Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rationality and other lost causes

I'm writing this in a state of sleep-deprivation and, to some extent, relief; after a week of trying -- stupidly -- to finish up a paper before the APS meeting (in Dallas next week), I have had to resort to plan B/damage control: pad talks and be opaque enough (hopefully!) to avoid getting scooped.

Note that Alan has a new blog (linked, as one might expect, on the right.) In this post he touches on a longstanding disagreement between us on "reasonableness." To be a little reductive, Alan is (like most of my friends) a firm believer in self-improvement, intuition pumps, Science, and the like; I am a nihilistic slob, with considerable sympathy for irrationalism. Part of this is, no doubt, due to differences in temperament (this is the only way I can explain the fact that I'm not a vegetarian), but differences in intellectual history also have something to do with it.

I should distinguish between contemplative and instrumental rationality: the former is about getting facts right, not believing false arguments, etc.; the latter is about getting what one wants, whatever that might be. (The former is a limiting case of the latter.) Given a list of desires and beliefs, instrumental rationality tells you what actions are (in some pretty obviously meaningful sense) "rationally binding." In certain very specific contexts (e.g., a prisoner trying to escape), what one wants is clear, and instrumental rationality is a useful tool.

Perhaps some cases in the historical core material of economics -- purely profit-maximizing regimes of endeavor -- resemble this; however, whether any of it applies to everyday life is much less clear, as it is not evident that people have fixed desires in any meaningful sense. (I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew Gelman's aphorism that "the utility function is the epicycle of social science," which I probably consider to be more broadly true than Gelman does.) In order to adapt instrumental rationality to everyday life, one is forced to do a sort of three-step: (a) assume that a utility function exists, (b) use a combination of survey data, "revealed preference," behavior, and intuition-pumping to figure out what the utility function says, (c) accuse people of being irrational when the "best" utility function doesn't do a good job of predicting their behavior.

Bertrand Russell remarks, re Locke's ethics:
Almost all philosophers, in their ethical systems, first lay down a false doctrine [in context: a false descriptive theory of human motivation], and then argue that wickedness consists in acting in a manner that proves it false, which would be impossible if the doctrine were true. Of this pattern Locke affords an example.

To the extent that (b) is about empirics (revealed preference or survey data), the three-step above clearly falls into this pattern, with (a) as the false doctrine. To the extent that it relies on intuition pumps, these are only as reliable as one's prejudices. Extreme cases can be dismissed on the grounds that they're outside the expected regime of validity of one's moral systems. (Derek Parfit attempts unpersuasively to counter this argument somewhere, I forget his point.) On the other hand, there is no particular reason to expect that true observations about human nature of the kind that come out of neuroscience etc. (which are bound to be statistical) are likely to imply, or "go with," a moral system. In order to make this sort of inference one must bring in a principle of the form "what is 'normal' is 'healthy' and 'good'" -- or some equivalent kind of naturalistic inference even in the individual non-collective sense -- that I find (even in its mild forms like "it cannot be morally binding to be an outlier") both repugnant and not a priori true.

In short, I believe that this line of thinking is unlikely to get anywhere specific, and the standard attempts to work around the skeptical arguments remind me of the epic exercise in flailing that is the Russell/Whitehead Principia Mathematica. This is, perhaps, where differences in training (not to mention the degree of one's interest in self-improvement) come in: Alan would presumably say that one ought to learn philosophy to (a) at least understand the skeptical arguments (self-improvement) and (b) find a systematic framework, however imperfect, to address these questions in. As regards (a) there are lots of causes in physics and math that are understood to be lost causes. I understand many of them very hazily -- it is useful to know enough to realize when a line of inquiry you once thought promising turns out to be equivalent to a lost cause -- but do not have the time to buttress my skepticism. And I think (b) relies on an assumption about conscientiousness being intrinsically worthwhile -- esp. w.r.t. important matters -- that is quite unnatural for a physicist; one does not waste time on problems, no matter how important, that are generally believed to be intractable, unless one starts out with a specific reason to believe the consensus is wrong. If the most elaborate reflection doesn't produce policy that's demonstrably better than dominance reasoning plus coin-flipping -- and the upshot of the skeptical arguments, I think, is that it cannot -- one shouldn't waste time on it. Ideas do not get A's for effort.


An especially important example -- pace Kuhn, a paradigmatic one -- of a lost cause is Aristotelian physics. Steven Weinberg (again via Alan) wrote of "the shift (which actually took many centuries) from Aristotle's attempt to give systematic qualitative descriptions of everything in nature to Newton's quantitative explanations of carefully selected phenomena." The primary lesson of this example is that the best way to get a handle on some problem is not always -- or even generally -- to approach it head-on. One is better off explaining something thoroughly and working outwards. The flip side is that one might end up with meteorology, in which the questions "of interest" are intractable and the explicable phenomena (icicle bending!) aren't of much interest. (If I were an economist I would be working on Zipf's law.) Almost all phenomena -- and a fortiori almost all relevant ones -- are in practice impossible to understand from first principles.

There's much more to be said about all of this but I'll restrict myself to a brief note on "ideology" as the term is used in physics. An "ideology" is a widely believed but vague and/or unprovable rule of thumb that can be applied to prove various specific results. It is, in general, a rule about what questions to ask and what kinds of answers to look for. The "renormalization group" idea in physics is an ideology that plays a role that's roughly like that played by evolution in biology: one cannot reduce it to a precise, true, non-vacuous statement, but it guides the field. Ideologies are what Weinberg refers to as the "soft" parts of theories:
There is a "hard" part of modern physical theories ("hard" meaning not difficult, but durable, like bones in paleontology or potsherds in archeology) that usually consists of the equations themselves, together with some understandings about what the symbols mean operationally and about the sorts of phenomena to which they apply. Then there is a "soft" part; it is the vision of reality that we use to explain to ourselves why the equations work. The soft part does change; we no longer believe in Maxwell's ether, and we know that there is more to nature than Newton's particles and forces. ... But after our theories reach their mature forms, their hard parts represent permanent accomplishments.

This distinction exists to some degree outside particle physics -- a great deal has been learned about the lineages of various species, etc., even if the ideology that led to these discoveries turns out to be false. But it's worthwhile to distinguish between the predictions of a theory -- i.e., predictions that come out of the "hard part" -- and those of an ideology, which come from the soft part. The latter cannot be disproved in any straightforward way -- they are just patterns we impose on selected agglomerations of fact -- and change, as
often as not, because the community becomes interested in other problems where the ideology is less useful. (For instance, an ideology in condensed matter physics is -- very roughly -- that any graph of the properties of a large system that exhibits jumps is a sign that there's something "topological" about the system. This ideology has led to a number of fascinating discoveries about the way electrons move in metals; however, it is always possible to have jumps for all sorts of non-topological reasons. A bit of particle physics ideology that was behind Weinberg's Nobel Prize-winning work was the puzzling-to-an-outsider belief that all bosons [particles obeying Bose-Einstein statistics] are gauge bosons.)

As I understand them, both "incentives" and adaptationism are ideologies of this kind. I think ideologies are great as long as one's ultimate objective is to solve specific problems. One should perhaps be more careful, though, when trying to justify specific research programs on the grounds that they might "prove" or "disprove" the ideology; it's (in T.S. Eliot's phrase) like trying to dispel a fog with hand grenades. I.e., a lost cause.


MASchiavo said...

What about Emerson?

Zed said...

_What_ about him? An unfortunate thing about overlong posts is that one's never sure what comments are about. (If you mean Emerson qua Transcendentalist/Idealist, the ethical system as far as I understand it -- i.e., not very well! Emerson is not a writer I especially like -- avoids fallacy at the cost of arbitrariness, which is reasonable, though I suppose one isn't obliged to agree with _his_ particular catalog of virtues...)

MASchiavo said...

I mention Emerson only because he is always, as you've confirmed, dismissed because of seeming "faults" in his worldview, and/or because he's a 19th-century white male American, that last descriptor being the most egregious.

What are his particular catalog of virtues? He holds up change as the supreme virtue. As he writes in "Circles":

"I am not careful to justify myself. I own I am gladdened by seeing the predominance of the saccharine principle throughout vegetable nature, and not less by beholding in morals that unrestrained inundation of the principle of good into every chink and hole that selfishness has left open, yea, into selfishness and sin itself; so that no evil is pure, nor hell itself without its extreme satisfactions. But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back."

Emerson would applaud the argument. After all, he would say, if he was completely correct, there would be no need for you or me to fill in the blanks.

Zed said...

Thanks for the passage! I agree that skeptical arguments clear the air for a lot of different approaches. "Seeking" and "experimenting" are certainly among them... personally, however, I'm much closer to Hume than to Emerson in temperament.

MASchiavo said...

Being a physicist, I think you'd appreciate Doug Crase's introduction to the Library of America's paperback edition of the Essays. He quotes a passage from "Experience":

We fancy that we are strangers, and not so intimately domesticated in the planet as the wild man, and the wild beast and bird. But the exclusion reaches them also; reaches the climbing, flying, gliding, feathered and four-footed man. Fox and woodchuck, hawk and snipe, and bittern, when nearly seen, have no more root in the deep world than man, and are just such superficial tenants of the globe. Then the new molecular philosophy shows astronomical interspaces betwixt atom and atom, shows that the world is all outside: it has no inside.

And then Crase continues: "Someone who knew the world had no inside would be only mildly shocked, possibly not as shocked as Einstein was, at quantum duplicity."

Zed said...

Thanks, I should read the rest of that; "superficial tenants" is great, one is reminded of the cloud-forms in Antony/Cleopatra that "the rack dislimns, and makes indistinct / as water is in water." I might have been put off by Emerson's prose style (all the yea-ing and betwixting) without giving him a fair chance. "Solidity" is an old obsession of mine; my first long college paper was about Locke on solidity, and it's (probably) the only point at which all my intellectual interests meet.

MASchiavo said...

Crase has an explanation for the vocabulary too: "I always tried to ignore his thees and thous, for instance, especially the ones in 'The Poet' and 'Experience.' But when Emerson was a minister he rarely used those terms, and readers who were alert to the Quaker example could have appreciated the allusion when he chose to use them now. Thee and thou were once appropriate to use with intimates, but never with superiors; thus they had been adopted by the early Quakers precisely to demonstrate that there are no superiors, everyone is equal. In England, Quakers were sent to prison because they refused to say you to the magistrates."

There is also a very deadpan humor in Emerson, an extension of his Yankee temperament, that people tend to miss, because it is more reflective and subtle. His humor and irony often go misinterpreted, and I think is another reason why he's usually shelved with "essayists" rather than "philosophers," in people's minds and on their bookshelves.