History and Philosophy of Science

Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher of science by training, but I occasionally play one in the classroom.

The above playlist is* an excellent overview to the issues surrounding the question, “How do you know?”

I first stumbled into the topic of the philosophy of science (PS) as an undergrad at San Jose State. I was required to take an upper-division general elective class from a list of what seemed like tree-hugging indoctrination courses. I don’t remember what the other options were, but this class was probably the most important class I’ve ever taken.

This spring I taught “Modern Economic Theory” which I twisted into a mix of PS and History of Economic Thought. The biggest lesson I wanted to convey was: there are no right answers, there are lots of wrong answers, and our task is to seek the less wrong answers.

From my syllabus:

I hope to convince you of two big ideas:
1. There are no “right answers” but there are plenty of wrong answers.
2. What we know about the world rests on a foundation of received wisdom. And that foundation isn’t always as solid as we’d hope.

The video playlist above does a nice job of shedding light on how and which science is difficult. There is surely some objective truth to the universe, but it’s bigger than we can fit in our limited brains. Trying to understand our universe requires a heavy dose of humility, lest we impose grand plans that make things worse.


*As far as I know… a) See the disclaimer at the top. b) There’s an inescapable irony here. Science is fundamentally about uncertainty, so even if I was a philosopher of science, I wouldn’t be in a position to guarantee anything. See Feyerabend for more details.

RCH: 10 most brutal massacres in history

That’s the subject of my latest at RealClearHistory (I submitted it before the vicious, anti-Muslim shooting in New Zealand occurred). An excerpt:

7. Chios massacre (March – July 1822). The Ottomans were bad people for a few centuries during the Middle Ages (RealClearHistory has more on the Ottomans here). In 1822, Istanbul massacred 52,000 Greeks on the island of Chios during the Greek War of Independence. The massacre was used deftly by imperial proponents in London, Paris, and Moscow, and further isolated the Ottomans from European diplomacy. As for the inhabitants of Chios, most were apathetic toward the rebellion until the massacre.

Here’s another one:

5. Massacre of the Latins (1182). In the 12th century, Roman Catholics in Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, were known as Latins and in 1182 they were slaughtered, driven out of the city, or sold into slavery. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died. The massacre occurred because the vast majority of non-Roman Catholic inhabitants were much poorer than the Latins of the city, due to the latter’s connections to the wealthy city-states on the Italian peninsula (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, etc.). The massacre also made it harder for the Pope to unify the Christian world, as the split between Catholic and Orthodox sects only became more hardened.

Lots of bad things have happened in Turkey and Greece and over the years. Please, read the rest. There’s more massacres, but also thoughts on the genocide-versus-massacre debate, and the sheer lack of knowledge that humanity possesses in regards to its own history.

Nightcap

  1. The marvel of the human dad Anna Machin, Aeon
  2. No exit? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Big Water and Latin American borderlands Benjamin Nobbs-Thiessen, H-Borderlands
  4. The material power of ideas and knowledge Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber

A long read

According to Instapaper this article at Wait But Why is a “139 minute read.” And it was time well spent.

It’s about a new Elon Musk venture, Neuralink, but there’s plenty non-Musk stuff in there of interest. I’m agnostic on whether Elon Musk is or isn’t the next coming of the (anti-) Christ. What’s really interesting is the background material this article gives, building up a highly entertaining natural history of knowledge. The section below really captures the main thrust of that story, but it’s worth reading anyways.

minimal tribal knowledge growth before language

And this:

That leads into a discussion of how brains work, that “soft pudding you could scoop with a spoon.” Here are some excerpts:

I’m pretty sure that gaining control over your limbic system is both the definition of maturity and the core human struggle. It’s not that we would be better off without our limbic systems—limbic systems are half of what makes us distinctly human, and most of the fun of life is related to emotions and/or fulfilling your animal needs—it’s just that your limbic system doesn’t get that you live in a civilization, and if you let it run your life too much, it’ll quickly ruin your life.

And…

Which leads us to the creepiest diagram of this post: the homunculus.

The homunculus, created by pioneer neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, visually displays how the motor and somatosensory cortices are mapped. The larger the body part in the diagram, the more of the cortex is dedicated to its movement or sense of touch. A couple interesting things about this:

First, it’s amazing that more of your brain is dedicated to the movement and feeling of your face and hands than to the rest of your body combined. This makes sense though—you need to make incredibly nuanced facial expressions and your hands need to be unbelievably dexterous, while the rest of your body—your shoulder, your knee, your back—can move and feel things much more crudely. This is why people can play the piano with their fingers but not with their toes.

Second, it’s interesting how the two cortices are basically dedicated to the same body parts, in the same proportions. I never really thought about the fact that the same parts of your body you need to have a lot of movement control over tend to also be the most sensitive to touch.

Finally, I came across this shit and I’ve been living with it ever since—so now you have to too. A 3-dimensional homunculus man.17

This is too far outside my area of specialization to say, but it’s certainly an entertaining read that seems to fit with what I know about these topics (although the section on neurology could be made up as far as I know).

From there it builds up to the moon shot idea Musk apparently has in mind: building the core technology for a high bandwidth mind-computer interface. This would be the ultimate logical extreme of a trend towards better interfaces that’s been going on since before punch cards. If you think over the natural history of knowledge, it becomes clear that this idea is ultimately just a few dozen steps further down a path we’ve been on for billions of years.

And the implications of taking it that far are profound. The pros and cons of that power are huge. Consider how much more powerful your brain is with paper and pencil than without. Or a computer. Or a computer with a GUI and a copy of Excel. Once you can plug into your computer Matrix-style, all those awesome hot keys that let you zip through your computer like a pro will be like roller skates next to a rocket sled. And the two-way link would mean we could genuinely exercise some self control… for example,  by running a computer program that zaps you when you eat too much chocolate cake.

Readers of this blog will hear Hayek warning you! Such a device gives you a lot of power to manipulate a complicated thing in ways we may never be able to understand.

But this type of personal power might be a necessary bulwark against government or corporate power. Network externalities have already locked us in to Google and Facebook. A Byzantine government has created rent-seeking opportunities that puts enormous power in the hands of the politically connected. The NSA is terrifying. And machine learning will continue to get better, giving those entrenched players even more ability to understand and manipulate large numbers of people. (I’m not endorsing this forecast, just listing it as a possibility.)

In any case, even if Neuralink is just an April Fool’s joke I missed out on till now, this article provides a theory of knowledge that’s well worth reading.

In the near future I’ll argue why you need such a theory of knowledge. Stay tuned.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).