Saturday, August 14, 2010

ancients, moderns, and ineffability

In a thread on John C. Wright's discussion of the classification of fantasy fiction, montecristo claims that the difference between the modern worldview and the ancient worldview is that to the ancients the world and its causes were "ineffable" by which he means something like "hidden", "beyond our ability to understand", or "ultimately inexplicable". He says the ancients considered the world ineffable in contrast to the modern who believes that everything can, in principle, be explained and understood.

I claim that this is a misunderstanding based on a failure to appreciate the much deeper differences in worldview between the moderns and the ancients. The ancients simply had a different idea of what it means to understand things.

To the modern, the world is mechanical, a clockwork universe. Everything is springs and levers and gears. When the modern wants to understand something, he looks to physical, mechanical causes: forces, energy, mass, waves, particles.

The modern world view is also compositional. When the modern wants to understand the whole, he does so in terms of the parts. You want to know how a car works? He will explain it to you in terms of the engine and the transmission and the electrical system. You want to understand the engine? He will explain it to you in terms of the pistons and cylinders and crankshaft. You want to understand what goes on in the cylinders? He will explain it in terms of molecules. You want to understand molecules, he has atoms. You want to understand atoms? He has subatomic particles. You want to understand subatomic particles? He's working on it.

Furthermore, the modern thinker believes in universal laws. Every particular cause is just an instance of a universal law. If you know all of the universal laws that apply in a specific situation, and you know all of the initial conditions, then you know what is going to happen.

To the modern, all real causes are simply instance of universal laws that can be pictured in 3D with moving parts. Anything else is just an illusion or epiphenomenon. This is the sense in which the modern person thinks that the world of the modern conception is more comprehensible than the ancient one. It is because he believes that everything can, more or less be reduced to this one limited paradigm, universal laws that operate mechanically on physical pieces. Since ancient explanations did not reduce things to this mechanical paradigm, moderns find the explanations unsatisfying.

The ancient view of the world is quite different from this. Although the ancients did understand mechanical causes, they did not try to put all explanations in mechanical terms --not even all physical explanations. Things in nature might have explanations that are teleological, moral, intentional, or semantic.

A teleological cause is a reason in terms of ends. Why does a human have two hands? A modern would explain this in terms of evolution and fitness --a mechanical explanation. An ancient might explain it in terms of function: we have two hands because a warrior must hold both a sword and a shield, a craftsman must hold both a hammer and a chisel, a woman must hold both a baby and a child's hand.

A moral cause is a reason in terms of rightness or propriety or beauty. Why do the heavenly bodies move in perfect spheres? Because that is their right and proper motion.

An intentional cause is a reason in terms of the deliberate intentions of some thinking being. Where did everything come from? The gods created it all.

A semantic cause is a reason in terms of representation or meaning. A voodoo doll is supposed to work by being a representation of something else. Words are supposed to have power in virtue of their meanings.

To a modern, these sorts of causes seem like magic when applied to the physical world. We have no problem talking about teleological, moral, intentional or semantic causes in their proper scopes --it is when these kinds of causes are applied to physical nature that they seem wrong. To the ancients there was not such a sharp line between mind and nature. I imagine that it would be a bit difficult to explain to an ancient exactly where the dividing line is.

Not only did the ancients believe in teleological causes, they also believed in capricious and singular causes --not everything has to be explainable by way of universal laws. The ancients believed in a genuine cause-and-effect relationship between sin and punishment but did not believe that there was any universal law about it. They were fully aware that some sinners live long lives full of good fortune.

Although to a modern thinker the ancient worldview seems ineffable, that is because he has been trained from early childhood to think in the modern way. To an ancient, who had quite a different upbringing, it might be the mechanical explanations that seem ineffable: "You keep telling me that x happened because y happened first, but that is just a sequence of events. What I want to know is WHY x happened."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

it's just a building, right?

Marcel over at Monday Evening sounds a bit critical of the planned Muslim Mosque near where Muslims murdered three thousand non-combatants in New York. In a comment he writes:
It would be nice to be able to trust Imam Feisal, take him at his word, and believe he is building a Mosque near Ground Zero to spread the love. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the result. Besides the apparent confusion over goals (just a handy space, or a symbolically important location?) another part of the problem is his equivocation and reticence about where the money is coming from; another part is Imam Feisal’s apparent inability to clearly and consistently say what he thinks about 9/11, Hamas, and armed Jihad. Questions persist about the Imam’s connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, and people are just beginning to ask about his current and previous trips to the Middle East, funded by the US State Department.
I think you are being too harsh and suspicious, Marcel. When I'm involved in negative emotional situations with someone, I find that doing something that pisses him off is a good way to start the healing process. This technique works especially well when I've done something really horrible to someone and I want him to get over it already. What I do is find some way to symbolically declare my horrible actions as a sort of victory over him. Typically, that calms him right down.

This Mosque is just an example of Imam Feisal, a wise and peaceful Muslim, applying to political life the interpersonal techniques that work so well in private life.

In fact, I am so inspired by his generosity that I think we should encourage other groups to use this same technique to smooth over some rough spots in group interrelationships. OH! Brainstorm! How about if some modern group of Nazis would build a Hitler museum near Auschwitz? Is that brilliant or what? You can see the healing start immediately.

Oh! Another brainstorm! Anyone know what the real-estate situation is on the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered? Perfect spot for a chapter house of the Ku Klux Klan.

And while we are at it, the Christians should show that they can be as sensitive and wise as the Muslims by finding old Mosques to buy, raze, and build Christian churches over. The Muslims would love that, right? Because they are the ones claiming that buildings like this don't really have any symbolic meaning.

It's just a building, right?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

deception in science

Instapundit links to this article: "Artificial life forms evolve basic intelligence". Practically everything that the article says about the experiment is literally false. The statements may be figuratively true, but the figurative language is misleading because it is intended to be taken as factual or at least reflective of facts and it is not at all reflective of facts. I'm not going to call this a lie because I think the researchers and the author of the article are themselves confused; they are not deliberately deceiving anyone, but it is false and misleading.

Let's start with the title : "Artificial life forms evolve basic intelligence". First, the things that they are talking about are not "artificial life forms". They are not alive in any sense. They do not have any organic structure or any physical structure at all. They are nothing but tokens in a computer program, marks in digital memory much like the marks on the screen you are reading represent words.

Second, these marks did not "evolve". They did not reproduce at all. What happened is that a computer program created a set of marks and then created another set of marks based on a set of rules. Those rules were set up to reflect what happens in reproduction and evolution, but the process was not reproduction and evolution. Just as the marks merely represented life forms, the operations merely represent reproduction and evolution. The author is making the very same mistake that ancient magicians made --confusing the symbol for the thing symbolized.

Third, the end result of all of this did not display intelligence in any literal sense. If the marks had been real life forms rather than just abstract representations of life forms, and if the events had been real reproduction rather than just abstract representations of reproduction, then the events would have suggested what biologists call irritable behavior --behavior that is influenced by outside sources. In other words, the events represented irritable behavior but were not irritable behavior. The behavior symbolized is a long way from anything that would be called "intelligence" in any case.

So what did they actually do, in real, rather than symbolic language? These sorts of experiments work something like this: the marks are random 5-letter words like "kwdez" and "qsbjl" (don't bother trying to pronounce them...). Each of these marks represents one organism. You start with a collection of these marks and the computer program goes through the collection periodically and adds new marks. Each set of new marks is a generation.

The way that they make the generations represent reproduction is by having each mark in the new generation based on a mark in the previous generation. You use a rule such as "take the previous mark and get a new mark by randomly changing one letter". The new mark would be called a descendant of the previous mark. For example, descendants of "kwdez" might include "kadez" and "kwdqz".

Notice that this reproduction is entirely figurative. The marks are not doing anything. It is the computer program that is creating new marks based on the old marks. There is nothing wrong with symbolic language but in the field of artificial intelligence they have a long history of confusing representations with reality.

Here is an example:
In early memory experiments, Laura Grabowski, now at the University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, set up a food gradient in a computer environment made of a grid of cells. First-generation Avidians were placed at the low end of the gradient, in a cell that had minimal food. Straight ahead of them, however, lay a cell that had more.
Note the continuing confusion between symbol and thing symbolized. There was no food. The "food gradient" would have been something like this. When the program is going through the list of current marks to create a new generation, each mark is reproduced 0 or more times based on some rule. For example, you might make a rule like this: to decide how many descendants to produce for a word, you flip a coin 5 times plus 1 more for each time that the letter "q" appears in the word. In other words a word with no "q"s gets 5 chances to reproduce and a word with 3 "q"s gets 8 chances to reproduce. Since the number of "q"s effects how many descendants a mark gets, this symbolizes "how close they are to food".

Notice how arbitrary the symbolism is. Instead of the number of "q"s representing "how close they are to food", it could just as well represent anything else that leads to more reproduction. The marks could symbolize bull elephant seals and the number of "q"s could represent the number of cow seals they inseminate. Just as easily, the marks could represent companies, the descendants could represent copy-cat companies and the number of "q"s could represent the profits.

This particular experiment seems to have had a more complex generation rule with some features representing genetic abilities and other features representing physical movement, but that doesn't matter to the primary point. The point is that the symbolism is completely arbitrary. Any process that can be mapped into the same abstract structure could just as easily be the thing symbolized. Instead of writing an article about the evolution of intelligence, they could have taken the exact same experiment and written an article about economics.