Limits of Knowledge


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

Newcomb's Meta-Paradox

Tweeter, Claus Metzner (@cmetzner) alerted me to this cool area of study with this paper.

Suppose you meet a Wise being (W) who tells you it has put $1,000 in box A, and either $1 million or nothing in box B. This being tells you to either take the contents of box B only, or to take the contents of both A and B. Suppose further that the being had put the $1 million in box B only if a prediction algorithm designed by the being had said that you would take only B. If the algorithm had predicted you would take both boxes, then the being put nothing in box B.  Presume that due to determinism, there exists a perfectly accurate prediction algorithm. Assuming W uses that algorithm, what choice should you make?…

Peer-Review vs. Info Prizes and Markets

I have been having a 140 character discussion with Ciarán Brewster (@macbruski) via twitter.  And while it’s kind of interesting to force complex subject matter into very few characters, it is limiting the discussion, so I will summarize it so far here and hopefully others can weigh in too.…

Stability Through Instability

A friend pointed me to a doubly prescient talk given by George Soros in 1994 about his theory of reflexivity in the markets.  Essentially Soros notes that there’s feedback in terms of what agents believe about the market and how the market behaves.  Not groundbreaking, but he takes this thinking to some logical conclusions which are in contrast to standard economic theory:…

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

A few articles on the economy that were sent my way recently.

The Good: After Capitalism (Geoff Mulgan)

The era of transition that we are entering will be disruptive—but it may bring a world where markets are servants, not masters.”  I urge you to read this entire article, and leave your ideological biases at the door.  Despite the title, this is no polemic.  Here’s the punchline:

Contemporary biology and social science has confirmed just how much we are social animals—dependent on others for our happiness, our self-respect, our worth and even our life. There is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Has anyone read the entire text of the stimulus package?

The ambiguity of this question is intentional.

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.…

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, …

Complex Quotes: John Wheeler

“We have to learn how to use our words. It’s a fantastic thing — we humans are so easily trapped in our own words. The word time, for instance — we run into puzzles about the concept of time and then we say, oh, what a terrible thing. We don’t realize we’re the source of the puzzles because we invented the word….”

— John Wheeler…

Hive Mindstein

David Basanta’s blog has an interesting thread (quite a few of them actually).  Here’s the setup but you should read the original post, including the Wired article:

Apparently, some people are seeing some potential in cloud computing not just as an aid to science but as a completely new approach to do it. An article in Wired magazine argues precisely that. With the provocative title of The end of theory, the article concludes that, with plenty of data and clever algorithms (like those developed by Google), it is possible to obtain patterns that could be used to predict outcomes…and all that without the need of scientific models.

Global Warming

A few months ago a friend of mine engaged me in a discussion about the controversy surrounding global warming.  If you are surprised to hear that there is still controversy, read on; I was equally surprised.…

Open Letter to Gotham Prize

The Gotham Prize is a laudable new effort to provide incentive for new approaches to cancer.  In response to their recent announcement of their first awards, I have sent them the following open letter.  If you would like to express your own opinion on the matter, I encourage you to provide your feedback to them directly from their contact page.

Cancer Research Surprises

Many people would admit to not understanding cancer well, but fewer people would admit to not understanding evolution well.  Here are some challenges to our understanding of both.

Starvation may help cancer treatment. “As little as 48 hours of starvation afforded mice injected with brain cancer cells the ability to endure and benefit from extremely high doses of chemotherapy that non-starved mice could not survive.”

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

Shermer on Science

Much of what gets published in scientific journals and is help up as “good science” these days is just an excuse for the authors to show off their math skills.  Never mind whether the mathematical models being used correspond to the reality they are supposed to be describing.  There is strong incentive based on the “publish or perish” dictum in academia for this trend to continue.  Michael Shermer wrote a recent Scientific American article which makes the case well and calls for more integrative and narrative scientific publishing.…

Complex Links: TED

I attended the TED Conference this year for the first time.  It was a transformative experience, one that I hope everyone can have in some form or another before too long.  One way to simulate being there is watch as many of these incredible talks from past TED conferences as you can in a short period of time.  If you are inspired, check out the TED Prize and how you can be a part of a growing global meta-movement for positive change in the world.

I will be blogging about things that piqued my interest at TED, but below are some cool links that I came away with:…

Mechanical Turk

A few months ago, on a different blog I posted a method for reading books for free on Amazon. Hopefully they didn’t take offense to this but rather saw it for what I did which was a way to get people interested in a book enough to want to purchase it. But just in case Amazon has any hard feelings, I will make amends here by plugging one of their little-known but extremely powerful services called Mechanical Turk.…

Seeing Sigmoids

One of the most basic but misleading heuristics that the human mind uses is that of linearity. If we see a progression (say 0, 1, 2), our first instinct is that the next step follows linearly (namely 3). But there is no a priori reason to prefer the linear interpretation to any other, say quadratic (which would suggest the next step in the sequence is 4). For whatever reason – probably due to the relative simplicity of linearity – our brains seem wired to prefer linear explanations to non-linear.…

Dangerous Ideas

Daniel Horowitz just forwarded me an interesting article in which Steve Pinker is debating and defending the merits of exploring dangerous ideas even though they may threaten our core values and deeply offend our sensibilities. What struck me most interesting (and laudable) was Pinker’s willingness to play devil’s advocate to his own argument and suggest that maybe exploring dangerous ideas is too dangerous an idea itself and thus should not be adopted as a practice:

But don’t the demands of rationality always compel us to seek the complete truth? Not necessarily. Rational agents often choose to be ignorant. They may decide not to be in a position where they can receive a threat or be exposed to a sensitive secret. They may choose to avoid being asked an incriminating question, where one answer is damaging, another is dishonest and a failure to answer is grounds for the questioner to assume the worst (hence the Fifth Amendment protection against being forced to testify against oneself). Scientists

Parts of the Elephant

There is a story about several wise men fumbling around in the dark trying to understand the nature of an elephant by each feeling different parts of the body (leg, trunk, etc). This strikes me as analogous to an approach to understanding the mind that tries to isolate mental functions by mapping them to physical regions of the brain.

Sure, we’ve known for years that regions of the brain are correlated to mental functions like language, vision, controlling distinct parts of the body, et al. And we observe that gross damage to these areas correlates to loss of function. But the observations show many exceptions and edge cases, such as functional compensation during brain damage. An illuminating aspect of brain damage is the continuous (as opposed to discrete) loss of function, which contrasts sharply with damage to human-engineered systems like cars and computers. With technology, generally speaking if a physical region gets damaged, the function it was serving is totally gone. With biological systems, and …

This Sentence is False

Combining the notions from the last two posts — we understand only through models, and our models are mainly metaphorical — we can shed light on some of the most profound and durable philosophical and scientific debates. One such debate, that of free will versus determinism, brings with it a host of other paradoxes, including personal identity, intentionality, and the existence of a God/god/gods. Without going into the details of these conundrums, it is safe to say that our models/metaphors of such sticky concepts as “free will” are fundamentally flawed. They are shortcuts that serve useful purposes when speaking plainly about everyday occurrences, but which belie a much subtler and more complex reality when pressed upon. The idea that there even exists something real called a “will” not only begs the question of whose will it is (personal identity), but also should make us question whether it is a useful and accurate concept to describe anything in the world. I would claim that long-standing paradoxes …

Thought as Metaphor

Lakoff and Johnson make an incredibly convincing argument that the majority of human “understanding”, including most of conscious analytical thought, is achieved by a highly innate and irrevocably ingrained mechanism of metaphor. We understand one thing by treating it as if it were another thing that we understand better. We then use the calculus (i.e. facts, laws, conventional wisdom, etc.) from the well-understood realm to gain an analogous understanding of the new realm. An example of such metaphorical thinking can be seen in the Time as Money metaphor. In this metaphor, time can be spent, borrowed, wasted; and we can run out of time, gain more time, and save time. Not only do we use the terminology of monetary accounting, but we use their processes in a very real sense. To appreciate this, simply note the imagery that comes to mind as you read the Time as Money terminology above. It is important to note that we do not …

There is No Truth, Only Predictive Power

As much as I strive to get at the “truth” in whatever I do, I hate the word. I prefer to acknowledge that everything we know about the universe is based on the models (aka theories) which are imperfect. As we study more about a system, we refine our models, we take models from other systems and try to apply them to the new realm, sometimes with surprising illumination. I’d rather talk about the predictive power of models than talk about truth.…

Believers and Atheists Need Not Apply

If you truly believe in God or if you are a staunch Atheist, you will not get anything out of reading further than this sentence.…