections in particular because it articulates something I’ve suspected for a while, but I’ve never heard anyone else give credence to the notion.  Which is that one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. is that conservatives give more weight to individual, autonomous actors and actions in their view of how the world works, and liberals tend to give more weight to systemic causation and interdependency:…

Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes

Teaching Metacognition to 7th Graders

Gary Marcus says he’d like for there to be a course on metacognition for kids:

Call it “The Human Mind: A User’s Guide,” aimed at, say, seventh-graders.  Instead of emphasizing facts, I’d expose students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and what it doesn’t.  And most important, how to cope with its limitations, to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to biases in our reasoning, to make choices in ways that better suit our long-term goals.

What a brilliant and practical idea.

Anyone want to take a stab at a syllabus?…

Why It's Important to be an Optimist

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  (James Branch Cabell)

I am currently reading What Are You Optimistic About?, a collection of short essays by thought leaders in many different disciplines on the eponymous subject.  I’m also reading True Enough, a compelling argument by Farhad Manjoo for how despite — nay, because of — the fire hose of information that permeates modern society and is available for the asking, the schism between what’s true and what we believe is widening; a polemic on polemics if you will.  Taken together, these two books suggest to me that there is a case, not for being optimistic per se, but for why you should consciously, actively try hard to become an optimist if you aren’t already.…

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

As we approach the inauguration of a new leader who trying to be truly post-partisan, I think Jonathan Haidt’s TED brilliant talk is apropos:…

Making Great Decisions When it Counts

Some friends and I watched the above talk together by Dan Gilbert on the various ways humans made logical errors in decision making.  If you are a behavioral economist or are into psychology literature, you are probably all too familiar with the experiments on this subject, but it’s worth watching anyway.

There was some criticism of the talk in that it does ignore the fact that given limited resources in making decisions, the heuristics that we humans use (i.e. the rules of thumb, like price being a good indicator of quality) serve us very well most of the time.  It’s only under specific circumstances that these heuristics lead to logical errors and bad decisions.  Thus, the talk left some people thinking that the point Gilbert was making is that we’re all pretty bad decision makers and we should learn to transcend these error-prone heuristics.  The critics further suggested that no, we’re not bad decision makers, we are in fact really good 95% of the time, …

Embodied Cognition

Until recently, Artificial Intelligence research has been grounded on a theory of cognition that is based on symbolic reasoning.  That is, somewhere in our heads the concepts are represented symbolically and reasoned about via deduction and induction.

At long last, AI researchers are truly learning from human cognition (oh the irony!)  Introducing Leo, the robot that learns to model and reason about the world like human babies do, via embodied experience and social interactions: